Sword Art Online (part one) is a DVD release from Manga Entertainment, which contains the opening seven episodes of a series that adapts Reki Kawahara’s light novels into anime form. The show focuses on a newly launched online roleplaying game named (yes you guessed it) Sword Art Online. Unlike games like World of Warcraft, which are played with a keyboard and mouse, Sword Art Online immerses players in a fantasy world via the use of virtual reality technology. Although replacing a traditional controller for a VR headset sounds cool, you may want to cancel that Oculus Rift pre-order because if this series is to be believed the use of such gizmos carry an inherent risk.
On the first day of the game’s release it is revealed that Sword Art’s creator is suffering from a serious case of God complex. Much to the players’ dismay, SAO’s developer announces that he has disabled the system’s log out command, effectively trapping their consciousness in the game. If the MMO’s players wish to return to their comatose real world bodies they’ll have to clear SAO’s tower, which contains one hundred floors filled to the brim with traps and monsters. This would not be so bad were it not for the fact that the game’s safeties have been disabled, so players who die in the game will also cease to live in the real world. Gulp. I’m glad that my PS3 collection doesn’t function in the same way. I wouldn’t be around to type this review if titles like the rock hard Dark Souls murdered you just for getting a Game Over.
The series follows the adventures of Kirito, one of Sword Art’s trapped players. With no hope of rescue from the outside world (as it is revealed early on that removing someone’s VR helmet will fry their brain, much like a convict sentenced in Texas) we watch as he gradually fights his way past the tower’s many challenges. Although initially presented as a bit of a loner, who favours soloing over grouping with others, he’s actually a pretty friendly guy -which is just as well, given how his relationship with the other players is what drives the show forward.
Despite all this talk of virtual reality and other fancy technology, the series feels like a fantasy anime as the action is focused squarely on the medieval world Sword Art Online’s servers are running. The stories will have Kirito and chums clearing out dungeons, smacking kobolds and acquiring rare magical items. At first glance the show doesn’t come across as being especially deep, but the number of touching episodes included in this first DVD surprised me. Highlights include Kirito helping a girl find a flower that can revive her pet dragon, a tale were Kirito teams up with a blacksmith who develops a crush on him and a bittersweet yarn were the protagonist abandons his soloing ways to temporarily join a guild of low levelled players.
I’m giving part one of Sword Art Online four stars out of five. This is a strong start to an anime, which eventually develops into being one of the more memorable shows that I watched in 2013. The music is great and so are the visuals that make good use of light CGI effects, which makes sense given that Sword Art Online itself is an elaborate computer simulation. In terms of value for money I wish the series would have been released over two boxed sets instead of the four DVDs we are getting, but I understand that decision has more to do with demands by the show’s Japanese licence holder rather than Manga trying to milk the property for all it’s worth. If you enjoy fantasy cartoons I can highly recommend Sword Art Online and I am sure anyone who has dabbled with MMO gaming will appreciate it too.