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Aesthetically, there’s no denying that Sword Art Online is a very good looking anime. Boasting a strong premise and plenty of action, on the surface it looks like a sure fire winner. And for the first 14 episodes or so it more or less is, despite numerous time jumps and a few questionable character decisions. As the series pulls into its second half however, the dynamics of the show change and with it, any sense of tension and excitement built in the first half. There’s potential here but its squandered by some questionable writing and cliched characters making this anime more disappointing than it should be.
The first half focuses on survival; players are thrust unwittingly into a virtual MMO with the only way to escape consisting of fighting and defeating 100 floors worth of enemies and bosses to escape the game. This simple premise sets the scene nicely for some decent action and good bouts of tension dripped through the episodes as players who die in game – die in real life too. What follows is the strange decision to skip a lot of the training and action as the narrative jumps forward 20 floors or so. The episodes vary between slow paced filler and fast paced drama and action all the while instigating time jumps with one thrusting the characters forward 2 years. Most of this can be forgiven with the cohesive narrative and after a really good mid-season finale, the second half of this season undoes the good work in the first, taking the show in a completely different direction.
Visually, Sword Art Online is a treat. Bright, vibrant colours mix with traditional RPG elements like health bars and items to spectacular effect. Enemies shatter into crystallised shards when killed and an orchestral score dominates most of the series making it really feel like these characters are in an MMO. The colours work harmoniously together and the hand drawn anime style oozes charm in every scene. Even late on when the series takes a different direction, the level of detail and colour use is consistent and helps gives Sword Art a visual advantage over other animes.
Under the sleek visuals, Sword Art Online hides a lot of the flaws that plague this show. The story mainly revolves around two characters, Kirito (Bryce Papenbrook/Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) and Asuna (Haruka Tomatsu). Their arc is well written for the most part but paper thin at best. The strong, independent character of Asuna slowly devolves through the series as the two character’s romance blossoms and toward the latter half of the series, becomes a shadow of the character she once was. In terms of bland protagonists, Kirito fits the bill perfectly and his over-powered attacks and cliched demeanour leave little to differentiate him from the numerous other anime protagonists that fit this description. Along with effortlessly navigating the issues that he’s confronted with, every female character in the show is either weak or become infatuated with Kirito, further destabilising the good work put into the opening episodes of the series.
Sword Art Online is largely a series of two halves, with a disappointing second half overshadowing the good work put into the first through an unnecessary and questionable plot twist. On top of this, character motivations are unclear and the reasoning behind the game being made and trapping players in the first place is ludicrously brushed off and barely explained. Complete with cliched characters and a bland male main character, Sword Art Online loses a lot of the charm that made it so absorbing during its opening episodes. The visuals are outstanding though and coupled with an epic soundtrack and a decent first half, Sword Art Online does have some redeeming features. It’s just such a shame that the second half of this anime is so poorly handled as the overwhelming emotion is one of disappointment rather than optimism when the credits finally roll.