Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sword Art Online Anime Review

Sword Art Online
Sodo Ato Onrain
Complete Collection - 4 discs
625 mins. - 25 episodes
$74.98 (2015) Parts 1-4 Blu-Ray
$112.98 (2013) Parts 1-4 Blu-Ray Limited Edition
$49.98 (2013) Parts 1-4
ISBN 850527003325
Japanese/English Audio - English Subtitles
Director - Tomohiko Ito
Studio - A-1 Pictures

Synopsis: In the year 2022 the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) genre has advanced into an amazingly realistic and immersive user experience using cutting edge virtual reality headgear.  Users are able to control their avatars with their minds and sensations are relayed directly to their brains.  Kazuto Kirigaya is your regular high school student who is an avid fan of MMORPGs and spends a lot of time online in his room alone.  His parents died when he was young and he escapes into virtual reality as a way of avoiding the real world.  He's pretty good too and was selected as a beta tester for the hottest new game - Sword Art Online!  There's a special new VR headset called Nerve Gear which is the only way to access the world of SAO.
Kirito meets Klein and shows him the ropes on the first day of SAO
On the official release day of Sword Art Online (SAO) ten thousand users login using the Nerve Gear headsets including Kazuto.  They explore the new world of Aincrad and the beta testers note new additions from the version they played.  Kazuto's username is Kirito in SAO and he spends the day helping a newbie named Klein learn the basics of the game.  At the end of the day a tragic event happens.  The sky goes red and a menacing, robed figure appears above the Town of Beginnings.  It announces itself as Akihiko Kayaba, the creator of SAO.  Kayaba tells all the players they are trapped in the game and cannot logout unless they defeat all 100 floors.  Further, the Nerve Gear headsets are wired so that when a player's health reaches zero in the game they die in real life as well.  Any attempts to remove the headsets in the real world will also cause the player to die (which is learned the hard way by a few hundred players).  SAO has become the ultimate game of death!
Kirito meets a hooded girl named Asuna before the first boss raid
The death toll begins to mount as weaker and inexperienced players fall prey to monsters or bosses.  Many players can't handle being trapped in a virtual reality world and commit suicide.  Other players form guilds to support each other as they continue trying to level up and beat the game.  Beta testers like Kirito are especially despised as they are considered cheaters with unfair secret knowledge.  Kirito decides on a strategy to level up as quickly as he can, but remain a loner without a guild.  He makes friends along the way and learns some difficult life lessons.
Kirito befriends a low-level guild called the Moonlit Black Cats
Some of the players Kirito befriends are:
  • Klein - prefers to work together with people while Kirito remains a solo player.  Despite their different personalities the pair are friends
  • Asuna - meets Kirito before the first floor boss fight and is a powerful warrior.  Kirito befriends her and gives her the advice to join a guild (i.e. not become a solo player like him)
  • Egil - wields a powerful axe in battle, but is a better merchant and shopkeeper.  He and Kirito have a friendship based mostly on Kirito bringing rare items for Egil to buy/sell
  • Lisbeth - Asuna's friend and swordsmith.  Kirito asks her to make him the most powerful sword she can from a rare element.  She develops a crush on him after their adventure
  • The Moonlit Black Cats guild - meet Kirito on a mission and befriend him.  The group are friends from the real world and Kirito admires their camaraderie.  Will the diehard solo player give in and join a guild after all?  
  • Silica - a beast tamer who is getting hassled by her former comrades.  She has a pet dragon that helps her on quests.  Kirito comes to her aid
  • Yui - a lost child that Kirito and Asuna find in the woods.  She has amnesia and doesn't remember the real world.  What is her strange past?
  • Leafa - of the Sylph race and able to fly with fairy wings.  She helps Kirito learn the ropes of flying and politics in Alfheim.  She's got a big secret and is closer to Kirito's offline life than either one of them could truly guess
Asuna is a skilled warrior and known as the Lightning Flash for her speed
