For several weeks I’ve been getting back into Anime after leaving for a few years. In the process of getting back in, I’ve generated a backlog that grows every single day, so this week I took on Sword Art Online after having heard people talk about it. So far, I’ve enjoyed it enough to warrant a pilot article.

Full disclosure here: I haven’t read the Manga or seen anything other than the Anime version.

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The Good:

This series wears its heart on its sleeve when it comes to the “life in a video game” synopsis, in that the series goes out of its way in the original story arc to adapt common MMO tactics and tropes into the story. Every character in the game ranks up a single (or a few) skills as the original arc continues... pretty much like a modern MMO tends to work. Even the main character is incapable of pulling the jack-of-all-trades card. The parallels go deeper than that of course, with nods to tanks and popular tactics that are associated with them.

Getting back to the point, this franchise is loyal to the concept of an MMO. We’ve all seen TV shows that have gone off-the-rails whenever the concept of gaming is mentioned (I’m looking at you American television). Somehow I found this entire series to be refreshing in that respect. Jokes about game lag (seen below) and other commonalities are great.

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Kirito: “You lagging?”

Other than that, the cast does an excellent job. The supporting characters are amusing in their quirks and mannerisms. Each is a hero of their own story and, while they can be troperific, all exist in such a way that just works.

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You might be wondering how the main characters size up next to the supporting characters. Suffice to say that both Kirito and Asuna are well rounded characters that each have their own set of flaws. Kirito is a laid back but determined loner that has survivor guilt for much of the Aincrad arc, and Asuna is a strong female character that is solely focused on getting back to reality at first in the Aincrad arc. A bit safe to play it at the end of the day, but a workable combination indeed.

The Great:

The story revolves around our main character Kirito becoming trapped in the world of Sword Art Online when the creator takes the logout function away. The creator also mentions that if you die in the game, you’ll die in the real world. The only way out is for players to clear all 100 levels of the game in whatever way they choose. Effectively trapped inside the virtual but violent world of SAO, the players are forced to fight their way through 100 levels to get their freedom back.

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Early episodes seem to play this idea straight, with the first four episodes reflecting Kirito’s battles in the game. By the end of the fifth episode, the series shifts and starts to travel down a different path entirely. This ends up being the strength of the show.

The series slowly begins exclusively focusing on Asuna and Kirito’s relationship in this strange world. I thought alteration to make the main plot about the characters’ relationship made for a strangely uplifting story, in that it explored how, uninhibited by the outside world, this relationship formed exclusively out of trust. Other themes in the relationship were omnipresent like protecting those you love, what exactly love is even if it’s virtual, and what you’ll do for that person when the time comes. It’s a nice character-driven story with a twist.

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This sort of emotion drives the Aincrad arc, and it ends up being a plus. It humanizes these characters in their impossible situation and makes their struggle all the more real.

The Bad:

Like every series in history, this has its bad.

The biggest bad I think is hardly the exclusive fault of the anime since it happens in the manga too. The Aincrad arc just ends too early in my opinion because the successive arc, the Alfheim arc, is just not that good.

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This is a rare case where a series actively lowers the stakes for the main character. When the players escape from SAO and our main character returns to the virtual world that is Alfheim, he is no longer in danger of dying when his virtual character does. Instead of the dire atmosphere of SAO, where every day you don’t get out could be another person dead, the sole driving force of the Alfheim arc is Kirito trying to get back Asuna.

It is a bit compelling if you’re invested in their relationship, but it lacks the necessarily compelling nature of Aincrad. Something is lost in the process. While I genuinely enjoyed the last-episode payoff of the series, it feels like Aincrad shouldn’t have been left that early. Sometimes it feels like it shouldn’t have been left at all, and that should have been the season.

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To me, that is the only “bad” of the season. The fact that the players escape Aincrad was the root of many problems later on in the season, so I’ll assign blame squarely there.

The Verdict:

Sword Art Online is a fascinating ride into the lives of two teenagers that are forced to grow up when faced with an impossible situation. How these two characters deal with the world of Aincrad lies at the heart of the series and it shows.

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Just for that, I find this series to be an excellent watch. If you’re into character-driven dramas, then this is for you. If you want an anime that thrusts our heroes into a brave new world, you’re probably good to look here. If you’re looking for a very serious piece that focuses on the journey from floor 1 to floor 100 in Aincrad, you won’t get it here, and it’s for the best.

This is part of my Anime Review Marathon that I began in October 2013 to record my thoughts as I watch a variety of anime on my ever growing backlog. These reviews won’t come out on a persistent basis, they’ll come out when I feel I have seen enough of a series to pass a judgement on it.

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You can see all my articles on Dex’s Corner by using the “Dex’s Corner” tag.

This review was updated and edited on 8/25/2015.

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