My favorite thing about animation as a medium is its ability to create imaginative, fantastical worlds that are either difficult or otherwise impossible to execute well in live action. The shows that catch my attention the fastest are the ones that take advantage of their medium.
That doesn't necessarily mean that a first episode has to be filled with flashy action in order to draw me in; a well paced, exciting but familiar premise with a unique twist can go a long way as far as I'm concerned.
Sword Art Online has caught my interest.
According to the opening few minutes of the first episode, in the year 2022 humanity manages to create the first fully 3D virtual reality world. Called Sword Art Online, this MMORPG only launched with 10,000 copies on the market, effectively limiting the amount of players who would be present in the first generation of the game. Kirito is a former beta tester for the game, excited to dive into the real deal. Unlike the majority of the new players, he understands the gameplay and the game world extremely well, which leads newbie warrior Klein to ask him for some help. The two players bond over how beautiful the game world of SAO is, before realizing that there is no manual way of logging out of the game. As concern and panic start to set in, they are automatically teleported back to the beginning city where the rest of the players have been gathered.
The sole creator of the game, Akihiko Kayaba, appears in the sky as a giant hooded creature, declaring that the lack of a log out option is intentional. He goes on to explain that if their virtual reality devices are manually removed from their heads in the real world, the machines are set to emit high energy microwaves, frying the user's brain and killing them immediately. Additionally, if players are killed within the game world itself, they will also die in the real world. Kayaba announces that over 200 players have already died and real world news outlets have already caught on, meaning the chances of the remaining players dying via microwaves is fairly low. Kayaba distributes a special mirror item that forces all the player avatars to reflect their real world personas, making the situation hit that much closer to home. The only way to log out of the game? Proceed to the 100th floor of the game and defeat the final boss. Easier said than done.
All things considered, the first episode of Sword Art Online was a rather quiet affair. The majority of the run time was dedicated to Kirito helping the newcomer Klein get accustomed the world of SAO and the way in which the virtual reality system works. As a result, A-1 Pictures has the time and energy to dedicate toward building the world up, explaining how things operate and drawing some stunning backgrounds and locales. While there's not a lot of action in this first ep, the artistry on display is extremely solid and if the opening animation played with the end credits is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to.
Fresh off of her run on Fate/Zero, Yuki Kajiura graces Sword Art Online with her A-tier musical splendor, capturing the sense of discovery and wonder that Kirito and his new friend Klein are experiencing. The importance of music in a show like this cannot be understated; Yuki Kajiura's score undoubtedly elevates the quality of this opening episode.
I was worried that Sword Art Online would come off as a .hack clone in some ways, but it does a good job of immediately differentiating itself via the central conflict. This virtual world was designed from the ground up to kill the players; everything that's happening is entirely intentional. It's also not an isolated event either. All 10,000 of the people logged into the game are trapped until they either die or beat the game. If that's not a grim situation, I don't know what is.
Which brings me to my final point; this first episode is much darker than I was expecting. Coming off of .hack where characters slipped into a coma when they were killed in-game, having Kayaba announce that hundreds of players had already died within the opening hours of the game was a bit of a shock. Even more rattling was the post-credits sequence in which the cold, emotionless text declares that over 2,000 players died within the first month of play. This is clearly a series that isn't going to shy away from people being killed, which lends the whole concept a feeling of desperation that .hack never really had.
Sword Art Online's first episode takes its time and in doing so allows the audience to grow to like Kirito and Klein. Hell, I found myself hoping that Klein wouldn't get killed by the end of the episode due to his role as a secondary character. I think this kind of pacing is going to benefit the show in the long run. A-1 Pictures has done some solid work in the past and if they keep up what they've started here, this could very well be the standout action series of the season.
I'm definitely looking forward to more.
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