Kayaba has developed an incredibly lifelike virtual world.  Some players are too afraid to fight and are able to take up different trades like fishing, gathering resources, cooking, and trading information.  It's even possible to kill another player in the game and an evil murder guild forms to steal the rare items from players.  The towns are neutral territories where players are safe from being killed.    The front line is where players continuously battle to advance the game forward and open up new levels.  Kirito becomes a rare solo player who fights on the front line.
Kirito and Lisbeth go on a quest to find a rare ore to create a powerful sword
His levels are high and he has rare equipment to help him in battle.  He'll need it because Kayaba's SAO world is a virtual prison and impossible to escape.  The greatest challenge lies beyond the virtual world - what has happened to the bodies of the comatose players?  Are virtual relationships as strong as real ones?  Who will survive to see the light of day and who will sacrifice themselves so that others might have a chance?
Kirito takes on a monster in a dungeon
Pros: Great animation - character designs/backgrounds/action, some memorable characters and situations, the love story between Kirito and Asuna is touching, nice soundtrack, first half had a serious feel to it as characters died causing their real world bodies to also die, second half was an adventure, some very mild fan-service
Kirito and Asuna start getting closer even though she's the 2nd in command
of the Knights of the Blood Oath guild and he's a solo player
Cons: First story arc is much more powerful and interesting, final story arc was too cliched with the whole damsel-in-distress thing, relationship between Kazuto and his sister Suguha was a bit questionable, ending seemed a bit too easy (although the series gets dark), as of this review there's no affordable complete collection available which makes this a ridiculously expensive series to own
Kirito takes on Heathcliff, leader of the Knights of the Blood Oath guild
Mike Tells It Straight: Sword Art Online is based on an ongoing series of light novels by Reki Kawahara.  I watched part of an episode of SAO on Cartoon Network's Toonami and it looked interesting.  I didn't know the story coming in, but knew it had something to do with MMORPGs and knew a little bit about those (a friend was heavily into EverQuest at one point).  I was hooked after watching the first episode!  The idea of players trapped in a virtual world where they die for real was awesome.  .hack//Sign had a similar story where the protagonist was unable to log out from a virtual world, but I liked the grand scale and adventure of SAO.  There was a clear and present danger as players were dying on missions, through treachery, and even committing suicide.  The story contains some heavy themes, but is mostly lighthearted in nature.
Kirito asks Asuna to cook a rare meat for him because she has
a high cooking skill level
The first half of the series was entirely dedicated to the 'death game' theme, but the focus slowly shifts to Kirito and Asuna.  They become allies and then something more.  I really liked how SAO explored the question of 'in-game' relationships.  The whole virtual reality thing gets more serious when you can really experience the sensations of your character (there's a pain setting which I have to assume also governs other sensory input like touch).
Asuna and Kirito take on a high level boss raid together
Kirito is a likable protagonist and you can't help rooting for him, but Asuna was pretty darn cool in her own right.  I really think Reki Kawahara missed it with how he handled her - she's strong, but then gets too sappy and sentimental with Kirito and later on Yui.  Her treatment in the second half of the series is totally weak.  Kirito is a lone wolf throughout the series and I liked that about his nature.  Sure, he gets a little help from other players, but at the end of the quest it's him vs. the boss!
Leafa is a Sylph who Kirito helps when she's getting hassled
I think the series would have been more powerful if it didn't veer off the 'death game' theme to focus on Kirito and Asuna (plus Leafa) as much.  It was still a great story and offered some really interesting views of virtual reality gaming.  The battles and action were really awesome in the boss fights and there was a desperate emotional undercurrent throughout.  Kazuto's sister Suguha was a surprisingly good character.  I read a lot of mixed reviews on this series, but suggest you find out for yourself.  It's worth it and there's even a sequel (Sword Art Online II).
Who is this girl being held prisoner?

TO BUY and Recommendations: