[Anime Review]: Sword Art Online (All Seasons)



Director: Tomohiko Itou

Writer (of light novel): Kawahara Reiki

Animation Studios: A-1 Pictures

Version Watched: Subbed

[Note: After finally getting around to watching SAO II, I decided a needed to re-write my original SAO review to include it, so here we go!]

I adore the idea of virtual reality gaming; there’s very little I wouldn’t give to be able to experience it first-hand. For now, however, I have to make do with fictional representations of it, and Sword Art Online is one of the series that represents it best. With some very likeable characters, high-stakes VR gaming conflict with real-world repercussions and a certain amount of plain old fun, it reaches The Geek Clinic’s Recommendations list. However, its plot arcs are not made equal and it certainly has a fair amount of flaws which may be enough to turn away potential fans, first and foremost among them being an unfortunate level of fan service and misguided attempts at haremization.

Sword Art Online is the newly released VRMMORPG, or Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, and as expected all 10,000 released copies logged on simultaneously for the grand opening. When it came to logging out, however, the highly anticipated game became something much more sinister. Trapped in virtual reality, the players are forced to come to terms with the fantastical world that is as deadly to their real-life selves as it is to their avatars. The only way out is to finish the game. Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya was in Sword Art Online’s beta test; he knows the starting areas like the backs of his hands. What he’s not so familiar with, however, is how to work with others to survive, and how to deal with the grief when they are killed. Is it still a game when your life is on the line?


What Sword Art Online is, exactly, is hard to describe, so I’ll start with a general overview before moving into individual ratings for each segment. There’s some action that is well done when it features, some romance which is heart-warming to say the least and a pinch of comedy that shows up every now and then. All in all, it forms a fair representation of a variety of MMO-related issues and their consequences, showcasing a variety of believable emotions and reactions while never becoming bogged down in them and remaining entertaining throughout…mostly.

In general Sword Art Online is quite nice to look at, especially when it comes to its backgrounds; if we ever do get virtual reality then this is what I hope it looks like. The character models and movements are also very well done, which is necessary in a show with so much combat. As I often say, the BGM is such that it fulfils its purpose without being truly memorable.

Sword Art Online is told in four major parts, and as I mentioned earlier these have not been made equal. On one hand it means that the series is able to explore a number of varying virtual settings to give us more time with certain characters and expand the reach of the overall plot, but on the other it means that there are several jarring changes in pace throughout the show’s 49 episodes, and this is where that haremization I mentioned earlier comes in. It seems that one of Sword Art Online’s goals is to build up every new heroine as a potential love interest for the protagonist, Kirito, and this results in a number of design decisions that negatively impact the anime as a whole (and just plain detract from the main plot). Firstly, it results in fan service that begins in the second arc and really hits its stride (unfortunately) in the third, undermining the strong personalities of the characters involved. Secondly, it results in important characters missing out on screen-time that they indisputably deserve and, finally, it precludes the exploration of established character relationships that have been the series’ strength at one point or another.


To elaborate on that, I’m going to have to start working through the show arc-by-arc. The synopses are spoilers only in that they reveal information that is never hidden by the series.

In the beginning the show aligns with the synopsis I wrote earlier. Kirito is stuck inside Aincrad, the flying castle with a plethora of diverse floors to ascend and monsters to defeat in typical fantasy-MMO style. This arc represents Sword Art Online at its best, covering the experiences of a variety of characters as they come to terms with their predicament and interact with one another via an episodic first half before bringing it all home with a story-heavy conclusion. There’s a good amount of mature, well-handled romance alongside a compelling and emotional main story with little room to get bored amongst the frequent action and diverse cast.

Then we come to Alfheim Online, a second MMO that continues the fantasy feel but with…fairies? Well, it allows the characters to fly, I suppose. Anyway, this arc differs from the first in that it ditches the episodic strategy, but also in that it is the first to remove Kirito from his supporting cast. Without spoiling anything, that includes a certain important character from the first story that every viewer should know and love by this point and many find this to be an incredibly questionable writing decision. With the exception of a new major heroine, all of the characters introduced in this arc are forgettable and the romance I enjoyed from the first arc is pushed aside in favour of harem cultivation.  Still, it’s fun continuing to follow Kirito’s adventures in MMO land and a number of interesting real life issues are presented in conjunction with certain character relationships to make for an experience that is still very enjoyable despite not standing up to the first instalment.


And then there’s Gun Gale Online, in which Kirito transfers to a sci-fi shooter MMO in order to track down a character who is managing to kill the real life players of his opponents. Here we have another main heroine introduced alongside a great deal of fan service and every single other character from the previous season is ignored. The GGO arc takes a long time to get itself going and feels out of place compared to the earlier fantasy settings, especially considering the heavy degree of exposition and inner monologuing that takes place without adding anything to the experience. Additionally, the combat encounters simply aren’t as exciting relative to what we’ve been used to and the premise as a whole is pretty shaky. And…well, Kirito is made to look like a girl because the writer needed to show his ultimate power over the series…or something.

