May 28, 2013

Anime Review: Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online title/logoA new MMO that uses virtual reality headsets to play garners a lot of buzz in the gamer community after a successful private beta. The public release is marked by a lot hype, especially when it is limited to only 10,000 copies sold. The first day it opens for play, the lucky few who manage to get a copy log in for the first time, only to quickly discover the logout button that was there during the beta is missing. The lead creator and designer reveals himself and announces the situation. Everyone is stuck playing his masterpiece game, Sword Art Online, until the final boss is cleared; everyone’s character has been altered to match their real life appearance; and most sinister of all: death in the game means death in real life, too.

SAO managed to meet a lot of expectations I had for it. An incredibly hyped and lauded series long before I finally sat down to give it a shot, I was dreading the Toradora! effect: that it was just going to be average to slightly above average. That it was actually quite excellent was both welcome and delightful.

A wide scenery shot of grassy plateau islands floating in the air dotted with rocks and water springs with a deep orange sunset backdrop
A solid premise wedded with a capable delivery, SAO at least initially recalls a lot of the initial flair and story of .hack//SIGN. An easy comparison to make but one that quickly dissolves as their respective stories and tone diverge almost immediately. Where .hack concerned itself with a lot of slow burning character and world building, SAO instead focuses on drama, tension, and action.

Our lead boy this time around is Kirito, a loner type with sibling/family issues that retreats often to fantasy and games. As a beta tester he enters the public release with cold confidence and a bit of a smug attitude. When the reveal comes he finds himself swearing to stay alive, to fight and win and succeed by his own doing. Often brooding and a bit of a grouch, I cut him some slack because of the extreme circumstances. Though it takes damn near the whole series, he does manage to come around and make a lot of positive changes in the end.

A low angle up shot of a figure rushing forward to assist another fighting a large minotaur like monster
SAO sports some very nice visuals and production and it likes to flaunt it. Action scenes are lively and kinetic, well choreographed, and the inclusion of a lot of MMO slang, concepts, and so on gives it a nice flavor to the many interactions. Monster designs are good, too, although typical fare for Japan (but, really, none of them come close to the old horror/supernatural classics of anime). Music is pretty good, too, with an above average score by the always recognizable Yuki Kajiura, though this time around her soundtrack feels a bit more understated and straightforward than it was for, say, .hack//SIGN or Tsubasa Chronicle.

The real joy of the series, despite a lot of other good points I’ve mentioned already, ends up being the immensely likable Asuna who single-handedly steals every scene she is in. A strong and confident girl with personality and determination, when she isn’t kicking ass and taking names she’s displaying an equally wonderful soft side that never feels out of character. In spite of the cheesy “badass hero” vibe, she displays plenty of charm and nuance and manages to be one of the most refreshing female characters in a long time. Though, perhaps this isn’t so hard to do given the huge prevalence of empty commercially-cute talking tropes that your typical anime trots out, even the fairly good ones.

Asuna smiles, arms behind her, as she stands ahead of Kirito, looking grumpy, in the middle of a bustling city street
It should be no spoiler to the eventual relationship that develops between the two leads and I gotta say: despite this being a dramatic action series it pulls of a more heartfelt and sweet romance than most romance anime do. It’s a huge part of the satisfaction I got out of the story since it actually seemed to get somewhere and to matter by the end, a lot of that being their relationship.

Of course, this isn’t the second coming of Christ; SAO has its share of warts, too. It likes to introduce new characters (almost always girls, of course) and then promptly forget about them after one episode (two if they’re lucky). If they did stick around, though, it’d quickly become a harem (and hell it very nearly does anyway) since it seems every throw-away girl they introduce and forget always seems to fall for Kirito. While the show doesn’t ever truly drag it does get a bit distracted here and there as a result. Still, it keeps the overall arc in mind when it goes on these tangents to explore other characters, and some of them do leave lasting impressions on our boy hero.

The second half of the series is quite a bit different, which could really throw you off. I thought it was good to prevent things from stagnating, but I also thought that while it had some interesting ideas it was on the whole inferior to the first half’s arc. I was happy to see them explore some of the briefly hinted at sibling issues but this ended up being a bit hit-or-miss in execution.

An elven warrior brandishes a sword menacingly at a dark figure with his back to the camera, as two lackies look on from the side
Still, all that said, the show is well worth your time and much better than a lot of the other junk out there. It does plenty of good to far outweigh the gripes, but its disjointed two story halves and some other character/plot stumbles in the second half prevents it from being truly astounding. Even so, do give it a shot and you’ll likely not regret it.

As of this writing, you can watch Sword Art Online for free on Crunchyroll.

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