The future of the video game industry is here, and it’s gone far beyond the motion capture and voice commands that we raved about in the past. MMORPGs… Or Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games… Have evolved beyond what was previously thought possible, thanks to an innovation called The Full Dive… A Virtual Reality system that syncs directly with your brain to transfer your very consciousness into an expansive, lifelike gaming universe where people from all over the world can interact and compete for hours on end while they’re bodies remain nice and safe in their beds. How can a gaming experience such as this possibly go wrong?
One of these new games, Sword Art Online, has taken the market by storm, becoming a fast fan favorite due to it’s simple mechanics and universal accessibility. But then one day, a curious flaw appears in the system… The log out button mysteriously disappears, leaving over ten thousand players stranded. And instead of an update or a patch to fix this issue, game creator Kayaba Akihiko gives them the most horrible news they could have possibly imagined… There is no way out. This world is now their world, and thanks to a booby trap hidden in their headsets, to die in the game… Or to have your headset removed by an outside party… Will mean their immediate real life death. The only way to leave is to clear all 100 floors of the game, a task that winds up in the hands of the best and strongest players in the game… Including Kirito, a former beta tester. Can the thousands of forsaken souls trapped in their former escapist paradise ever see the real world again, or is all hope lost?
Whether you love or hate this series… And there are a lot of people claiming both extremes… There’s one thing everyone seems to agree on; The animation in SAO is phenomenal. Studio AI, which was founded by a former Sunshine producer, has a very impressive resume behind them, having worked on several popular and visually spectacular titles like Fairy Tail, Black Butler, and Magi(none of which I’m personally fond of). Their flair for expensive, all out, balls-to-the-wall action and movement is on full display here, with special attention being given to the expansive backgrounds, smoothly integrated CGI and the infinitely expressive countenances of it’s many cast members. Unfortunately, the negative aspects of A1’s animation technique has also been carried over, as the cost cutting and corner cutting are everywhere, and it’s never subtle about it.
For all the graceful animation we get with our main cast, you get crowds of people in the background just frozen like they’re part of the background rather than people living in it. For all the fast-paced, intense battle scenes, there are just as many where the aesthetic become cheaper and looser in order to compensate for the constant movement… And as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, that kind of technique can make a show look really awkward when paused. Because of this, I don’t think I can get behind all of the other reviewers who call this one of the best looking shows they’ve ever seen, but I understand why it looks the way it does, and I do generally think it does it’s job fine. After all, there aren’t a lot of studios who have Kyoto Animation-level budgets behind them, so the lack of consistency can be largely forgiven… I just wish it’d been managed a bit better.
The musical score, on the other hand, is nothing short of breathtaking. Yuki Kajiura is one of the most respected composers in the industry for a damn good reason, and while she’s not quite as prolific as Yoko Kanno, the difference in style more than makes up for it. Almost all of the more memorable and emotionally stimulating moments in the series might have fallen flat if not for the expertly crafted and highly versatile tunes that she made to accompany them. Whether the tone of the series needs to be tense, frightening, somber, uplifting or full on heart-rending, Kajiura’s nearly celtic-sounding score always has the right tunes at the right time. For the best example of this, the low-pitched track ‘despaired’ is the saddest part of the already tragic episode 3. Her music has a very manipulative quality to it, and yes, I mean that in a good way.
I wish I could go on to say that this series is a master of sound, but while the music excellent, the English dub is a bit… Well, mediocre. It was done by Bang Zoom, who were surprisingly able to pick up a few Funimation actors for the job. I’ve never really been a huge fan of Bryce Papenbrook… Although he was decent in Blood Ladd… And as Kirito, he sounds distractingly like Vic Mignogna going through puberty. Cherami Leigh as Asuna didn’t impress me very much either. When I saw her name attached to the character, I thought… Why? Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great actor, but she doesn’t have a lot of experience playing tough or intimidating women. Her voice is too high pitched and airy for it, and the part should have gone to someone with a deeper voice like Michelle Ruff. I won’t say either one of them did a bad acting job, they did fine, I just don’t find the casting believable in either case.
