I was really hesitant to watch Sword Art Online at first, to be honest the rather polarized nature of the pro and con viewer bases tends to make the show more of a minefield to traverse than a sit back relax and enjoy experience. Initially I was one who watched the first episode and dropped the show in favor of another show I had in queue for viewing, I made the mistake of not giving a show enough time to full lay out the story it wants to tell before rushing to judgment, and in some ways I am glad that I reversed that decision and gave SAO a chance. Now those platitudes aside, is the show good? Yes. Is it as good as the hype that surrounds it? Let's have that discussion.
Since the show comes with a rather avid fan base who have micro analyzed the intricacies of the story down to the minute detail, I can save myself the trouble of trying to recap a somewhat complex 25 episode storyline in a paragraph or two. What I will say is that the plot suffers from poor pacing and poor exposition in the initial few episodes and then again at the end. I would say that it may have been better for the experience and the story if instead of have both arcs in the 25 episode run, the show would have just limited the first 25 episodes to the Sword Art Online game experience with Alfheim Online split off and given it's own 12-25 episode run. This would have given proper time to pace the first arc and give weight to some of the encounters and situations related to the SAO game that are hurriedly thrown at the audience with little explanation at the time as to why this is or is not important and why.
If the first arc of the series suffers from a feeling of inconsistent pacing, the second arc drowns in it. By the end of the show far too many plot contrivances are thrown at the viewer in order to make the show fit into a 25 episode run. This may have been the fault of the source material but even so care should have been taken by the screenwriters and dialogue editors to limit the number of "and then this happens!" moments that for some may detract from the experience of the show.
The animation is very good at the start of the show with several entertaining camera motion tricks used to truly emphasize the uniqueness of the game world. By the end though it ends up being par for the course as either in the rush to tie up all the loose ends of the story or a shrinking animation budget left us with a very good but not memorable looking show.
The sound was reasonable though I have only ever seen the subbed version so do not have any insight as to how the dub may or may not stack up. Again this is another area where the opportunity to really emphasize the uniqueness of the game world especially given the constantly changing environment was missed.
Though I doubt there are more than 25 people who may read this that haven't already seen the show, just for those who haven't and want to have a fresh eyes viewing may want to skip this section as I have a few opinions about the characters and spoilers may be involved. I won't cover most of the multitude of secondary characters of the show since they don't either have enough significance nor screen time to be worth of much note. You have been warned, now buckle up.
The main protagonist of the show who was part of the initial beta test for Sword Art Online before being trapped with the rest of the players during the launch day festivities. To say he is a wish fulfillment character could be considered an insult to Mary Sues everywhere. There really is not any tension around whether or not he will overcome this or that it's obvious from the onset that he of course will win it's merely a display of how he triumphs. From the standpoint of the traditional powerless person rising up against seemingly impossible odds to learn grow and develop into a hero capable of saving the day, he fails to deliver.
The main female who starts out as a capable adventurer also doing her best to survive the dangerous world she is now trapped in slowly over the course of the series devolves into a traditional damsel in distress awaiting her shining knight to princess carry her to safety. What potential she may have held onto in the first arc even given the married life simulation was completely lost in the second arc where she was literally relegated to mostly helpless princess trapped in a tower.
Kirito's cousin who the audience does not get introduced to until the short lull in between arcs. She serves as Kirito's support in the second arc but mostly relegated to a broken hearted love interest that never stood a chance and was never given enough screen time or development to get the audience invested in her situation.
Sachi is a member of the Moonlit Black Cats who's death supposedly served as a major character development moment for Kirito. Her story is another victim of the pacing problems the show suffers from, if her story had that much of an impact on Kirito and who he becomes then more than a single episode should have been devoted to her and her fallen comrades.
The Laughing Coffin
A guild of players within the Sword Art Online arc that engaged in player killing with no regard for the dead in the game dead in reality stipulation of their confinement. From an interesting moral quandary aspect they should have been the main focus of the entire first arc, with the moral questions of how do you stop their slaughter in a world without consequences. Do you kill someone knowing they will really die and you have that on your conscience, or do you hope to escape the game and end the slaughter before they rack up any more kills? Another very interesting plot element lost in the haste to move Kirito onto his next triumph.
Silica and Lisbeth
Two additional female characters thrown into the mix of the story only to serve as additional one way love interests to pursue after Kirito.
A player mental health AI from the first arc who for reasons never explained was imprisoned by the main program running the Sword Art Online game and forbidden from any player interaction. She gets adopted by Kirito and Asuna one day when they happen across her in the woods after they decide to get married and when they learn of her true identity they continue on with the parent child relationship. Yui serves as a means to give Kirito any information or abilities he needs to beat any one of the very small number of situations he can't instantly beat by just being Kirito.
After all that I will sum things up like this, is Sword Art Online an entertaining enough anime to be worth the watch, absolutely. Is it the epic adventure and struggle that it claims to be, no. Behind all of it's MMO terminology and interesting concepts it just a normal formulaic superhero story, if you like a good will always win type story with no real drama and underdeveloped characters then you'll be fine. If you want a fear of failure or worse from your stories then you may want to look elsewhere.