Following a relatively small side story that brings the gang back together again SAO’s second season concludes with Mother’s Rosario which focuses on Aincrad’s heroine, Asuna, back in Alfheim Online. It’s a refreshing return to form for the series in that the implications of virtual reality technology and a variety of emotional character interactions are explored with meaningful developments occurring in both the real world and within the game, though it does continue the habit of shutting out most of the side characters in favour of shiny new ones. After Aincrad, I feel that it does the best job of representing what Sword Art Online should be trying to accomplish.

Aincrad Score: 9/10 – Great

Alfheim Score: 7.5/10 – Enjoyable

Gun Gale Online: 6.5/10 – Average

Mother’s Rosario: 8.5/10 – Good

Sword Art Online

Summary – Sword Art Online was a lot of fun to watch and succeeded in a lot of areas. It explores a variety of settings and issues related to virtual reality gaming that make for some fantastic experiences made that much more enjoyable by the characters involved and the relationships between them. There’s at least a small dose of epic in every arc that, along with the inclusion of believable real-life consequences, has little trouble keeping things interesting throughout the story.

However, that’s not to say there aren’t low points to the series. The dramatic differences between the first arc and those that follow it make for some jarring changes in tone and several uncomfortable scenes where the writers try their hardest (via the use of fan service and convenient sidestepping of existing character relationships) to set Kirito up with yet another heroine, and that alone may ruin the series in the eyes of some viewers.

Score: 8/10 – Good

Sword Art Online1.jpg

About Silvachief

I'm a Gamer that dabbles in a little bit of everything. I'm big on Video Games, Visual Novels, Anime, Books and TV Series, but there's more to me than just those!
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24 Responses to [Anime Review]: Sword Art Online (All Seasons)

  1. Lazarinth says:

    My main issue was never really with the fan service, although it was obtrusive. It’s that the conflict/antagonists either felt really contrived to make the game dangerous again (GGO-killer loose+can’t log out AGAIN), was contradictory to their overall goal (Alf-wants Asuna+does things that garuntee he wont get her) and made no sense to point that they forgot (Ain-designs killer game that gets a safety pass for marketing+forgets why he did it) and these ripple through the plot, forcing the viewer to do mental flipflops and suspend their disbelief.

    • Silvachief says:

      I think we’ve already agreed to disagree on this one XD

      1. I don’t think it’s that weird for VR-related serial murders to occur. Someone saw an opportunity there and took it. Also, in GGO it’s not that they couldn’t log out, just that it would be a terrible idea to do so (Sinon because she would be killed if the culprit realized she was awake, and Kirito because he would be kicked out of the tournament and then unable to help Sinon). We argued the point of whether Kirito could have logged out and called the police and it’s debatable whether that would have been the better option. Could they have traced Sinon’s address and arrived there before she was killed in-game without Kirito’s help? And would the arrival of the police caused the killer to simply off Sinon before he ran or was caught? Unclear, so I think Kirito’s choice to stay in-game isn’t too weird.

      2. He doesn’t necessarily need Asuna to like him; he just wants to own her, so his actions aren’t ever contradictory.

      3. Obviously the copy submitted to whoever might have noticed any inconsistencies would have differed from the copies shipped, or a patch could have been added that had to be downloaded before anyone played. Even if the checked copy was unaltered, I imagine no one at the time though it possible to trap anyone inside a game (though I did agree that the helmet’s ability to emit microwaves is pretty suspect). The last point we’ve already argued, and I don’t believe it would be particularly weird for someone who has been stuck inside a game acting out another persona for years to have forgotten earlier motivations (especially when he’s already mentally unstable). That’s even assuming he meant the “I forgot” literally, and didn’t simply not want to share his reasons.

      While there were certainly some parts that were more enjoyable than others for me, plot holes weren’t an issue while I was watching the series.

      • Lazarinth says:

        Yes and no.
        1. Specifically i meant they can’t log out of BoB alone. It literally says that in ep10 of SAO2.
        2. Really? You think virtual kidnapping, which is already found out btw, is a smart long term solution for his end goal? Can we at least agree that that’s somewhat retarded?
        3. This we is where we agreed to disagree, and your explanation is exactly what I meant in my comment by “forcing the viewer to do mental flipflops.”

