So....let's get down to business. I have read a couple of the other reviews. I feel, from my opinion, that all of them were either very wrong, or rated Sword Art Online way too highly. I mean, I enjoyed Sword Art Online. I've watched it twice in English subs, and now that it's out in English, I'm also watching it in English. But I cannot, for the sake of my love of stories and good writers and anime such as Code Geass, Fullmetal Alchemist, Fate/Zero, etc. that I cannot afford to prop Sword Art Online due to its wildly over aggressive and popular fan base.
So, let me get the reason to why Sword Art Online was so wildly popular out of the way: the producer was a genius to release it at the time he did. Many of the current anime fan base have played MMORPGs before, including myself, so we all knew the experiences. As soon as he threw that out, he had us hooked. I admit, as soon as I read the summary and watched a couple of AMVs, I dropped everything that day (including being a productive citizen) and watched the first four episodes. The producer had a wonderful time of making a video game based anime, for we all knew about video games and loved them, and we could relate better to it since it had plenty of those techy items we all knew and loved from our time as gamers: boss battles, items, rewards, parties, guilds, etc. etc. It even built upon that by adding some psychological aspects of being trapped in the game and also who continued fighting at the frontlines to get out. So, with all of these elements, it's no brain buster that an anime such as Sword Art Online could do so well. What really came as the surprise to me is how badly it did, considering it's great premise.
The story is broken down into two parts, the first part which takes place in Aincrad (which is the better part, in my opinion) and the second part, which takes place in Alfheim (land of fairies, incest, and way too hardcore gamers...sounds like west Virginina, a little bit). So, the summary is, there is this Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game being released called Sword Art Online. And all the gamers in Japan, hearing the hype of this game and how wonderful it was from the thousand beta testers, rushed to the stores, their internet queues, etc. to buy it, some even waiting till long past midnight. When it came out, within minutes all the copies were bought out, and ten thousand players soon logged on to play. However, after a couple of minutes of in game play, they soon realize there is something wrong. They can't log out, and the creator, Kayaba Akihiko, has turned the tables by adding the variable of the deaths in game means you also die in real life.
Sounds interesting so far, right? Well, now let's throw in from the first three episodes two very interesting and what looks like morally conflicted characters, Kirito and Asuna, and we have a great running start. We throw in a great amount of conflict, awesome battle scenes, cool character designs, and great interactions along with pleny of the normal items of MMORPGs, and we have a good start. For the first fifteen episodes, it is about the quest to get out of this dungeon, with also themes thrown in like indentity crisis, those who weren't meant to fight in the game and are afraid to die, and the true drama and impact of the deaths in game.
The great parts of the first half were the interesting stories, the background aspects of life, and the character interations. The first half, however, did have some let downs, such as Asuna practically become background chattel in order for Kirito to be more awesome and have his harem (the dream of ever gamer guy). Asuna held so much promise as a starting character, that the show completely failed to build upon and instead let her jump on the bandwagon of all typical harem animes. More on that later. Kirito started having his girl of the week episodes, and we started losing valuable time that could have been spent exploring the feel of the anime while incorporating the same scenes from these episodes, but presenting them in such a way that all of them wouldn't have to be female characters, and not all of them would fall in love with Kirito. The staff could have worked hard to give us these same scenes, but more realistically within the game. They could also have done away with Kiritos harem, and replaced them with more memorable characters like Agil. The show still presented these episodes with interesting bits, and while the faults were starting to manifest, the actual pacing of the show was good enough that you felt that these could be fixed and ironed out to great a truly worthy show.
All of this is done, beautifully. However, right when we hit that NCIS episode, the quality starts to take a downturn. The story starts to jump randomnly, and the timeline starts to convolute so much that it reminds of one of Doctor Who's quotes ("just a big wobbly bobbly timey wimey mess"). I understand that so many aspects of life were thrown in, and I really appreciated those with how they gave us a look into the normal life of the game, but there were too many of them within too small a space for us to recoup back to the main storyline. We had episodes of fishing, Yuis story, etc. etc. And then right after that, episodes 14 and 15 completely freight train right through the whole good half of the first part of the show, tearing them and their feels apart so that we were left holding and scratching our head, wondering what had just happened.
