|Interesting premise, good main character, solid main romance, good conclusion||Second half isn't that compelling, bit rushed at times.|
I will say outright that this review is based on what happened in the anime and with next to no knowledge of the novels. When series are being adapted from a source material the experience is going to differ to some degree if you are familiar with the material. All I can do here is judge Sword Art Online as I saw it and let everyone draw his or her own conclusions.
I certainly had plenty of expectations for this series when it was announced. It made me think back to series like .hack and how I enjoy the fantasy genre. Although, this series turned out to be more modern in the sense that the worlds they were in were virtual MMOs (Massively multiplayer online game). Even still, I felt the first half of this series did a great job pulling you into the world and explaining the basics and various systems in the world. I honestly liked the early part of the series, because it did show these adventures but also gave you pieces of information along the way. You got to see how the main character Kirito had been affected by his experiences in that world and why he stayed a solo character for so long.
This really was a tale of two series though and that has to be taken into consideration. The first half was all about the titled world of Sword Art Online. It was the kind of intense experience you might expect from people trapped in a game world. Unlike some worlds where a main character might be sucked into a fantasy setting, this was the kidnapping of 10,000 people. Some experienced gamers, some casual players, and some people who were completely new. How would people respond to being held captive like this with their only hope being to clear 100 floors?
I enjoyed this first half for the social aspect. It made sense to me how some people adapted to this situation. For many people it was just easier to hide out in the first town. Of course, there are going to be people too terrified to leave and put their lives at risk. Its one thing to set out and play when you are new, but it is another when you will die if you mess up. Then you had the people braving the front lines and trying to actively clear this game so they can all go home. Between those extremes were people who just found a place to live in peace, people who were trying to level but were not at the front lines, and those who played the supporting roles. At times, I really considered this series as one where people went to war. People are going to experience many things and some will be broken by the experience.
The first half of the series story wise was great. I think the series did a good job showing character development for Kirito while advancing the story along the way. Now, the second half of the series just suffered from what I felt was a weaker story. The conflict felt smaller in comparison to the first half. It also shifted the focus much more over to Kirito’s sister, Suguha. I didn’t feel like Kirito really grew a great deal during this second half of the show since the focus was split more. For reasons connected to the plot itself, the world just felt a bit less engaging. It was still a beautiful world, but I didn’t feel as drawn in as before.
The second half just felt much more straight forward in comparison to the first half. Fewer twists were thrown our way and you could see many of the conflicts coming this time around. Still, even when I expected some moments to happen they still managed to make me care. I just feel that they did what they could with a story that was not the most complicated. The easiest way to look at it is as a long conclusion. The problems that need to be tackled in this second half have a lot to do with taking care of problems that came from the first half. Whether it is Kirito’s relationship with his sister or just wrapping up what could be seen as loose ends. The series does conclude on a good note. It handles the end of a series the way you wish more series would. Make it feel like a conclusion if you never had another season of the show. You are not cutting out the possibility of a sequel, but you are not leaving people saying, “Where’s my sequel” if it never happens. Do not include the cheap hooks to another season if it’s not 100% guaranteed to happen.
Now, with all this talk about the story I might as well talk about characters. Honestly, there is one main character in this series. It is the Kirito show and there is no doubt about that. Many of the early episodes had a duo kind of feel with Kirito x [insert character of the week here]. The story often had Kirito interacting primarily with one person; though after a certain point that one person was often Asuna (the female lead). I honestly liked Kirito as a character. Some people might say he is too perfect, but I do not agree with that. You have a guy who goes through many bad experiences. The one thing he has to rely on is his knowledge of games and how to become a strong player. It is a game world; his skills and strength are going to be dependent on factors and numbers. He is strong because he knew what to do in order to become strong.
However, power is not all that Kirito is about here. I think the series (especially in that first half) does a great job showing how he changes slightly over time. He comes in as a gamer that is not great with people, but is still a kind person. Time and those experiences add a lot of weight onto him that shows in what I think is a post-traumatic stress disorder. By the end when you see how he fights you can understand how he got to that point. He does show moments of weakness and hesitation, which only makes him more human in my mind.
Another important character would be Asuna. Of course, she is important because of her interactions with Kirito, but also because she does have her own strengths and weaknesses. There are times when she does need someone to step in front and protect her a bit. At times, she needed to be rescued. But through all of that Asuna showed that she was willing to jump in when needed and that she had a great deal of courage. You don’t see it as much as with Kirito, but Asuna certainly changes a great deal from the early episodes to the end. Through her you see how some might react to being thrown into a death game and having to find a way to survive without rotting away in a starting town.
Of course, Suguha was practically a main character herself in the second half of the show. Her relationship with Kirito is hinted at a bit early in the series, before she takes center stage. Honestly, while I could see many of her issues coming, I still liked her character quite a bit. Here you had a girl who really tried not to cause problems for others and to deal with her own issues. Sometimes you need to rely on others, but I can respect those who know when they need to carry things alone.
When it comes to the meat of the series (characters and story), I think Sword Art Online did a lot of good things. Now, it was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The early episodes while necessary in how they were handled did have a rushed feeling to them. If they had 30+ episodes then I would have liked to see more fleshing out of the smaller stories. Again, I felt the second half was less compelling and predictable. However, despite those weaknesses, I really found myself eager to watch the upcoming episode. The series gave us a few epic fights, though they were not very long affairs. I can look back at this show and think of the great moments this series had. No regrets about watching this series.
I will say the music was a personal highlight to me. For those epic battles, I think the music was just outstanding. They had tracks that really added to the tension of the scenes. Then when the fights just went into their peak moments, the music again kicked in to make those fights memorable. Overall, I thought the music in the series did a good job and usually fit the moment. Whether it is those sad moments or the epic battles, the music just seemed to come through.
Visually the series was solid. They did a great job with those grand backgrounds. It just made the world seem huge and a beautiful place. The kind of thing that you wish the technology existed to make these games possible right now.
The battle scenes sometimes had too many still shots that I was not a fan of. Always better to actually have the whole fight animated and in motion. Still, there weren’t that many fights like that and the best ones really did have things moving. The quality was solid and I don’t think it was a bad looking show by any stretch. They did a nice job making it look very game-like, if that makes any sense. The nice little menus the players had to use, the animation when items were taken out of their inventory, etc. They did a good job making it feel like these people were trapped in a virtual world.
At the end of the day, I think Sword Art Online was a good series. From an anime-only perspective, the series created an entertaining adventure that I enjoyed watching. If you are looking for a fantasy/action series then this is worth looking into. I think virtual gaming worlds like this are interesting because they aren’t that out of reach of our imaginations. It’s easy with a series to focus too much on nitpicking at things. My gut feeling is that this was a fun series to watch and one I’m bound to watch again soon.
This is definitely one of my favorites from this year. It was a pleasure to blog every week and I’m a bit sad that it is over now. This show had some of those “wow” moments that makes it memorable. A series I can easily recommend to people and one that falls into that A range.