Ah, Sword Art Online (SAO), how much I hate this show. Not because I am jealous of it being more popular and a much better seller than my favourite shows, but because it hardly deserves its hype and popularity. This is the most overhyped and overrated series of 2012, proving once again that the majority of the anime fandom is comprised of tasteless people who deify fan service and then excuse it by deeming everything as deep and quality writing. I am not kidding here; every time I was pointing out a weakness in this show while it was airing, I would have dozens of fanboys downvoting me, calling me names, and trying to excuse everything with imaginary proof that they made up on the spot. There was even a forum moderator who was deleting every negative post he could find and leave only the hyped positives remaining, thus giving off the impression to anyone reading the thread that nobody had something negative to say about this masterpiece of a show. Ok, the truth is he made a few exceptions; he left a few negative ones. Specifically, those he could prove wrong by quoting them and providing shallow reasoning, found in the realm of imagination.
At the same time these same wonderful people were bashing innovating titles such as Shinsekai Yori and .hack//SIGN because they talk a lot and don’t show enough boobs. Aka, they are about context and subtlety instead of dumbass entertainment. Sure, they were slow and relied on talking instead of showing, but look at the sad alternative. If the show hadn’t been hyped so much by people with really bad taste, this series would be just another mediocrity that would soon be forgotten as it deserved. And instead of that the type of shows the fandom wanted more of led to the industry creating more crap in the future, and the result was the isekai boom. A completely lowbrow subgenre, based on badly written light novels for virgins whose social life is limited to videogames.
The anime is based on the light novels by Kawahara Reki, the same author who wrote the Accel World (AW) light novels, which have very similar concepts and themes. This guy is practically only writing about the ideal brothel all gamers want to spend their lives in and sure as hell does not write good plots or characters. He is exactly like those people who write sappy romances full of sex for bored middle aged housewives. He just mixes popular sci-fi / action / superpower / comedy / drama ideas that are somewhat related to totally imbalanced videogames.
His AW novels were also adapted to anime and were even airing at the same time as this one for awhile. And guess what, just like SAO, AW was also mostly guilty pleasure than quality writing or good characterization. It was also hyped for similar reasons and was also mocked by most after it turned out to be crap like SAO. So in case you disliked that one, you will dislike this one for similar reasons.
If you want more specific examples, just look at how he writes. Constantly introducing new characters and trying to make them dramatic before killing them or never mentioning them again. If he wants us to feel sorry for a dying character, he should have kept him around for a dozen episodes so we get to like him first. Or when he is not killing them, he is keeping a few of them around as antagonists, only to conveniently turn them to jerks soon afterwards, so Kirito can seem heroic next to them. There is no effort in making them act like a person worthy of liking, or having more than 1 dimensions.
Here is another proof of how crap these books are. The SAO series has a dozen novels. One would think that the story is very long. And it’s not! SAO technically lasts only one book! The others are irrelevant side stories that happen in flashbacks or entirely different games! That’s right; the title SAO is practically useless after the first book. It’s there just so the idiotic fans will keep buying more books with its name on it. Being incapable to keep a story going for more than a few chapters, yet unwilling to let it finish and move to writing something else, every time an arc ends the author just finds a poor excuse to make another arc and start all over again, rehashing the exact same things. The characters constantly enter completely different games that are not called nor played like SAO!
After all the aspects of the first game were presented (poorly and unbalanced as always), the only way for the gamers to keep being interested in such a show is to introduce a new game with new rules and start all over again to explain stuff. You heard right; the only thing this story does in order to keep you interested, is to present something in a rushed and superficial way before it resets the plot completely.
And let’s be honest here; aside from anything I said so far, it is based on light novels. Meaning, stories written by people with little to no talent, appealing to people with no exposure to quality literature. Some of them may be smash hits and may be considered masterpieces amongst LN fans, but try to give those books to veteran readers of literature and try to see what they will say about it. You won’t find a big enough rock to hide under. So don’t assume that because the SAO novels are considered to be THE BEST BOOKS EVER WRITTEN it automatically means they are good. They are not. They are simply glorified fan service in a similar way the Harry Potter and Twilight books were hyped in the past.