So, when episodes 14 and 15 come barreling out of nowhere, the show is hit hard like a car on a railroad and all pieces are thrown to the four winds. In the second half, which is transitioned to rather blockily and feels like it's kinda being shoved down your throat after the smooth gloss of the first half, the fear of death, the inability to log out, and the whole unique setting of Aincrad is thrown out completely in Alfheim online, land of the fairies. You can imagine how this raised my eyebrows after hearing that name.
The transition was blocky, and all of the good parts of the show, including some of the greatest characters, Agil and Klein, were thrown away as disposable plot devices. The whole plot decides to hitch itself on Kiritos and Asunas romance, which wasn't exactly cemented in stone, though it was done rather well, but not well enough to carry the whole second half of the show. Also, with scenes thrown in as poor taste such as SPOILER Sugous raping of Asuna. This scene was completely useless, but it perfectly captured the second half of the show with Alfheim online. Worthless, useless, with only some good points and really, you were only glad when it was over.
I feel it would have been much better if they had continued on with the first part of the story and spent more time on Asunas and Kiritos character, rather than doing their mystery crimes and focusing on Kiritos harem, so that's why I give the story a 4.5 out of 10.
The animation for Sword Art Online was very good. It was full of good character designs, cool weapons, great monsters, and sweet battle scenes. Flashing explosions, shining swords, what more was there to want? It was very well drawn, and the quality stayed the same all throughout the first half, meaning we enjoyed it all of it.
However, as with a lot of this story, the animation took a downturn in the second half, so I was slightly disappointed. They took away all the awesome manliness (sorry, gals, there's just no other word for it) and replaced it with weird fairies and a Kirito who reminded me suspiciously of Zack from Final Fantasy VII, right down to the sword and everything.
Not only this, but all the amazing monster designs and everything during the first half were thrown away.
Now, the sound of Sword Art Online, particularly with the opening Crossing Field and the battle theme Swordlands, was very well done. They were epic, and used particularly well as to make the show memorable. Yuki Kajiura is a master at soundtracks, and a lot of the soundtracks she used perfectly captured the moments of the story, and when the plot line was failing or not creating as good a mood, her music helped punctuate the moments perfectly and arouse such emotion and connection with the characters.
I give major props to Yuki for this one, because she did a wonderful job and I even have a private playlist on youtube with all 33 songs from the soundtrack.
Whether it was A Tender Feeling or A Tiny Love used to encapsulate Asunas and Kiritos cuter moments, or the great opening theme of sacks Swordlands used to pitch the battles to their crescendo, I fully enjoyed the music.
So, the characters at the start of the show held so much promise. Asuna looked to be a particularly awesome character, with her whole reserved nature and her awesome fighting skills, along with Agil. However, both of these great characters were sidelined and eventually just turned into plot devices for the second half of the story, which really made me depressed. Klein was introduced, but only appeared at small scenes later on, and you never really knew what he would have been up to, though I feel like it would have been full of many interesting and possibly amusing stories. But sure, Sword Art Online, rather than focus on the potential of these great characters, let's devote two episodes to completely usless characters. The only side episode and side girl character that I really felt connected to in the end was Sachi, and while Lisbeth's and Silica's stories were interesting in their own right, they left so much to be desired and their time was stolen from the main characters and also the main story. That is also how I feel about the NCIS episode as well.
However, as during the second half of the show, we had a new character introduced: Kirito/Kazuto Kirigayas little sister, Suguha. But she's not really his little sister, she's his cousin....and she's in love with him. Suguhas character, however, is handled so badly that you eventually end up hating her more for the initial drama and pointless confusion she causes(seeing as, at this point, you've probably fallen in love with Asuna to some extent or another) so Suguha is just a bad addition to an already bad arc. Yui, the initial potential of her, was sidelined again and the plot left a huge question as to what would happen to her.
In the end, the characters were badly handled, and during the second half, forgotten about all their previous character development and initial creativity.
So, in the end with the great start Sword Art Online had and everything, it left too much to be desired. Bad writing, a terribly boring second half, neglected characters, and a rather plain and uninteresting main character made for just another average show. This show held so much promise, and what it did in the first half, it did well. But then the second half happened, and there was no way this could be saved.
So, Sword Art Online is an average anime, not one I would recommend first watching if you're new to anime, but only after you've had some excellent shows to watch first, and you can deal with something a little mediocre. Because in the end, despite all of its potential, Sword Art Online turns out to just be another mediocre, average anime.