Title: Sword Art Online
Company: A-1 Pictures
Format: 25 episodes
Dates: 7 Aug 2012 – 22 Dec 2012
Synopsis: In the year 2022, a game called Sword Art Online is released. It is a virtual reality massive multiplayer online role-playing game that is played with a helmet called the Nerve Gear. One day the players discover that they are unable to log out. The creator of the game, Akihiko Kayaba, informs them that they cannot escape until they beat the game, and if they die in the game, they will die in real life. The swordsman Kirito’s quest to escape this life and death game now begins.
Virtual reality: Conceptually interesting premise, but not explored deeply enough.
Character development: Simplistic and shallow.
Villains: Laughably bad.
Kirito: Borderline Gary Stu character.
What could have been an interesting exploration of the social implications of virtual reality online games feels like a tired out adolescent fantasy story. I never expected Sword Art Online to deliver anything akin to a sociological dissertation, but for a story with such boundless potential it is not unreasonable to expect something that does not merely skim the surface. While Sword Art Online is not devoid of redeeming qualities, there is no doubt that it leaves a lot to be desired.
The life and death game in Sword Art Online would be a compelling premise on its own, but the story’s direction to try and explore life inside a virtual reality is the most interesting aspect to me. There is a certain magic about being immersed in gaming that the author of the original light novels, Kawahara Reki, seems to intuitively understand. It is not a mistake that Kirito at one point says that he feels “more alive here than in the real world.” The ability to become someone else entirely in a hyperrealistic virtual world is the sort of fantasy that gamers pine for. Unfortunately, due to some disappointing creative decisions, the show’s focus on these aspects is dragged down considerably.
At the top of these problems is how much of a one-man show Sword Art Online becomes. Kirito’s character is borderline Gary Stu in portrayal; the show almost always has Kirito solve the challenges in the story singlehandedly, and he has few personality flaws of worthy note. Furthermore, Sword Art Online never gives the other characters any meaningful time to shine, because Kirito steals the spotlight in every situation. The story’s tendency to shoehorn Kirito as the perfect hero is so bad at times that it will sometimes invoke a deus ex machina before letting any other character aid Kirito in his journey. With Kirito’s success practically foretold, the dramatic tension of the show is utterly eviscerated.
Ironically, the most enjoyable aspect of Sword Art Online, the romance between Kirito and Asuna, is also one of the show’s worst issues. Most of the character interactions throughout the show are dominated by Kirito and the random girls he meets in his adventures. The problem here is that it seems as if practically every girl is romantically interested in Kirito, which makes the show seem like a badly written harem story. Not only does it feel silly considering that Kirito and Asuna are deadlocked as a couple pretty early on, but it also makes the characters themselves uninteresting as their only purpose seemingly is to be in an unrequited love.
This illustrates Sword Art Online’s more general flaw of character development that is lacking in depth, subtlety and nuance. The villains are the worst perpetrators as they are often written to be so comically evil that they are more hilarious, in a bad way, than they are interesting. Most egregiously, this crops up in a scene of practical tentacle rape, which is extremely distasteful. Sometimes I really do wonder if Sword Art Online is trying to hang a noose around its neck since it does an awfully great job at ruining its accomplishments.
However, despite the huge amount of nuisances in Sword Art Online, it is a sincere story. The writing may have a simplistic emotional palette, but it never feels disingenuous. It is easy to appreciate the sentiment behind the story, even if its execution is often times lackluster. There are definitely some interesting concepts and some nice moments to be found throughout Sword Art Online; it is just unfortunate that the inexperienced hands of Kawahara could not manage to bring this grandiose storyline anywhere near its complete potential.
The Rating: 5
Reviewed by: Reckoner