The premise is definitely interesting and I see why most would fall in love with it right away. Ten thousand players are trapped in a videogame where the only way to get out is by clearing the game. A nice catch is that if their hit points run out they will not respawn in the nearest portal, but instead they will die permanently. Something similar is going to happen if someone from the outside world tries to remove the VR helmet in an attempt to free them prematurely. This offers a feeling of actual mortal danger since it’s not just a harmless game. Another catch is how their avatars in the game are made to look as their real selves, so it was funny to find the usual joke of males playing females or hardly being as handsome as they appeared at first. Think of all the cool stuff you would normally expect to get with such an amazing set-up.
- A thrilling survival/death game
- Epic battles full of buffs, spells, and elaborate strategies
- A huge variety of game mechanics and resource management of rare ingredients
- Soul crushing tragedies concerning the death of people
- Intrigue and conspiracies by those who will do anything it takes to survive
- Thought provoking mysteries considering the reasons behind why they were trapped and how all that lead to existentialism issues regarding the meaning of life and the value of morality in a fictional world
- Relationships, romance, and sex in cyberspace (yes, it has that too)
… And sadly you only get a few crams of those. As soon as the shock from the most intriguing pilot episode is over, you are offered a mess of a plot, shallow conflicts, cop-out solutions, and lots-n’-lots dumb self-indulgence. It is barely exploring any of its interesting concepts; it is full of plot holes, inconsistencies, and character rewrites, which can only be defended with ridiculous amounts of mental gymnastics. It’s the exact same thing that made other shonen such as Naruto or Bleach so famous. It is constantly making you have high expectations (which of course are never met) and is deliberately not making any sense so you are made to fill the blanks by yourself, using the only tool available: Imagination and wish fulfilment. It’s a very neat trick to fool the superficial audience into liking and talking about something because it is presented as mysterious, even when in reality it is simply badly written fan fiction full of double standards and vague explanations. It’s just videogame nerd catering, and poorly thought out terminology that is there just to offer familiarity with their hobby.
“Dude! It’s this anime about videogames! Yeah they play videogames and there is this amazing world and if they die they don’t respawn. And they are trapped inside and need to beat 100 super bosses! And there is this cool dude with a huge sword and all the girls love him and he is so tragic and-and… Dude! Videogames, big swords and chicks! Amazing isn’t it?”
Yes, it is amazing. As a concept! What about plot, character development, action, romance, or consistency in the rules of the game? Not much there, but if the premise sounds cool that is fine for most anime fans who stick to the superficial elements of a series and don’t care about execution, thus they can make anything to seem like a masterpiece if it just looks nice. And don’t forget the terminology! It makes it so familiar with the target audience, like Gintama referring stuff from popular Jump Shonen shows. We are living in the videogame generation and SAO was the first high budget anime that was made to appeal to the generation of 2010 fans, in a similar way Gintama did to the Big Three generation of the 2000s, and Harry Potter to the generation of the 1990s. Most of them shut off their brains, hype whatever looks cool as the best and most original idea of all times. Which of course it isn’t, since there already were a handful of similar shows before, such as Dennou Coil, or cartoons such as Captain N, or live action movies such as Tron, Spy Kids 3D, or Game Box 2.0. NOT SO ORIGINAL ANYMORE HM? Said fans then proceed onto becoming a joke a decade later because of all the dumb things they did while defending that crap.
Very bad direction. The scenes change randomly and people seem to be standing in a completely different position in each one. Even worse, secondary players magically disappear from the fighting scenes for no reason.
Half the duration of the first half of the show is about stand alone missions, which in the books were short stories without connection to one another. Each one of them ends up being nothing but an easy mission where the protagonist is showing off how cool he is and increases his harem. They are completely boring despite attempting to help us get to know the game and the secondary characters. It also creates continuity problems, since when the side story ends and the main story is back, people behave very differently, as if the previous events never happened and crucial information is mentioned only then and not earlier when they were supposed to know it all along.
The story was also badly adapted from the books.
- They took out several explanations regarding the way the game is played, and internal monologues which reason the mentality of a character in certain episodes.
- The girls are presented in a lot more harem-like way. They were turned from somewhat dynamic women who like the protagonist to fap material after his virtual cock.
- They took out the sex scenes and replaced them with several ecchi scenes where they simply make overused boob grabs and pantsu shots, followed by bitch slaps. And instead of “we had sex” they always say “we were playing for hours.” Great way to dumb down the good parts.
- The original script of the first arc was only one book long that could hardly fill half a season. The second book was just stand alone side stories that happen in between its various time skips. The director had the stupid idea of animating them in chronological order, which means that for several episodes you get a bunch of filler episodes which lack plot continuity and even have several personality inconsistencies.
