Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sword Art Online - Review, Thoughts and Reflections

So I've never actually been an avid anime enthusiast over a good portion of my life but I've been marathoning hundreds of hours of anime shows the past two weeks for a reason unbeknownst to me, maybe to induce myself into a depression or find the meaning of life.  I do want to give my thoughts about Sword Art Online mostly because I feel it's message hit more at home with me.  I've lived the experience as i've played MMORPG's over the past 10 years myself.  I know what it is to find people with common goals and form new relationships that transcend the virtual space into reality.  So it is kind of hard to talk about this anime series without spoiling some major plot points so I guess this review is more directed at other people who have already finished watching it.  As I have just marathoned all 25 current episodes I don't know whether these were broadcast into separate seasons so I'll just split them by story arcs which would be Sword Art Online and ALfheim Online and reflect upon them separately. So skip the sections below if you really want to avoid spoilers.

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Sword Art Online (episodes 1-14)

So going into Sword Art Online(SAO) I didn't know what to expect as I have not read any of the light novels or read any other reviews online about it.  I was thinking maybe it would be a light hearted take on online gaming but once the main villain appears and sets up the rules of world to the thousands of players in the main plaza it immediately became a serious life and death situation as dying in the virtual world would kill the person in reality.  The real death penalty premise was probably the most brilliant part of the story as the tension it created made every situation matter to the lives of everyone now living in this virtual world and shows us the comradery and corruption that builds up between this community of players which parallels real society in many ways.

Of course the main goal in Sword Art Online is to get out and to do that the community has to clear a series of floors and dungeons which hold some powerful bosses that block progression throughout the game.  So the anime borrows alot of simple gaming concepts like health pools, equipment, experience, and general skill progression to convey the power and abilities these people have in the game.  So if you've played a few MMO's or Role Playing Games the terminology is pretty familiar.

So one major complaint that I had was that the pacing of the first few episodes was going way too fast and I felt that alot of characters early on didn't get the exposition that they deserved.  For example Sachi seemed like a character who probably could have used another episode to convey a stronger relationship between her and Kirito because she was probably the first person he cared about or even started to love so I felt that maybe her death could have had more of an emotional impact on the viewers so that we could also feel as tormented as Kirito was while he listened to her final goodbye message.  Also other characters like Klein, Silica, Lizbeth seemed underused and basically only appear to build up Kirito's character and showing us what kind of guy he is.

After the hastened first half of this story arc we finally get to the real Kirito and Asuna relationship.  They meet early on in the story but they don't journey together after their first few meetings.  So It isn't till a year later that they start to develop feelings for each other but I thought this relationship took the time it needed to demonstrate that while they never met in reality their bond was indeed real and they loved each other enough to protect each other in times of need.  In essence the relationship between Kirito and Asuna is the main theme of the series and many subplots explore the relationship up to a point where they build their own virtual family.

Overall I felt satisfied with the way this arc ended and I kind of wish they explored the mind of the main villain some more as he seemed interesting.  The last battle was was a test of the human condition and overcoming it led to their somewhat bittersweet victory.  It was a relief to know that the nightmare was over for those left alive in SAO.

ALfheim Online (episodes 15-25)

This story arc is a bit shorter than SAO but I feel it's a more much focused narrative.  Kirito is finally out of the death trap but not all is well back in the real world as his one and only true love Asuna is still living a life of virtual reality as she did not wake up so to save her he has to go back into the online world.  So the basic story line becomes a save the princess type of video game trope.

What I found most interesting about this story arc is not so much Kirito's determination to get his love back but rather his sister Suguha's(Leafa) development throughout these episodes.  Even though Kirito isn't technically her brother(adopted cousin) she develops intimate feelings for him and she knows he will never return the same feelings as he is too consumed with Asuna in the real world.  So she escapes into the virtual world ALfeim online and in an ironic twist falls in love with Kirito's avatar in ALfeim online as well.  The revelation when Kirito and Leafa realize that they know each other is done very well.  I couldn't help but feel sympathetic towards Suguha as it was a brutal and soul crushing way to find out that that the person she could possibly fall in love with and forget about her brother in the real world was in the end actually her brother as well.

As for the actual society and type of game ALfeim online is I feel doesn't hold the same appeal as SAO.  There is no real tension or drama that you could possibly care about even though there seems to be a well thought out faction system but they really don't get into the politics all too much other than a few scenes where Kirito makes a few friends in high places that sort of help him on his journey to the World Tree. I also thought the new villain was sort of underwhelming, while Sugou is a fairly scummy guy his presence as the main villain just doesn't quite match up to Kayaba Akihiko.

Asuna while being the main motivation for Kirito's quest to save her has a fairly limited role and seems pretty helpless even though it's been shown previously that she is powerful person.  I guess I could see why they maybe wanted to put her in this role, perhaps it was more or less to show the will power she has to keep on living despite being stuck in a world of solitude.

I felt the ending was actually pretty good, the Kirito and Asuna moment in the hospital was a very memorable moment and you get to see alot of characters return in the final moments to celebrate the events of the past few years.  It's safe to say that we haven't seen the last of Kirito, Asuna, and Leafa as the World Seed program seems to bring new life to other virtual worlds and it's fairly implied that there is more to come in the future which I am thrilled about as I see there is much more potential in this series but if they never continue the anime I wouldn't say I'd be dissapointed as things wrap up pretty well.

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I honestly enjoyed my time with Sword Art Online as I feel it's greatest strength is the way it conveys online relationships within a close community of players.  The real death penalty of the game only amplifies the emotional bonds the cast of characters experience which truly brings out who they really are as humans beings and further implies the message that even though they live in a virtual world the experiences they had with each other are very much real life experiences.