Before I get into the review today, I just want to have a minor celebration as this is my 150th anime series review (admittedly, I am counting the SAO abridged series review that I did so maybe this is actually review 149). Whichever way, I was tossing up between SAO and Psycho Pass but I think I want to wait a bit more before trying to review Psycho Pass so SAO it is. Thanks to everyone who keeps reading these, hopefully they are either helpful or entertaining.
I’m pretty sure everyone knows the story of SAO but essentially there’s a new game that uses technology that allows players to pretty much completely enter the game (or at least feel like they have) and on the day the game is launched the creator of the game essentially traps them all inside telling them they have to clear all 100 floors before they can log out. No problem then. Oh, and they’ll also die in real life if they die in the game due to some design in the equipment that allowed them to enter the game (because people are really likely to sell you a helmet that can fry your brain). Of course, that’s only the first arc and that takes up about half the season before we move into the second arc of fairy dance which is mostly about rescuing a Princess in a cage.
In case I seemed overly snarky in my overview, I’m just going to say this straight out, I love Sword Art Online. I get that the story has its flaws and that you could throw insults at most of the characters if you really, really wanted to, and yes there are some technical issues with the delivery of the show in some scenes while others are really beautifully done which kind of leads to an inconsistent viewing experience, but you know what, none of that actually matters to me. I loved this anime from episode one and through the entire first arc. I completely and totally fell in love with the virtual world and with watching Kirito face each challenge and overcome it. To point out how much I loved it I will say I only have three anime plush characters and Kirito is one of them (the other two being Maka from Soul Eater and Sailor Jupiter from Sailor Moon). So while I will admit there are issues with this anime, this review is more of a reasons why something doesn’t need to be perfect to be good.
To be a bit logical about my approach I’m going to start with the plot. It is really incredibly simple and that’s fine. Here’s all these people trapped in a game that can kill them. Here’s the way out. Get from point A to point B and don’t die along the way. It can’t get much simpler. Of course with all of those different characters trapped in the game responding to this threat and challenge in different ways, there’s plenty of material to keep the story interesting even as the basic narrative works because it isn’t trying to be anything more than what it is. There’s no convoluted twists or surprise rules that come out of nowhere. Even Kirito admits SAO’s rules are always fair even when they suck. Although, that’s kind of what kills two moments in the first arc that should be really amazing.
The first is the reveal of who or what Yui actually is. Up until that point, the programs and the game have run incredibly smoothly and all in the way in which the one who designed the game intended. So Yui as a program being cut away from the players makes no sense. Why create her in the first place if you aren’t going to let her function? And if you decided you didn’t need that function, why not just delete her? More importantly, why can she act outside of her program at all? I know they try and do an exposition dump explanation for this but it really doesn’t work with the rest of the setting and plot and mostly just feels like they really wanted to add in a cute child for Kirito and Asuna, which certainly works but you kind of have to check your logic at the start of the episode to really accept that.
The second part that is kind of faulty is the end of the arc itself. Previously, Kirito had received an item that would allow a dead player to be revived within 10 seconds of their death (which didn’t help him at all given the character he’d been trying to revive was well past that). The implication being that between your health bar hitting zero and the game frying your brain you had a 10 second grace period. So what’s with the conclusion to the arc when Asuna clearly gets herself killed and Kirito then does his game breaking move to win the fight though it ends in mutual destruction and there’s Asuna waiting for him, not yet dead. If they are trying to say that sequence took less than 10 seconds they are seriously kidding themselves.
However, outside of those two issues where the rules the show itself has established seem to fall apart, the plot during the first arc is really well handled. We get the first episode where the world is established and we meet Kirito and Klein as they kind of stuff around and teach the audience the main game mechanics before we get the shock reveal that they are trapped. Then we time jump to the first boss fight which takes a major emotional toll on a lot of people. We keep time jumping for a bit given the series covers two years of time in half a season and we aren’t made to watch the players grinding. Instead we see the major events, we consider how they might affect the characters, and then we jump ahead and can see how the character has coped or not with previous events. For some, this method of narration is jarring and feels like a cheat, but to me it was kind of the perfect way to just get to the points we needed to see and yet still have that epic feeling of being trapped for two years. I honestly think seeing anymore of the boss fights or floor clearing would have been incredibly dull because they aren’t necessary to the overall character or plot development. Sure, they may have been cool fight sequences but without purpose it would just be filler.
Unfortunately, then we move into the second arc and while my bigger concern with Fairy Dance is the characters and how they are treated, the plot itself is needlessly cluttered. Essentially everyone was saved at the end of the first arc except for those players who weren’t. They just didn’t wake up. Turns out they are trapped in a new game as experimental subjects, except Asuna who has just been put in a bird cage. As I said, I have issues with the treatment of the characters but this plot is so incredibly unnecessarily complex. If you want to experiment on people you have heaps of people logging in and out of the game every day. Surely you could run a few tests on them, alter their memories a bit, and send them home. Why trap someone in the game world forever? More importantly, why run an experiment inside a game? Why not just move that data outside of the game world altogether and then no one could come and release them because they wouldn’t be able to ‘beat’ the game?
The other issue is that the events in Fairy Dance happen over an incredibly short period of time in the real world and it really felt like a story and scheme as grand (or insane) as that one, needed more time and to be properly fleshed out.
Basically, while I will rewatch the first arc of SAO endlessly, Fairy Dance isn’t anywhere near as interesting or compelling. The story is a victim of its own premise which was characters trapped and need to be free. End of first arc sees the characters get free. Its kind of done and no matter how you force scenarios after that to make dangers in the game world for them to face, the best story has already been completed. And that complaint could probably carry over to character development as well, particularly for Kirito. I like how he progresses during the course of the first arc but then he seems literally frozen in time after that just going through the motions of saving other characters.
