Sword Art Online (2012)

Aincrad – Episode 01 – 14

Based on a collection of light novels written by Reki Kawahara, the man responsible for creating other renowned series’ that explore virtual reality and massive multiplayer online role-playing games such as Accel World, and having spawned five manga adaptations, Sword Art Online is the anime version of the extremely popular Japanese publication, produced by A-1 Pictures and directed by Tomohiko Ito.

Sword Art Online, often referred to as SAO, is a Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG), released in the year 2022. With NerveGear attached, a virtual reality helmet that stimulates a user’s five senses via their brain, players can experience and control their in-game characters, known as avatars, with their minds. On November 6, 2022, players from around the globe log into the game for the first time, entering the world of SAO. This virtual reality realm takes the form of a giant floating castle called Aincrad, with 100 floors, each with a medieval-themed setting and a dungeon with a boss, which has to be defeated before players can advance to the next floor up, or level. SAO players soon discover that they are unable to log out of the system and are quickly informed by Akihiko Kayaba, SAO’s creator, that if they wish to be free, they must reach the 100th floor of the game’s tower and defeat the final boss. However, the game is crafted in a manner that if a player’s avatar dies in the game, their body will also die in the real world. With the player’s avatars now changed to reflect their real life appearance, their struggle for survival and freedom begins.

The next level of gaming!
The next level of gaming!

There’s a good reason why Sword Art Online is exceedingly popular, Reki Kawahara has created a tremendously complex, highly detailed, often confronting, world, filled with wondrous sights and charmingly engaging characters, who are explored in a considerable amount of detail by Tomohiko Ito, Occult Academy (2010), within the anime. The protagonist of SAO is 14-year boy by the name of Kazuto ‘Kirito’ Kirigaya, who eventually earns the name the Black Swordsman, a highly skilled player, previously chosen as one of the 1,000 beta testers before SAO’s official launch. He is a kind, quiet, misunderstood boy, who refuses to abandon other players in trouble, particularly after the tragedy that befall the Moonlit Black Cats guild, which Kirito considers himself responsible for — Kirito consequently feels unable to team up with others players or guilds because of this guilt. Kirito eventually, and reluctantly, befriends an attractive, focused, proud and headstrong 15-year old female player by the name of Asuna with whom he eventually falls in love with and marries. Similar to Kirito, Asuna is someone who is easily controlled by her emotions and the two learn a lot from one another. Asuna, being the sub-leader of the Knights of the Blood guild, is introduced as being totally focused on reaching the 100th level of Aincrad and defeating the final boss, but after forming an emotional friendship with Kirito, she learns to accept living within the virtual world, through appreciating the smaller things SAO has to offer such as its programmed perfect weather. Kirito also learns a lot from Asuna, particularly in putting his trust in others and allowing himself to form meaningful relationships within this new reality. The romance shared between the two is the central point of the story and is presented in a way that feels almost realistic, somewhat representing what love might be like in a virtual world.

With 10,000 players trapped in Sword Art Online audiences are naturally introduced to a bundle of new and exciting secondary characters, some of whom should have been given more screen time, being rich enough to develop beyond an episode or two. One such character is the bright and cheerful 12-year old Beast Tamer, Silica. Being the first player to tame a Feathery Dragon, who she names Pina, despite SAO being the first VRMMORPG she’s ever played, Silica is introduced as a character whose parties treat her as a mascot, being immensely popular on the middle floors due to her pet and her status as one of the rare Beast Tamers. Unfortunately, a character as fascinating and complex as Silica doesn’t get more than one episode to shine. Similarly can be said with the character of Klein, one of the 10,000 players trapped in Sword Art Online and the guild leader of Fuurinkazan. Klein is introduced in episode 1 and becomes Kirito’s first friend after Kirito shows him how to play SAO, giving Klein, and the audience for that matter, somewhat of a tutorial on the basics of the game and how it operates. Klein is a 22-year-old super friendly, loyal guy who really sets the mood and tone for the series early on, then sadly becomes somewhat of a side player only popping up in short instances throughout the remainder of the story.

It's tough being a vegetarian in Aincrad!
It’s tough being a vegetarian in Aincrad!

