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Sword Art Online PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 19 March 2013 00:00
Take a MMPORG gameworld, trap its players there, and see what happens. On the surface, the idea of Sword Art Online is simple - but will the little twist of making in-game death just as terminal in the real world add a little spice to the mix..?

Welcome to the not-too-distant future, where Sword Art Online is the hottest new online multiplayer RPG, with a wave of anticipation - and limited player slots - meeting its full release. Using the new NerveGear virtual reality technology, the game promises to be an experience like nothing before it, but as one of the lucky 10,000 players to get an early copy, Kirito soon finds there's one potentially fatal - and quite deliberate - flaw in the game: they players can't log out, and should they die in-game, they'll die in the real world as well. It's all been planned by Sword Art's creator, Akihiko Kayaba, who has set rather difficult conditions for the players' freedom...

To be able to escape the game, someone - it doesn't really matter who - has to complete the game, reaching Level 100 of Aincrad's tiered gameworld. Initially, the 'game' turns into a bloodbath, with 2,000 players dying inside the first month, but eventually a level of normality descends on the game, with some players forming guilds in an effort to clear the game and win freedom, others deciding to settle down and try to have as normal a life as they can - and a few others taking a certain amount of pleasure from player-killing, knowing full well what that means for their victims. All the while, in the real world the players are comatose and hospitalised, kept on life-support until the situation resolves itself.

Not exactly the most enjoyable of games, then. Kirito has a slight advantage in that he was in on the game's beta-test phase - no-one got past Floor 8 at that point, but that doesn't stop the newer players seeing him as someone with an unfair advantage, an assessment that's backed up by his remarkable combat skills. Initially keep to keep to himself and keep out of trouble, Kirito eventually finds himself drawn to Asuna, second-in-command of the Knights of the Blood Oath and nicknamed 'the Flash' on account of her speed in battle. It turns out to be something of a match made in heaven...

This is a series that I can truly call a game of two halves - the first 14 episodes follow the story as described about, set in the online world of Aincrad; and after that the setting switches to a new gameworld, ALFheim, with rather different rules and considerably less risk attached. So we'll take them in turn. Sword Art Online is your fairly standard fantasy MMPORG setting, with the one 'twist' in the rules that there's no magic - Sword Art, remember? If its players are going to get out, they'll have to get out by physical skill. This makes for some decent, in-your-face action scenes, with plenty of clashing blades and what have you - a feast on the eyes, and backed by a Yuki Kajiura soundtrack, a feast for the ears as well. If we were marking purely on production spectacle, we'd be flying.

But this really is more of a character-based series. Early on, we get a number of short character arcs, introducing minor characters from the source light novels like swordsmith Lisbeth and dragon-keeper Silica and giving them some fan-friendly screetime. More deban, indeed. They're fun little distractions, and their stories feed into building the world of Aincrad as somewhere where many of the players have learnt to live very real lives in their rather unreal surroundings. As the story goes on, though, the pairing of Kirito and Asuna takes front and centre, with first their blossoming romance coming to the fore, before going on to follow the in-game husband-and-wife team on their adventures, including the ongoing quest to clear the game's floors.

Kirito is in many ways your stereotypical, overpowered lead male. There's very little he can't do, and on the rare occasions when he does run into trouble, you can be fairly sure that something or someone will conveniently save his skin. He's not obnoxious or annoying, just... meh. Unremarkable in every way that really counts, as far as enjoying watching him goes. Asuna, on the other hand, is strong, confident, capable and determined - for most of the time, anyway. For all her ability, though, she lacks a certain killer instinct, and more than once needs Kirito to finish her dirty work for her (which is really quite annoying, in some ways).

I loved the Aincrad setting, I loved the interactions of the characters (even if I didn't think much of some of the characters themselves), and I loved the dilemma that they'd all been put in - if the series had followed only the Aincrad story, I would have been one happy bunny. Sure, the story isn't exactly complex, and there's a reliance on 'the overly convenient plot resolution' along the way, but it was genuinely enjoyable to watch, with Kirito and Asuna making both a great fighting combination, and a cute couple. But it all goes a bit off the rails when the Aincrad arc comes to an end that really should have been accompanied by the sound of a needle scraping across a record, and the setting is abruptly changed to ALFheim.

The ALFheim arc has issues, enough of them that it's almost hard to know where to start - especially since explaining the setup of it would thoroughly spoil the end of the Aincrad story. Suffice to say that Asuna goes from being adorable yet hardass to helpless damsel in distress - which on its own thoroughly ruins the series; the threat of real-world death is removed from the storyline; and we get the addition of Kirito's little sister, Sugu, a girl who suffers from a bad case of brother-complex which becomes a major issue as the arc progresses. The rules of engagement are also different in ALFheim, with flight and magic both making appearances - which allows for more visually-impressive battles, but otherwise just feels shoehorned in.

I can't remember the last time a series had such a sharp change in fortunes as SAO had as a result of its change of scenery. If I was to rate the series on the first arc alone, it would be an easy 4 stars, but the second half tinkers so much with what was a pretty good formula, that I was left scratching my head and wondering why. To be fair, ALFheim on its own would have seemed a pretty good story - but it's the tinkering with the show's established relationships and personalities, and the comparison to the far better arc before it, that make it seem decidedly weak in comparison. As far as I'm aware, that's the result of shoehorning two of the novels from the series into one anime series, but it really doesn't work.

Which leaves me with a bit of a dilemma when it comes to rating the series - to rate it as a whole, or treat it as the two separate stories that it really is. As I've said, the opening Aincrad arc is an easy 4 stars, and that's what I've gone with - particularly if you're watching it online, stopping at the end of the first arc and calling it quits is a genuine option. ALFheim isn't entirely without its charms, but it is a step down in pretty much every department, and on its own would only rate 3 stars. I'll leave it up to you whether to go on or not.

Rating - ****