The rest of the cast, for the most part, is full of Bang Zoom regulars, with only a few sour notes in what is otherwise an okay dub overall. Cassandra Lee was very impressive as Leafa, especially when you consider the kind of character she’s been saddled with. Christine Marie Cabanos better than usual as Silica, but she’s still way below her Toradora performance. Marianne Miller, as Recon, is somebody I want to never, ever hear in a dub again. The only real standout performance is from Todd Haberkorn, who takes full advantage of his role as the narcissistic sociopath Sugo Noboyuki to be as sleazy and unlikeable as he possibly can, and boy is it glorious. It’s a fine, listenable dub, but you’d do a lot better to just watch it in Japanese with subtitles.
Then again, you can’t really blame the actors for being mediocre when the characters they’re playing are so terribly, terribly written. Starting with Kirito, there’s very little depth to his character. He has trouble working with other people, he feels some serious guilt in his life, and these issues do give him some potential for development… But that’s it. Beyond that, he’s just a self insert male empowerment fantasy, which becomes even more blatant when you start to notice just how much of his story was inspired by Guts from Berserk. He’s an overpowered loner who travels the world being a better fighter than everyone else, and he’s even nicknamed The Black Swordsman. And if that’s not enough, the circumstances surrounding his membership in Asuna’s guild are very reminiscent of Guts’ joining and leaving of The Band of the Hawk.
But then again, Guts never took it a step too far by becoming a harem lead… Okay, maybe at ONE party. There number of female characters in this series who don’t develop feelings for him could easily be counted on one hand, with a finger or two to spare. Out of the ones who do, he’s generally the one helping them through their problems while they get strung along helplessly, regardless of their levels(Except for Suguha, but we’ll get to that). This even includes Asuna, who follows him through a murder mystery story arc while HE solves every clue, and even though she holds the final piece of the puzzle the whole damn time, he’s the one who solves it after she mentions a key SAO marriage detail out loud.
And Asuna? That’s another issue entirely. Up until my recent rewatch of SAO, I thought she was the best thing about the series… But it didn’t take me long to realize that there’s even less to her character than there is to Kirito’s character. She’s a strong fighter, but she’s not a very strong character. In fact, if you took the romance out of her relationship with Kirito, IE their marriage and what-not, she could have easily been replaced with a fighting dog, especially when their meet-cute happened because he earned her trust with food. That, and let’s be honest here, the whole ‘damsel in distress’ thing from the second half of the series did her very few favors.
And then you have Kirito’s other love interests, and dear god, are there a lot of them. Two characters are introduced in the early episodes who enlist him for help, fall madly in love with him, and are then dropped for most of the remaining series, only to be brought back at the end to reveal that they still haven’t given up on him. Because yeah, God’s gift to the fairer sex being taken off the market will not stop them from ignoring every other guy in the world on his behalf. Two characters from the second arc start pressing their boobs against his arms because he defended them from an ambush, and then… There’s his sister. Yes, Suguha, his little sister, is in love with him. I’ll grant you that they’re actually cousins, but for reasons that I stated in my Oreimo review, that doesn’t make it any better. This is popularly labelled the worst part of the series, and… Yeah, but it didn’t have to be. I wouldn’t have minded her falling in love with Kirito in the game, due to not knowing who he is, but the fact that she’s already fallen for him in real life just kills it.
And then you have the villains. Each half of the series contains one true villain, set aside as the final boss of their respective worlds, and a smaller villain who causes some events to occur, goes nowhere afterwards, and then is completely forgotten about in the story. There are a lot of potential for these two MAIN villains, but the way they’re perceived by both the fans and the story is kind of baffling. People tend to hate the second villain, Sugu, because he imprisoned one woman and tried to take over the IRL world. What they seem to forget is that the first villain is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of probably innocent people. And that wouldn’t be the show’s problem if it wasn’t for the fact that SAO actually seems to share this bizarre thought. I won’t spoil anything, but if you want to get a good idea of how bad this disconnect can get, I’d like you to picture watching Hitler receive a metal of honor for stopping a rapist. Yeah, that guy was a rapist, and old Dolphy did a great thing… But he’s still Hitler. Something like that actually happens.
