Slowly but surely we’ve made it into the age of videogames. Many years ago playing video games was something only certain people did and, for the most part, it was quite a niche market…not anymore. “Sword Art Online” is an Anime that originally began as a light novel series written by the very popular novelist Reki Kawahara (Fumio Kunori), it eventually became popular enough to warrant an Anime adaptation and from then on in the popularity of the series soared to even greater heights. With its videogame-based storyline (which is quite appealing in this day and age) and its semi-relatable characters, it is easy to see how and why this Anime has become such a favoured series in the hearts and minds of many Anime fans around the world. Madman Entertainment has only recently released this series “down under” and luckily for me I’ve been given the chance to review it. I think it’s about time we “log-in” and see what all the fuss is truly about.
Sword Art Online is based in the land of “Aincrad”; a virtual world that exists within the world-famous game “Sword Art Online”, which is a virtual reality MMORPG that uses the most cutting edge of technology to “physically” bring gamers from around the globe into the world of the game. The series begins with the official release of the game which, up until that point, had only been in beta testing stages. Players all gathered to begin their “next gen” gaming experience but were met with some odd yet terrifying news; there’s no way you can logout of the game.
After being met with the almost God-like vision of the games creators, the mass of players online at the time were confronted with their unfortunate, yet virtual, reality: Players who are currently logged in cannot log out until certain conditions are met, either you die in-game and an electric shock runs through your virtual reality unit and fries your brain (killing you in the process) or you collectively complete all 100 levels in the game, doing so will have the entire “Sword Art Online” community released but no-one has ever made it past double-digit levels at that point in time so what hope do they have of ever getting out…alive?
Enter a young boy named Kirito, he was one of the original beta testers so he has a fairly good grasp on what the game is like and it seems as though he may be the only hope of players actually getting out of this hell hole. He embarks on a quest to become stronger while defeating levels and bosses, meeting other players along the way, making parties, making friends and ever-striving to save the people of the “Sword Art Online” community.
The first volume of “Sword Art Online” covers the first eight episodes of the series and, from what I’ve seen, it looks as though it is an Anime that has a storyline which is made up of smaller storylines, allow me to explain: As I’ve just mentioned the aim of Kirito is to escape “Aincrad” alongside every other player but, after certain events transpire, he chooses to be a lone wolf and take off on his own because he believes that would be the most effective way to go about it, now the continuing storyline is always there yet every couple of episodes we’re met with a new character and a new problem which Kirito must face head on, something that is quite reminiscent of an actual MMORPG and the quest systems that a majority of them have running and I’d like to think that it was done like that entirely on purpose.
The story in general is highly engaging, I feel as though any storyline that puts humans into the world of videogames is, but what I really enjoy about the series so far is the actual characters, most notably Kirito himself, I can’t help but look at him like he is a good lead character. The boy is somewhat antisocial but puts it behind him for the sake of others, yes that inevitably ends in death for the people around him when they start to get cocky and begin to take the game for granted which he blames on himself. That’s another thing I like about the series; it also deals with characters’ mental state and how they’re coping with being in such a dangerous world, it gives great insight and makes for some interesting characters.
He’s a character that feel constantly grows, he goes from cheery to angsty within a matter of minutes depending on the situation he’s in and he deals with the idiotic characters in much the same way you or I would, to me that is good writing. He’s a character that is both kind-hearted and deceptive but for all the right reasons; he’s essentially a guy who would lie to somebody good to help another good person and you really see that throughout. It seems as though it has a great story that will only continue to grow and get deeper as the series goes on, I’m actually fairly excited to see what happens next and that’s the sign of a great series.
When it comes to aesthetics in “Sword Art Online” I really feel as though they hit the mark. The team behind the designs of the environments and the actual characters themselves somehow captured the feel of an MMORPG fantasy world and threw it into the Anime medium with the transition between the two mediums having nothing lost in-between. I’m not just talking about the health bars above players’ heads or the way the menu pops up at their finger tips, that’s fantastic and quirky but what I really want to focus on is the outstandingly beautiful environments. Half the reason I’ve ever wanted to play an MMORPG title is because of the way the game looks aesthetically rather than the way the game looks like it players and I truly believe “Sword Art Online” has captured that. Characters, weapons, equipables and items all look great and I do hold them in the same regard as the rest of the visuals.
The animation is of extremely high calibre, it bumps up a fair bit during fight scenes and even though they’re few and far between you still get a certain rush of excitement when you know one is coming. They do use a small bit of CGI animation within the series that doesn’t quite hold up as well as I’m sure the development team thought it would but not every aspect of a show can be perfect. They used that style of animation on a fairly large boss monster and, although it really didn’t take the spotlight for too long, it was noticeable and it really wasn’t that great. It was the second boss monster they had shown, the first one was animated traditionally but this one was CGI animated, which showed an odd comparison that didn’t entirely work in its favour.
The one thing “Sword Art Online” does the best auditorally is music, I will give it a fair bit of credit for choosing some great and varying music tracks to fill in the background of the Anime. It has a fairly large range of music it seems, it can switch from an uplifting rock track to a whimsical, fantasy-style harp track in a matter of scenes but luckily they all play off of each other quite well and make for sequences that keep audiences engaged. The voice acting is actually quite varied throughout the first eight episodes; some of the actors and actresses do an amazing job yet some of them miss their mark big time, luckily for us the main cast have great voice actors and actresses that can properly show emotion. “Sword Art Online” deals with real humans living in a fantasy world so you can imagine that they’re not all entirely on solid grounds mentally.
There are a lot of characters who need to be shown to have conflicting ideals and emotions and it seems as though a lot of the voice actors/actresses are perfect for the job because they relay a message full of hurt or full of anger so well, at times it even had me empathising with characters I’d never thought to connect with. The one thing I’m not too fond of is dialogue choices, sometimes what characters say really seem cheesy and a simple change of words or phrases could turn particular underwhelming statements into those of awesome volumes. “You have to…beat the boss…for everyone” is a paraphrased quote from a dying character that made his appearance somewhere within the first two episodes, yes, there were fighting a boss and, yes, they needed to beat it but it seemed so corny to have a character who is on the brink of an actual death say those words, it was far to literal for the situation and took away from that characters death in a big way. Just as a note I’m speaking of the English dub and not the Japanese dub though the series can be watched that way if you so choose to.
“Sword Art Online” volume 1 actually didn’t feature any on-disc extras apart from the very typical textless opening and closing sequences though it did feature a few cool and quirky little physical extras. First off there is a nice piece of art on the flip side of the cases cover but the real focus goes to the set of seven postcards each with “Sword Art Online” artworks that seem to depict the character featured in the stories of the episodes on the discs in different art styles, almost as if they were each drawn by a different artist, it’s quite an interesting extra and, granted become a big enough fan of the series by the end, I feel as though they will eventually find a place to be displayed somewhere around my room. If you’re a fan of the series or just a fan of Anime art in general you’ll definitely be into these postcards. Despite its lack of on-disc extras it is still a better release than most other Anime titles so I’ll give it points for trying that little bit harder.
“Sword Art Online” is an Anime for all Anime fans because, let’s be honest, if you’re into Anime chances are you’re also into some form of gaming so to have these two mediums come together in such a way is brilliant and actually fairly exciting. It hosts great characters in a fantastic-looking fantasy land and it also deals with a lot more than just what is on the surface. Yes, it does lack certain things in the voice acting and dialogue department which does occasionally break your focus on the Anime but it greatly makes up for what it lacks with its incredible visuals and great story-driven scenarios. It’s a fantastic Anime and I can absolutely see why it has become so popular within the last year or so, deffinitely one not to miss out on!
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