Anime Reviews

Review: Sword Art Online

A perfectly reasonable reaction to much of the show's developments.
A perfectly reasonable reaction to much of the show’s developments.

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.

The ultimate reward for making it far enough into the show.
The ultimate reward for making it far enough into 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.

Final Score: 3/10

7 thoughts on “Review: Sword Art Online

  1. The novel is indeed better than the anime. I’m not saying that it is that good but at least some things are explained there. The anime skipped some important things that SHOULD be there in the first place. So, I must say that the problem also lies with the adaptation. If only they handled it properly, it will be better.

    1. I personally don’t find that the plot holes (and there were more than a few) were the weakest part of the writing. From the development and motivations of the characters to the poorly written deus ex machina “Kayaba afterlife” schtick, there were several pieces which can’t have possibly been lost in the move from light novel to anime. The characters themselves are severely underutilized and used solely for Kirito’s sake and although the story did attempt to tackle some of the more important themes which came with the premise, it failed to handle them in a concise, well-written fashion. No amount of writing or explanation can change those basic, key parts of the writing.

      Regardless, I’d say that the direction itself and how A-1 handled the production were also causes of the series’ collapse.

  2. Thanks for the review. It’s the first time I read your blog and the way you examine the aspects you’re critiquing is very agreeable. I’m going to read your next posts with interest.

    1. Thanks for reading, mate. The review section of the blog tends to get a bit quiet, but editorials tend to flow out at a reasonable pace.

      What’s absolutely mindblowing to me is that there’s so many more hiccups in SAO that if I chose not to keep it short, this review could have easily gone on for couple thousand words more (even more if we go into the bizarre whiplash between themes in first and second half). But I digress. It’s a series which managed to became popular due to its premise and I can only assume that it’ll continue to do well regardless of whether or not it deserves that recognition (it doesn’t).

      1. Delicate task, writing reviews, isn’t it? Among every possible way to express an opinion, I deem it the most impersonal, and the one for which critical writing prevails the most over lyrical one, making for a mental exercise arduous and rigorous like no other. But that’s what makes it so rewarding, in the end.

        You are right about SAO. The disturbing quantity of blunders in just a single episode of the series made criticism so accessible that the series is one of the easiest to write about (though in the situation of the supporters, it becomes one of the very hardest).

        Where fame arises from, I find this mystical. Did the premise of this anime play an important role? Yes, I believe it did, especially as the popularity of MMORPGs swiftly accumulated during the years that span between the novel’s writing and its TV adaptation. But wish-fulfilment fanfiction abounds, and of better quality, it often is.’Time and chance’, sometimes, it really does seem like a very appealing explanation…

  3. This review really shows the difference between those who review as a hobby opinions alone and those who review with a greater sense of professionalism

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