If you’ve been involved in the anime community at all in the past five years, you’ve probably heard two things about Sword Art Online: it’s the greatest anime ever and it’s the worst anime ever. It was hugely popular when it first aired in 2012, and the backlash that inevitably comes after that much popularity was just as intense. It’s almost popular to hate it now, and I can’t say that SAO’s detractors don’t have plenty of good reasons, but it’s nowhere near as bad as they say, and there are plenty of good parts as well.
For those who have somehow avoided hearing SAO, the story is another entry in the “trapped in the MMO” genre, and the first major anime entry in that since .hack. The protagonist, Kirito, is one of the first players in the first VRMMO, Sword Art Online. Everything seems to be going great until people discover that they can’t log out and the creator appears and tells everyone that they won’t be able to leave until someone beats the final boss on floor 100. Furthermore, anyone who dies in the game will have their brain fried by the headset they use to access the VR game. As Kirito puts it “if you die in the game you die in real life.”
The first couple of episodes make it seem like SAO will follow Kirito and the other players progressing from floor to floor, but that format is abandoned after the first two episodes. The next several episodes are all episodic side stories that involve Kirito meeting a different girl each time and helping them with their problems. It’s not quite a harem, but it occasionally comes close. The only characters that get any significant development are Kirito and his love interest Asuna. Even these three remain pretty simple, with Kirito being the badass lead and Asuna being the love interest, although she still has a few standout scenes beyond that. Kirito himself is likeable enough, but isn’t particularly interesting since he’s basically just a self-insert/wish fulfillment character. He’s both easy to like and easy to dislike depending on what you’re looking for.
One of the more interesting aspects of SAO is the MMO itself. The anime frequently brings up exactly how real a virtual world is and how much it matters since it isn’t “real.” Many of the MMO mechanics and terms used are accurate to actual games, and it’s clear that the author of the original novels has some experience with games. The MMO aspect is easily the strongest part of the story and at least partially makes up for the bland characters. By far, the strongest part of SAO is the action. The fight scenes are pretty frequent and all excellently choreographed and feel suitably intense. They never last too long and do a lot to make up for the weaker aspects. It’s easy to understand why so many people like SAO if you look at it as a straightforward action show.
By far the weakest part of SAO is the second arc, which starts a little after the halfway point. The problems with the writing become more apparent, with Asuna reduced to little more than a damsel in distress and Kirito becoming even less interesting. There’s also an unnecessary incest plotline that comes up. The action scenes are still there, but aren’t enough to make up for the weak story.
A lot of the bad parts of SAO come from the original novel’s origins. SAO was originally written for a contest in 2001 and was published as a one volume web novel by Reki Kawahara, who hadn’t written anything else at the time. The side stories and the second arc were both added later, and it’s pretty clear that Kawahara didn’t originally intend to write a continuation and that he wasn’t completely sure where to go from there. It’s easy to tell that Kawahara was pretty inexperienced when he first wrote SAO.
The best word I can come up with to describe the animation is “polished.” Characters are constantly on model, colors are bright and the fight scenes are all high quality. It isn’t amazing like Unlimited Blade Works or One Punch Man. but there are very few noticeable flaws. The music was done by Yuki Kajiura (Fate/Zero, Madoka Magica) and, while it isn’t her best work, is still very well done. There are plenty of battle themes with the choirs most of us have come to expect from her, and plenty of more subdued themes as well. It isn’t amazing, but it’s still good enough to listen to on its own. Both openings are good, although the first (Crossing Field by LiSA) is easily the better of the two. The dub was done by Bang Zoom and is perfectly fine for dub fans. Nothing about it stands out as being particularly impressive, but there isn’t anything wrong with it either. It’s a solid dub for people who like dubs, and those who don’t can watch the sub without missing anything.
SAO is both very easy to like and very easy to dislike. It has a strong premise, the setting will appeal to gamers, the action scenes are flashy and impressive, and the cast is pretty easy to like. On the other hand, the characters are very one dimensional, the plot spends a little too much time in side-stories and the second arc is sub-par at best. Your enjoyment of SAO largely depends on which aspects you choose to focus on, since it has an almost equal amount of strengths and weaknesses. I’m more inclined to focus on what it does well, especially since the first arc has enough strengths to cover for it’s weaknesses. Still, not everyone will look at it like this, and even I admit the second arc is hard to defend. I know it sounds like I’ve been pretty negative about it, but SAO (especially the first arc) is enjoyable enough that I would still recommend it, flaws and all.
Sword Art Online is available from Aniplex of America and is available for streaming on Crunchyroll and Netflix.
Final Score: 8/10