Final Review: Sword Art Online

DISCLAIMER: Anime reviews on this blog will attempt minimal to no spoilers unless otherwise noted. If a review seems dull or shallow, it’s because I’m trying to make sure not to go into too detail for those who are actually interested in the show before or after reading the review or those who have yet to finish the title. If you want further details, there are usually tons of reviews that can be found elsewhere on the internet. Furthermore, anime reviews in general are the sole opinion of the author writing it and thus differ across the users. There is no such thing as a “right answer” only a majority agreement. You are free to have your own opinions and thereby free to state and/or argue/debate in the comments section below or on the Fansub TV Forums. The review is not necessarily meant to serve as a recommendation but rather a personal opinion of having completed the series.

Sword Art Online is based off a light novel by the same author of Accel World, which had also received an anime adaptation this year. Unlike Accel World, Sword Art Online takes place in a relatively more present-like setting where people still use computers and play games via virtual reality helmets. Sword Art Online was the most hyped title in Summer 2012 but whether it managed to hold up its praise will be unraveled in this review. Sword Art Online was simulcasted by CrunchyRoll and licensed by Aniplex USA.

Sword Art Online begins with Kazuto Kirigaya (aka Kirito), a solo VR gamer who spends most of his time playing VRMMOs. He is one of the thousands trapped in Sword Art Online, a cool looking game with the catch that if you die, you’re dead in reality as well. Concept sounds quite interesting as it takes .hack titles to “the next level.” That is until you realize this concept only happens for about half the series. The show is broken into two arcs: Sword Art Online (aka Aincrad arc) and Alfheim Online (aka Fairy Dance arc) which cover the first four volumes of the light novels. In the SAO arc, most of the episodes cover volume 2, which are short side stories and “character development chapters” rather than focusing mostly on the progress of the game itself. The show is also stripped mostly of the more “romantic” development and moments between Kirito and Asuna, the female player that Kirito ultimately “marries.” Granted that SAO does still flush out a fair bit of it quite nicely, it can also be argued that a big portion of SAO’s time was wasted with simple one-off episodes, mostly until around episode 9. The ED of SAO also remains the most questionable where theoretically Kirito and Asuna are to have died due to 0 HP, yet it is implied that the creator of the game has complete control of a player’s life after being defeated. A big deus ex moment and of course one that has never sat well with me.

In ALO, Asuna is basically captured and the only reason why Kirito dives into the game just after being released from SAO. His partner/harem this time is Leafa/Lyfa, who is later revealed to be his “sister” in reality. The arc is unsurprisingly less entertaining than SAO given the lack of a “life and death” suspense. Not to mention that Kirito receives a lot of the buffs and skills he acquired in SAO making him effectively the most overpowered player. The conclusion is also quite obvious (though lovely I might add) and the general re-acquisition of “dual wield” was also less impressive compared to the build up described in the novel. However, it should also come as no surprise that this is the worst arc as the author clearly has problems writing good second arcs after setting the high bar in the first story since Accel World suffered a similar fate. At the end, there are a lot of plot holes in Sword Art Online and despite starting with a bang, it really failed to keep a strong momentum to convince viewers of a “reasonable story.” On a different note, ALO’s conclusion was much better when shown than read though. Ironic considering that SAO is suppose to be the better of the two stories.

Art is fairly solid in this show. The designs of the games are fantastic despite mostly done with CGI. The designs felt very appropriate and blended quite nicely with each other unlike many other shows as of late that abuse CGI (e.g. Muv-Luv Alternative -Total Eclipse-). Character designs are fair overall with some flakiness halfway through the series. Animation is by A-1 Pictures and remains mostly solid, though the action scenes seemed to be skimped on in the later parts of the series, particularly towards the end. I’m guessing most of the budget went to Shinsekai Yori as that show’s budget has gone through the roof around the same time. The animation is still solid by A-1 Pictures and they are still improving, though they have a long way to meet anywhere near the quality of SHAFT, P.A. Works, or KyoAni.

OP themes are both solid. Personally I prefer INNOCENCE by Aoi Eir over LiSA’s Crossing Fields, at least in the full single versions that is but both are still solid. ED themes are also very solid all around. Background music is solid by Yuki Kajiura though it seems as of late that Kajiura has been using more of the quiet and slow BGMs in her works rather than the more lively themes in the early to mid 2000 titles. Sound effects are decent for this show. Seiyuu is also very likable with Ayana Taketatsu, Haruka Tomatsu, and Kanae Itou taking the three heroine roles of Suguha, Asuna, and Yui. Yoshitsugu Matsuoka is Kirito and is effectively his debut role along with Godou Kusanagi in Campione! of the same season.

