*SOME SPOILERS POSSIBLE*
To me, SAO’s story is one of hugely wasted potential. When I first learnt that the plot surrounded players trapped in an online game with in-game death meaning actual death, I was genuinely excited at the possible psychological factors which the writers could play upon (much like Tsukasa’s predicament in .hack//SIGN and how well his mental state was explored and expressed). But to my disappointment, these avenues were never really explored in SAO to the degree that it was in .hack//SIGN. The nearest it ever got to doing this was near the end of the first arc when Kirito and Asuna discussed whether or not it was worth going back to reality when they had it so good in SAO, but by that point it was too little too late. One aspect it did do well however though was the hatred that normal players had for the beta-players at the beginning. I found this to be an interesting sociological aspect that seems believable. Also, while the romance between Kirito and Asuna was somewhat cute, it seemed a little forced to me and developed a tad too quickly for my liking.
The second arc after SAO was again another wasted opportunity. I would’ve really liked to see Kirito have difficulties adjusting to the real world again with Asuna, rather than spend 11 episodes in a fairy world trying to save her with the help of his incestuous cousin. I honestly don’t have much else to say about the second arc in ALO, the fights are entertaining as usual but it just felt like an unnecessary 11 episode extension that the series didn’t really need.
All in all, a somewhat satisfying story by the end but one that leaves me wishing it did so much more.
Nothing exemplary, but nothing poor either. Some of the backdrops are gorgeous though (I had a screenshot from the first episode as my wallpaper for a while) and the fight choreography can occasionally be entertaining. I like the “virtual-blood” effect that is used when characters get hurt, as well as the little player menus, even if it is a frequent yet possibly insultingly obvious reminder that this is all within a game.
Most of the voice actors do their jobs well, but the main protagonists’ and antagonists’ tend to overact more than they should.
I was shocked to learn that SAO’s soundtrack was composed by Yuki Kajiura (I am a fan of her compostions, especially her scores for the .hack series, as well as Xenosaga II and III, which are all wonderful), since her SAO tunes are some of her most forgettable music to date. There are only one or two tracks which are memorable, which is sad from a composer who is capable of so much more.
Simply put, the characterisation in SAO is weak. I don’t feel any sympathy or empathy for those trapped (maybe if they’d explored the psychology more I would have). I usually have a favourite character in any series, but I really don’t here. The nearest who gets to it is Klein but he shows up too infrequently to make enough of an impression (I do like his samurai-esque armour though).
SAO is one of those anime series that “could have been”. If the mental state of the main characters was explored much more thoroughly (like in .hack//SIGN), it would have actually made the characters likeable and worthy of sympathy, but sadly, this never happens.
Oh, the wasted opportunities…