Spoilers are imminent
Before delving into the main discussion, here is some backstory:
There is no doubt that the majority of Anime watchers have played video games, and the majority of those have played MMORPGs. The popular genre is one of the largest with tens of millions players across many large games, most notably World of Warcraft and the latest Guild Wars 2. Japanese MMORPGs are similar to traditional Japanese RPGs with tonnes of grinding with the traditional mix of anime like characters and lolis. The MMORPG market is quite large and popular, so what would the reaction be to a new MMORPG based anime, backed up with a large budget? A highly anticipated show.
Sword Art Online is based on the Light Novel series by Reki Kawahara which currently has 10 volumes. The series is set in 2022 where technology has advanced enough to use virtual reality in video games. Dubbed the Nerve Gear, the first real usage is the upcoming MMORPG, Sword Art Online. We meet the main character whose in game character is Kirito. A beta tester during the games beta phase, things turn amuck when the log off button disappears. What turns from a new exciting experience evolves into a trapped experiment where the penalty is death. The creator of the game shows up to explain the rules, how death in game will result in death in real life, and the only way to escape is to finish the game, defeating the final boss on the 100th floor.
When it was announced to have an anime adaptation people went crazy left and right about a Virtual Reality MMORPG. The basic synopsis involved the premise of a VRMMORPG and the players are trapped in its virtual world, where it becomes a death game. At first glance, it seems like a perfect formula mixing in life threatening in a virtual world where things are different and unique, a fantasy element. After the first episode which set the premise also set high expectations. Though since then there has been a massive split onto the community, those who love it and those who detest it.
Now onto the main discussion at hand, we all know how popular Sword Art Online has become, garnering even a high score of 8.58/10 on MyAnimeList and a 4.625/5 on AnimePlanet at the time of writing. But does it really deserve this rating and popularity or is this anime just all mindless love and no substance? While this may seem to be a review, it is just my opinion on why Sword Art Online is popular and why it should not deserve it.
To me I think the biggest attraction to the anime is the premise and setting. Not that Sword Art Online is the first anime set in a MMORPG Environment, .Hack series, but how it presents the MMORPG setting. The addition of a ‘death game’ scenario has added more depth into the characters and their actions, not just being another backdrop for a shonen-like anime. Though, this expected depth has not yet been delivered. One of my biggest gripes with the plot, is its pacing. There are many short arcs in the series that offer less about the world and only more about Kirito. I wanted to learn more about the world of Aincrad. I mean come on, a fully virtual world that looks amazing and has some pretty nifty combat and 100 levels should have a fleshed out world. It doesn’t. What’s worse about the pacing are the rampant time skips. I know that the Light Novels do this as well, but it just feels…bleh. Between some episodes only a week may pass, then next maybe even an entire year! Showing the constant grinding that Kirito goes through may be boring indeed, but it lacks one major thing, character development. Two years, two entire years have been sent in the game and hardly anything has changed. The only major noticeable change within the world is that players have taken up more refined roles. I will get to character development in a bit.
The ‘death game’ situation places emphasise on the characters actions and relationships and how they try to survive. SAO doesn’t explore this enough. Sure there may be relationships built between the characters, but due to the somewhat short nature of the arcs (due to the Light Novel’s non-linear story) the only relationships that are key is between Kirito and Asuna and with Klein. But even then, the second arc of the anime, Alfheim Online has eliminated all death penalties. We do see many players ‘die’ throughout the first arc, most notably Sachi, but this death game is suppose to change people and mould them for the better, to realise how precious life is. Kirito does grasps this somewhat, with his guild’s death he distances himself away from people so he cannot let them down and have them killed.
If it isn’t the setting that people love, it would be the characters. Kirito- the badass warrior that kills everything, Asun- the perfect female character with every possible wife qualities, Yui- the loveable kawaii loli, and the other side characters. While Klein does appear more often than most others he too is there to juxtapose Kirito’s character. My grip with his character in particular, is the little growth the attains. Throughout the series we never see him struggle against enemies, he was always somewhat OP. Having a secret skill, one of the strongest swords and being a ‘beater’ he never has any physical growth or training that heroes would endure. Is this a refresher of the tried and tried formula? The fans seem to love, though they love anything SAO. Anyways, Kirito’s only progression is his belief in others, since blaming himself for the death of the Black Cats Guild he has somewhat evolved over the series. Meeting and marrying Asuna, fathering Yui for the short 2 episodes :/, and becoming friends with generally everyone. In ALO, which is set, i believe 6 months after the completion of the game, Kirito seems not to suffer any problems that someone would after being stuck in a place for 2 years. As i said, the pacing is bad and the finer details are left out, I mean even with therapy how would someone who spend 2 years in a fantasy world survive again in the real world? And what about School? And don’t mention how he isn’t reluctant to pick up another VRMMORPG, which the rest of the population is fine with as well.
Asuna herself seems to be perfect, I guess slightly too perfect. The perfect wife and the perfect husband, meh. I won’t go into further details about Asuna (since i do like her, haters gonna hate) but her character seems too rounded. I guess so does every character in the series. The antagonist himself doesn’t feel like a villain. He is barley mentioned in the series and pops up in the end of the arc and dies. Really? There is little build up to his character, there is no real hate towards him, he just appears and disappears. The second arc does actually have a spiteful antagonist, the typical creepy pervert with some money and power.
That is the majority of the problems, funny how it is all plot related. The pacing, the world’s detail, and some of the characters are the major downers. The plot itself isn’t bad, but the short arcs do derail it somewhat. For the anime’s animation and sound quality, it is quite good. The fight scens are quite fluid and the backgrounds are just gorgeous. The fantasy setting is indeed a big help to the visual asset and so is the art style. The character designs aren’t too bad and the monsters are indeed inspired by real MMORPGs. The fights scens can give Bleach a run of its money. The soundtrack itself isn’t too bad, with a couple memorable tracks and the Opening and Ending credits being a tad good. The voice acting, for an anime of this caliber is obviously quite well done.
To me, the reason why Sword Art Online is so damn popular, is due to its setting and how it resonates with MMORPG players. That’s the big reason, the setting. The characters I guess can be argued to be a plus and the visual and audio departments are above average. While the setting may be applauded, it suffers from poor plot pacing, inconsistencies with character development and a unrealised world. To its merit, the fans enjoy the fight scenes between the monsters and possibly other players. Some of the anticipation is done well and looks amazing. I guess the MMORPG aspect pulled enough people in and kept them there, the ones that left didn’t want to be part of that crowd of ‘casual’ viewers, but the series can be a blasts. But I do wish other projects can uncover the hidden potential in the series, but it is not done yet. Could the last 5 episodes deliver above expectations?
All in all, i do think the reaction to Sword Art Online is a tad overrated. I mean, its ranked higher than many classics such as Fullmetal Alchemist and Welcome to the N.H.K. It doesn’t deserve all the attention it is getting, and so far to me- its just a good anime. Its not eh best, its not awesome and neither is it the Twilight of Anime or just horrendous writing with fan service overtones (though, Suguha may have some extreme calibrations). The reaction isn’t as justified as it should be, and if everyone wants a recommendation on the anime, Watch it. Its enjoyable. I guess the ‘casual’ market will just like anything that seems cool and mirrors something else they like, in this instance MMORPG.
Sword Art Online is slightly overrated, tone down the love.