Sword Art Online Review

“I mean, no one really liked Sword Art Online, right? It’s not like they’d make another season. And if they did, there’s no way it’d be as bad as the first one. Come on.” – A sad, deluded fool

And as if the majority of the first wasn’t unnecessary enough, season two of Sword Art Online’s increasingly superfluous blight cursed the computer screens of streamers and pirates alike.

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Yeah, so SAO continues to be praised and adored by fans around the world – if you can believe that. So much in fact, that they even went and produced an entirely new batch of episodes despite the story having no reason to go on past the first 12. Subtle (or not-so-subtle) jabs aside, I don’t think the original SAO was very good. And having recently watched it both in preparation of the new season and because it was such a big deal two odd years ago, I now feel even more confused about not understanding the hullabaloo. But, whatever. The Sword Art well has more cents than water at this rate, so here’s my two.

Also, I’m just gonna go ahead and cut all the “Sword Art Online is a Japanese anime where a bunch of boring characters find themselves trapped in virtual reality and if they die in the game they die for real” preamble, because everyone knows that and no one cares. On to some stuff that I don’t think is typical of SAO reviews:

You know how in a lot of the Studio Ghibli movies, viewers are usually thrown into a weird world where the underlying mechanisms are a lot different from our own? This is a super common storytelling trope, but I want to highlight the works of Hiyao Miyazaki because he always does this really seamlessly, and because it’s also anime, I guess. Anyway, the worlds depicted in Spirited Away and Nausicaa and stuff are extremely savory – one of the chief reasons being the seemingly throwaway details that steadily enrich their metaphorical brew. A whole host of little elements are briefly shown, but are not necessarily expounded upon. To me, if a show uses its screen time wisely in this way, cramming some world-building detail wherever possible, then it’s probably done a good job of selling its universe (if you want an example of an animated series that does this well, take a look at the excellent Over the Garden Wall).

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So what’s that have to do with Sword Art? Everything and nothing, because SAO goes in the complete opposite direction with its storytelling. It’s weird, because the show has a surplus of cool-sounding concepts that would have made for some neat supplementary details of the sort I was just mentioning. Instead, any trace of beneficial minutia is sucked dry by SAO’s insistence on overlong explanations and a refusal to actually show what the plot is talking about. Like, if you think about it, the world the players are stuck in is never really characterized. Outside of the fighting, we don’t see anyone doing many of the things the characters say that people are doing. I know everyone harps on and on about this, but that whole “show don’t tell” thing can be pretty effective when you’re in a visual medium.

Viewer_24: oh hey sword art~~~!! I kinda like that sleep PK thing you brought up. can we actually see that playing out? ≧◡≦

Sword@Online: no

Viewer_24: ohh… well how about showing the players grinding with their HP buffers or something??  that could be cool : )

Sword@Online: nah

Viewer_24: : (

Viewer_24: can u at least expand on the psychology behind players who want 2 actually kill each other because u like to bring that up a lot?????

Sword@Online:  no asuna and kirito have 2 vacation now

Viewer_24: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

And the direct result of all this is another thing I feel is a pretty big problem. The show is kinda selling itself on its premise – and I suspect that’s why it’s so popular, gaming being as big as it is – but it gives no justification for its virtual reality setting.  For all intents and purposes, this could have a generic fantasy ordeal and nothing of the remotest value would have been lost: most of the characters seem to be middle-aged men rather than the teenagers with the sort of disposable income/time you’d expect to be plaything this. People treat guild-management and questing deadly seriously, with reckless abandon for the game’s programming. None of the bosses or common enemies have patterns or triggers or anything that make them feel like they were made by game designers. Heck, have you seen how bland the background characters’ gear looks towards the end? Trust me, I’ve seen endgame JRPG gear and it does not even resemble bronze armor. No wonder people die in one hit so often in this show.

I get that this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, especially if everything else is good. Except, A) it is a problem if you fail to deliver on your main hook completely and B), nothing else is actually that good. Hey Sword Art! How’s your pacing? Littered with contrived time skips that artificially create a dangerous situation for your characters and lack the faintest hint of context? Interesting choice! What about your animation? A handful of good-looking fights scattered sparsely between unstimulating fantasy life and CGI bosses, all wrapped in a fairly generic art style? I see! So you’ve got some good characters at least? No? Oh. Well that’s a shame.

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Let’s talk about that character thing for a moment, because you know, those are important. If everything else misses the mark you can always fall back on good ol’ character development and chemistry, provided you know how to convincingly write that. But as you know, or could probably guess, SAO struggles with that as well. Our main character Kirito isn’t much to speak of because he’s one of those gamerdude blank slate characters you’re supposed to project yourself onto. So he hasn’t got all that much going on because that might accidently break the illusion that you’re a cute sixteen year old guy whose ungodly gaming skillz win him the trust and adoration of a panoply of equally cute girls. Unfortunately – and this actually ends up being a bigger issue than you’d think – our main love interest, Asuna, is more of a woman-shaped mass of flesh wrought from your factory-standard tsundere goop than she is an actual human being. You see, I’d call the romance forced, but that would imply there was, at the very least, a desperate attempt made to cram the characters’ personalities together in some way before shipping them off. But rather than actually developing anything substantial between the two leads, the show just figures that you’d see them together in the opening and that that would be good enough.

