Sunday, November 30, 2014

Anime review: Sword Art Online

WARNING: While I typically try my best to avoid spoilers of any kind in these reviews, Sword Art Online is split into two major story arcs that bear notably different styles and a number of important plot points from the former influence the latter. As such, there will be a spoiler-heavy section of this review, the beginning and ending of which will be indicated by bold text. The remainder of the review, however, will be spoiler-free.

One of the most popular anime to reach North American audiences in the past few years, I missed the entire wave of excitement surrounding Sword Art Online’s initial release. My interest in it was piqued a little more than a year after its zenith, when it was picked up as part of the new Toonami programming block. It proved an unusual though not uninteresting combination of classic medieval fantasy and near-future science fiction, with the majority of the story being told through the digital realm of the massively multiplayer online game that shares its name with the series.

Young Kazuto Kirigaya, one of the early beta testers for Sword Art Online, is as eager as the rest of the world to dive headfirst into this sprawling realm of might and magic – quite literally, in fact, as SAO is coupled with a helmet that allows Kazuto and every other player a fully-immersive experience. But Kazuto is also wary of the fact that some members of the online gaming community might not take kindly to his company were they aware of his early access rights. As such, Kazuto selects an avatar for himself, which he dubs ‘Kirito’, a moniker by which he will ultimately become more well-known than his real-world name. During his first few hours in SAO, Kirito familiarizes himself with the basics and the small tweaks that have been implemented since the beta, as well as makes a few new acquaintances. But the positivity and excitement glowing on the faces Kirito and everyone else in SAO is abruptly cut short as players begin panicking, realizing that their task menus do not display a ‘log out’ button. As it turns out, this was a design point put in place by the game’s creator, who informs everyone that they can only wake up once the ultimate endgame challenge of the hundred-floor dungeon and its boss have been conquered, and that any attempts to forcibly remove the helmets from the bodies of players in reality will result in their immediate deaths.

The style of this fictional MMORPG borrows heavily from Japanese heavyweights like Final Fantasy, as players are able to craft their own identity and utilize different skill sets. Protagonist Kirito’s ace-up-his-sleeve is the ability to dual-wield blades, while other players focus on healing, illusion magic, defensive tactics, and so forth. Different guilds are founded over time, some with more strict regulations are ruthless behavior in mind, and as time passes, it becomes abundantly clear that the NPC monsters that lie within each dungeon may not be the largest of threats players need concern themselves with. What really helps shape the atmosphere of the series as Kirito and company find themselves spending days into weeks into months within the game world, is the fact that the situation is so dire. There are real ramifications for dying in the game world, as it means death for a player’s physical body as well, and players tend to be either overly cautious, worrying about the smallest of scratches from foes, or bull-headed and unnecessarily gutsy, rushing headlong into insurmountable odds. Kirito, on the other hand, tries his best to team up with a handful of players and ensure they all make it to the next area of the game world, while still doing his best to keep his advantage over fellow players hush-hush.

While the pacing of this first half of the story may not be consistent, one of its points of brilliance is the manner in which it chooses to explore the many players and regions within the game world. During Kirito’s adventures, he visits crystalline tundra, expansive fields, winding dungeons full of traps, and a calm lakeside cottage, each of which has a very different set of tasks and plot progression associated with it – both with regards to advancing within SAO and through his personal relationships with friends. Kirito experiences frustration at the fact that he cannot save people from their dual deaths, but finds trust at the side of Asuna, an ace swordswoman who becomes his closest friend, confidant, and eventually his love.

Though she holds personal and professional responsibilities as one of the most skilled members of one of SAO’s elite guilds, Asuna has wit as quick as her reflexes with a blade. While Kirito has an advantage of knowledge of SAO’s programming, he works solo for many of the early episodes, turning to Asuna gradually more and more as he comes to appreciate what she has to offer in her understanding of player-to-player relations and the sort of in-game diplomacy that the guilds stand for. The more Asuna becomes an integral part of the story, the more interesting the plot becomes, and the more genuine and well-scripted both her and Kirito’s character progressions become.


What becomes of the second half of the story is truly disappointing, as Asuna, once a strong-willed, calculating, and admirable fighter more than capable of holding her own, is reduced to mere plot device in the follow-up game titled ‘Alfheim Online’. After Kirito and his peers escape the world of SAO, it is revealed that a select few hundred players, Asuna included, never woke up from the game, and that Sugou Nobuyuki, an esteemed employee of Asuna’s father, intends to use this turn of events to his advantage by vowing to marry Asuna and claiming a greater stake in her father’s company. This situation is only worsened by the reveal that Sugou is posing as the fairy king Oberon in ALO, and is the one responsible for holding Asuna prisoner within this digital realm.

The problem with pulling such a grand reveal so early on is that it leads the suspense and action to run dry very quickly. Sugou and his alter ego Oberon come across as nothing more than a childish jerk with control issues, and the subplot regarding his desire to research brain control methods but never with the intent to use them on Asuna does not serve any particular purpose other than to prove his lack of anything more than a selfish and depraved vision for his intentions with Asuna. While the SAO arc painted a very real threat within the game world, there is no such hurdle to overcome in ALO. The few skirmishes Kirito does have with grunts of guilds are simply included to provide some brief, action-heavy eye candy, while the new characters he meets feel sorely underdeveloped, save for Leafa and Recon, the avatar for Kazuto’s sister and her classmate respectively.

Even with these two new additions to the story, Recon sees very little screen time, and while it feels like perhaps the writers had a greater development cycle in mind for him, the purpose he ultimately serves is to support Leafa’s development as a Sylph, and – to a lesser extent – emotionally, as her friend. Whereas the SAO arc spent very little time in the realm of reality, this second leg of the story spends nearly as much time between Kazuto’s home and the fairy realm of ALO. Despite her insistence at how scared she was that Kazuto might never wake up from SAO, his younger sister Suguha seems perfectly comfortable – gleeful, even – about jumping right on into the next big online gaming craze that is ALO. While a little while has passed between the fallout of SAO and its fatal threats to players, it seems odd that none of these characters would be hesitant about running right back in.

Even stranger and frankly unsettling is the angle of sexual attraction that Suguha conveys toward her brother. While the series does explain the two are not technically related by blood, they still spent years growing up together, and this feels a highly inappropriate plotline for a series aimed at such a broad audience. It’s not a one-and-done mention, either – Suguha’s emotions are the entire reason she decides to aid Kazuto/Kirito in ALO and reality, even if she is not aware of their being the same individual. This, coupled with Sugou’s dominating personality, leads the series’ second half to feel the part of a half-baked imitation of the SAO arc, riddled with bizarre turns that feel as far from home as possible in a series like this.


The first half of Sword Art Online may not have been perfect – a little less time spent on certain subplots might have been nice, but on the whole, it did well to present a great degree of variety. Characters embodied different sets of values, environments were detailed and colorful, enemies bore designs both classic and imposing – all of which made for a decently entertaining first story arc. But reducing one of the best characters to mere trophy during the second half and kicking many of the others to the curb entirely proves a horrible decision. The newcomers to the second arc are, by and large, a wholly uninteresting and unconvincing lot, and the story a shallow mess that confuses its identity for entirely unclear reasons.

My rating: 5.75 (out of 10)

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