Alternatively though, there are characters explored in plenty of depth and detail, such as the character of Yui, an Artificial Intelligence discovered by Kirito and Asuna around the forests of the 22nd floor of the floating castle Aincrad. Originally introduced as a girl without memories, insecure about not knowing who or where her parents are, Yui bestows the role of guardian, or parent, to the newly married Kirito and Asuna, and the couple happily plays along after seeing Yui’s cheerful shift in mood. As the character of Yui progresses, audiences discover a lot about this unique and interesting Artificial Intelligence, or girl, who, despite being programmed not to interact with SAO players, is desperate to experience their positive emotions of happiness and joy after nearly two years of only seeing players who displayed insanity, misery, and anger within the confines of the virtual world.

Logged into SAO and populating this virtual world are long-time gamers, first-time players and VRMMORPG experts, making it an interesting mix of individuals, particularly when examining how these differing types of players adapt to their grim situation. For many, mainly novice players, it was easier to hide out in the first town, terrified to leave and put their lives at risk, being new to the style of gaming and all. Then there are those braving the front lines, pushing forward, trying to actively clear the game so that they can free the trapped players and return to their lives outside the virtual reality. Between these extremes are individuals who just come across a place to reside in peace and try to level but not in the front lines. Introducing audiences to an array of characters makes the SAO world extremely rich with life, as viewers discover many distinct types of gamers and personalities throughout the anime. Visually, Aincrad is quite splendid in its design, colour and aesthetic, making the anime visually stunning, with beautifully painted backdrops, bright recognisable characters and subtle computer animation incorporated throughout. While looking somewhat ‘knights-of-the-round-table-ish’ this medieval world has a very game-like quality in its design, where each player has their very own little menu, complete with an inventory, potions and other in-game tools and collectables, making it feel like these people are actually trapped in a feasible virtual world.

Girl's who play video games are definitely more attractive!
Girl’s who play video games are definitely more attractive!

Sword Art Online, while being an epic action adventure, love story, offers a subtle, but somewhat profound insight on the psychological aspects virtual reality could have on the human psyche, with a focus on psychological repercussions and skewed social interactions that could be realistically seen through excessive online gaming. This is particularly evident within the two lead’s relationship and the way they adapt to living a virtual life in an artificial reality after forming a love that isn’t quite ‘true’ as neither know exactly how the other operates in ‘real’ life. Being trapped in SAO for over two years, Kirito and Asuna marry on-line personas; they acquire a house together and form an artificial family, through an almost adoption of sorts, claiming the character of Yui as their ‘child’, which in reality could damage a person’s perception of ‘real-life’ concepts and emotions. Its sociological views on creating a realistic economy and society in a massive multiplayer online game setting is similarly interesting, particularly the notion of corruption, as it exists in cheaters who overcome the ‘rules’ and dodge guidelines enforced by the game. Another interesting detail is the colored icon that appears above player’s heads, which could almost represent their soul. There is an abundant amount of detail in this environment, every idea has been explored or at least touched upon in some detail, raising some insightful questions on how far technology can go and the heavy implications it may have on society and its users.

While there’s plenty to admire about Sword Art Online, the anime does have its shortcomings. Spaning for over 2 long years, a lot naturally happens to the characters while trapped in SAO, and 14 episodes hardly seems like enough time to fully explore the complexities of the virtual world and the psyche of the players, who form profound friendships with one another and adapt to their unnatural surroundings. Consequently, a lot feels rushed and there are large chunks of time omitted, which disrupt the natural narrative progression and character relationships, making the show sometimes difficult to really oneself immerse into — a lot of the time audiences might find themselves trying to piece together what’s been happening over the lost months. Extending this story arc to 24 episodes rather than 14 would have strengthened and benefited the anime, making the experience easer to fully delve into and become part of. Taking place in Aincrad, a medieval setting populated with weapon clad knights and powerful guilds, one would expect plenty of action throughout the show, but in this instance it’s not the case. Sword Art Online is essentially an epic love story, set in an online environment, with several action scenes scattered throughout, and while these few sequences are impressive, most are short lived.

Gamers should never rush into boss battles!
Gamers should never rush into boss battles!

Sword Art Online is an exceedingly original, thought provoking concept that’s been executed excellently, with inspired visuals, imaginative locations, memorable characters and a narrative that sets the stakes high instantly — it’s difficult not to find something to enjoy within the anime. The concept alone is inventive enough to warrant initial interest and many will undoubtedly be hooked once the stage is set. While thoroughly enjoying my time in Aincrad, I perhaps wish the stay were a little longer and more comprehensive, as it feels like audiences are given a brief helicopter tour over the key moments and highlights from the 2 years players spent there. Stopping off along the way and discovering the finer details would have made the journey a lot more satisfying.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

Sword Art Online is released through Madman Entertainment Australia