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Old 2015-10-04, 08:57   Link #1
iSuckAtWriting
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Sword Art Online


Three. I’ve watched this show three times. Two. I’ve written two reviews for this show but didn’t post them because I didn’t like them. One. This show deserves the one review it has coming to it, to cover the good and bad beyond the visuals and music. After watching this show thrice, can I truly say what makes this show tick?

God help me, let’s begin. Let’s look at Sword Art Online.

The story begins with the launch day of a virtual reality online game called Sword Art Online. But as the day draws to a close, the players find that they can’t log out. Their minds are trapped in the game, and the only means of escape is to clear all 100 floors of Castle Aincrad where the game takes place. And death in the game means death in real life. From here on, it’s worth noting that the concept of a “death video game” is tossed in the sense that there are gameplay mistakes that might be better suited to an alternate world fantasy show.

In fact, the show mostly IS an alternate world fantasy show. That doesn’t entirely excuse the mistakes, but bringing focus to them would be missing the bigger picture. Mistakes are only bad when nothing distracts from them, and for the most part the show is able to distract from them through world building and immersion.

It achieves this world building by greeting viewers with believably strong visuals. It’s not just how vibrant and fluid the visuals look, but the design choices to reflect practicality, to look less like a fantasy and more like something that could really happen. Save for one villain, the designs look at least well armored or fully clothed all over; it’s easy to believe sword and shield users like Heathcliff can charge the frontlines, or why a speedy fighter like Asuna can dance around a fight. There are no skimpy outfits tanking hits or heavy suits zipping all over the place. It looks as practical as it is.

The setting itself is often as down to Earth as a fantasy can get. The 18th century flavor to most of the towns and the undeveloped locales such as the lakeside forest don’t serve to remind the viewer the show is a fantasy, but as a glimpse into the past. It’s a fantasy with the illusion of reality, and avoids being too fantastic to be believed. That is, except for the dungeons and monsters. More mundane creatures tend to lurk the normal fields, with the lizardmen, ogres, and reapers showing up in more and more dungeons that remind viewers this show is indeed a fantasy. A fantasy the players want to wake up from.

All the players, the characters, are simple but personable. I couldn’t describe the well-meaning but perverted Klein or feisty Lizbeth beyond just that, but taken together all the characters give the setting a personality to match how down to Earth it is. It’s simple, but lively. The characters themselves are unexplored, but their stories come to life by expanding on everything the setting has to offer. From the carelessness of low level players in a treasure chest room to a journey for a rare mineral to craft the finest sword, the setting gives action to the characters, and the characters give life to the setting.

There are two certain characters who form the crux of the story, where the viewers see most of the action from. They are Kirito and Asuna, two of the strongest players in the game, but still only a slip away from death via sleep PK, defending a weaker player, or tricked into a bad state. Like the side characters, they’re simple, but the draw here is a couple on equal ground. Their behavior behind closed doors is charming if cheesy, but as they defend and rescue each other from fights, it’s hard not to stare in awe at them as they fight.

The fights themselves are loud, with music going with it that ranges from the energetic and nearly hopeful to the ominous and almost hopeless. But while the battle music makes fights entertaining, it’s eclipsed by the calm and unnoticeable. The town music gives a sense that it’s just another ordinary day in this fantasy world, while other pieces go from nostalgic to ambient. The ambient tracks are used especially well during moments of silence where the dialog becomes the focus. This helps to bring life to the show where it is uneventful, and uneventfulness does happen often.

This is because while the show starts as an action fantasy, it turns into a slice of (fantasy) life. As the days trapped in the game turn to months, more and more players stop trying to clear the game for fear of death, and yet with so few people trying to clear the game the odds of winning begin to slim. It’s this strong subtext of safety VS sacrifice that dampens a holiday celebration or someone going fishing, and makes the move into calmer episodes believable. But whether the show is calm or intense, there are often small reminders that the setting isn’t real beyond some of the monsters and dungeons.

Sometimes a relationship from real life will change in this virtual reality, one character will remind another character of a sister they have in real life, and another character still may scoff at the idea of players really dying if killed in the game. It’s reminders like these that always give the show a sense of weight, to pull viewers—and the players—out of any good feelings that might have been starting to build for the game, where what they might cherish is only a dream. For better or worse, the show is immersive, but not as immersive as it could be with the way the show is paced.