The plot is one huge pile of stereotypes aiming at gamers and dorks. The setting by itself is going to attract anyone who likes playing MMORPGs. It will make them to constantly be comparing it to various game mechanics, and since the game does a shitty job at explaining its gameplay, they will be talking about it for weeks. Before eventually they realize the game sucks that is.
Take the protagonist for example. He is THE BEST in everything. He has the highest level in the game, super skills nobody else has in the game, the most knowledge of how to farm easy, and can beat the strongest bosses all alone without even being prepared for it. No reason for why he is so good in everything; we are just supposed to accept he is super cool and wish to be like him. Also, he is supposed to be an anti-social yet EVERY SINGLE GIRL IN THE GAME HAS THE HOTS FOR HIM. And he accomplishes that by being a complete jerk. He lies, exploits, doesn’t reveal crucial information, leads people to their deaths and every goddamn girl in the game finds out about that and her reaction is to beg him to bang her. He’s basically an empty husk, and a self insert power fantasy for gamers with no social life.
It goes further than this by having all the female players running around in mini skirts and constantly trying not to show their panties.
- And of course the animators made it impossible for girls to wear decent clothes.
- Oh, and not to forget to mention how they are constantly molested by tentacle monsters and crazy rapists.
- And how they can’t do anything right when Kirito is around so he will of course run to their rescue every single time with his amazing skills.
- And how they constantly forget to dress and walk out of their rooms while in their underwear.
- And how they never miss the chance to bend over and have the camera zoom to their asses.
It is supposed to make the viewer be afraid of the game, but at the same time it wants from him to self-insert with wish fulfilment nonsense that pretends to be SERIOUS AND DEEP when it’s otherwise as shallow as it gets.
- Imagine you being trapped in a fantastic world full of dangers and adventure, where you need to fight hard in order to survive! This is not a game, it’s as real as life itself! … But at the same time it’s still a game and everybody still acts like it is. You would definitely want to be there, right?
- Imagine you being the most awesome, most powerful, most smart, sexiest person in the whole world, and have all the girls falling in love with you right away. But you stay faithful to an equally perfect, beautiful, sexy, tsundere wife who cooks and cries only for you. And imagine having cyber sex with her without worrying she might get pregnant. It’s the best life there is… But you also want to get out of there, because it’s a virtual world and your real bodies are withering! You would definitely want to be that man, right?
The animation is done by Studio A-1 Pictures which usually cares a lot for character appeal and has good budgets. This is hardly one of their best works though; it has several scenes per episode where it is too crude. The artwork is definitely nice since it really feels like a fancy Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). The animation is otherwise very poor in a show that is supposed to be full of action and adventure. There may be battles in this show, but they are all dull and usually end in a few minutes. You are looking at static pictures and flashes that are substituting motions to the most part. Many times the battles aren’t even shown and are resolved out of screen or we fast forward after they are over. Hell, all battles are resolved through broken powers and deus ex machina asspulls. The emotional impact is lost because everything feels dry and convenient.
Although in terms of production values the series looks kinda great, most of what is going on “in” the plot is implied, not shown, and is in general skipped. For example, we are told thousands of players died in a few weeks. We never see that, which automatically makes the whole tragedy of the event completely superficial. It would be amazing if we were shown clips of people being killed by monsters and traps since it would make their deaths more than a flimsy passage. Instead of that all we are told is that they are dead; end of story and moving along. In a similar way, do not expect to see a hundred boss fights. You will get only four, the rest are skipped entirely. Do not expect constant grinding, hard ingredient gathering, or epic battles. They all last only a few minutes and always end anticlimactically. This is not really an action show based on survival by killing monsters.
The plot is, in general, all over the place, to the point it has several time skips every few minutes. To give you an example, it begins with making the game appear extremely hard in level 1 but 7 episodes later they have cleared three quarters of it out of screen. In the meantime, characters have gained new equipment, got lots of levels, and joined powerful guilds without ever bothering to show us how they managed to do all that. Jump forward a few more episodes and the death game aspect that seemed so interesting at first, is completely gone and nobody dies anymore; it’s just a typical MMO where you respawn as usual.
