Like so many others, I was downright thrilled to hear about a series set in a MMO environment, even more so when it was about a game that would lead to death in real life if you died in it. SAO was certainly one of my most anticipated shows this year. But if you're reading this review, you've most likely seen the score I gave to it and can therefore guess I'm not really about to shower this show with praise. So... let's get down to just what sucked about this show. If you haven't seen this show, a mild SPOILER ALERT.
It started out really well. The villain revealing himself and his plan was carried out nicely and the ensuing panic seemed promising, as well. For the first two episodes, it seemed SAO would deliver everything I was expecting.
And then it all went to hell.
In the end of episode two, our main character, Kirito, seemed all set on clearing the game himself as a lone wolf, ready to take on everyone's hatred to unite them.
In the beginning of episode three, he then proceeded to join a guild for no apparent reason and was suddenly too timid to voice his opinions about stupid, life-threatening decisions. Too many episodes centered on irrelevant side stories followed, adding nothing to the story except for a few one-episode haremettes for Kirito. To add insult to injury, the side story girls then vanished from the radar completely after their intro episodes, appearing about twice during the rest of the series, making them little less than fanservice fodder done badly.
After the side stories and their endless time skips were done, about half of the game was suddenly cleared without the audience seeing any of the process. I felt rather ripped off at this point, but SAO wasn't done yet. After a couple of episodes of plot-relevant material, it then went back to a slice-of-lifey formula, messing up the pacing even worse with its constant mood swings, before wrapping up the SAO arc in about one and a half episodes. Prematurely.
I was hoping to see a thrilling battle of life and death and a harsh journey towards the top. SAO failed on that front horribly, especially when someone pointed out that a player could sit on their ass doing nothing and face no danger, taking all the thrill out of its premise. I wouldn't have minded if it was a straight-out series about fooling around in an MMO, a slice-of-life in a different environment would be pretty interesting, but SAO tried to be a show to be taken seriously and therefore failed this, too.
ALO arc, the second half, was a more straightforward rescue-the-damsel-in-distress story and got sidetracked less, but was also borderline impossible to take seriously due to Kirito's raging Marty Stu powers getting even worse and the villain of the arc seeming like he'd be more at home in a children's cartoon. The game politics, which could've been very interesting, were left almost untouched. Well, there were negotiations... which ended in both parties' leaders hitting on Kirito.
In addition, the ALO arc's climax was even MORE anticlimatic than the first one. The gap between Kirito's and the villain's powers was so great that it seemed less like a fight and more like bullying. And it (like about every other major conflict in this series) was resolved with a deus ex machina, to boot. A moment where the hero defies all odds and gets up with his spirit can be very satisfying when done correctly, but in a game where everything is about raw numbers and logic, it just seems out of place.
TL;DR: horrible pacing, too much skipping essential parts, tried to do both drama and light-hearted comedic romance and didn't really do either well, didn't utilize the setting nearly enough in either arc, both boss fights were a complete and utter disappointment.
Some of the fights were done quite well and the animation level was generally alright, but it also had its share of derpfaces... including in the ALO arc climax, which is a pretty big minus. I'm not really an expert on animation, so I'll just say it had its notably good and bad moments.
Not really Kajiura's usual level, but still pretty good and used at the right moments. It still fell flat for me because I didn't care about the characters at all, but there wasn't anything particularly wrong with the music itself.
Oh, brother. The story was bad, but nowhere near the abysmal performance that was the cast of this show.
Basically, this show had just one character: Kirito. Basically, the audience found out absolutely nothing about any other character. They were defined by their relation to Kirito: Klein and Agil were his bros, Asuna was his suddenly tsundere love interest, Lizbeth was his jealous suitor, Silica was his replacement little sister, Yui was his AI buddy slash surrogate child, Sugu was his jealous suitor slash cousin... That's all. Frankly, I can't remember if the show bothered telling us a single thing about their favorite things, goals in life, relations to each other... they just were there for Kirito and that was their entire role in the story. They didn't feel like living people at all, more like props for the star of the show to be used when needed and then discarded when their role was over.
