Anime of Tomorrow
Sword Art Online (review)
Summer 2012 (14 episodes)
Kazuto rushed out to be one of the first players for a new form of virtual-reality gaming using a system called the Nervegear. This device lets a player use his or her brain to play video games with a full immersion experience as if they had been transported to the actual game world itself. The first game released is the fantasy MMO, Sword Art Online or SAO for short. Assuming the online identity of Kirito, within hours of starting he and thousands of other players become trapped in SAO’s world of Aincrad by its creator, Akihiko Kayaba. Things get even more serious when it’s revealed that dying in the game means dying in real life too because the Nervegear has a hidden function that fries the brain of anyone whose HP drops to 0. The only way to escape is for someone to clear the world’s massive, one hundred floor dungeon.
Much more lighthearted and less gruesome than other anime in this genre, SAO is the latest in what has been a popular theme in anime as of late—the survival game. The key thing that makes this rendition of that formula refreshing is that the goal of the participants in this game is not to defeat each other, but to survive in a dangerous world. It does a very good job capturing the spirit of youthful gamer culture and the world of SAO is full of players who have very different, often opposing methods for finding a way out. Considering that the events take place over the course of several years, an entire society develops for the purpose of not just surviving, but also for the necessity of just living some semblance of a normal life in this admittedly beautiful prison.
Love is not out of the question, either and even Kirito with his off-putting rogue-hero demeanor is the target of several ladies’ affections. But he only has eyes for Asuna, another strong player who he has teamed up with repeatedly during his adventure. Starting out as just friends, when they end up saving each other’s lives on several occasions, it’s almost inevitable that they would come to the conclusion that they’re perfect for each other. And to its credit SAO isn’t afraid to show affection, which greatly contributes to preventing their love from being forced or cliché. For the most part, it feels very genuine and that’s not something that’s easy to accomplish.
The first half of this twenty-five episode series fascinated me with all of its sociological conundrums, filled my eyes with gorgeous worldbuilding and touched my heart with a romance that almost made me believe in destiny. But these feelings of satisfaction were not to last, for as the world came crashing down around hero and heroine, a dark cloud of overused tropes, pitifully shallow evils and annoying love triangles would spoil a masterpiece in potential.
(To be continued in Alfheim Online.)