Adding to all that we have some of the sappiest melodrama you can ever hope to encounter, forced tragedies and revelations that come out of thin air, just for the sake of superficial shock factor. Any attempts at romance come straight out of a stereotypical, chauvinistic, and unrealistic eroge. You can easily see why harem and vn fans will love it at first sight. You know what kind of people I am talking about; the same people you give a real book to read and give up on the third page because it is not full of boobs and has more than 100 different words repeating over and over again.
As a whole, there hardly is a plot, since it time skips all the time and shows close to nothing of what is going on. More specifically:
- The death game ends midway through the show; the rest of the episodes are a completely different, non-deadly game
- Half of the death game episodes are plotless fillers
- Half of the plot-based episodes will not be fantasy adventure in a videogame world, but rather slice of life, light adventures, very rushed stories, and fan service. Meaning, the total duration of the actual game only lasts for about 3 full episodes. The rest of them are irrelevant to the premise.
Do not expect any real fleshing out. Everything will be mentioned for a few seconds and will never be elaborated. Despite the various explanations you will never understand the game mechanics.
- Every time someone is injured in this game, his hit points drop gradually and not at once. You can’t heal someone if his life is “actually” zero. People in the game are simply dying with delay, just so they can have a few seconds to throw out some famous last words. This creates a confusing mess, since without being told that, it really seems like you can heal them but don’t want to, or the victims refuse to be healed and act like they want to die. You won’t believe how retarded everybody behaves during their death throes just because they never explained this part.
- There is another part where some players have a teleportation crystal but don’t use it to escape to town when they are ambushed by monsters or other players. They act like they forgot they had one when in reality a crystal needs 8 seconds to activate. Without being told that in-series, it just feels retarded and confusing.
- Most game mechanics matter only in the episode they are introduced. You will never see or hear about them in a later episode.
- All secondary characters do not have a role to play in the plot past the episode they are introduced. They become background decorations.
- All feats the protagonist accomplices are forgotten in a few episodes by everybody and it’s like they never happened in the first place. This trashes all sense of progress and development.
- At some cases it is stated none of the bosses can leave the room they guard, in some others it is stated they roam the countryside and can even attack cities.
- At some cases a crystal is said to be enough to teleport away a whole team, at others it only teleports one person.
- They constantly say you don’t feel pain in the game, yet you clearly see how every time someone hits them, they act like they are in pain. At the same time they say you can feel pleasure in the game (aka, have an orgasm) when pleasure and pain can’t exist separately since they are basically the same thing.
And here are two examples from the second game:
- They mention there are renegade players who have betrayed their city, but then it is stated they respawn back to their town when killed, something which makes no sense, since this way nobody would be able to escape the wrath of those he betrayed.
- There is a barrier to prevent anyone from crossing to forbidden parts of the game. Nothing should be able to pass through it. And yet when someone throws a simple item at it, it passes through with no problem.
Most explanations regarding game mechanics or character roles are presented mostly though explanatory monologues. Meaning, they are talking a lot and show very little. We hardly see how things work out on-screen since they mostly talk about them. It’s a trick that the series is using in order to keep everything vague. It never explains something clearly and lets you assume how that something works. You can literally explain everything in any way you like and you will be always right. And that is why the fanboys always had an explanation for every plot hole, by mentioning other games with similar game mechanic to SAO. Which of course is bullshit, since there are countless videogames out there. One of them is bound to have a mechanic to excuse the unexcused. Every show needs to make sense on its own and not by filling in the blanks with stuff from other shows or games. Otherwise, you can just as easily complain every time the characters don’t turn to giants whenever they eat mushrooms, or don’t throw fireballs when they smell daisies in the valleys. If it happens in Super Mario, it should be happening here as well! ... What did you say? That was a different game with different game mechanics and therefore should not be used as an example? Well then, in that case DON’T MENTION OTHER GAMES FOR EXCUSING PLOT HOLES! The fanboys were eventually resorting to saying “we don’t know how videogames will be like in the future, so it’s wrong to assume the game mechanics are stupid because they differ from current games.” How convenient! First they try to excuse it with current terminology, and now they say it doesn’t even apply. Meaning, they don’t give a rat’s ass if it makes sense. They only want to hear words that have to do with videogames. Ha!
