Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 29th 2012
Sword Art Online
episodes 1-6 streaming
In the fall of 2022 a new, fully-immersive virtual reality MMO called Sword Art Online debuts with an initial limited release of 10,000 units. Kirito, one of the beta testers for the game, is one of the first-wave players. At first everything seems fine; Kirito even makes the acquaintance of Kleine, a new player, and helps him get acclimated to the game. The trouble starts when they realize that they cannot find the option to log out. Soon thereafter all of the players are teleported to a central gathering area, where a giant specter who represents the game's creator informs them that they are, indeed, trapped in the virtual reality setting, that they can only leave the game once all 100 floors have been defeated, and that death in the game or any external attempt to disconnect players from the game will have fatal consequences in real life, too – and, indeed, some such cases have already happened. To make the experience even more real, everyone's avatars are adjusted to reflect their real appearances, too. Realizing that leveling up fast will be a key to survival and a loner by nature, Kirito immediately sets off on his own and eventually takes on the title of “Beater” (a combination of “beta tester” and “cheater”) in becoming the rare solo player working with the leading guilds at clearing front-line levels. Along the way he befriends Asuna, a pretty girl who turns out to be skilled enough to join with the lead groups, and has more limited associations with other female players – some mutually beneficial, some tragic.
The concept of being trapped in a virtual environment which can be harmful to one's actual health, even potentially deadly, is hardly a new one. It first appeared in anime as a focus element in 2002's .hack//SIGN, but its origins in science fiction media can be traced back through the 1999 American movie The Matrix, the 1994 Piers Anthony novel Killobyte, and even back to the 1976 Dr. Who story arc The Deadly Assassin, with various appearances in super-hero comic books, sci fi series, and the odd horror movie along the way. Whether deliberately or not, Sword Art Online samples from most of those sources in crafting its central scheme. The new twist here is that the motive seems to be a cruel sociology experiment: lock people in a game that must be played for real and see how that affects the decisions and social interactions in the game.
So far, the series has been ambivalent on what effect the life-or-death environment might have. Early on the story offers some promising signs: many of the players hole up in the starter city rather than take risks in the field, a semi-organized group forms to tackle the leading edge of advancement through the game, and avatars dying is taken much more seriously. As the series progresses and the better part of two years passes, though, the story struggles to achieve and maintain the level of gravitas that life-or-death danger should have. The notion that PKers (i.e., “player-killers”) still exist even in this setting because of the disconnect between actions and real-life consequences (which the players don't get to see) is interesting, as is the prejudice that could develop towards beta testers who take advantage of their greater familiarity with the game to get a survival edge, but the latter gets entirely ignored after episode 2 and the former is watered down by how unreal the death scenes feel. Things that would normally happen in MMOs – such as guilds forming and players specializing in shop ownership, information gathering, or even assassinations – still happen, and things that happen in the real world – such as murder-mysteries and marriages – carry over into this setting in some modified form. (The way game mechanics are used to set up the murder-mystery is a nice touch.) Thus how much of an impact the premise actually is having on the way events play out is debatable.
In adapting the original lite novels by Reki Kawahara (who also wrote the source novels for Accel World), director Tomohiko Ito and his A-1 Pictures team made one crucial decision: they would do the adaptation in chronological rather than publication order. This results in a series which uses its opening episode to chronicle the first part of the first novel and then spends the next six episodes on short stories from later releases to partly fill out the first novel's big time skip. While this approach is beneficial in some respects, it is detrimental in others. The use of these short stories does give the anime version a smoother opportunity to explore some of the crucial game mechanics and lay a firmer foundation for central character Kirito's behavior and motivations. They also establish support for Kirito as being a key figure in ultimately winning the game and thus, in the process, helping everyone. On the downside, all of the stories except for episode 2, which details Kirito's first contact with Asuna and the efforts to defeat the boss for the first level, carry the distinct feel of being side stories and thus apply a troubling sense of delay to the story getting underway. While that is not a fatal problem, it is nonetheless a big detriment to the smooth flow of the series. Time will tell on whether or not that ends up weighting down the series as a whole or setting the series up better for the long run, but in the short term it definitely leaves viewers impatient for the series' core business to get underway.
Another point of contention is the characterization of Kirito. The series clearly wants to portray him as a “lone wolf” type who isn't averse to helping those in trouble but generally prefers to act on his own. The writing is unwilling to commit fully to that, however, as it keeps associating Kirito with other players in scenarios that are presumably intended to show him actually interacting with, and thus making associations with, other characters. That most of these other characters are girls who either are or become in some degree of distress, and that some of them fall for Kirito, gives the (probably not intended) sense that Kirito is forming a harem, and that Kirito is typically so much higher-level than the others involved that he is an unstoppable force gives the (also probably not intended) impression that he is a “Gary Stu” character. Doubtlessly these effects are at least partly attributable to telling these stories out of their original published order. Complaints that Kirito's development up to such a powerful level are not sufficiently detailed fall on shakier ground, as the fill-in stories shown here are rushed enough in their development as it is. The bigger problem is that, so far, Kirito is just not that intriguing a personality on his own. He only becomes interesting when interacting with other characters and standing as a contrast to them, especially Asuna and to a lesser extent, Kleine; in fact, the series is almost invariably better when one of those two is also in the scene.
Because the first seven episodes focus so much on developing the setting and game mechanics, the actual action is relatively limited for a series based on an action-oriented game; in that respect SAO most heavily apes .hack//SIGN. The only major sustained action scene so far comes in the boss fight shown in episode 2, and that one zings more because of the teamwork that goes into defeating the boss than anything else. Unfortunately the beautiful coordination of attacks which, even at that point, showed that Kirito and Asuna would make a fearsome team has yet to even be approached again since.
A-1 Production's visual effort does not strike any bold new ground as game-based fantasy series go. The monsters do not look all that different from something that could have popped up in the .hack// series, and beyond Asuna the character designs are largely uninspired (although the way equipment quality has decidedly increased over time is a nice touch). The background art does provide some excellent fantasy scenery, but by the standards of the genre this is nothing special, either, and most of the towns look rather mundane. Animation and rendering quality both vary, although the former trends a bit higher. The musical score is suitable but, again, nothing special, and the same can be said of the Japanese voice acting.
At this time the series is only available in streaming form, although, oddly, the Next Episode previews never accompany the initial simulcasts. Instead they typically become available the following Wednesday on Japanese-language-only sites, for reasons that have yet to be explained.
Sword Art Online does enough with presenting the game mechanics and exploring some of the effects that the life-or-death struggle has on the game to be involving despite its many flaws and credibility-straining plot holes. (That the game could go on for nearly two years without someone on the outside cracking it, or without some kind of major flaws developing that could have drastic consequences, is hard to believe, and the interface seems more than a little too detailed at times.) The quality of certain individual moments gives further hope that the series will eventually amount to something, and the first few episodes do throw out some tantalizing points to consider, such as what might really be going on in an outside world that the players seem to have no access to news about and the notion that this setting is reality for the players stuck in the game. With the main storyline finally set to resume with episode 8, the potential for the series to get truly good does exist, but it still has a lot of work to do to achieve that.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Cool exploration of game mechanics, interesting (if plot hole-ridden) concept.
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