Stop me if you've heard this one; a young man is drawn into the world of a videogame, trapped in a virtual world with no contact with the real one, in a deadly game where there are no 1-Ups, and you don't re-spawn...
Oh. You have have heard that one? Well, I'm going to talk about Sword Art Online anyway, so you might as well get comfortable.
Sword Art Online (SAO) is a 2012 anime series produced by A-1 Pictures, based on the first two arcs of the 2009 manga, which grew out of a 2002 short story competition that series creator Reki Kawahara didn't even enter the first time around, having written well over the page limit. What I'm saying is, this thing has some history behind it, and plenty of thought from its creator. Which probably explains why this thing is so well put together, on pretty much all fronts.
The anime's setting is pretty straightforward. In 2022, the groundbreaking VRMMORPG Sword Art Online is launched, with considerable fanfare and even more considerable hype. However, on that first day, the game's lead designer reveals he was inspired less by World of Warcraft than Lord of the Flies. Gathering the players in the starting city's central square, he reveals to all ten thousand of them that their VR helmets are boobytrapped, armed with a brain-scrambling microwave pulse generator. If the player's character dies in the game world, the pulse goes off. If the helmets are tampered with in the real world, the pulse goes off. The players are locked into the gaming world; the only way they'll be allowed to log out is by clearing all 100 floors of Aincrad, the great floating castle that is the MMO's dungeon. And then, the designer just disappears, leaving ten thousand frightened nerds to their own devices...
It actually goes better than you might think.
At first glance, SAO seems like just another .Hack or Harsh Realm or The Matrix, a fantastical virtual realm in which death is the only thing real. But the anime does a good job of distinguishing itself by really putting its setting and characters through their paces. Rather than degenerating into mindless PK'ing, most of the players treat their virtual lives just as carefully as their real ones. And since not everybody signed up to do nothing but grind for max DPS, there are plenty of players in support roles; shop keepers, blacksmiths and armourers, even people caring for the relatively small number of young children who were locked in on launch day. On the other hand, the show doesn't shy away from the harsh nature of their reality; in the first month of being trapped, fully two thousand players die, and while that number doesn't keep rising at that rate, the game world isn't safe, and characters do die. Sometimes they're murdered, though since PK'ing turns a visible icon hanging over your head from green to orange that's relatively rare; more often, it's just a matter of players taking on bosses or side-quests they aren't ready for. Over the course of the series we're shown several small- to medium-sized guilds wiped out in just such encounters, and the anime really sells that these are real people dying, even though they just look like digitized avatars going through damage animations. SAO can be downright tragic, when it wants to be.
The anime's main protagonist is Kirito, though I've heard that in the manga his partner Asuna plays a more equal role. Kirito's a beater, a former beta tester whose slightly higher starting stats allow him to operate independently, without as much need for a support guild. He's a nice kid, though like everyone in SAO it doesn't take long before he's more than a little haunted by his inability to save everyone around him. Given his stats he's routinely on the front line as the main guilds push up, level by level, which is good because it means we're not stuck down in level 1 watching him grind through green slimes for six episodes. The only other major character is Asuna, though there are a host of one-shot and minor recurring characters, whose prominent presence in the opening is a little baffling in that regard. Asuna is more of a team player, and much more of a leader than Kirito, who can inspire by his actions but doesn't really connect well with others. Unsurprisingly, they fall in love (I'm not spoiling anything; the opening basically shows them together from the very start), and their relationship offers a really nice window into the 'civilian' side of SAO. Yes, they fight giant multi-headed monsters in spooky dungeons, but they also buy a house, and Asuna maxes out her Cooking attribute, and Kirito takes on a lake monster in a fishing tournament with a very nice retired old salaryman. They just generally get time to act like a real couple, in a real world. It really helps sell the idea that these people have made lives for themselves here, as you would after months and years in a place. Of course, they are the heroes of an action show (amongst other genres), so it should come as no surprise that even their 'civilian' life is routinely disrupted by monsters and PK'ers.
Married folks, you know how it is. Vacuum the living room, pick up
some milk, kill some shirtless red-skinned monsters. The usual grind.
The first half of the series is pleasantly free of fan service, but unfortunately the second half seems intent on making up for lost time. I don't necessarily object to fan service in and of itself; if it's done subtly, or occasionally, or in an interesting or inventive way, I have no problem with it. And heck, I even enjoy catching the odd bit of Gainaxing now and then. But in its second half SAO really does kind of get out of control, with giant bouncing boobs and ass shots all over the place, and a weirdly uncomfortable crush showing up, and Asuna annoyingly reduced from lady of action to half-naked distressed damsel. As I said, I understand that she's not as passive and sexualized in the manga, and gets to go back to adventuring after the end of the second arc (beyond which the anime does not go), but it's not a great depiction of a character who, to this point, has been Kirito's equal. I didn't find it so annoying as to preclude finishing the series, but the Lovely Madam Meagan did grow frustrated enough with it that she just couldn't be bothered to watch the last couple of episodes. Which is sort of a shame, because the anime really does end with a fantastic two-parter, but it also involves several instances of implied or threatened rape of a minor by an adult, one of which is just seconds away from becoming reality before it's stopped, so maybe she was right to bow out when she did. It's pretty uncomfortable stuff, and it's very annoying, because the anime before that was doing a damn good job of appealing to all viewers, regardless of their sexuality. This didn't need to be there, and it drags the show down.
Happily, though, I can honestly say that the fanservice in the second half is my only real complaint with SAO. The show has excellent production values, with grand vistas, unique character designs and amazing fight scenes all beautifully depicted. Kirito and Asuna are great main characters, with a really believable relationship that grows in realistic ways, and the various one-shots and secondary characters all stand out; you're always happy to see someone come back again, even if it's just for a minute, or in the background. The music didn't really stand out for me, but music rarely does; I only tend to notice it when it's either amazing or awful, and if it's not the former at least it isn't the latter. The show is really well paced, both in terms of the overall story (it jumps big chunks of time early on, but slows down when the story starts getting into the really interesting period) and moments within that story; SAO knows when to rush from fight to fight, and when to let a moment linger, either beautifully or tragically. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll have to resist the urge to keep watching 'just one more episode'.
Until you get to this. Then you have to resist the urge to watch all the episodes!
Sword Art Online is available on Crunchyroll, subtitled, for free. Go check it out; you won't regret it!