|An interesting but flawed journey||1 out of 1 user found this review helpful.|
One of the great things about playing video games is the idea of being able to escape into a fantastic world where you can do anything or be anyone. However, our ability to escape to these worlds is still limited to sound and sight. But what if our entire mind could be transported to these worlds and we could truly immerse ourselves in them. Welcome to the world of Sword Art Online an anime that takes place in the future and a new device called the NerveGear allows a person to completely immerse all 5 senses into a virtual world. Our main character is a boy named Kazuto who goes by the online name of Kirito and enters the online game of SAO. The first season of SAO is divided into two arcs. The first takes place in the world of SAO on Aincrad a floating castle with 100 floors. They realize that they are trapped in this world and the only way to escape is to clear all 100 floors and beat the final boss at the top. Throughout his journey he meets many people including a girl named Asuna whom he eventually falls in love with. The second half of the show deals with a second online game in which Kirito again must enter but this time to rescue Asuna who has become trapped in the game and he must beat the final quest in the game in order to do so. Does SAO make you want to escape to its world or would you rather spend your time playing a real MMO instead?
Much like video games my expectations for what an anime should be able to accomplish with its art style and animation have grown. Unfortunately, like games, many anime still do not live up to that standard and can be considered poor even by older standards. Therefore I still find myself surprised and pleased when a studio is capable of putting a great deal of passion and time into their visual quality. SAO is one such show. Easily the strongest aspect for me were the visuals. The art style of these worlds is excellent with beautifully rendered worlds crafted with extraordinary detail. Despite all the fantasy fiction out there in the world this team manages to create a fantasy world that looks and feels great. This also holds true with the animation. While the characters don't have any unique design they are rendered really well and animate nicely. The fight scenes are also done very well. In Aincrad there is no magic and so the majority of the fights occur with sword skills and tactics. The show does a great job of capturing the feel of an intense boss fight in which the top skills are used and team based tactics occur on the fly to take down a giant beast.
I also found myself very much enjoying the second half of the show which takes place in a second online game called Alfheim Online. This world seems more fantastical but as a result becomes a world you want to escape to more than Sword Art. The addition of magic and the way it is used was well done. However, what really impressed me with ALO was the relationship between Kirito and a character he meets called Leafa (SPOILERS AHEAD).
It is revealed that Leafa is actually his cousin, Suguha, who lives with him and over time has fallen in love with him. She plays ALO to better understand his passion for these games but also as time goes on she uses it as an escape from her own life. She meets Kirito in the game not knowing his true identity and helps him to save Asuna. In doing so she begins to fall in love with this character and this helps to overcome her sadness in the real world. Unfortunately she learns the truth which breaks her heart. Many anime have used this idea of forbidden love and many have done it very poorly which made me initially put off by this subplot. However, as time went on I found myself very moved by this storyline. Compared to Asuna, Suguha felt more complex and nuanced. She was a very strong woman who was independent and capable both in the game and outside but also possessed a vulnerability that felt real and believable. The show constantly brings up the idea that even though these characters are part of a virtual world the experiences they have and the feelings they develop can be very real. This was the only storyline that made me believe that.
While there was a lot about this show that I liked there was also a great deal of it that I didn't like and a lot of my dislikes center around the first half of the show which ironically takes place in the titular world of SAO. One of the reasons why the internet and MMOs are so unique and interesting is the idea of anonymity. The idea of leaving who you are behind and adopting an entirely new persona is something that can be used in both wonderful and terrible ways. In the real world you may be a kid who is ignored by his parents or bullied by his peers but in this virtual world you can be a powerful warrior and leader of a great guild. In the real world you may be a hardworking father of 3 who is an honest man but in the game you can be an evil mage who unleashes his stress and anger from his daily life. Anonymity is what makes the Internet so alluring and what allows for such interesting, thought-provoking stories to emerge. SAO teases these ideas but ultimately but never makes good on any of it. The first half of SAO never took advantage of its MMO roots and instead felt like a generic fantasy show with some MMO elements peppered in here and there. Many of the characters introduced in each episode do not feel like they have their own story to tell. Instead they simply serve as a means of developing the main character who I did not find interesting at all. Kirito felt like a generic anime character who is a typical hero persona. I did like how Asuna was portrayed as one of the strongest fighters in the game but otherwise she fell pray to many of the same quirks and qualities of typical female characters and did not resonate with me. The same was true for the romance and dynamic between the two. Again nothing about it felt bad but nothing about it felt very interesting or unique either. It just seemed like a very by the numbers love story. The show has a constant theme that the feelings and actions in a virtual world are as real as those in the real world. Again this is a very neat idea and works well when talking about the connection between Asuna and Kirito but it never tells any mature storylines based on that thematic. The storylines feel very simple and predicable and the dialogue borders between bland and cheesy. This is less of a criticism against the show and more of a disappointment that I personally had especially when I felt like at times the show was going to elevate itself above standard storytelling and tell a story that is thought-provoking and complex.
Despite being a show with a simple story it still manages to create moments that make you question its logic and expects a level of suspension of disbelief in order for it to work. The first half of the show takes place over a period of 2 years. Since these people are trapped within this world it begs the question of how can they stay alive in the real world? The show explains that they are kept on life support which is a preposterous notion regardless of your medical knowledge. Other times the plotholes are explained away too easily such as how Kirito is able to defeat the final boss despite being killed. For a world and a show that was structured around rules it simply said that he stayed alive through sheer force of will.
While I was writing this review I truly wished I could have written two separate reviews; one on SAO and one on ALO. To me SAO was a great disappointment as a story. It felt drawn out, simple, and disjointed. The characters and relationships were not very interesting and did not take advantage of its MMO trappings to me. However, I was pleasantly surprised by ALO. The world itself was more interesting and more fun to be in and it accomplished in 9 episodes what took SAO 14. While it told a simple story the relationships between the characters were more interesting and it began to touch upon themes and ideas that felt more cerebral. The villain was better the animation and fights were better and the show felt more fun. Alas I can only give one score and one final review. SAO is a show that may not start off on the best foot but if you can muster through its first world and make it to the second you can find an enjoyable series, one that hopefully will continue to evolve and mature.