Kazuto can’t wait to log into the latest, greatest MMO, Sword Art Online. He was a beta tester and loved the challenging gameplay. He along with 10k other players log in—only to learn that they can no longer log out. Worse yet, if they die in the game, they will die in reality as well. Now Kazuto—in his player avatar Kirito—is determined to finish the game to free them all.
Sword Art Online is what I like to think of as a “bait and switch” anime. You start out with a fairly preposterous idea (thousands of people trapped in a game) but you can swallow it because there is a lot of fairly well-played action, some fun characters, and even a romantic relationship that is pretty much based on equality (for an anime, that is). Then, halfway through the series the strong female lead is turned into a damsel in distress, a relative with a brother complex gets tossed in for fan service, and the already preposterous plot gets worse. If I were the type to insert gifs and the like, I would have an image of a pissed off cat with the caption “I am not amused,” stamped across it. That, however, is not my style. The statement stands though; I was not amused.
The series starts off a little rocky with a few non-chronological “girl in distress, Kirito rescues, girl swoons or dies” stories. While not the greatest things to watch, some were more impactful than others and they had some nice action to go with them so they were palatable. When the story finally shifts away from random encounters, it provides a fairly well-done character and relationship development between Kirito and Asuna. Even though the fighting occurs in a virtual setting, the threat of death helps to increase the intensity and there really are a lot of unique attacks used that build upon the strengths of the characters. The climax of the first part of the story is well-handled, and would have been an excellent ending for the anime. A perfect ending really, and the ending I wish it had. Why?
The second section of the anime (a bit less than half the series) is set in a different MMO called Alfheim Online. This time the characters are different types of fairies and Kirito is playing with a blonde girl named Leafa who quickly is smitten with him. While she has some fortitude, she spends too much time swooning and her character design is even more designed for fan service than Asuna’s SAO persona. It’s not that Asuna’s completely gone though. No, she’s trapped in Alfheim Online and frequently subjected to inappropriate behavior from her captor and his goons. The fairly strong female lead became a fantasy prop. Meanwhile, where in the first half of the story there was a large, revolving cast of characters in the second half we’re pretty much just stuck with Kirito, Leafa, and little Yui.
It’s worth noting that while the story takes a jump off the cliff after about episode 14, certain elements remain the same. The art continues to be quite lovely. The character designs in both games are distinct and well composed. There’s more jiggle and skin in Alfheim, but it’s still pretty. The worlds are also well depicted in the games. While the Alfheim portion is lower key in the action department (plenty of reality scenes and Leafa and Kirito talking), the battles are still spectacular and the score generally suited the moment well—feeling appropriate for an anime while still capturing the essence of video game music.
Overall, I really enjoyed most of the first 15 episodes of Sword Art Online. Kirito’s a bit too perfect for my tastes, always self-sacrificing and never selfish, but his interactions with Asuna and other flawed characters help take the edge off the edge of perfection. Unfortunately, the series took what felt like an especially fan-pandering turn after a rather impactful climax to end the SAO arc. It was never able to regain the magic of the first section and turned off quite a few fans in the process (my husband, for example, couldn’t bear to watch episodes 17-24, rejoining me only for the final episode). I cannot see myself ever watching the Alfheim episodes ever again, but I will admit I could be enticed to buy the series simply to watch the SAO arc again. Between the art, music, scenery, action, and often well-executed character interactions, it’s worth another viewing.