Sword Art Online (aka SAO) is based on the light novels by Reki Kawahara (also the creator of Accel World). SAO more than lived up to the expectations I have of this author after how much I enjoyed Accel World.
Warning: spoilers ahead
Part 1 (Aincrad Arc or SAO arc)
SAO starts off with the release of a new MMORPG called “Sword Art Online” being released. You enter the world with Kirigaya Kazuto (who uses the handle “Kirito” in the game). Kirito was a beta tester for the game and seems to have an above average level of knowledge about this game and games like it in general. On the first day he meets a new player named Klein. After a brief period of helping Klein understand the game, they both realize that they can’t log out of the game. Soon after that all of the players are summoned to hear an announcement from the game creator (Kayaba Akihiko): They are trapped in this game, and the only way to leave is to beat all 100 levels of the game but, if they die in the game, they die in real life.
Immediately, Kirito sets out to survive. He leaves the new player he was with behind, albeit begrudgingly, and goes off on his own to become stronger. As the story continues you follow Kirito through this world and see how he and the rest of the players are coping with their lives in the world of the game. Kirito is forced to make some hard decisions for a 14 year old and they take their toll on him like you would expect them to. After a few months in the game he joins a guild of weaker players and starts to help them, only to have most of them fall into a trap while their leader is away and die. Upon hearing the news, the leader of the guild commits suicide. This event haunts Kirito for a while and further strengthens his resolve to be a solo player. Adding to his burden is the fact that he’s already despised by the general public of the game as being a beta tester, meaning that he has an unfair advantage in having experience in the game before the initial release. In order to keep people at a distance he makes things worse by labeling himself a “beater” meaning a “beta test cheater” and dawning a black coat he received for beating the game’s first boss. All of this kind of stuff starts to shape Kirito’s personality from that of a gamer into something more like a warrior.
As time passes (over the course of about 2 years) Kirito becomes stronger and eventually falls in love with a girl, another strong player in the game, Asuna. Asuna is a stereotypical tsundere but Kirito becomes attached to her. Because of his strength Kirito is recruited to become part of the Knights of the Blood Oath, the strongest guild in the game, where Asuna is the 2nd in command. After being defeated in a duel by Heathcliff, the guild’s leader, Kirito is forced to join. However, the escalating difficulty of the game and the weight of constantly facing real life or death fights starts to take its toll on them. Kirito and Asuna end up getting married (yes, the two teenagers got married…which happens in video games, I guess) and leave the front lines for a time. Once they’re gone they find a child, Yui, who turns out to be a program from the game that was made to help players cope with the game. Asuna and Kirito adopt the girl as their daughter and she even calls them Momma and Poppa.
Soon after the “adoption”, Kirito and Asuna are recalled to the front lines to fight a new boss that no one knows anything about. The guild is able to defeat it, but not without experiencing casualties (something that forming the guild was meant to help avoid). At this point Kirito has realized that Heathcliff, the man who’s been leading the guild through the game, is actually Kayaba Akihiko’s avatar. Kayaba congratulates Kirito on figuring this out and, as a reward, offers him the chance to fight him one-on-one for a chance to end the game right there. Kirito accepts and is able to defeat Heathcliff, freeing everyone from the world of SAO. As the world is disappearing, Kayaba appears to Kirito and explains to him that everyone remaining in the game will be logged out after their 3 year entrapment, but that the players who died were indeed gone and that their minds would never return. After this conversation the game is shutdown and Kirito awakes in a hospital bed and immediately goes in search of Asuna.
Part 2 (Fairy Dance Arc or ALO arc)
In the second arc/season, It is revealed that Asuna (as well as 300 other players) never awakened from the game. Kirito now has to rescue Asuna from a new game. She (and the other players) are being held captive by a friend of Asuna’s family, Sugou Nobuyuki. Suguo had trapped 300 players from SAO in another game called Alfheim Online (ALO). The game itself was essentially a modified copy of SAO that used fairies as avatars. The project was being run by Suguo who was using the minds of the SAO players to power an experiment that would allow him to use the game’s technology to control the human mind. Kirito has to use the abilities, knowledge and strength he gained through his SAO experiences to get Asuna back. It’s basically a “Princess in the Castle” quest.