But that’s kind of jumping ahead. Let’s wrap up plot. Regardless of whether this story has an intricate or deep plot, what SAO does is tell its story in a way that draws the audience in (and given the initial popularity of the show, even if people are on the hate wagon now, when it aired they were drawn in). The sweeping grandeur of the first episode is an effective hook and while events afterwards may not quite live up to that, they at least logically flow on for the most part and issues and complications are resolved in a meaningful way. Not to mention, it is fun. It’s fun in a way that other trapped in a video game stories haven’t really captured for me. Certainly there’s the high stakes threat of characters dying in both the game and the real world, but for the most part they are just kids bouncing around a video game world and it is fun to be a part of that.
Onto the characters then.
Okay, Kirito does gain quite the harem by the end but that’s in the most superficial sense of the word. It becomes quite clear early on that Asuna is the only one Kirito actually sees as a real person and not a ‘little sister’ or ‘damsel in distress’. So while he certainly helps the other cast members out and they certainly do follow him around there-after, it isn’t the usual harem like setting where the protagonist hasn’t made a choice. More importantly, even the girls themselves seems to realise Kirito has already made his choice and so seem fairly happy to take on that ‘little sister’ role. So with that out of the way, what is Kirito actually like as a character?
In episode 1 he’s great and a lot of the reason I was sold so heavily on this series. He’s a gamer cliché and what little we learn of his life outside of the game is that he has some issue with his family, spends a lot of time alone in his room, and is obsessed with games. he then enters the virtual world and we see him come alive. This resonated so well with me as I kind of had the same experience as a teenager where I just didn’t feel like I fit and games and stories were something that could make me feel alive. Despite being built off a cliche, they spend a bit of time showing us that while he is anti-social even in the gaming world, he does want some human connections so he isn’t willing to sever ties instantly with Klein but nor is he willing to take on Klein’s friends as part of his responsibility. The process of Kirito making the decision on how to act at the end of that first episode really made him feel real. He did make a rough call and he did end up abandoning everyone else to try to secure his own survival, but he’s a teenage boy who doesn’t get how to be around others in the first place. He was human enough to try to reach out and save Klein because he thought he could without exposing himself to unnecessary danger, but he wasn’t willing to risk his own life for strangers. It just made him a very believable person to me.
The time jumps after really do track Kirito’s progress as a character. While each event we see isn’t crucial to the overall plot, each event they jump to is crucial to the changes we see occurring in Kirito that take us from the guy who fled the town of beginnings by himself to the guy who challenged the creator of the game in order to save everyone. Every episode we see a slightly different Kirito. These aren’t massive changes or a totally reinvented character, but one who has experienced weeks/months/years in a death game and reflected on each of the previous encounters and grown from it. While he’s never going to be the biggest people person and his first priority remains his own survival (although you could argue he prioritizes Asuna’s survival over his own after about episode 10), he slowly learns to let people in.
Why is he so slow about it?
Because the first time he tries to join a guild and actually make friends his own indecision and poor judgement gets them all killed (or at least so Kirito thinks). It isn’t necessarily true because even if he’d told them how strong he was they might have still walked into that room and Kirito may have still failed to save them, but it doesn’t matter what the reality was it is more how Kirito views the situation. That may have been enough to stop Kirito ever letting anyone else in except that he receives Sachi’s message later on and that allows him a small window to move forward.
He doesn’t then just become champion of justice and all around good guy. We see through his encounter with Silica that while he’s acting the hero on the surface, he’s mostly just going through the motions. In fact, he’s been hired by someone who experienced the pain of seeing his friends killed and Kirito could relate so he decides to exact ‘justice’ given he can’t do anything about his own situation. Silica is initially just someone Kirito uses to achieve his goal however that encounter again changes him. Later episodes we see him actually seeing the person and finally actually caring about others.
Admittedly, the other characters in SAO don’t get a lot of love as the first arc at least is all about Kirito and his journey. There’s certainly a wide range of characters and each time we re-encounter them, they’ve changed a bit because of their own experiences but we don’t really know what they are so it has less of an impact. While Fairy Dance brings in some new characters, it is the core group from the original game that are the more interesting characters (amazing what putting a group of people through a near death experience will do to them).
However, something does need to be said about the villains both of the first and second arc. While the first arc one could argue doesn’t really have a villain and his motives remain fairly confusing, the second arc introduces a pure scum type villain who ends up being so cartoonishly over the top you can’t help but wonder if you are watching an entirely different show. The only real positive of the villain in Fairy Dance is the real world crisis that the villain presents to Kirito as it points out clearly that no matter how amazing Kirito gets at playing games he still can’t control the real world.
This has gotten quite long so I’m going to quickly go through the last few things. Visually, I love this anime. I like the look of the game world and the action is great. The equipment the characters have and the way the towns and cities operate just reminds you of being in a game world. I love the sound effects and music and think that really adds to the immersive experience of the show.
As I said at the beginning, I love this anime. I won’t try to tell you it has no faults and I won’t tell you that everyone should love it. What I will say is that this is a fun anime to watch and should be watched for fun. While it touches on some more complex issues, the basic narrative works because it doesn’t clutter itself up with too many different ideas. Basically, worth giving a go to if you like fantasy/action type anime. It may not work for you, but you may just find yourself having a lot of fun at least in the first arc.
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