Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online

SwordArtOnline1One of the most talked-about animes of last year, Sword Art Online had many supporters and critics. A narrative that is spread over two arcs, its origins began in light novel form, and its transition to anime has, in my opinion, been a mixed bag of successes.

In the near future, Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (VRMMORPGs) are very popular. Sword Art Online is one of these games, with the quirk that there is only hand-to-hand combat and there is no magic system to speak of. Upon the release of the game, thousands sign up to enjoy it – until they realise that they can’t log out. They are all trapped until the game is officially completed – with the promise that if their avatar dies, then they also die in the real world. The male protagonist, Kirito, is determined to beat this game in anyway he has to in order to survive.

SAO first appeared to me as an intriguing concept – essentially .Hack// coupled with Battle Royale – which I was really excited about. The first couple of episodes were exactly what I was anticipating but, unfortunately, it quickly turned into something that I didn’t want it to be. It steered away from the elimination focus and inevitably became ‘safe’, which I could never quite understand. When the threat of death not only exists within the game, but also from outside if your body is physically disconnected from the virtual reality gear you’re using, I would have thought that things would have been a little less… relaxed.

Guys, seriously, grab your swords and get going. You’re not going to get your lives back honeymooning in jumpers and gazing out of a cabin made of pixels.

Arguably, the biggest flaw with this anime is the pacing. From a light novel, it struggles to adjust itself into twenty-three minute episodes. Some bits are stretched, and others not fleshed out enough. It feels like it tried to include everything from the novel, even if it meant just a brief appearance of some characters, or a short skating-over when attempting to approach an issue. These things just seemed to materialise from nowhere and then disappear forever. Due to this, the more important scenes didn’t leave enough impact, and you didn’t get a chance to relate to the supporting characters because of the anime time limit (which meant that when a character died, more often than not it was just met with an apathetic mental shug from me). Oddly, this slow pace did give SAO the opportunity to address some interesting social observations in regards to people living in virtual reality for so long that they weren’t sure if they wanted to go back to the real world, and real people getting attached to AIs and NPCs. Critics also like to bring to the forefront that many of the scenes are cliché. Personally, I didn’t find this to be a problem, as not all clichés are bad ones, and I felt that the particular settings in SAO alleviated this somewhat.

sao2As mentioned above, there were two arcs to this series, with the second (and weaker) arc set in another VRMMORPG, Alfheim Online. Even before I began to watch it, I knew that this would never live up to the expectations set by the first arc – namely the threat of death had been completely removed. The main focus was the rescue of the female protagonist, Asuna, a few more unnecessary sub-characters, and just enough time for me to change my opinion of Kirito from virtual gaming hero into walking deus ex machina, which was the most disappointing character transition to date.

The ending of the first arc, the completion of Sword Art Online, was by far one of my most favourite episodes. Dramatic denouement battle, interesting twist, topped with a beautiful ending sequence as Kirito and Asuna watch the SAO world disintegrate around them as they wonder if they’ll ever survive this to wake up again in reality, and if fate will bring them back together in the real world. It would have been a great place to end the show. However, it would seem that this particular anime’s popularity had gone to its head, and Alfheim Online succeeded in running SAO into the ground and leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I stuck with SAO all the way, expecting good things to always be just around the corner, but sadly I felt I was let-down more often than not.