Kirito has to overcome some obstacles in learning the game and gets involved with some issues in the game itself while he’s investigating. However, in ALO there is no threat of death in this game. The threats are now in the real world. The show now splits time between being in the game and in the real world. We see that Asuna’s family life was actually pretty bad. She had rich but disengaged parents who had arranged for her to marry Sugou (who is just a terrible person). Kirito also has his own kind of complicated family relationships. Most notably with his cousin / adopted sister Suguha (aka Sugu). Sugu seems to be in love with Kirito and actually started playing ALO when he was trapped in the world of SAO. Fortunately, that means that she’s able to help him search through ALO to find Asuna. You know, once they get all the weird incest-y stuff out of the way.
It takes a little time, but Sugu (Leafa in the game) and Kirito work their way through some events in the game until they figure out where Asuna is being held. With the help of Yui, who’s been downloaded into Kirito’s personal hardward, and some of the other players, Kirito is able to get to Asuna. Before he can rescue her he has to face off against Suguo. Suguo uses his control of the system to turn its pain receptors on and makes the fight real. Kirito is losing the fight but he’s able to use Kayaba’s information to override the system (since ALO is based on his SAO system) and beat him. The fight badly injures Suguo but it doesn’t kill him. When Kirito goes back to find Asuna in the hospital, he’s attacked by Suguo in real life. Kirito is able to subdue the man once and for all and he and Asuna are left to live happily ever after. Kirito also has another encounter with Kayaba Akihiko, who presents him with a gift. It’s something he calls the “world seed”. It’s basically the core code that allows anyone to create their own virtual world. He leaves it with Kirito telling him that he can chose to keep it hidden or to use it to create new worlds. Kirito does one better and releases it to the world, catalyzing the creation of hundreds of new virtual worlds.
I have to admit, that I almost didn’t watch this show. I went through a period where I was watching a lot of things all at once and SAO was on the list. However, when I started watching the first episode I found myself thinking “this looks like it’s just gonna be another .hack” and after about 10 minutes I had moved on to something else. Little did I know that at about 12 minutes into the episode things take a pretty drastic turn and the show would really get going. I’m glad I gave it another chance because I would’ve really been missing out if I hadn’t. That being said, this show also suffers from a great deal of hype surrounding it. In terms of people getting to watch a show, hype is usually a good thing. However, it’s a bad thing in terms of setting viewer’s expectations too high for the show. So, if you haven’t watched SAO yet don’t let the hype build it up too much for you.
Sword Art Online is a very good show, but that doesn’t mean it’s not flawed. It just has a lot of things going for it. The production values are great. The fight scenes are very good and a couple of them even amazed me when I saw them for the first time. The animation of the first boss fight, in particular, surprised me with just how good it was. To be honest, I didn’t find the music in this show particularly memorable at first. However, since I’ve watched the show I’ve realized that the music for the show has stayed with me. It’s to the point where I’m able to hear background music from the show and associate it with certain scenes or moments. I think that’s really a sign that the soundtrack for a show has done it’s job, when it’s strongly tied to the events of the show itself.
Something else that this show does almost excruciatingly well is keeping the weight of death over the first part of the story. The violence you see on the screen looks like what you’d expect from a video game. It’s relatively light and free of gore. When a player is injured they don’t really feel pain thanks to the “pain absorbers” built into the system and when they die their body simply disappears. However, with the knowledge of the permanence of a player death at the forefront of each character’s mind, the reactions to a death (like fear, sadness and panic) are very much a part of the experience. It’s actually a pretty unique way to be able to get the gravitas of that kind of situation without having to incorporate much gore or physical suffering. It’s also made clear, at several points, that there really is no coming back from death in this scenario. So, even though this seems like the kind of show that would have some kind of Deus ex Machina conclusion where everyone has a happy ending, you’re reminded again and again that that’s just not going to happen.
