The year is 2022 and a new virtual reality MMO has just been released called Sword Art Online, Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya is an introverted teenager who uses online games as a way of escaping from the real world. Only 10,000 copies of SOA and the accompanying “NERV” gear are sold, this includes the original 1000 beta testers of which Kirito was one.
Fiction set in an MMO isn’t exactly anything new, Piers Anthony did it with Killobyte in 1993, the .hack series of manga, anime and games (Which had you playing a single player game in which you were a person playing an MMO) did it extensively too, and there is even another current series called Log Horizon which plays with similar themes (I’ve not watched it but it’s on my to do list).
What sets Sword Art Online apart is that everyone is trapped in the game, all 10,000 players can’t log out, and if they die in game they die in real life.
It’s pretty dark, and a lot of the people playing the game unsurprisingly go a little nuts at the start. Although as time goes on they settle into the fact that this virtual world is their real world for now. A core group of skilled players fight on the front line trying to clear the 100th level of “The Tower” which upon completion will release all the players from the game. Other players set up shops, or just go fishing. The show explores what it might be like to live in an entirely virtual world and it does it fairly well.
The character progression is for the most part pretty good, the main two characters, Kirito and Asuna are quite strong, Asuna is even a “Strong Independent Woman™“, although at times Kirito suffers from what I call Kakoii syndrome (Kakoii means cool in Japanese) where every female character he encounters falls madly in love with him.
That covers the first part of the show… This show could have, and possibly should have, ended on episode 14.
MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
Everything was tied up, the will they wont they sub plot resolved, the game is completed and the players are freed, except some aren’t and Kirito has to venture into another MMO called ALfheim Online to rescue Asuna from a rather convoluted conspiracy.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about what actually happens because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who plans on watching it, but the show goes from being dark to being creepy. And Asuna who was a strong female lead turns into a plot device and a bit of a wet blanket. That to be honest is the saddest thing about the 2nd season, Asuna goes from being a really good and empowered female character to the stereotypical “Princess in the Castle”.
Also while the first half of the season had the odd gratuitous tits/ass shot, the second half is rife with fan service the low point of which is a shower scene with convenient obscuring steam which is just unnecessary (The shower scene is unnecessary not the steam, the steam is very necessary) especially when you consider the character and their age, I know Japan seems to be desensitized to this kind of thing but there is a line…
The second half of the season is watchable, but it’s like watching another lower quality anime from the first half, arguably I’d probably enjoy playing the ALfheim Online more thatn Sword Art Online, because it’s more detailed and you can fly! but that wasn’t what this anime was about, it wasn’t about playing an MMO it was about being stuck in an MMO in which your life was on the line. I went through a brief phase of playing World of Warcraft, and I’m fairly sure I spent more time running towards my corpse as a ghost to reincarnate than I spent fighting monsters. To think that the first time I died would actually have killed me is terrifying.
All in all Sword Art Online is a pretty good anime series, the first half of the season is amazing the 2nd half is okay. There is a second season in production, and the manga apparently covers another two MMOs, I will probably watch it in the hopes that it goes back to being as good as the first half of season one, but I’m not entirely sure how they can do that.