Every now and then, a very special kind of anime is released. An anime that manages to attract even non-anime viewers due to how popular it became, regardless of its actual quality. In 2012, that anime was Sword Art Online (SAO from now on). While there were some anime with a similar concept released before, like Hack//Sign, SAO was what popularized the “stuck in a video game” sub-genre. Everyone liked the concept, how high the stakes were, how cool the characters in it seemed, and most important of all, how badass the main character was. Heck, the way people talked about it made me watch it even though I was, at the time, stuck with the big three anime and refused to watch anything else. Unfortunately, other than the novelty that it presented at the time, as well as the cool-sounding premise, SAO ended up not delivering anything it promised. Nowadays it’s treated mostly as a joke in the anime community, and for a good reason: the attention it got, despite its mediocre quality, created a huge wave of anti-hype with the people that watched it after it was done airing, which resulted in it becoming one of the black sheep of the medium in the eyes of veteran anime fans. In this review, I will attempt to explain why SAO failed, as well as what could have been improved.
As I mentioned previously, the premise is pretty cool: in the near future, virtual reality became a thing and, of course, the MMO genre was extremely popular, going by the name VRMMO now. Sword Art Online was a very popular game at this time, and the favorite game of our main character, Kirito. After trying the game out a bit, the people who were playing SAO realize that they cannot log out. Soon the game creator appears and basically tells them that they need to complete the game, that is to clear all 100 floors of Aincraid, the game’s world, if they wish to escape. He also tells them that if they die in the game, the Nervegear, which is the equipment they use to dive into the game, would fry their brain, resulting in dying in real life as well. So the epic adventure begins with the players forming guilds, parties, and attempting to adapt to the life in the game as, at the same time, they try to fight their way through all the floors. To beat a floor, one must defeat its boss and only then can they go up. Doesn’t this sound extremely promising? I mean, the stakes are really high, you have to avoid dying at all costs since you won’t get a second chance, and the superb potential of the world building is out of this world! Of course, that’s just some wishful thinking right there, as the premise is where the praise for this anime ends.
Let’s start with the main character, Kirito. He’s a beta-tester of the game, and the author uses that to excuse how overpowered he is compared to other players. Heck he can take damage from a party of like 5 people at the same time and not even get a scratch.He got to play the game before the others, so it’s justified. Unfortunately that excuse is not only really bad in the context of the anime, as we’re never shown other beta testers who should be as strong as him, as it is really lazy since we’re never shown Kirito’s growth in power, so we just know his overpowered persona. In most anime the protagonist starts weak and they have to train to learn new things, and we as the audience grow attached to the character as we see them struggle. Heck even Naruto does that right. In SAO, however, the author prioritizes making Kirito look cool rather than making him a good character. This is evident when he makes all the girls automatically fall for him, when he makes him defeat huge groups of people without taking damage, and when he shows how over confident he is right in the second episode. And that’s the problem: there’s too much emphasis on how cool he is and none on his personality, flaws, development or even a good background. Since the anime skips 2 years into the future right away, all we get is a background from when Kirito joined a guild and ended up having his friends dying in front of him, which made him not want to join any other guilds, as he was afraid of losing more people. However that event that supposedly traumatized him so much doesn’t seem to affect him at all, throughout the anime, it just feels like the author is forcing it in the story to try and get sympathy for Kirito, but it just comes off as almost filler since realistically, it doesn’t add anything to his present-time character. At first it appears like the author is giving him a flaw, that he is anti-social like the whole “gamer stereotype”, but that flaw never makes him look bad in front of the audience or the rest of the cast. The fact that he is shown to the audience and to the characters of the anime as a perfect guy who can do anything only makes him a worse character in my eyes, as he becomes less interesting as you realize he will never struggle with anything. He is shown to be a victim of PTSD later on in the second season, but it just feels like an asspull because it wasn’t foreshadowed at all, and he spent a lot of time outside of SAO even in Season 1 where he displayed no signs of being traumatized for killing people in that game, so instead of adding to his character, it ends up being a pretty cheap way to make you care for him, once again. However there WAS an instance where the author could have developed his character a lot, and that was with the introduction of Asuna in his