So if this series has an inconsistent dub, poorly written characters, and some unsettlingly deep levels of sexism, why is it so popular? Why is it such a huge hit, as well as a major financial success? I said earlier that the strongest element of SAO is it’s musical score, but it’s most successful element is the execution of it’s story. SAO bets all of it’s chips on suspense, tempting the audience to keep coming back because they can’t keep the ongoing conflicts and how they’ll be resolved out of their heads. And it works. The news of entrapment and possible death in the SAO universe hits the heart hard, bringing some serious stakes to the table, and they play with this concept in all the right ways and at all the right moments… Right up until it’s resolution, in one of the most perfectly timed and logically stupid plot twists I’ve ever seen. It made more sense in Berserk.
For the most part, the other looming conflicts are just as powerful. Even if you don’t like the characters, you want to know whether or not Kirito and Asuna will end up together. you want to know what’ll happen when Suguha’s true identity is revealed to him. You want to know if Kirito will be able to rescue Asuna before the ticking clock of the second story arc runs out. You want to know just how many people will die before their trials in SAO are finally safely over. It’s easy to get invested in these conflicts, which is probably the main reason so many people get hooked during their initial viewing… But with that tactic, SAO suffers a very significant trade-off in the form of some absolutely miserable rewatch value. Upon a second viewing, any viewer will already know exactly where the story is heading, and how each conflict will be resolved, which takes the suspense right out of the series… Forcing you to admit just how weak and sexist the characterizations are, and how badly written a lot of the side stories are.
Sword Art Online is available from Aniplex. The officially released Region 1 DVDs were split into quarters, with each disk holding about 6-7 episodes… For more than fifty dollars each. Yeah, in order to actually own a tangible copy of this entire twenty-five episode series with the English dub intact, you will have to shell out over two hundred dollars. Even if you’re a fan of the series, it’s not worth even half of that price. Luckily, there are other options available, and I’m not just talking about the much more affordable Malaysian bootlegs on Ebay. You can find SAO on Crunchyroll, and at least for now, you can also find it for free on Netflix. The original light novels are currently being released in English alongside a translated manga adaptation, but I’ve read the first volume of each, and they’re completely awful. Do not waste your time and money on them. There’s a second season too, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Oddly enough, I’d like to pause for a moment to give a recommendation to an Abridged version of this series, by youtube user Something Witty Entertainment. Where most abridged shows will retcon personality traits out of it’s characters for the sake of comedy and pacing. SAO Abrdiged does the exact oppoisite, turning Kirito into a sociopathic asshole and Asuna into an awkward, racially ignorant noob, and mother of all surprises, these new reprehensible personalities… Coupled with some very strong writing… Actually make the characters more likeable than they are in the show. Events that happen to them also seem to matter a great deal more in terms of their character and relationship development, which is very believable. There are only seven episodes out so far, and each episode takes a few months to release, but it’s worth the patience.
I’ve been told by a great many people that Sword Art Online does not accurately portray the MMO gaming experience, but speaking as someone who has never played an MMO in his life, I really don’t care. I came into this series looking for a good story, exciting action and memorable characters, and to it’s very minimal credit, SAO almost has those qualities. It has a definite cool factor in it’s concept and design, and it does as good a job as possible covering up it’s lackluster content with outstanding production values and musical direction. I want to give it credit for presenting an emotionally gripping storyline, and while that storyline doesn’t really hold up under repeated viewings, there are a handful of moments that are just as powerful no matter how many times you see them. It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but I don’t think it’s as terrible as it’s most fervent haters claim, nor is it the worst way to pass the time. I give Sword Art Online a 5/10.