The funny thing I’ve noticed is that, despite the pittance of screen time and personality they’ve been given, the relationship between Kirito and virtually all of the other female characters is leagues more interesting than that of the cannon girl. This was cemented when Kirito spent a day questing with one of his easily-besotted female compatriots; Asuna appears at the end of the episode, and oh never mind the fact that Lisbeth X Kirito was a gafrillion times more convincing at this point, after only ten minutes of screen time. It’s all like “no no no make room for Asuna, kids! We already drew her on the cover. We’ve been over this: our focus testing data tells us she is, by a standard deviation of 2 no less, the most kawaii.” This happens time and time again. The second half of that fist season has a steamy subplot between Kirito and his little sister. And you know what? It’s by far the closest thing Sword Art has to a serviceable romance. And you know what else? It’s the closest thing Sword Art has to a serviceable anything, as far as the plot is concerned.

So I’m sure you can go anywhere on the internet and find people poo pooing SAO. That’s nothing new. But what I doubt you’ll find is someone saying that the ALfhiem Online portion is better than the Sword Art one. If fact, from what I understand, people who would have otherwise liked the first season hate it because of the direction its second half took. I don’t think that; the ALfhiem Online stuff is better, straight up.

This mostly comes down to the show introducing its only worthwhile character in this act, Suguha (Kirito’s sister/cousin). For whatever reason, all of the show’s development and appeal went into this one character (at least until we get to the new season). She digs her big brother, and him being kind-of-not-really-engaged to someone else/related to her causes some issues. And again, it makes you wonder why Kirito doesn’t just dump the main love interest for his sis’, because I genuinely felt bad for her as I watched the show impose an ever-looming, comatose Asuna above their heads. That’s more than you can say for anything else that happens.

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I get the problems people have with this arc, I really do. And I’m not saying it’s good or anything; it’s bad, but also just… a bit more eloquent, and a bit less frightened of committing to its concepts. Yeah, since the characters are in the game to save Asuna rather than fight for their lives this time around, there’s no real sense of dread or urgency. But it’s not like those elements were present when the players were in Sword Art Online either, because it was still obvious that the main characters were going to be impenetrable after the show decides it can do the entirety of Berserk’s Golden Age arc in half an episode (read: it isn’t able to). As I said, SAO wasn’t really able to deliver on any promise to begin with, so nothing’s really lost when you take that promise away.

I will say that the ending is terrible, but was it really so much worse than that of the first arc? Because rather than actually characterize its villains, SAO just says “they’re crazy,” and calls it a day. The end of ALfhiem may be more uncomfortable, but with the amount of Gods coming from the Sword Art machine in both halves, it’s a matter of which is worse. The ALfhiem arc has the groundwork for a solid character. And it has the best fight scene. The Sword Art arc has neither.

And with that we come to the most recent season. You have to commend the show’s sheer redundancy at this point, because despite being more interesting, we didn’t need SAO to go on after they got out of the first game, and even less so after the second. It had nowhere to go other than desperately grasp at anything that could shoehorn the characters back into some other game. But that’s exactly what we’ve got here: an amusingly terrible villain that upon shooting people in Gun Gale Online, causes them to die IRL. So back Kirito goes into virtual reality, while (thankfully) his doting harem of dogged fangirls rot in ALfhiem.

Pretty much all of the complaints littering the first season are present here: weird pacing, uncharacteristic characters, and a deus ex machina buffet. The sad thing is the Gun Gale arc comes really close to having its own Suguha in the form of Sinon; unfortunately, SAO remembers that this character is a girl, and heaven forbid a woman in this series does anything without the guidance of Kirito-san, because toward the end, she turns into a snivelling, hysterical mess when left to her own devices. Then when everything’s resolved and they head back to ALfhiem to do absolutely nothing of value, Sinon gets absorbed into the now-amoebic mass of Kirito’s cult of followers.*Sigh* Again, what’s the point of Asuna if Kirito’s just gonna prance around, flirting with a shiny new girl every arc? Anyone?

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You know what’s funny? I didn’t even watch the second half of the new season. Couldn’t bring myself to. It’s literally just the gang searching for a new sword in ALfhiem. I know I said that would have been amusing had something like that been integrated into the original run, but here it’s just treading water. I doubt there’ll be as much BS, but I’d also rather not bore myself to death with the likes of this show, to be honest. Because I’m confident that’s what would happen: terminal boredom. And watching Sword Art is not the hill I’d like to die on.

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