Getting Lost on the Way to Log Out: Sword Art Online

Thanks to the wonder of getting my own Netflix subscription, I finally have access to so many anime series that I never would’ve watched before. One of these shows was the anime adaptation of a popular light novel known as Sword Art Online.

Copyright © 2012 by A-1 Pictures
Copyright © 2012 by A-1 Pictures

In 2022, Kirito is a young man who, like thousands of his peers, has become a skilled beta tester for a virtual reality MMORPG called Sword Art Online (SAO). However, on launch day, the game’s creator traps every player inside the virtual world, demanding that they fight their way to the final level and beat the game in order to reenter the real world. To survive and triumph, Kirito partners up with an equally talented female player named Asuna, with whom he finds love and a few answers about the madness driving this whole plot.

For the most part, what struck me most about this anime was (naturally) the animation. From its sharp lines and fluid color shadings to its detailed monster and player designs, it really is quite lovely to look at. For the most part, it’s a standard fantasy landscape of villages and beast-filled countrysides. However, what balances this out is the detail of the in-game controls and stats, which make this stand out as a show about roleplaying games.

However, the cast doesn’t quite pull me in. Kirito should be interesting as our protagonist, who has a prior knowledge of the game as a beta tester, but he just becomes another generic fantasy hero for most of the series. The same goes for Asuna, who could have been interesting if they’d played up the lone wolf dynamic from her first appearance, but she pretty quickly devolves in the standard action girl love interest for our dark, brooding male hero. As the show went on, I stayed sympathetic for these characters, but they didn’t exactly stand out against the backdrop of their fairly generic fantasy world.

I think the biggest problem I had with this series is that it never quite delivered on its original premise. It’s supposed to be a major shock when the game’s creator cruelly traps thousands of players inside the virtual world, forcing them to literally win or die. The players all have families and lives outside the game, which they no longer can touch or feel. But the show never took any steps in this direction. We never learned why the creator did what he did and we don’t see what the real world’s reaction to this horror is like. I would have loved to have seen a real-world subplot throughout the series. Perhaps a tech specialist trying to work around the virtual barriers and free as many minds as possible, forming some bridge between the two worlds.

Ultimately, even with an intriguing premise and high-quality animation, I felt like Sword Art Online is a bit of a mess. It never follows through on its own premise and devolves into a pretty standard fantasy shonen anime, albeit with one or two nods to MMORPGs. It could’ve been great, but it took a few too many hits and its life meter is reading critical.

The English dub and broadcast of Sword Art Online is available through Aniplex of America.

Bibliography: Sword Art Online (anime). Directed by Tomohiko Itō. Based on the light novel by Reki Kawahara. A-1 Pictures (studio). Aniplex of America (US distributor). Adult Swim (Toonami). Original broadcast: July 7, 2012December 22, 2012.


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