Often times the show will have time skips between episodes, which hurts the immersion like a level select cheat in video games; the more levels one skips, the more disjointed the game feels. From a storytelling standpoint, each time skip goes to something important or at least different from the hours a character might have spent going from level 40 to level 75. And yet, the time skips are still often misused. Some episodes would have been better showing more of the events leading up to it, another episode actually seems to forget the plot point it started with entirely, and Kirito and Asuna’s relationship can feel rushed.

With the immersion being hurt, the mistakes begin to show. So the show is far from perfect. The characters are simple and the pacing and mistakes make the show stumble. But though it trips, it keeps going forward. The world building covers for the characters, and the characters give life to this setting where the show might have skipped over. The setting and characters are fairly down to Earth, where the strength of this fantasy is an illusion of reality. Glued together by strong visuals and music, and the show is very much worth watching.

Of course, this is only talking about the first 14 episodes.

Episodes 15 to 25 is where Sword Art Online changes a lot for the worse. It brings in a new character who’s as personable and simple as any character from the show’s first half. Now, the show’s first half could get away with its simple characters because it had so many and most were only around for one or two episodes at most. They left before wearing out their welcome, but not in the case of this new character. Much of the show focuses on this new character’s feelings for Kirito, but with almost no other characters to cover for her simplicity, she can’t even give the image of being a compelling character.

But while this new character is just decent, Kirito goes from decent to offensive with a lack of sincerity on his character. At the start of the show’s second half, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him as a certain plot point becomes his driving motivation. And yet, for much of the show’s second half, he has almost no sense of urgency despite how devastated he initially is, until the plot demands it. There is actually a scene where he says he’ll get revenge on the villain, only for another character to remind him of his actual reason for fighting, to where Kirito says “oh, right” as if he were running an errand. I’m not joking.

It’s easy to get why the show becomes less action heavy in the first half, but Kirito’s lack of sincerity in the show’s second half is baffling. As for Asuna, she doesn’t degrade as a character, though the story’s treatment of her goes down. Now, I don’t have a problem with showing a strong character as vulnerable, changing someone’s role in the story, or what have you, but in the show’s second half the writers have done everything in their power to outright disrespect her image from the show’s first half. There are more tasteful ways to show weakness than softcore porn.

The other characters are even worse. Most of them are shoved to appear all at once in one or two episodes, with their roles in the story being nothing more than to serve as fight fodder or to give info dumps about the setting. There’s no time for them to give the world a personality, they have no personality to start with, and the world itself has almost no immersion with so many of its aspects being crammed. Of course, the show’s second half is a more personal tale about Kirito and the new character, but only the new character is worth something since Kirito is insincere.

But Sword Art Online isn’t a personal tale. Though the show’s first half does focus on Kirito and Asuna, it’s more about what they learn from the world and other characters around them than their own thoughts. The show’s first half has simple characters, but they don’t overstay their welcome. Though the show’s pacing hurts it, it makes up for it with world building that can make these personable but simple characters something more. The show’s second half has none of this, and to make it a personal tale when it worked much better as a grand story becomes its downfall.

With the world building gone, the mistakes really surface and soon the show has more questions than answers. Conflicts between player factions amount to nothing, fight scenes are bland when thinking about their new powers, and the over the top villain is more annoying than threatening. Except for Kirito, Asuna, and the new character, the show does away with its down to Earth characters and setting, further ruining the immersion as it hammers the viewers head with the message that this is a fantasy. This aesthetic change would have worked if the setting and characters were at least decently fleshed out, but they aren’t.

So why couldn’t the show stop at episode 14? The show’s first half is far from perfect, but the love and energy put into it really shows. But the show’s second half is a cash-in focused on the wrong thing and somehow made that thing worse. In a way, the launch day of Sword Art Online is much like watching this show; everyone is immersed by it, but by the time the evening hours come along, everyone regrets ever starting this game. The good news is the viewers can log out, and I suggest doing so after the show’s first half. But if I’m saying that, then I question if Sword Art Online is worth logging into.
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Old 2015-10-09, 15:48   Link #2
relentlessflame
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by iSuckAtWriting View Post
But Sword Art Online isn’t a personal tale. Though the show’s first half does focus on Kirito and Asuna, it’s more about what they learn from the world and other characters around them than their own thoughts. Though the show’s pacing hurts it, it makes up for it with world building that can make these personable but simple characters something more. The show’s second half has none of this, and to make it a personal tale when it worked much better as a grand story becomes its downfall.
It's interesting because I feel the total opposite. I think that Sword Art Online is entirely a personal tale, and the story consists of perspectives of the various characters on the world around them. I think that's why a large portion of the story in the first half consisted of vignettes. It got sort of woven together into a dramatic arc with a climax, but it never really had the time to develop the "grand story" beyond the personal impact on a very small list of characters. The world building that happened was almost by necessity rather than being the overall point, but there was just enough meat on the bones that people could gravitate to it (and that the original author could go back now and write a whole new novel series on it). The second arc continues in step with the emotional tone of the first by focusing on the theme of "stolen time/frozen time", and the protagonist's conflicting attitudes reflecting the dueling reality of a game with no consequence and a reality full of consequence, and the redefined lines between a game world and the real world. But even though the emotional tone stayed largely the same, the substantive content changed significantly along with the world itself, and that contrast was a huge part of emotional/personal conflict at the heart of the second arc.