This is a more minor point in the overall story, but I also really like that the game stripped away the player’s avatars and showed them as they were in real life. I think it helped to maintain the feeling that what was happening to the characters in the game was, in many ways, really happening to them. It was also a great way to highlight the exploration of how different types of people reacted to the situation. For instance, most of the players that were on the front lines were younger able-bodied people to begin with. While most children or older individuals stayed in the safe zones. However, there were some people who bucked the trend and threw themselves into the fray despite their age. Now, I know the “brave-teenager” isn’t a new thing for anime, but it’s nice to see them interacting with an actual community instead of being the lone hero. That is, of course, most of the characters since Kirito starts off deciding to strike out on his own while everyone else works in groups.
Of course, as I said, the show had some weaknesses. Some of which just came from forcing actions of the characters. For instance, the whole relationship between Kirito and Asuna. Aside for it following the standard Tsundere trope, it did seem a like a bit of a strange thing for characters locked inside a death game to take time out for. Not only that but, Kirito, a 16 year old boy who’s spent about 20% of his life inside of a video game, now has a wife and child. Granted, I think Yui might be one of the most endearing secondary characters I’ve ever seen, but I could’ve done without the whole nuclear family aspect of the story. Still, I see how it gives Kirito something to fight for or to cling to as he fights. Plus, Yui becomes a very useful tool throughout the rest of the series. It’s these kinds of balances that make the show’s flaws bearable.
Probably the most egregious individual misstep of the show was its main villain. Kayaba never really gave a definitive reason for why he did what he did. We can tell that he really wanted to create a deep world and environment but there’s never really a reason given for why he felt the death game was necessary. Furthermore, the amount of animosity that Kirito displays toward him is a lot less than I was expecting for a guy that had essentially murdered around 4,000 people. I’ve wondered if maybe it’s because Kirito was so battle weary that he was just glad to be done or that maybe in some ways he was thankful for the experience, but it’s an open ended plot point. Not only do we not get a lot of information about Kayaba’s motivations, we don’t get to see a lot of him in the show at all. He only really appears as himself for the few moments that he’s talking to Kirito and even that might not have actually been him. For a character who’s so important to the events of the series, he seems oddly confined to an almost ethereal existence. Instead, the show seems to want the viewers to focus on the more tangible enemies that are standing right in front of the characters. To a large extent, they succeed in diverting the viewer’s attention. It’s not until I sat back and thought about it (or when I watched the scene with Kayaba talking to Kirito) that I realized how little he was actually used.
I also felt like the ALO story arc was a pretty weak way to follow up the SAO arc. It felt like a really drawn out conclusion to the SAO story arc that could’ve been wrapped up in a couple of episodes. The most interesting parts of that arc are what’s happening outside of the game, and maybe that was the point. Both Asuna and Kirito had some pretty messed up stuff going on in their lives outside of the game. Asuna seems like she’s basically going to forced to marry Suguo (or at least given to him) and Kirito’s real-life little sister (who’s really his cousin) has decided that she’s in love with Kirito. I’m kind of glossing over just how kind of inexplicably screwed up these two situations seem to be because, in the end, their really just obstacles that Kirito has to overcome to get his girl back. Instead, I think it would’ve been better to not have had these two stories happening simultaneously. I would’ve rather been immersed in ALO and fighting to get Asuna back or to have had to deal with the outside world without the distraction of having to dive back into the game. As it is, I think the two different parts of the story kind of got in each others way.
I think the best thing about the ALO arc is that it shows just how much Kirito grew and changed from what should’ve really been a traumatic experience. Not only did he retain his instincts of how to fight, but the bravery and fearlessness he had when he was fighting. It’s also good to see the main cast of characters from the game reunite and share the new version of the game that’s left behind. Although, I had to ask myself, “would anybody really go back into a game like that after what they experienced?” Whether they would or not it is a nice way to end things for the show. Even with all the tragedy there’s still a relatively happy ending. More importantly (for me anyway), there’s a platform to continue the story of Sword Art Online
Without hesitation, I would recommend that anyone who’s interested in anime watch this show. Like shows like Death Note, Cowboy Bebop or the Dragon Ball franchise, it’s going to be hard to get away from hearing about this show. It is a good show. It’s not the BEST show, but it is very good. As much as you can, try to go into it with no expectations and just enjoy the ride.