This feeling wasn't helped at all by the fact that everyone except for Asuna, Sugu, Yui and Sugou were featured in maybe two, three episodes out of 25. Anything they did, including deaths, completely lacked emotional impact. The romance between Kirito and Asuna came pretty much out of nowhere and, while their relationship at least advanced which is more than what can be said about many other romantic shows, it didn't cause any kind of reaction in me as the viewer.
Same with the other girls in Kirito's life, really. For a show that had so many women, it sure disliked having them accomplish... anything, really. Asuna seemed strong at first, but then ended up having to be bailed out by Kirito in about every single fight she took part in. And, most obnoxiously, when she wanted to leave her guild, Kirito and the guild master then decided to fight over who could protect her the best with her as the prize. Her reaction to this was... absolutely nothing. Swinging a sword around does not make a female character strong. Sugu was also pretty much relegated to Kirito's personal healer and watching the other women in this show in action was just an embarrassing sight.
Still, while I found the main cast more irritating, nothing in this show was just plain worse than its villains. From the random no-name PKs to the second main villain, every single one of them completely lacked any redeeming qualities and their only motivation in life seemed to be to make the hero suffer. They cackled maniacally, they did everything as slowly and sadistically as they could, they were smug and gloated, they resorted to underhanded tricks to win due to being weaker than Kirito and also invariably broke down and most likely wet their pants when he overpowered them via plot power-up of the day. The heroes seemed hollow, but the villains were straight-out caricatures more at home in educational 80s cartoons for children than anything even remotely serious.
The only real exception was the first main villain, Akihiko Kayaba, who could actually stand his ground against Kirito's blatant Marty Stuism and was portrayed as a somewhat enigmatic figure, but he then ended up helping Kirito later on so going by this show's logic it probably makes him a good guy now... or they just couldn't figure out what the hell his motivation was. The man seems more like a plot device than a character with his completely conflicting attitudes in the SAO and ALO arcs.
And last but certainly not least, the main character... Kirito. He seemed like a good, competent main for the first two episodes until the side stories entered the picture, after which his personality shifted from broody to careless to confidently smug to crying to clueless according to whatever the current situation called for. Seeing as there was no continuity or consistence to his behavior between episodes, he pretty much lacked any kind of personality save for being a Generic Good Guy trying to save everyone for the first half of the series. This also had the side effect of making me give no fucks about anything he did.
The second half, which stayed at one plotline, gave him at least some kind of consistency... revealing a Marty Stu of the worst proportions. Most of the time he was defeating anything in his path without breaking a sweat, but the moment things didn't go his way, he started weeping and sobbing about being unable to protect anyone, requiring Female Companion of the Arc to hug him and break him out of his funk. I don't hate this kind of angsting on principle, but seeing a guy who annihilated everything else in the series effortlessly do it was downright infuriating. This guy's good for wish fulfillment and absolutely nothing else.
Basically, the characters lacked any kind of subtlety at all. Kirito was the perfect hero. The girls all fell in love with him within minutes of laying eyes on him. The other guys were either married or shown to be complete failures with women to make sure no one misunderstood who the top dog was. The villains did whatever they did for the sake of being evil. They were pretty much walking stereotypes, not anything like MMO players. (Considering how people lined up for days to get their preorders, SAO sure had many people who had no idea how to play...) Hell, MMOs have millions of different appearances for characters yet SAO had identical redshirt armies all over the place. I could've believed this if they had Guy Fawkes masks and spouted off memes or something to this extent, but like this it just seems like a generic mash-up of cardboard cutouts.
TL;DR: main character OP nerf plz, everyone else has no life that doesn't relate to him, villains even more one-dimensional, zero consistency in anyone's personality in the first half, no subtlety in anyone's actions anywhere, possibly the worst cast I've seen, not in loathsomeness but just plain horrendous execution
It had promise, it had potential, it then proceeded to throw it all away and do a story that took too many shortcuts and time leaps to get to its destination, making the victory feel unrewarding and the relationships shallow and soulless. If you don't particularly care about whether a story makes sense as long as there's flashy action and cute girls, you'll probably like this. I tried to, but the lack of build-up to anything that happened in this show killed any emotional responses I might have had to it and the writing in general was just atrocious. Not saying anyone who enjoys this is stupid, but I do think this thing is best enjoyed as entertainment, not as a story.