Even the game mechanics that are explained, still feel very iffy. For example, you don’t have to actually defeat 100 bosses in order to survive. The bosses don’t respawn. As long as a dozen hardcore players power through the levels, the rest of the players can clear the game without doing a thing. They don’t even need to walk through dangerous areas in order to get to the next town since they can use an easily acquired teleportation crystal. This nulls most of the action/survival aspect. Also, it makes the game very dumb. Who would play a game where the bosses never respawn and you can clear it by never fighting or by sleeping all day? It makes the viewer think that someone who endangers himself to the point of getting killed, simply deserved it for being a complete idiot who got what he deserved. Every time someone is killed, instead of feeling sad you just end up thinking: “Serves you right for going to farm in a dungeon fifty times your level, instead of letting others with proper levels and skills to do it for you.” Also, as it is usually the case with protagonists, any sense of danger is lost when you realize the system will make sure the protagonist will always be overpowered, will never lose, and will be the guaranteed victor all the time just because he is the protagonist.
Other dumb mechanics:
-The fighting is based on “switching”, meaning to jump back and forth while waiting for your attacks to cool down and allowing your team mates to storm in without you standing in their way. This makes battles to feel silly because they are essentially turn-based and not real-time.
-Every single problem in the game is caused by the exact same thing. Not being able to use crystals. There are crystals to teleport or heal and if for any reason the characters can’t use them, tragedy occurs. Every time someone shows or talks about crystals, get ready for something stupid to happen because immediately afterwards he won’t be able to use them.
-Cheats are treated as bad, when they are super helpful in a death game. There are many ways to abuse the game mechanics for powerplay and for allowing shortcuts when levelling up. They are presented as evil when they are an easy way to beat the game easier. Kirito is hunting anyone who cheats, supposed for fair play, when in reality he is cheating himself for being a beta tester who exploits farm areas.
And to add to all the confusion, several rules don’t even matter after awhile. The author will constantly be rewriting them just for the sake of retarded plot twists, thus ruining even the very main appeal of the show.
- Being about to be killed? Have the artificial intelligence of the game saving you just for the heck of it.
- Being paralysed? Break the unbreakable status effect with the power of love.
- Staying alive even after you are dead? Sure, why not?
- Transferring all your hax skills to a completely new game instead of starting from level 1 as normal? Happens all the time.
- Being able to steal main equipment from other players that can trash completely the balance of the game? This is something no MMO ever allowed and no other player was ever shown doing it. Only the protagonist can do it and only because he is the protagonist.
- Being able to use items such as access cards that are restricted to admin status only, even when you are not an admin? Yeah, I bet there is a game somewhere that lets you do that too.
- Being given the admin status and revoking all the privileges the game owner has by a ghost? But of course! That happens in every MMO we ever played! And I love how the ghost was waiting for the last moment before transferring this power up, when it could otherwise do it any time it wanted to.
The funniest part is how thanks to this review I made the fanboys eventually admit the gameplay is full of crap… and STILL excuse it by saying there are lots of imbalanced games out there being played by thousands of people JUST BECAUSE. Yes, the exact same reason everything works in this show. JUST BECAUSE.
As a result of the lacking presentation, several characters have some really weird mood swings.
- You will never know what they think or why they changed like that all of a sudden. Something as simple as internal monologues could help to clear the confusion but the anime adaptation removed most of them.
- Characters will behave in the most one dimensional way possible, just to make the audience know right away what to feel about them for the rest of the show.
- Character introductions and relationships form, develop, and end in a few minutes. You are given no time to appreciate what the show expects from you to do. It’s impossible to care for something which has no time invested in it. You will constantly see characters crying over people they know for a few days and barely exchanged ten sentences with. You are left to wonder what is so tragic about people you barely saw a couple of times.
- All characters follow stereotypes that you mostly find in ecchi comedies. To the most part they are not worried about their lives. They will behave as if this is a game and not a life or death situation. And indeed, instead of making you feel like they do anything they can in order to survive, you are instead made to think they are enjoying it, like nothing of importance is going on. It may be fun for the audience to see them doing all the classic stuff players do in online games, but this is NOT a typical game. In fact, they are not actually playing if they are forced to do it, and defeat means death.
- The plot is half the time like that of a typical harem and not like that of a survival story. The protagonist for example makes any girl to fall in love with him 10 minutes after they meet, without any effort or even when he acts like a total jerk to them. There are no ugly girls in the whole show, even when they are supposed to have their real faces, and they all fall in love with the same guy. At the same time, every other male besides the protagonist will be either a lame comic relief, or a completely sadistic asshole that loves to mistreat women and has no redeeming qualities.