Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Anime Review: Sword Art Online

So I was working on a review of the anime Tears to Tiara but then I ended up watching and finishing Sword Art Online on Crunchyroll.com and I felt a deep desire to talk about it while it was still fresh in my head.

Sword Art Online is a 25-episode anime based on a still ongoing (as of this writing) Light Novel series by Reki Kawahara first premiering in 2012, making the most recent anime I’ve ever reviewed. Produced by the studio A-1 Pictures it was licensed by Aniplex of America and is scheduled for DVD/Blu-ray release on August 13th. It’s also currently in it’s first run on Americans television on Adult Swim’s Toonami block but it can currently be legally streamed on Crunchyroll, like I said.

Now this is base do a light novel series so that spells trouble right off the bat, especially since it’s still ongoing. I’ve reviewed several anime based on that medium and while they’ve ranged in quality (some awesome, others not so much) the mostly seem to have unsatisfying endings in common to leave off on either cliffhangers or otherwise imply further adventures that never seem to happen. Even Baccano!, one of the best anime of all time, did this. Seeing as of this weekend there will be thirteen books in the series and this cartoon only covers the first four I foresee history repeating itself.

Full review after the jump.

[WARNING: There may be some minor spoilers in this review]

This is the last thing you want to see when you're hooked into a VR helmet
In the year 2022 Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games are the hot fad; players, using the Nerve Gear, can enter a virtual reality where all senses are simulated. Sword Art Online is the latest game in this genre and is set to begin its run. A young beta tester, who uses the handle “Kirito”, enters the game opening day and is one of the few players who is familiar with the game system and how the world works. After playing around with a newbie and showing him the ropes Kirito finds that he is unable to log out of the game. It turns out that the game’s creator Kayaba Akihiko has rigged the game so it has trapped the first ten thousand players within it until someone beats the game. What’s more he’s altered the game so that if the player dies in the virtual world the Nerv Gear will kill them in real life. Resigning himself to live Kirito decides to use the skills he developed as a beta tester to survive in this new world, no matter what it takes.

I need to point out that while the premise of this series sounds pretty dark, with Battle Royale levels of terrifying unwanted situation, the tone of the show is fairly lighthearted. Oh it’s pretty tense and there can be plenty of angst at times but for the most part things tend to feel more hopeful and optimistic than anything else. This is partly because once the show settles into its status quo (which happens around episode four or so) all the players have been trapped in SAO for so long that they’ve adjusted to their fate and settled into a routine. So rather than a thriller like one would expect it ends up being more of a sword and sorcery fantasy…you know, with a lot more internet slang. But that works out well as the tone helps make the series fun. In addition there also was a romantic subplot that untimely became critical to the main plot. You might assume I’d hate that based on previous complaints but what really bugged me weren’t the romantic plots themselves but rather poorly written ones, of which there are a lot of in fiction. SAO has a good romantic subplot that builds slowly and naturally and where the characters for the most part act logically and passionately. It was well integrated into the rest of the story.

A love story in a anime that I didn't hate? Insanity!
In regard to the story I can say that I was extremely caught up in the first half of the series and in the last few episodes to the point that I was going crazy over what was going to happen next. That by itself says a lot about the plot of Sword Art Online. Add to several legitimately heartwarming moments. While the concept of virtual world isn’t new I liked that it lacked the pretentiousness and unappealing girth of other franchises with a similar world (coughcough.hackcough). The setting (settings?) worked well enough and I’m a sucker for sword and fantasy stuff so I enjoyed it.

The characters are really what make or break any piece of fiction and I have to say that I was surprisingly engrossed with the main cast here. Kirito is something of an anti-Ordinary Schoolboy archetype by nature of the MMORPG inspired world where he plays a hero. This is a good thing because I would never have been able to get through the whole if he had been a wishy-washy, spineless tool like in True Tears for example. Kirito is passionate and strong willed and never avoids confrontation to get what he’s set his eyes on. Best of all he grows as a character from beginning to end and we even get to see it happen, which is great. Kirito is actually one of the better developed protagonists in a fiction that I’ve reviewed. Asuna is almost done just as well but from a likability standpoint I loved her just as much, if not more than Kirito. She’s surprisingly understanding and mature, just as determined her counterpart, is never afraid to call out people on their bullshit, and, let’s face it, one of the most badass characters in the anime in terms of fighting skill. As a duo I think Kirito and Asuna are among my favorite protagonists in an anime, even though it’s technically only Kirito who’s the main character. Their story is what drives the plot and it’s done in such a way that it actually makes you root for them to somehow, someway, find their happy ending. Compare this to True Tears, an anime where the romantic plot WAS the main plot, where I wanted practically everyone involved to die in a fire.