        • Silvachief says:

          Far out that’s annoying. Wrote the entire comment and then the blog posted a weirdly truncated version…

          1. Where in episode 10? I’ll reply to this one when i’ve been able to find the spot.

          2. My answer to this one actually contradicts my earlier one since i’ve remembered more about the plot. Sugou was developing a mind control software which he planned to use to win Asuna over to him (and sell to the military). In order to make sure he would be able to use it on her he trapped her in a game where he had admin rights. Until Kirito actually rescued Asuna the only “proof” was a blurry photo which means very little in a game where you can customise your avatar.

          3. I don’t see any “flipflops” >.>

          • Lazarinth says:

            1. about 14 minutes into ep 10.
            2. I guess that mind control thing does change things… despite how far fetched it is.
            3. You have to justify it by filling in holes that weren’t explained in the anime e.g.
            -the shipped helmets were different to what went through safety regulations
            -it might have had a missing patch which would prevent it from killing people
            -exactly how long Akihiko didn’t leave the game for
            -that Akihiko was mentally unstable (might have triggered some suspicions in production)
            -he just didn’t want to tell his reasons despite being honest with them.

            • Silvachief says:

              1. “It’s impossible to log out -normally-“. This is because it’s a competition. Doesn’t mean they can’t hard-reset.

              – Didn’t say this, I was referring to the game software. The helmets would have been made by a different company and so Akihiko would not be able to influence them. It’s easy to see him tampering with the game software. As I said, I agree that it’s really weird that the helmets are able to emit microwaves; though weird capabilities have been discovered in technology before. Much as it sucks, I can believe that no one thought to ask “Hey, can the helmet vaporise brains?” during production simply because no one would have thought that it might be able to. It’s just occurred to me now, but it’s possible that the microwaving was achieved via the use of a virus to overclock a certain component that would normally be limited in capability. It makes sense that way, but i’ll admit it’s a little flimsy.

              – Also didn’t say this. I said that Akihiko may have implemented a patch to modify the software so that it -could- trap people. That way anyone who had looked over the code of the released game wouldn’t see anything suspicious (assuming someone could even pick that up in the millions of lines of code). On second thought, even if it was in the main game no one would have found it, and even if they did it’s unlikely they would recognise it for what it was.

              – Akihiko was in the game for the same duration as the players.

              – Mentally unstable as in sociopathic – He understands how society works but doesn’t feel any need to adhere to its norms. He does not feel that the deaths of the players are “wrong” in any way, and probably views to whole ordeal as an experiment or mere form of entertainment. Basically, it’s easy for him to act normal as long as it helps him to achieve goals, but he feels no moral or ethical reason to do so.

              – Simply one possibility. Maybe he thought they would never believe him. Maybe he no longer cared what his reasons were or decided they didn’t matter. Maybe he truly did forget them. Maybe he never had any concrete reason at all.

              (Start a new comment line if you reply please ^_^)

  2. Kai says:

    So this makes me think of both seasons of Sword Art Online again, and overall, I really have nothing but mixed feelings about it, lol.

    Sword Art Online definitely started out incredibly strong. The Aincrad arc is definitely everything I already wanted out of the series. High stakes, character development, etc… As a standalone story, it’s excellent and I think Kawahara Reiki originally planned to have this story end as a one-shot anyway, but it’s (forcefully) continued, which as a result, makes everything else feels like glorified fanfiction. I do admit Mother’s Rosario is great though, a much needed different character focus (aside from Kirito and his haremization) which maybe came a little bit too late.

    • Silvachief says:

      I didn’t realise it was only meant to include the first arc, but that does make complete sense. The series might have been even more popular if it had ended there.

      Yeah, Mother’s Rosario is good stuff ^_^

  3. Lazarinth says:

    I mean that it takes a bit of speculation/assumptions to fill in these holes (maybe/it’s possible), rather than them being filled in by the material itself. Not that speculation is a bad thing but you can image it leaves a lot of viewer WTFing at the end.

    • Silvachief says:

      Well yeah, but the same can be said for the vast majority of stories in any medium. I could complain that how alchemy works is never truly explained in FMA: Brotherhood, but that had no impact on my enjoyment of the anime so it would be silly to do so.

      I think that the issue you had comes from disrupted suspension of disbelief. The content didn’t keep you interested enough to keep from asking those questions, whether they had an answer or not. I would be surprised if many people were truly confused by SAO.

      • Lazarinth says:

        You don’t know how alchemy works but you’re given enough of the rules behind it at the beginning. The WHY of SAO was a key mystery throughout the first season and it’s never explained satisfactorily
        I think the reaction in this video sums it up best;

        • Silvachief says:

          We know a lot more about how technology works than alchemy XD

          And I continue to disagree with the “why” being a significant mystery, either in that it was a major focus or legitimately confusing. Even him stating that he has forgotten works. He’s a sociopath, the reason could have been something as insignificant as “I wanna see what happens”, which both makes sense and satisfies the criteria of “something you might forget after not thinking about it for two years while living as another person”.