But anyway, this isn't an attempt to discredit your review at all. What I've found over the years after reading many different conflicting opinions about this show is that a given viewer's reaction to the overall work depends entirely on what "hooked them" about the show in the first place. There can be a lot of different ways of approaching this work that result in varying degrees of appreciation of what happened after the first arc. It can be a bit of a rough transition, and there's no question that there are technical weaknesses in the execution. All in all, perhaps more than many shows, it's a case where subjective preferences and perspectives can make a huge difference in any given person's receptiveness to the overall work.
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Old 2015-10-13, 12:21   Link #3
iSuckAtWriting
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Whoa, Nico didn't think anyone would respond! My trying didn't go to waste after all!

The thing I'm more trying to say is how the vign...vinye...short stories! How the short stories created a sense of other things going on in their world besides Kirito's adventures. It's like one of those RPGs where the world is still moving even when you're not there, or something? Just a better feeling of size and more characters to booouuunce off.

Not really until the second season where the author (...or the directors?) learned to make all the relationships and stuff work better with less characters. Especially Mother's Rosario...
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Old 2015-12-23, 22:25   Link #4
Ryuukishi
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Have you tried reading the LNs?
This is just a question. You can ignore it.
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Old 2016-03-01, 01:21   Link #5
Elandrial
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I have watched SAO ,many times from start to finish and even bought the English translated LN available, also read Alicization up the translated volume online.

Spoiler for plot spoiler of SAO:
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Old 2016-08-20, 17:14   Link #6
DragonOsman
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Spoiler for reply to Elandrial:


I only saw the anime upto and including Fairy Dance. But I liked it. I've read the entire LN series aside from Progressive through fan translations, as well, though I'm now reading Progressive via the translations in Mamue's archive. It's my second time reading "Aria in the Starless Night," though, same for "Rondo of the Transient Sword", since I'd also read them on Baka-Tsuki before they were taken off.

I actually really like this series. Though, like @relentlessflame said, whether a fan likes the series or not depends on "hooked" them to it in the first place, I guess. But I'm not sure what it is for me. I just like Kirito and Asuna and I'm hoping to see them together and the end, though I don't mind of Alice is also with them (only in Underworld, though, and also maybe a bit the in the real world). The fights in SAO, ALO, GGO and Underworld are also good.
Spoiler for Alicization - don't open unless you've already read the novel this far:


Also, while there's a lot of time skips in the first two LN Volumes and, by extension, the anime adaptation of those, some of it is filled in with the side-stories in the LNs (though some of them are also in the anime - just, not all of them; though, for some, there were changes made).
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Old 2017-06-14, 16:39   Link #7
Glexygoddness
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Honestly it´s a very good review... even though I would have pointed more the ending of the first arc, aside from the disconnection errors in the series by WAAAAAY too large skips that you already mentioned the ending was the worst thing I could think of, not even going into the next arc, the pressure to finish the arc and the actual villain is quite bad as by the "great end" he just says he doesn´t even remember the why as to all of his actions as well as being depicted as a "good person" later in the series also there´s the fact they couldn´t afford a better excuse than kirito breaking the actual game and doing the impossible, wasted potential but very good review again
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Old 2017-07-15, 09:26   Link #8
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The anime may have its flaws, but that's why I say just ignore the anime read the LNs. The LNs are better (and yes, even though they're licensed, fan-translation is still ongoing) *mod snip*
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Last edited by LKK; 2017-07-15 at 10:11. Reason: removed fan-translator information
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