There’s a certain series trend that has been around for a while now. A trend in Anime and Manga that tells tales of video games gone awry. Most of the time it revolves around virtual reality and the problems that exist in a world populated by those willing to spend more time in a game than in their actual lives. Most of these stories take place in a worlds that are, essentially, governed by technology. Having a world so intricately connected through invisible strings means that people can connect more than ever before but, as we’ve seen, it actually makes for a more socially disconnected generation of people. Now as much as I love video games and as much time as I spend playing them, I never want to experience something like ‘Sword Art Online’.
Imagine, if you will, logging on to your favorite Massive Multiplayer Online game using your brand-new virtual reality headset. You’re playing the game and it all seems so real! It’s amazing! Until a something terrible happens. Something that is, in all honestly, absolutely inevitable in such a vulnerable environment. All of the sudden you hear a message, one from the game’s creator. A message that basically tells you that you and everyone else currently online are stuck in the game. Now dying in the game means dying in real life and your only way out is to clear one hundred dungeon levels. That doesn’t seem TOO hard, until you’re told that these particular dungeon levels have never before been beaten. That is when you are sent into a state of panic.
That is when you’re properly introduced into the true face of this ‘online’ world. Welcome to ‘Sword Art Online’. This Anime series which comes to you courtesy of Australia’s own Madman Entertainment, follows the story of a young boy who goes by the screen name ‘Kirito’. Kirito first logged into ‘Sword Art Online’ as a better tester and has now returned for the official launch of the game. He knows his way around the combat system but I don’t think that will be enough to prepare him for the carnage and bloodshed that is to come.
Now that he’s trapped alongside thousands of other players, he must fight to survive. With a typical level of main character resolve, Kirito makes a decision; he has to train, get stronger and clear the hundred levels of ‘Aincrad’. If he has to do it alone than that’s just what he’s going to do. The series shows Kirito’s quest through the world of ‘Sword Art Online’ and then eventually into a similar but different game titled ‘Alfheim Online’. Throughout the first half of the series Kirito meets many people and develops a lot of relationships, not to say he doesn’t do this in the second half but no relationship is more important than the one he makes with Asuna. Kirito comes into contact with this young girl early in the series and, over the course of it, they fall in love.
The ‘Aincrad Arc’ of ‘Sword Art Online’, which was featured on the first two volumes of the series, was the better part of the overall series. What the ‘Aincrad Arc’ did was show an incredible level of character development. It wasn’t just Kirito and Asuna that grew together, realistic personality development was present in many of the characters. Overall, the story was very well written with the citizens of this virtual world eventually forgetting about their old lives and and living the way the game dictated. There were no longer any store clerks or salesmen, instead there were guards, generals, soldiers, blacksmiths. The citizens began to assimilate and live as well as they possibly could while the stronger players stormed the the levels of ‘Aincrad’ hoping to escape this world once and for all. The second half looses what was so great about the first half: Consequence.
When the story jumps from ‘Sword Art Online’ to ‘Alfheim Online’ it is absolutely noticeable and actually makes a lot of the present elements unnecessary and frankly…stupid. It’s a brand-new game, one where people are free to play as they please. They aren’t locked down, if they die in-game…they die in-game. That is all. Kirito, unfortunately, does have a quest that forces him to take the game just as seriously as he did ‘Sword Art Online’ but to tell you exactly why would be ruining it and I’m not here to wreck your Anime viewing experience. A constant element of ‘Sword Art Online’ (the series) are it’s visuals.Madman Entertainment provided blu-ray copies of each of the volumes so I was lucky enough to be able to watch the series in the perfect way. The series was originally released back in 2012 but it is so well animated that it looks almost like a series you’d see in a more recent season.
In fact, I’m watching the latest Anime season and only one or two shows outdo ‘Sword Art Online’ aesthetically. The series has a wonderful colour palette that allows it to almost literally pop off of the screen. When you’re shown such beautifully vibrant colours you can’t help but crack a smile and appreciate what is in front of you. The production team also implemented great deal of ‘sakuga’ animation so any time there was a fight scene or a situation with a particularly high level of urgency or gravitas, you were hit with some of the highest level animation an Anime series could produce. It was also clear that ‘Sword Art Online’ used ‘rotoscope’ animation too, but not too often. I kind of which they used it more because when they did…wow.
Fight scenes were incredible, literally some of the best I’ve ever seen. If only it wasn’t sandwiched by silly comments and an some unnecessary story developments. Each of the volumes comes with the option to watch the series in either Japanese or English. Both were great, with the Japanese winning over the English by only a nose. The English performances were very well done with most of the actors/actresses perfectly hitting the mark. There were times though when certain lines were delivered in a, let’s say, less desirable way. Luckily for the audience these ‘slips’ in quality are few and far between so it doesn’t take away from the series too much. I just couldn’t stand the lines that these actors were delivering, it wasn’t the way they said it, it was just what they had to say. Like I’ve mentioned a few times now; there were countless lines that were unnecessary, not to mention down right tacky. This was present more in the ‘Alfheim Arc’ than the ‘Aincrad Arc’.
The soundtrack was very well suited to the overall ‘Sword Art Online’ vibe. It featured fantasy-style tracks, the likes of which you would probably hear while playing through a ‘Final Fantasy’ title, but it also featured songs that fit into more contemporary genres like rock. An Anime is like a puzzle, each piece has to fit into the next and if one doesn’t fit it means it doesn’t belong which makes the puzzle incomplete. ‘Sword Art Online’ fell victim to this just slightly with it’s story (and somewhat it’s dialogue) but as far as overall audio and visuals go; they paired up magnificently.
It’s definitely one hell of an Anime spectacle, to say the very least. Anime releases nowadays don’t often come with many extras or special features. It’s the reality of the new generation but it is still something I don’t entirely like. I lit up when I saw that each of the ‘Sword Art Online’ volumes came with a set of seven postcards, each of which featuring a piece of ‘SAO’ art by what looks to be fans. Each artwork is done in a different style with none of them seeming to overlap so I can only assume it is either artwork submitted by fans or pieces done by members of the production team.
Regardless, they’re a fantastic feature of the release seeing as none of the volumes feature any on-disc extras apart from the typical opening and closing sequence as well as trailers for other series’. Look, reader, ‘Sword Art Online’ is a massively popular Anime series and there definitely IS reason as to why it is held in such high regard. The reason I found things wrong with the series is simply because it is my job to. I’m a writer, I’m a reviewer, if I see something that doesn’t quite fit I HAVE to talk about it. As a general Anime fan, I loved the series. As a critic, I enjoyed it but I saw it’s many blemishes.
It is true what many people say about ‘Sword Art Online’; the first half IS better than the last but there’s still a high level of enjoyment to be found the entire way through. If you’re not willing to watch it for it’s story, at least watch it for it’s brilliant aesthetics. ‘SAO’ pushed me away with it’s dialogue but continuously brought me back with a well-choreographed, well-animated fight scenes that just blew me away. I assume it will be the same for you. There’s much to be gained from ‘Sword Art Online’, just don’t think about it too hard when you watch it. The best way to experience the show is to simply accept what you see. Enjoy it with your heart, don’t cross-examine it with your mind.
You can purchase the volumes of ‘Sword Art Online’ through Madman Entertainment’s online store. Each volume is listed below: