I’d suggest picking it up when you’re in the mood for something simple and familiar, when you just want to sit back and be entertained for a while without thinking too much about it.
“This is the WORST anime EVER!” “OMG this anime is SOOO AMAZING!” *sigh* Okay…well, if Sword Art Online is anything it’s divisive. People seem to just love this show or loath it with a passion that I, frankly, marvel at. As with most things that receive sentiments like those, it’s probably somewhere in the middle. The problem with reviewing this particular anime is that it is very much like people’s opinions about it: Its highs are pretty high, but its low points are quite low. However, I shall endeavor to write a useful and dispassionate review for this anime that is at the same time exceedingly popular and deeply reviled.
First off, it must be noted that SAO’s first season is divided into two major arcs. I will be reviewing these separately because their quality differs by a large margin. During the 1st arc, we are introduced to the beautiful world of the game Sword Art Online, a Virtual Reality MMORPG. All five senses are recreated and you control your character with your thoughts – a perfect virtual world. However, this game quickly becomes much more as the game’s creator announces that everyone is now trapped inside the game and to make things much worse: should your avatar be killed in-game, your body dies IRL. Not a completely original concept but it is executed relatively well I thought. The rest of the story involves Kirito, the protagonist, meeting new people and trying to beat the game in order for everyone to escape. There’s little of anything totally unique to the story. However, for the most part, it’s entertaining, there are some quite decent action scenes and it has a great romance. The anime does do a nice job of raising the question of the difference between what happens in the virtual world and the “real world.” Is what happens in-game really any “less real” then life outside? Is your life outside superior to your virtual one?
The second arc (taking place in a new VRMMORPG) however, devolves into a quite clichéd damsel-in-distress type story. Most of the interesting characters we’ve met in SAO are abandoned and we’re left with a fairly drab and forced narrative, with a sort of “game-ex-machina” ending. So while I actually praise the first arc as a fun if not completely original anime worthy of watching, the second arc leaves much to be desired. If I could rate them separately I’d probably give the first arc an 8/10 and the second a 5/10.
Once again, we’ve got some good characters and some not so good ones. The protagonist, Kirito, is pretty much your typical anime lead: Good guy, OP, loner who eventually opens up, willing to sacrifice himself for others…yada yada. Nothing special, nothing terrible. His female counterpart Asuna, comes off as a typical tsundere at first but it feels like her character gets fleshed out a bit better over time. I liked how they put a strong, powerful, and self-sacrificing female character alongside the male MC. Though I can also see how that might read as redundant. Their romance together was a highlight for me. However, later in the series they basically gut her character completely and leave her little more than a McGuffin. Most of the other characters are fairly forgettable. I will give the show credit though, for creating a villain (in the second arc) that I truly reviled and during certain scenes made me feel completely disgusted. That’s not always easy to do so props to SAO for that.
Except for a few hiccups here and there I actually thought the pacing was quite good. If you’re expecting non-stop action you’re not going to find it but I thought it had just enough to stir things up when they needed to be. Once again, the first arc is better at this than the second.
The Dub VAs overall did a nice job. Cherami Leigh as Asuna was probably my favorite. I thought Stephanie Sheh (love her voice or hate it) was perfectly suited for little Yui and Todd Haberkorn (a VA who I usually am not a fan of) did a nice job with the sleazy, villainous Sugou Nobuyuki. My main criticism is actually with Kirito’s VA Bryce Papenbrook. A lot of his lines felt forced, especially during the more intense scenes.
If SAO excels anywhere it is most definitely the animation. Some of the locations, especially in Aincrad are strikingly beautiful; rendered excellently with a nice rich color palette. Conceptually, I also like the fact that the armors/costumes for each character, while they might change (as you’d expect is an MMORPG) always had a thematic look that was unique to the important characters.
Despite the seemingly harsh criticisms, especially concerning the second arc, I actually do think SAO is worth watching. It certainly doesn’t make my best ever list and it doesn’t have the most complex characters or much of a unique story. But it is entertaining and I did find myself getting sucked in, despite its obvious flaws. I’d suggest picking it up when you’re in the mood for something simple and familiar, when you just want to sit back and be entertained for a while without thinking too much about it.
If you enjoyed S.A.O or would like something similar, i would definitely recommend that you watch S.A.O. Online II