life. She’s the female main character of the show, and is introduced as a badass swordswoman who can fight alongside Kirito. Unfortunately until episode 20 of Season 2, she gets no characterization other than that, so she’s as bland as the main character himself. He seems to respect her though, and by episode 10 they’re basically dating. Their relationship is built quite nicely, but unfortunately after they start dating, it never gets mentioned again. I do appreciate how Asuna saved Kirito several times, and how well they complement each other, but the problem is: there is nothing more going on there. If they really wanted to introduce romance in this kind of series, it’s a wasted opportunity not to study how real or fake love in a virtual game is. Or just explore more of their interactions, anything really. Their relationship seems so out of place that it doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Despite me being quite harsh on these two main characters, the side heroines are even worse than Kirito and Asuna. They all have one episode dedicated to each, and they are represented by an archetype and their love for Kirito. I’m not kidding when I say that you can describe them all with a one-liner, and that’s being generous. They exist to make Kirito look cool, to make him look like he attracts all the girls, which ends up making them useless for those who could care less about that. They are also mostly irrelevant to the story, so they only exist to stall out time. There really isn’t much else to say about the characters that aren’t Kirito or Asuna… or is there? Yeah… the antagonist is just as bad as the rest of the cast. Not only did he trap 10.000 people in a game where they can die, he also FORGOT the reason why he did it. What kind of demented reason is this? A good antagonist should have a reason for doing what they do. Heck even saying that he was bored would be a better excuse, or just spend some time writing a backstory about how he’s studying something related to the human psyche. By saying that he forgot about what’s going on, it makes me think of all the sacrifices thus far as useless. It’s just, once again, a lazy excuse given by the author. The last notorious character is Yui which Kirito and Asuna adopt, and she’s just… there. I guess she was supposed to make them look more sympathetic by giving them the role of parents but at that point, it didn’t matter anyway. The cast in general is forgettable and uninteresting, which means the character aspect of the show is rendered completely useless.
Granted, the same can be said about Shinsekai Yori, and that one made up for it with its amazing world. Surely SAO is one of these plot-focused works that disregard the characters but have an amazing world that will make us question everything we think we know… yeah, right. The world, just like the characters, is a complete mess. First of all, the mechanics are so broken that it seems like they are always turned in favor of whoever the author wants them to. Author needs to make Kirito seem special? He gives him an ability that doesn’t exist in the game and only he can possess (of course it’s never explained why only he has it). He wants the antagonist to stand a chance against this Jesus character? He gives him immunity to all damage since he’s the creator! Not only that, but the mechanics of the game in terms of how well it functions as a MMO are never really explored, so the game feels really bland as well. They skip so many floors that we never get to see much of Aincraid in the end, and we only get to see 4 or 5 boss battles when there are 100 friggin’ floors. It just doesn’t feel anything like this huge world I’d love to be in, because I barely know anything about it. They try to insert some memorable places in the world like the wooden house where Kirito and Asuna live, but it just ends up backfiring because you’d like to see more about those places and the kind of lives people lead in them, but then it just skips to the next cool scene, giving you no time to get attached to anything. And then we have the epic final battle! Kirito battles the antagonist and if he wins, everyone who is still alive gets to leave. Of course Kirito and Asuna supposedly die but then end up being alive somehow, and Kirito manages to stab the antagonist just before he succumbs to his own lack of HP. Now as a player of MMOs myself, this final battle, and heck even the rest of the battles that were going on before, made NO sense whatsoever, and the fact that they died but then were alive at the end is just the cherry on top of the cake since it never got a decent explanation. I also want to quickly talk about the action scenes, which are all really lacking. They look good (as the production values are the one thing SAO does consistently right), but there’s little strategy involved, as the final battles always involve admin authority and aren’t written to be balanced at all. Even the regular boss battles don’t feel that good because most of the time it just feels like they are overpowering the bosses, and not even with numbers; but with Kirito’s and Asuna’s sheer force. In general terms, they are enjoyable, but not really up to par with the battles in other anime like Fullmetal Alchemist or Fate/Zero. That concludes the first half of the anime, extremely flawed throughout but rather enjoyable if you can tolerate its problems… and then comes the dreaded second part.
