Much like it’s predecessor in terms of hype, Guilty Crown, Sword Art Online had an enormous amount of backup even before it aired. Although we all know that hype doesn’t truly affect the objective quality of a show, in many cases hype stains the lens through which we view it. At its highest point, hype has a tendency to force people to lean towards two polar extremes, especially as the show’s viewers begins to increase and start to take completely opposing sides. As a guy who personally believes in the power of both objective and subjective scales and that hype is a completely unfair way to evaluate something’s quality, I was at first worried as to how I would judge this show fairly.
Fortunately, Sword Art Online provides more than enough empirical evidence to prove to me it’s crap.
Since I don’t want this review to be a completely unfair beat down session (I have a Twitter account for that), let’s start with the some of the show’s few legitimate merits. Although Sword Art Online never reaches the peak of pure technical brilliance, it does excel for the most part. While it lacks the extreme visual and audial polish of say, Guilty Crown, the exterior qualities of Sword Art Online are certainly solid. However, there can be some noticeable dips in the aesthetics: action scenes lack the creative fight coordination and finesse that popcorn flicks pride themselves upon and the show sometimes relies on stills to express action. Similarly, while Kajiura’s score is fairly apt, there are times where the sound direction fails the music. Regardless, Sword Art Online’s problems aren’t primarily associated with the outer shell, but rather the in the gooey, messy center instead.
The most glaring flaw of Sword Art Online is the heavily askew characterization; from the character’s motivations to the abilities of the cast, nearly every character we see is written to an utter extreme and reeks of desperation. Characters are written in such a dense way that the screen practically gets on its knees and begs viewers to feel for the cast. Few times do we actually get a glimpse of a character with any sort of dimension: every villain introduced screams at the audience to hate him while the protagonist Kirito is a bland, flawless Gary Stu who exists only so the viewers can insert themselves into his place. Each character may as be holding cardboard signs labeled “total badass” or “seriously evil”. For God’s sake, at one point the main villain makes silly evil grins at the characters while licking the tears of the female deuteragonist’s eye sockets! There is no middle ground or inner conflict as everything is designed to beg for the reader’s admiration or disdain.
This is made worse by the poor utilization of the side characters, notably the female cast. The objectification of the story’s women borders on outright misogny. More than once does the story use love interests as a cheap plot device to advance Kirito’s character development or even the story, even resorting to rape (which is woefully fetishized in both occurrences). Not only is the main romantic relationship deluded by Kirito’s pheromone soaked dual swords which attract young, busty women from all corners of the internet, but these characters completely disappear after they have served their purpose. There are no side characters important to the plot and any attempt to build some interesting friction with them falls flat on its face, complete with dialogue which more often than not rubs off as hilarious instead of apt.
Furthermore, the show constantly seeks to contradict the purpose of its torturous build up as the story progresses. The biggest tell is in first half; several game mechanics are explained in-depth through the side stories, but the ending of the arc completely disregards a good majority of them with several absurd developments. The second half is especially guilty of this, as a quest to save Kirito’s girlfriend in less than 7 days quickly becomes a chance to attract as many female characters as possible with no sense of urgency to hold the viewer’s attention. When the main draw of a series is the premise, you would expect that the story would reflect some kind of care towards crafting the setting but by the end we can only wonder what the point of the world building was. Topping off the wonderful cake which we call Sword Art Online’s story is the prolific use of deus ex machinas to wrap everything up. There are no satisfying climaxes, just bizarre, poorly thought-out ass pulls which sprout from the ground. It’s baffling to hear that the novel was better, when clearly the writing is the weakest part of the show.
Few series can crash and burn as gloriously as Sword Art Online did, and even fewer can manage to pull it off over and over again. Sword Art Online somehow manages to suspend itself in an area of perpetual car crashing, doomed to step on itself all over again. Make no mistake, Sword Art Online does indeed have entertainment value, if solely in the external ability to mock. However, for those of you who are able to gloss over the jarring characterization, gaping plot holes, and the wafting smell of desperation just begging you to give the show some love, just know that not even Kirito’s dual swords can save this series from itself.