Review of Sword Art Online (Part 1)

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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.

11 thoughts on “Review of Sword Art Online (Part 1)

  1. As an MMO gamer and anime fan, I find Sword Art Online absolutely fantastic – I’m hooked and can’t wait to see more! It’s definitely my favourite series right now.

  2. Ah, SAO, a series I have very mixed feelings about. I can definitely say I enjoyed the early stages of it. The start did a pretty good job of establishing the grounds for the rest of the series and I must admit I absolutely loved the Sachi episode. Some of these early episodes felt a bit filler-ish due to being mere side stories and I do wish there was a bit more characterization but I would still say I found the early stages of SAO quite enjoyable. But once it gets to episode 14……oh man. Well, it seems that’s for another day since this only covered 1-7.

  3. I loved this series, just watched it (now available sub/dub on Netflix). The only thing I didn’t like was in the second story arc there was a rather gratuitous romantic-love interest from sister to brother. I don’t think it was necessary to develop the isolation/abandonment issues his sister was feeling, and incest feels only added a silly and frustrating dynamic to S and K. Fan service, at its worst, in my opinion. Other than that, I found it to be really good!

    • Yeah, the general consensus is that the series dips in the second half. After building up the Kirito/Asuna relationship it was a waste to relegate her to damsel in distress to squeeze in some incest. I also thought the first world was much cooler than the second one.

  4. I haven’t watched SAO yet, but I’m looking forward to it. One of my friends actually recommended another “trapped in an online game” series, Log Horizon. So far I get the impression it’s much more light-hearted and subplot focused, but it seems engaging.
    They actually take a different tact with Log Horizon. Instead of trying to escape, the protagonists focus on the setting, understanding how the game’s rules have translated into the rules of this new world. They set about trying to create a more stable society among the players, which gives the series a more political/setting focused style to it. I can’t say where I would rank it, but the difference certainly makes for a refreshing watch.

    • Hope you enjoy SAO whenever you give is a bash. It’s a fun show, although be aware that a lot of people don’t like the direction it takes in the second half of season one. The series is light hearted, but can tug at your heartstrings too (particularly in season two.)

      I love Log Horizon. The show has a good ensemble cast and I dig how it focuses on adapting to life in an online world rather than fighting to escape it.

      • Do you have any opinion about Log Horizon in relation to SAO? Do you think there is a clear superior between the two, or too different?

    • I would have a tough time picking one over the other. Although they both kick off with the same idea they are very different to each other.

      Log Horizon is an ongoing story that focuses on how the appearance of players impacts the fantasy world they now find themselves in. Watching it gives me fond memories of the time I used to play MMOs.

      Sword Art Online is more straight forward. Each half season is for the most part a self contained story. Rather than having an expansive cast it mostly follows Kirito’s adventures.

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