A teen gets trapped inside an MMO with thousands of other players and they're all told to beat the game or die. Throw in a love story and you've got a pretty interesting although generic premise.
In the beginning of the series the story was a big drawing point for myself. There was a large sense of finality in everything, from never being able to leave Aincrad to never coming back to life if you die. This together with having to follow the rules of an RPG, like character leveling and item durability, had me hooked. However the character leveling is largely ignored as, i believe, you don't see Kirito level up even one time on screen. Part of this can be explained by large jumps in time between and during episodes. This is generally okay because watching someone play an MMO isnt a whole lot of fun and i assume they show us all the interesting stuff that happens. There are a lot of nods to MMO's still there like item shops, game menu's, and health bars.
The show does a very good job reminding you of the finality of death in the game. Likeable characters do die during the first half of the show after a couple of episodes getting to know them. Overall the story in the first half of the show is highly dependent on a quality villian, Kayaba Akihiko, and a believably high stakes video game world. The love story between Kirito and the lead female character Asuna eventually takes over and while it slows the pace of the show down it does a good job of making you care and showing you a different side of Asuna than you've seen so far.
All of the good things about the show - death is final, being stuck in the game, good pacing etc - are thrown out the window in the second half of the show. Along with changing settings to a new MMO, with none of the old consequences, we get a new villain and a new goal. Kirito has to save the love of his life from becoming something of a sex slave from a villain straight out of H material. Throw in a subplot about his cousin being in love with him, some tentacle monsters, and take away cool battles and the only reason you have to keep watching is the connection you the viewer formed with Kirito and Asuna. Luckily this was enough for me.
Overall, there are some awesome fights (especially between Heathcliffe and Kirito) and some heartwrenching moments. throw in a solid, more than one dimensional, bad guy and you have enough to not drag the show down.
The Animation is some of the best i've seen and it's all colored beautifully. The fights are choreographed very well and movement in general is well done. Not to mention there isn't a dip in quality at any point. There are a few landscape shots that made my heart leap with joy.
Everything had the right sound effects. Along with some quality music. I watched the show subbed and can say the japanese voice acting was very good. No complaints all around.
I'm sure there is a *SPOILER* in here somewhere.
Another show where EVERY female character falls in love with the lead character. That's irritating.
Kirito - The lead male character. He helps everyone. His willpower breaks the rules of the world. Has badass fights, Generic but with a personality.
Asuna - The lead female character. Very likeable and probably the only reason you care about the second half of the show. She's portrayed as a strong fighter with a strong will for most of the first 14 episodes. She's enslaved for literally the entire second half though.
Kayaba Akihiko - The first bad guy. Creator of Sword Art Online and enslaver of thousands of players. Keeps to his word and is generally fair but in the end is the killer of a few thousand people.
Sugou Nobuyuki - The second bad guy. Not nearly as cool as the first. He has an odd hair fetish. Enslaves Asuna. Tries to rape her and threatens to rape her in real life. Has tentacle monsters. Is generally a liar and overall very one dimensional character. he really drags the show down.
Side Characters - These character are all very well done. All of them get enough screen time to make you care about what happens to them and they are all likeable. The only exception being Kirito's cousin Suguha. The characters that stood out to me were Sachi and Yui. You so want sachi's story to end well and it's painful to see her and the rest of her guild get slaughtered. In fact Sachi may have had the saddest moment in the series with her christmas message. Yui is just SO CUTE <3. She's the ONLY character to get better in the second half of the show and that was probably just because she shrunk. Yui is also kind of the hero of the show.
FINAL THOUGHTS - TL;DR
the first half of the show for me personally was atleast a 9. I loved it. The problem i had was the entire tone of the show changing around the halfway point. You kind of actually care about the world in the beginning but in moving to Alfheim, the second MMO, the show lost EVERY quality minor character and a very large part of the premise. Finality. And while they tried to keep the stakes high by enslaving the main love interest, it just wasn't as engaging. Still, the show is a very fun watch and totally worth the time it takes to watch 25 episodes.
Carried by great animation, a strong love interest, solid side stories and an interesting world i can feel alright giving SAO a 8.5/10
I know the review probably sucks. it's my first ever. i figured if i tried writing one maybe i could get a little better. i don't feel comfortable with the story section. i feel like i didn't even say what i wanted to say and kind of rambled about non story stuff. i had no idea what to write for sound and will probably just go for a paragraph on characters in general if i decide to do another one.
i'm also not sure if 8.5 is my personal subjective score or my objective one.