Sword Art Online is based on a series of light novel series by Kawahara Reki and it aired in the summer/autumn of 2012, scoring 8.23/10 from 234,418 users on MAL. It is set in the near future where technology has made it possible for people to experience gameplay first-hand with Nerve Gear, a helmet which players wear over their heads when they connect to the game. The game turns deadly serious, literally, when the players found out that they couldn’t log out of the game. When your avatar’s death in-game leads to actual death in real life, gaming is brought to another level altogether.
The first thing I heard about Sword Art Online, was that it was the past season’s Shingeki no Kyojin. As we all know, Shingeki was HUGE. During the time it was airing, all I could think of was Shingeki, Shingeki and only Shingeki. It has been a long while since I got that obsessed over an anime, but at the same time, I knew that such animes are rare to come by so I started watching SAO without holding high expectations. Surprisingly, I was hooked right from the first few minutes and finished the entire series within three days.
One major pull factor for me was the setting of SAO. As an ex-gamer addict who used to live for MMORPGs (mass multiplayer online role playing games), watching SAO brings back the nostalgia of those days when gaming took precedence over food and communication with reality. Throughout SAO, I had the constant feeling that we were watching the animated fantasies of Kawahara-sensei. Although I can’t sympathise with his harem fantasy, I find myself sharing his VRMMORPG (virtual reality mass multiplayer online role playing game, what a mouthful) dream and that made SAO such a pleasure to watch. I really look forward to the day when MMOs get an additional VR aspect to it.
SAO features two arcs with two different games (Sword Art Online and Alfheim Online), both arcs are loosely linked to each other but it is possible to watch the second arc without watching the first (although you would be missing out on so much).
Aincrad – The Death Game
The steel castle of Aincrad comprises of 100 floors, with one boss to defeat every floor. As long as the floor boss gets defeated, entrance to the next floor will be opened to all players. In order to escape from this death game, players have to beat all 100 floor bosses and reach end game.
The Aincrad arc was my (and most other SAO fans’) favourite arc out of the two. There are many reasons to love this arc; I feel that the main reason was because we spent more time in Aincrad and we knew this world better than ALO. Kirito was just rushing around to find Asuna in ALO and we barely saw much of the game features there. Besides that, Aincrad was where we met Kirito, Asuna and the rest of the cast of SAO. In a way, having met them when they were still “newbs” and seeing them take down the level 75 boss at the end made me feel rather proud of them.
The villain of this arc turned out to be just a man who has been misled by his ideals, though I can’t say I don’t understand where he might be coming from. For the more serious/addicted gamers, it would have been the ideal environment to play the game properly. An environment where you can game continuously without worrying about the reality is where you can truly focus on just clearing the game. To add onto the level of realism, Kayaba added the equation of in-game death = real death into SAO. Since not everyone has the same take on gaming, Kayaba might have been trying to force gamers to take his game a tad too seriously.
Humanity’s best and worst were showcased in this arc, as we saw how humans react in the face of adversity; some chose to fight in the frontlines to kill the level bosses while some retreat to safety of towns and wait for the braver ones to set them free from this game.
Although one of the turn-offs in this series might have been the harem theme, I found it surprisingly bearable. Perhaps it was because the girls didn’t really fight over Kirito that made it all much nicer than cough Accel World cough. Furthermore, I liked Asuna’s tsundere character and how the two of them were made into a couple towards the middle. Watching the two of them worry about losing each other before the level 75 boss room raid was heart-wrenching, as you could really feel what they were going through. It was something to see two once-fearless top players get shaken with the thought of losing someone precious.
Alfheim – The Land of Fairies
After Kirito saves the players of SAO from the game itself, we learn that about three hundred of those players have yet to awaken from their slumber, including Asuna. A photo taken in Alfheim Online, another VRMMORPG leads Kirito to put on the Nerve Gear once more to venture into the fairylands of Alfheim in search of Asuna.
Alfheim Online (ALO) is a PK-based game (player killing game) where players are split into 9 races (Cait Sith, Gnome, Imp, Leprechaun, Pooka, Salamander, Spriggan, Sylph and Undine) and pitted against one another in a race to scale the World Tree in order to gain the unlimited flight ability. Yes, the ability to fly. One of the most attractive features of ALO was players’ flight abilities; and I’m starting to see Kawahara-sensei’s obsession with themes like virtual reality, gaming, flying and speed.
The second (in IMO the real) villain in SAO is Asuna’s fiancé Sugou, voiced by Koyasu Takehito. I knew he wouldn’t just play any boring character and as expected, he pulled off the maniacal and perverted role of Sugou/King Oberon so well that he was creepy and so hateful. Sugou took advantage of his role in the company and performed experiments on the remaining three hundred players whom he had trapped within his virtual lab. If he succeeded, he would be able to manipulate the human brain, implant emotions and even memories in people. A scary thought indeed. But Kirito saved Asuna and in some sense, the world, when he defeated Sugou in-game with his Heathcliff ID. During the first time I watched that episode, it didn’t make much sense to me, but I’m guessing that it wasn’t shown to us when Kayaba passed his ID to Kirito.
In general, it felt as though the production team was short on time for this arc. There were less explanations and sudden power-ups to finish fight scenes (Kirito turning into a monster to massacre the Salamander mage team, Kirito’s sword power-up which enabled him to break through the horde of guardians in the World Tree, Yui gaining admin privileges in the World Tree). To be fair, I think the first arc was given more development time than the second arc; if Alfheim had more time dedicated to it, I think it has the potential to become even better.
In SAO, Matsuoka Yoshitsugu proves himself to be the go-to seiyuu for gentle and comforting characters, but at the same time, he did the hot-blooded Kirito so well that it got me quite worked up while watching SAO. With that, he has made himself a place on my watch-list. Although he doesn’t do much drama CDs (yet), I look forward to his other roles in the upcoming animes.
To end off, here’s my favourite quote from SAO by Kirito:
Since this is just a game, anything goes. If you want to kill, kill. If you want to steal, steal. There are many who think like that and in some sense, it is the truth. A long time ago, that was how I thought as well. But, it shouldn’t be like that. Just because we are in a virtual world, there are things which have to be protected. Someone precious taught me so. If you give in to your urges in this world, the price you pay would be a change in your real personality. The player is one with the character.