He's kind of a beanpole though
The secondary cast is pretty decent but for the most part they aren’t nearly as developed as the main characters and thus aren’t as interesting. Part of this might have been solved if they showed up more throughout the series than they did, as some of them appear twice, maybe three times, overall including the epilogue. That sucks because some of them, like Klein and Agil, seem pretty cool but unfortunately aren’t used to their full effect. There are two outstanding exceptions to this that I’m hesitant to talk about now for fear of spoiling the plot but for the most part the secondary character could have been better. In fact, since we’re on this subject, in the second half of the show it’s difficult to get invested in any of the characters introduced at that point as they feel even less developed. Leafa is the only character who shows up in the second half to get proper development.

On the flip side I really liked the villain of this show, Kayaba Akihiko. His actions, which result in the death of thousands, and his motivation, which seem to be able to be boiled down as “I want to be a god of a world of my own creation”, make it clear he’s a psychopath and certainly as evil as any villain. However he has a twisted since of fair play and honor that contracts with this, though perhaps it’s his flair for the theatrical and dramatic that causes this (which is also a pretty neat trait). What’s more in the few times Kirito encounters him Kayaba is respectful and even borderline friendly towards the boy, possibly seeing him as something of a successor. He’s a cool antagonist, the kind you intellectually want to see punished for his crimes but emotionally you want him to stick around.

This show could have used more of this dude
The best thing about this show is its ending. Far too often when I watch an anime do I end the show with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction, especially when the cartoon is based on a light novel series. But thankfully the series has a definitive ending that makes sense for the events that unfolded, mostly due to the fact that the final episode is an epilogue. Now as I said this cartoon covers the first four books, which is the first two storylines, and there are plenty more to go but the anime doesn’t tease you with this fact; it’s not like Black Blood Brothers or The Sacred Blacksmith where it establishes a setting for future adventures. SAO leaves a door open for more stories but actually ties up all important plot threads. It does not simply stop, it ends. Can they make more? Sure, but it doesn’t feel like it has to.

Other things I liked about this show included the action, of which was stylized but fun, and the animation, which was consistently good quality without a noticeable dip. In a twenty-five episode series like this that’s a pleasant surprise.

With all this positive crap you probably think this show could do no wrong but SAO has a lot of issues. The problem though is a lot of these issues involve spoilers and I’d prefer not to spoil anything. I’ll try to avoid as much as I can but you might want to skip ahead to the Panda Score if you’re worried.

Pictured: A sword wielding  girl who isn't a short tempered asshole
The biggest problem of the show is that the second half of the series is weaker than the first half. The tension is not nearly as high and the stakes feel much lower (though it can be argued that for Kirito the stakes are considerably higher). Also as I said the newer characters introduced here aren’t as interesting as the first half. Also [SPOILER-SPOILER-SPOILER] I really don’t like Asuna’s role seeing how awesome she was prior to the shift (though she’s still pretty awesome in what she does). I don’t want to say the details but if you’re familiar with my feelings about strong women in fiction you’ll see why was kind of annoyed. The second half was kind of disappointing but the last few episodes really brought me back into the show. While it didn’t exactly redeem the tone change it did secure the final score for this anime.

Also, and this stuff all happens in the second half, there were a few scenes that were weirdly sexually charged, even invoking hentai at some point. This show DOES NOT have a huge fan service problem, and indeed those scenes are in no way fan service, but they still felt out of place and gross. Speaking of gross a major subplot in the second half of the series is that Kirito’s cousin Suguha, was raised as his sister (!) comes to the realization that she’s in love with him! F**king messed up. Now even if I was super cool with Kissing First Cousins (I am not, for the record) the fact that they were raised as siblings and that she only very recently learned they were not in fact siblings, creeps me the hell out. As an older brother who is in fact very close to his younger sister the idea of having that plot point pop up in an otherwise awesome story will always bother the hell out of me. That said it’s a subplot and doesn’t affect the main plot so much as it does Sugaha’s own development as a character so it’s comparatively minor. Still creepy though.

Despite the issues Sword Art Online manages to be an insanely enjoyable ride. It had an engrossing plot, main characters I loved, fun action, a cool setting, and a proper ending. All those things make the negative points pretty much non-issues for me. When I first started watching this show I thought I might like it okay but by the time I finished I could not stop gushing about it. This show managed to not only get on my favorite anime list but it also made the first time that I 100% felt that the experiment I started three years ago has been wholly worth it. This is a great show for anyone who likes fantasy, video games or romantic stories that don’t suck and it has a very strong recommendation from me. 

I'm actually a giant sucker for love stories...if they're not insanely stupid
I give Sword Art Online 5 Adorable Pandas out of 5


-Great protagonists 

-Great plot 

-Has an actual ending (and it’s pretty good) 

-The romantic plot is done well 

-Fun action 

-Good animation 


-The second half is overall weaker than the first 

-There are a few instances of creepiness

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