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Sword Art Online Review

January 11, 2013 By: Nopy Category: Anime


“If we make it back to the real world, I’ll find you again and fall in love with you again.”

– Asuna, episode 11

Sword Art Online (SAO) has caused quite a bit of controversy being touted as both the best and worst anime of 2012. With large numbers of people at both extremes of the spectrum, I think it’s necessary to get down to the details on what makes Sword Art Online good or bad.

First off, for anyone that has been living under a rock for the past year, Sword Art Online is a 25 episode adventure-romance produced by Aniplex and directed by Atsuhiro Iwakami. The plot summary is as follows (courtesy of MAL):

In the near future, a Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG) called Sword Art Online has been released where players control their avatars with their bodies using a piece of technology called Nerve Gear. One day, players discover they cannot log out, as the game creator is holding them captive unless they reach the 100th floor of the game’s tower and defeat the final boss. However, if they die in the game, they die in real life. Their struggle for survival starts now…

The main character, Kirito, is determined to complete the game and return to the real world. Within the game, he meets Asuna, who he develops a relationship with.

First, lets consider what the series did well. SAO managed to combine fantasy and sci-fi seamlessly by making the fantasy component a (virtual) result of the sci-fi component. This merger allowed the series to have monsters and sword fights while the characters maintained the intelligence of modern society. Another aspect that SAO did well in was not getting lost in the details. SAO side-stepped issues of pseudo-science by stating a few facts and leaving out the explanation. An example involved the nerve gear, which apparently had an auto-kill design that not even the government could crack (though they could disconnect it to move you to a hospital), but the series never explained the design.


Likable characters was another strong aspect of SAO. Despite Shinji Ikari’s prominence in the anime world, historically, the emo teenager has never been a popular archetype among anime fans. Rather, the strong-willed and slightly insecure hero has always been the main character of choice, and Kirito fits into that role perfectly. In the face of death, he pushes on with unmatched determination to not only live, but win. Kirito gains a reputation as an unbreakable force. The series then brings him back to human status as he shed tears of hopelessness in front of Suzuha. THIS is how you develop a character, not by chopping off a hand and having him return with attitude (I’m looking at you, Guilty Crown).


If Kirito is the ideal male lead, then Asuna is the ideal female lead. Beauty, brains, and brawn, Asuna has it all; did I mention that she’s an excellent cook? She is just as strong-willed as Kirito and has an even stronger sense of justice. She saves Kirito’s life on occasion, proving herself to be more than eye candy. Her personality is also the type that most guys would drool over: tsundere enough for you to notice, but not exaggerated to the point of annoyance. Asuna is also very devoted as you can tell by the quote at the top; who wouldn’t admire a girl like that? Together, Kirito and Asuna make a very likable pair, which is the highlight of SAO.


Some of the other good things that the series has is the animation, specifically, the battle animation. A lot of anime tend to distort the body or weapons because of all of the action, but SAO still looks great and correctly proportioned. It’s easier to see for yourself than have me explain, so here’s a good clip:

Now for what SAO did wrong. Kirito and Asuna essentially carried the series so I was in disbelief when Asuna was suddenly taken out of the equation and turned into a damsel-in-distress. You wouldn’t take Kurisu out of Steins;Gate or Saber out of Fate/Zero; you don’t lock Asuna in a tower like a Disney princess. With half of the main cast gone, SAO went downhill fast. What about the other characters, you ask? Nearly all of them were inconsequential. Klein, for example, was the first person Kirito met in the game and all he did was show up every few episodes to say “hi”. Most characters had little or no role to play in the story. While Suzuha did end up playing a larger role in the second arc, she was ultimately just another side character as well.


When you see the quote I have at the top of this page, you immediately think of foreshadowing, and for the most part SAO planned things very well. What really irks me is that they laid all of the groundwork for the series – setting up the rules of the world and what can and can’t be done – only to break them in the end. A clear example was the paralysis effect: it was clearly shown that players cannot overcome paralysis even when they’re about to die, but during a boss battle, one person blatently ignored the rules of the game.


The shift from Kirito x Asuna in the first arc to sibling incest in the second arc took me by surprise and seemed out-of-place. For a while, SAO was developing a romantic relationship, then throw in a little sister and you have some fan-pandering on the scale of Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai. The shift in gears makes it awkward for fans who were hoping for a traditional romance.


Something else that really bothered me were the final bosses of the two arcs. The appearance of the first arc boss was sudden and left little room for lead-up, it was almost as if the writer just wanted to get the arc over with. The battle with the final boss of the second arc had far more build-up. These things usually end with an epic show-down, but SAO decided not to have a real battle, leaving me very disappointed.

In summary, Sword Art Online had a wonderful setting with exemplary characters, but it was bogged down with inconsistencies and sudden changes in direction. Simply looking at the main characters and their development, I can see why many consider Sword Art Online to be the best anime of 2012. Then again, looking at the story and its execution, I can also see why many consider it to be a terrible anime. In the end, it’s all up to whether you value character development or plot cohesion more.


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16 Comments to “Sword Art Online Review”

  1. