Sword Art Online is a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (phew, quite a mouthful) where people “full dive” into the system. The game console is a helmet that intercepts brain waves to control the game’s avatars and to keep the player from flailing about their bedroom. There is a dark twist: on opening day no one can log out. The game’s creator descends like a god to announce that the game is real. If you die in the game, or someone tampers with the console in reality, the console (NervGear) fries your brain. The only way to escape is to beat all 100 dungeons.
2,000 people die in the first month.
The story follows Kirito as he strives to survive in the “game.” As a beta tester, he knows more about the game than most people. He uses this knowledge to solo the content. The knowledge also gets people who rely on him killed. Seeing people who depend on him die changes him.
Asuna is the heroine of the series. She is an equal to Kirito and the second in command of the most powerful guild in the game. Her guild is responsible for clearing the most dungeons. She often fights on the front lines. She and Kirito come to know each other through those desperate fights. Over time,the pair develops a relationship that challenges her loyalty to the guild and her desire to finish the game.
SAO is divided into two main arches. The second, on the surface, appears lighter hearted than the first arc. In many ways it is darker because of the subtle undercurrents the happier fascade hides. Whereas in the first arc, everything is clear. The second arc has unseen motives, virtual rape, and psychological damage.
Kirito and Asuna are both changed for the second arc. Kirito deals with trauma from the events of the first half of the story. Asuna never left the servers.
[Spoiler] Asuna’s character changes from being a strong-willed, capable equal to Kirito to literally being a caged princess. Part of this change in character is hinted at by the villain creating an avatar that makes her easier to control. The avatar is close to the villain’s ideal vision of Asuna. She still plays a vital role in her eventual escape, but the shift in character is jarring compared to the first season. It does suggest how powerful the NervGear technology is to be able to trap a person into a character different from their personality. [/End Spoiler]
Sword Art Online is filled with epic fights and lush environments. It does an excellent job creating a believable MMORPG feeling world. Sparks splash from weapons, and cuts are characterized by game-like polygon deformations. The watercolor painted environments are vibrant. The use of CG is subtle and barely noticeable against the fluidly animated characters. The score does an excellent job building tension. This anime has many tense and surprising moments.
Kirito and Asuna along with their friends are nicely characterized. They are fairly stereotypical: Kirito is the dour loner for example. However, they come to life in ways that few anime seem to accomplish. Kirito and Asuna’s characters remind me of Renton and Eureka from Eureka Seven. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed this anime as much as I did. The characters’ reactions to their situations was realistic: disbelief, denial, anxiety, rage, and suicide. You find it all in SAO. The deep psychological trauma looks darker against the seemingly peaceful environment.
The series deals with many concepts and questions that I will address in another Sword Art Online post.
Sword Art Online is one of the best anime I’ve seen in a while. It has problems here and there. Sometimes the pacing feels a bit hurried, but that can be purposeful since it feels similar to the pacing a game has. The characters are complex, believable, and enthralling. Asuna is refreshing, even with her character change in the second arc. The battles are lenticular (I was going to use “epic” but the word has lost much of its meaning. The battles are certainly chaotic too) and tense. Even if you are not a fan of MMORPGs there is a lot in this series to engage you. If you are a player, it will resonate.
I highly recommend Sword Art Online.