Oh Sword Art Online, I had such high hopes for you. I had always been a fan .hack and its deadly MMORPG premise. I had hoped that somebody would come around to the concept again, so one can imagine how quickly SAO showed up on my radar.
It started off decently enough; the first two episodes were compelling despite some odd narrative issues. But as the weeks wore on, the show began to collapse under the weight of its flaws.
Anyhow, follow me after the break as I say goodbye to Sword Art Online.
[As a short disclaimer, I'd like to point out that I've read about half of the light novels that the Sword Art Online anime adapts. I'm more than aware of the differences between the two versions.]
With episode 24 wrapping up the Alfheim Online arc, episode 25 serves as a closer, tying up the loose ends that had been piling up. Kirito makes his way to the hospital to see Asuna, but is interrupted as Sugou confronts him with a knife. Facing death in the real world, Kirito manages to pull a fast one and snatch the weapon away from his insane opponent. Holding a knife up to Sugou's throat, our hero spares his life and reunites with Asuna. Months later, all the old SAO players are now in rehab and back in school.
One day after school, the whole crew decides to gather at Agil's bar for a reunion party. Taking Sugu with them, Asuna and Kirito meet up with the others only to find that the get-together is actually to celebrate Kirito completion of Sword Art Online. Poor Sugu feels out of place since she never had anything to do with the original game, but our hero won't have any of that. After the party ends, everybody meets up in Alfheim Online to witness the return of Aincrad, the giant castle that kept them imprisoned for two years. Despite how many horrible memories were born due to the SAO incident, that giant floating building was their home, so everybody heads back to clear it from top to bottom, once and for all.
And they all lived happily ever after. Or something.
it's finally over. I came into this series so excited only to find myself scratching my head over the ludicrous choices made throughout the production. I suppose in the interest of fairness, I should get the positive stuff out of the way first. See? It's not all bad!
On the whole, Sword Art Online was a fairly great looking production. Action sequences were relatively few and far between, but when they popped up, they were a blast. Stand out scenes include Kirito's first brief duel with Heathcliff, his battle with General Eugene, and the confrontation with the army of guardians toward the show's end. Lavish and filled with lovingly exaggerated movement, I'd argue that these moments made the series worth watching. If nothing else, find a way to watch these specific action scenes.
There were some moments when the animation quality or artwork took a dip, but it was never for any extended period of time. A-1 Productions pulled out all the stops with this one. One complaint I do have however, is how poorly handled the Skull Reaper battle was in episode 13 and 14. An action sequence that should have been deeply engaging and stressful was instead cut down to a minute or so of real fighting. Reduced to a series of still frames and bright flashes of light, the Skull Reaper encounter is a rushed sequence that served no real purpose in this adaptation. If that isn't a missed opportunity, I don't know what is.
Musically, the show was somewhat hit or miss. Coming off of Yuki Kajiura's excellent Fate/Zero score, it felt like she was sort of phoning it in on SAO. One specific theme was used over what felt like every single action sequence in the entire show. Kajiura is capable of amazing things, but I don't think anybody will ever look back at her work here when discussing her best material.
Where things begin to fall apart is in the overall writing of the show. Plagued with plotholes and deus ex machina, Sword Art Online is a mess of ideas and characters that never truly come together. Our main protagonist, Kirito, is essentially an invincible Batman who somehow seems to have all the luck in the world. Guess what! He's a super player who also just happens to have the rare dual blade ability! Ok, I can turn the other way on that one. Oh hey! Even after being stabbed and losing all of his HP, he's capable of killing Heathcliff with his sword! Yeah, that's a load of crap. What's that? Alfheim Online has no protective measures in place to prevent Kirito from using a digital ID card to access the backend of the game? Wait, what?
SAO also made the big mistake of spending most of its first half introducing characters that would never again play any kind of important role in the series. Lizbeth and Silica were pointless inclusions, and the fact that they both fall madly in love with Kirito made their presence even more groan worthy. The need to make every female character fall in love with Kirito really hurt the story. Hell, even the original novel author, Reki Kawahara, admitted to being incapable of writing a female character who doesn't fall in love with Kirito. Sadly, the male supporting cast doesn't fair much better. Klein and Agil, two characters I really liked in the first arc, barely have a role to play, functioning as what felt like cameo characters.
Yet for all of the first arc's problems, the series only truly began to collapse upon itself once we entered Fairy Dance, the second major arc in the SAO narrative. The introduction of Sugu, Kirito's little sister, immediately set off red flags. Unfortunately, my gut feeling was entirely correct. Sugu, like every other female character in the entirety of Sword Art Online, is madly in love with Kirito. Yes, he's actually just her cousin, but I'm sick of shows playing up the easy incest angle instead of trying to write a convincing sibling relationship. Instead, we get to spend half of the series watching Sugu lust after her brother in both the real and digital world. Given Asuna's presence in Kirito's life, this romance is a dead end and a waste of time. As much as both Reki Kawahara and the staff of A-1 want us to think Sugu is a compelling character, no amount of putting her in the spotlight can make her interesting.
Fairy Dance commits the egregious crime of spending most of its time following Kirito and Leafa as they do pointless things. The whole first half of the arc sees our duo travel across the land, only to have them double back to fight a random battle to save some in-game races from going to war. That's all well and good, except for the fact that the audience has no attachment to Alfheim Online or its denizens. Unlike the Sword Art Online game, there are no real consequences for losing or death, making each battle or encounter that much less gripping. It's ok if Kirito is killed, because he'll just respawn anyway. Why should we care that the races are on the brink of war? There's no real life repercussions, which robs the event of any kind of organic drama. I'm of the firm belief that moving on from SAO was a poor idea, because nothing will ever match the edge of your seat nature of that original set up.
I could talk for hours about the many problems that plagued Sword Art Online; ridiculous character tropes, poorly written female characters, creepy rape antics, ridiculous villains and the like. I know a lot of you folks really enjoyed this series, and hell, I stuck with it to the end despite how poor I think it is. Nonetheless, I have to be honest. The first two episodes did an admirable job of setting up an extremely interesting universe, but I think that Sword Art Online squandered a fantastic concept. I hate to say it, but it's probably the most disappointing show I've watched all year. If you're craving a 25 episode action/adventure series with a great cast of characters, I would highly recommend looking elsewhere.
This is not the show you're looking for.