Enjoyment? Sword Art Online started off with a bang. It had a very entrancing opening episode given how elaborate its setup was. Unfortunately, that’s really as far as it went until about episode 9 when the emotional and romantic moments between Asuna and Kirito kicked in. That lasted until about episode 13, after which ALO started. It’s basically a roller coaster ride and there were a few big WOW moments in the series as well as many facepalm and snooze moments, especially early on. At the end of the day, it’s hard to say that Sword Art Online is a masterpiece in this gaming space. BTOOOM! is a series that I will be reviewing soon and generally is the opposite of Sword Art Online by starting off weak but grew very fast. Accel World seems like a stronger/more likable choice in the long term as ALO basically wraps up effectively the “core parts” of the Sword Art Online franchise with little to really expand on (despite being many more light novels after it). .hack//Sign continues to be a personal favorite of mine in this space along with .hack//Quantum as they utilize the same concepts as Sword Art Online.

Overall, Sword Art Online has a lot of faults that it never really explains and attempts to cover it up with big “surprise” moments. I’ll admit, it’s got a few of these but if you’re an experienced viewer, these slip ups will also not be forgotten. If Sword Art Online is one of your first titles in this space or you’ve only seen titles within the last 5 years, chances are you’ll forgive these slip ups. It’s a show that had a lot of potential but was easily wasted not only by a lack of a faithful novel adaptation but also poor pacing and planning. It’s a great show to kill time with and will likely be remembered for its couple pairing but in terms of actual story it’s pretty much forgettable.

 

Story and Character:

  • Premise (1/1): .hack like but initial setup and hook was fantastic. A cool concept considering it was first released on the web in 2002.
  • Character Personalities (1/1): Asuna, Suguha, Yui, and Kirito are all good.
  • Character Development (1/2): We learn all about the “useless” side characters in SAO. Only in ALO do we start learning about Suguha and Kirito. Asuna still remains much of a mystery.
  • Character Usefulness/Presence (1/2): Cast introduced in SAO are pretty much useless in the long run. ALO cast is actually more compact though still minimal impact on the overall story. Asuna effectively disappears for half the series.
  • Pacing: (0.5/1): Pretty poor overall. Skips a lot of important details and dives into useless side stories.
  • Reasonable/Plausible (1/2): SAO has a nice concept but the ending was a nosedive. ALO was a bit of a deus ex but at least far more plausible than as to why Kirito and Asuna are alive after being “killed” by Heathcliff.
  • Conclusion (1/1): Generally speaking solid and one of the more enjoyable episodes of the series.
  • Total: 6.5/10

Art and Animation:

  • Backgrounds (2/2): Pretty and detailed.
  • Character Designs (1.5/2): Solid overall. Inconsistencies here and there with faces.
  • Fluidity (1/2): Action scenes are generally disappointing and a wash. Lots of recycling.
  • Visuals/Special Effects/Flashiness (2/2): Very colorful from beginning to end.
  • Art and Animation “Expectation” (1/2): It’s not the prettiest show that A-1 has done given Magi’s and Shinsekai Yori’s quality this season, especially the latter. They’re still improving but as we’ve seen from many studios, taking on 5 projects a season is not a good idea.
  • Total: 7.5/10

Sound and Music:

  • OP/ED/Insert Themes (2.5/3): All OPs and EDs are good for this title. Crossing Field is still my least favorite title in this series. Surprised to not see Kalafina here considering it’s all the Fate/Zero singers less Kalafina, whom is replaced by Haruka Tomatsu. Not that it’s a bad thing.
  • Background Music (2/2): Yuki Kajiura is still good. I do miss some of her older styles though.
  • Sound Effects (1.5/2): Decent
  • Seiyuu (3/3): Big plus here. Haruka Tomatsu, Ayana Taketatsu, and Kanae Itou all taking up the lead heroines. Yoshitsugu Matsuoka’s debut role is quite respectable as well.
  • Total: 9/10

Enjoyment:

  • Amusement (1/2): First few episodes after episode 1 were a massive bore until Asuna became “a main character”
  • Weekly/Next Episode Anticipation (1/2): It was a roller coaster. Granted these past few seasons have been very weak in general, Sword Art Online failed to really capitalize on this and couldn’t hook me compared to Kokoro Connect and Tari Tari in the summer or Shinsekai Yori, Bakuman 3, and Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun in the fall.
  • Presentation (1/2): Beginning episodes are episodic and yet not. ALO has this long boring stretch between episodes 15 and 20 as well. Viewers likely dropped out especially with the whole “you can die” aspect gone
  • Re-watchable (0.5/1): The romance is basically what drives the show and makes it semi-enjoyable. The action is really mediocre and its development is not so much rewatchable given how it drags its feet.
  • Recommendation (1/2): Accel World is the obvious other choice. Black Rock Shooter is somewhat similar as is .hack//Sign and .hack//Quantum. BTOOOM! might be a big contender as well.
  • Value (0.5/1): It’s an overhyped title that’s for sure but it doesn’t really live up to its hype. The only value it has is the Kirito x Asuna pairing and that’s really about it as it’s one of the better (straight) anime couples I’ve seen (probably since Kira x Lacus in Gundam Seed)
  • Total: 5/10

Preliminary Score: 8/10

Final Score: 7/10

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