I’m not going to spend much time with this part since it basically has the same problems as the first part, except it’s not even enjoyable in the least, not to me anyway. The fact that this part exists, with a new world to explore instead of developing more of Aincraid, which as I mentioned was left really bland, is proof of how the author just doesn’t care about his own fictional world at all. Kirito wakes up, as well as everyone else that survived, except for Asuna who is still stuck in the virtual world. Kirito learns that he needs to go save her in the new game called ALO and thus goes to the rescue. This time the main heroine is Kirito’s cousin, who holds incestuous feelings towards him (of course). Asuna is shoved into the position of a damsel in distress that they need to save. Of course the same character that was portrayed as a badass woman who can fend for herself is now a reward for the main character to save. The new female heroine, Leafa (as is her in-game name), has nothing going on for her other than loving her own cousin. What, were you expecting a reason for that? This isn’t Chivalry of a Failed Knight, so you are looking in the wrong place. This time the goal is more straightforward: climb the giant tree that no one has been able to before, and rescue the damsel in distress. Of course Kirito is the one who accomplishes this feat, and the one who eventually reaches Asuna. Everything that comes before has no relevance on the characters other than slowly showing Leafa’s feelings for Kirito, and then the whole drama with her finding out the avatar she met in the game is actually the cousin she loves (how she didn’t recognize him or vice versa due to their personalities being similar to their real world counterparts is beyond me). This drama isn’t too interesting, though it IS healthy for Leafa’s character, since that’s the most characterization she’ll get. As for the new antagonist, he’s a guy who wants to marry Asuna, who can’t reject him because she’s asleep in the real world. Unlike the first part’s antagonist, who was composed at all times, this guy snaps every 5 seconds. He’s shown harassing Asuna by licking her or worse, and his facial expressions as well as general behavior makes it impossible to take this guy seriously. Of course he gets zero characterization and is left undeveloped like the rest of the cast, but that’s obvious at this point. Other than the drop in enjoyment and the fact that the problems in part 1 increased tenfold, there’s also the fact that the fanservice was out of control. One time Asuna was about to get raped by tentacles. Is this a poor-quality hentai? Did they really need to include that? It just goes to show how much they respect their own characters. The world itself is more interesting than Aincraid and gets more development, and the mechanics are also better explored, but unfortunately that’s not saying much, as it’s still not anything to brag about. The final confrontation with the antagonist is even worse than in the first part, as this time Kirito is overpowered by him, who of course uses admin privileges (writing a real satisfying fight takes time, after all… hard work, what’s that?), that is until the first game’s antagonist arrives, overpowers this antagonist by having stronger privileges than him, and then he gets defeated easily. Then he gets into a fight with Kirito in the real world and gets arrested, and that’s the end of his character and the story of the second part. So as you can see, not only did every problem from the first part return, they were much worse this time around, and the cool factor also disappeared since this time everyone seems to be a fairy and also there’s no danger in this arc, since nobody can die, thus making it a lot more boring. The first part of the second season also doesn’t do much better, as it’s the same logic (new heroine with a new fetish, an antagonist that wants to rape her, a world with mechanics that cater to Kirito, extremely bland characters… you get the point), but if you can survive long enough to reach the last arc of that season, you will get the only decent portion of SAO: Mother’s Rosario, where you get a good female lead and Asuna gets some development, and best of all: KIRITO BARELY APPEARS!
In conclusion, Sword Art Online is a terribly flawed anime that attracted a lot of popularity due to being a novelty at the time, and also because it caters to gamers by having a self-insert protagonist in a virtual game where the stakes are extremely high. It never delivered what it promised, leaving its characters barely developed and its world extremely bland. It does have its decent moments when the story focused on the despair of being stuck in a world where you can die at any moment, but when it shifted towards the cool aspect of the main characters and chose to ignore any development for said characters, it completely ruined itself. Many anime with similar concepts came after SAO, like Log Horizon, which focused on the slice-of-life aspect of it, Overlord , which focused a lot on the mechanics of the world and No Game No Life which focused on the cool aspect (and does it a million times better than SAO due to not taking itself seriously). Almost every anime that came after improved SAO’s formula, though it’s still far from being a successful sub-genre, as lots of the same problems remain. At the end of the day, SAO is an enjoyable experience and a great way to get into the medium, like I did, but once you watch other anime you’ll realize how its problems really weight it down, and despite me being thankful to it for ridding me of the curse of the big three, it’s not an anime that I can ever call good, as it’s not even close to that.
Thanks for reading!