Sword Art Online is one of those anime shows you watch just to see if it lives up to the hype. And there is a LOT of hype about SAO, both positive and negative. The bad seems to outweigh the good, but having watched it for myself I can say it’s neither as bad or as good as fans and haters try to make it out to be. The first arc of the show is pretty good, the second half is pretty bad and together you get a decent show that is worth a watch, at least.
Premise (taken from Amazon): In the year 2022, a next-generation game known as “Nerve Gear” has been developed, making Full Dives into a virtual dimension possible. “Nerve Gear” The world’s first true VRMMORPG. “Sword Art Online (SAO)” has generated worldwide buzz, and on its official launch day, one player, Kirito, immerses himself in its virtual world. But Akihiko Kayaba, the developer of SAO, proclaims the following to all players. This game is inescapable unless all levels are cleared. And in this world, “Game Over” is equivalent to death in the real world.
That’s a description of the first ‘Aincrad’ arc, the best part of the show simply because of the tension created by the “death is final” condition in the game. As time passes in the game you get genuinely worried for the bodies of the players in real life, and many of them do indeed die from starvation or because a well-meaning parent takes their VR equipment off without knowing it will fry their brain. It’s actually surprising more of them weren’t lost to carelessness, but we’ll let some things slide for the sake of fiction.
People say Kirito is a boring Gary Stu, which I do see later on in the show, but in the beginning he doesn’t come across all that badly. In a game where the weak die for real, of course your main character has to get strong in a hurry. He’s bit colorless, yes, but a good sort just trying to do his best in a bad situation. I was rooting for him to make it out alive.
The problem began, as it always does, when he got involved with a girl. Asuna. For the record I like Asuna too. It’s just their “romance” that was hard to stomach, both from a moral and a regular viewer point of view. It’s not that surprising to see teenagers jumping into relationships with each other, and in a world where you might die at any second it’s not that strange that they’d jump for a little human companionship, but still! The more SAO tried to portray the Kirito-Asuna lustfest as “sweet” and “romantic” the more I cringed within.
I still finished the show, though, because the ‘romance’ aside it wasn’t that bad. I was especially pleased by the unexpected ending to the Aincrad arc, which I suppose I won’t spoil for you even though I’ve already spoiled everything else. I heard people complain that it came out of nowhere, but that’s precisely why it’s so good! It’s an RPG world so you expect things to go the RPG way, then boom, something out of left field. Really cool.
After that the Elfheim arc where Asuna is a damsel in distress needing to be rescued was a bit of a letdown. More than a bit, it was just bad. That’s where I started to see the Kirito as Gary Stu thing in full force, because even though he was in a new world, somehow he had all his skills and all his abilities and he was so cool and he was saving everybody and everybody thought he was so awesome etc etc blah di blah. Yeah, that was boring. The villain was also so comically evil and incompetent that I thought for sure someone more capable was pulling the strings behind him. But no, it was just poor writing made worse by one of Takehito Koyasu’s hammier performances. And the awkward “romantic tension” between Kirito and his cousin only made things worse.
In a nutshell, Sword Art Online is good when it’s portraying online RPGs and their battles, tensions and mechanics. The action sequences are fairly exciting in the Aincrad arc where one wrong move spells death, and battles are still quite interesting later on even when we know there’s no chance Kirito will lose. When it comes to any kind of human relationships, though, the writing just sucks and is flat-out painful to watch. It’s still a decent show which wraps everything up well enough that I feel no need to watch Season 2. I’d give it 7/10 for the first half and 4/10 for the second arc. That’s 11/20, just slightly above average, which is about what the show deserves.
It would have gotten a higher score if they had spent more time exploring the world and thereby exciting my imagination about how things actually work and what it would really feel like to being in that virtual world, but the months and years just pass away at a blistering pace and before you know it Kirito is level 99 or whatever, before you know it he’s in love with Asuna (or thinks he is anyway) then this, then that, it’s all kind of sudden. A watchable show nonetheless, but not quite worthy of all the fuss it’s gotten. Or worthy of all the hate, as I said earlier. You won’t go wrong watching it, just don’t expect too much and you’ll be fine.