          I started rebutting the points from the video, but it seems like more of a parody than the source of legitimate complaints. It’s fair enough if people don’t enjoy a series because of the tone or content or genre, though, and I fully admit that SAO falls off the deep end in a number of ways after the first season (and the games released for it to date have been pretty crap too XD).

    • Silvachief says:

      If you think Lazarinth and I are arguing, don’t worry about it. We enjoy discussing the anime and have done so many times before.

      Also, I didn’t approve your video comment because i’m not sure why you’d link to something about Gundam.

    • Lazarinth says:

      It’s funny that it might come off as hostile when this is us having fun. Well, I am at least. I find having a disagreement about something far more interesting to hash out than “I agree with you and therefore have no reason to discuss so let’s move into the next topic that we agree about and have no reason to discuss.”

      • Silvachief says:

        I think it’s easy to see written discussions as arguments because you can’t hear the tone of the person’s voice or see their expressions. I’m always careful to make sure my emails don’t sound snappy XD

  4. Wakai says:

    Good series is good, but the series keeps digging itself into deeper and deeper holes. Is it a drama? Is it a romance? Is it an action adventure? Answer: It’s everything on okay levels. It’s still fun though. 🙂

    On a funnier note: Kirito’s VA is pretty much now the go-to harem male MC it feels like. I’ve heard him in so many of those series it’s pretty hilarious.

    And then he shows up on Re:Zero and I just die inside at how talented he is.

    • Silvachief says:

      Can it not be all of those things? =P
      I think it’s more confused about who it wants to pander to. I’m really keen to see what it does with the new movie next year and hope it continues with the quality Mother’s Rosario brought to the table.

      I had to look him up again to double check his roles but, yeah, he’s protagonisting all over the place. At least he seems to be able to play some reasonably varied roles; I haven’t actually picked his voice out in a series before. Then again, that might be because i’m bad at doing just that XD

      By the way, good to see you’re still around!

      • Wakai says:

        I’ve got a really good ear for VAs. It’s a little game of mine to be honest~

        Thanks! Good to be back. Haven’t blogged in almost a year due to school and work, but I’m hoping to get into the seat of things with some changes to my stuff so I don’t burn out as easily. I’ll be releasing content hopefully soon once I get this new fancy graphic all set up. 😀

        • Silvachief says:

          I do enjoy when I notice, it just doesn’t happen very often >.<

          I know exactly how school messes with life's important things, so good luck with it all! My advice would be to get yourself a backlog of articles ready and keep to a schedule so that when things get busy and you can't write you have something to fall back on. I could go half a year without writing anything and keep up my weekly posts.

          Looking forward to your comeback!

          • Wakai says:

            Wow. That’s serious dedication. Thanks for the advice! Will do.

            Before I used to treat the blog kinda of as “something I have to do.” Nowadays because I’m so busy, it’s actually quite a nice break from it all~ Hopefully this kind of mindset will keep me motivated!

            • Silvachief says:

              It stemmed from writing to build up courage before I first started the blog, ended up with 8 or so articles in my backlog and i’ve kept that up since. It’s a lifesaver when i’m in that “something I have to do” mindset and just don’t feel like writing. Those always end with me watching a fantastic series that I can’t help but review, so it works well.

              Good Luck!

  5. ohh that series, well I remember trying it out and for the first five episode’s I drop out. I don’t need to watch/read a bad writing until the end to know it’s a bad writing. I actually didn’t care about the fan service and useless characters that we don’t care about having more screen time even if they were fucking annoying and I wanted them to just die, cause again I didn’t care about those stereotypes characters that would disappear latter.
    what I really hate about this show is how they write the protagonist (our mighty Gary stu) I seen marry sue and I seen gary stu before, and hell this show is the perfect example of how not to write a story/world/protagonist. even superman was more interesting and build batter then him, and he fucking superman! Kirito is a boring protagonist and I didn’t care about him even after 5 episode’s and I won’t care about him even if I watch more.
    it a way you build a character that should be balance that would make the viewer care for him. if you want me to care about a character, try make them a little bit more human with actual flaw’s, it really not that hard to do.

    • Silvachief says:

      Kirito is most definitely a bland character, so I see how that could be annoying, but I think he works in the case of Sword Art Online. For me at least, it was the setting and general concept of virtual reality that kept me interested and if that’s not your thing then you were probably right to drop SAO where you did. Because the protagonist wasn’t the focus I didn’t mind his lack of development or distinguishing features, and I even think that a more polarizing character would have distracted from the show’s other features.

      Did I care about Kirito? No. But I cared about his relationship with the other characters and I cared about the experiences people had within the game world, and Kirito being bland probably helped that. I personally didn’t use him as a self-insert character, but i’m sure a lot of people did and that’s probably why SAO is such a popular anime in the mainstream.

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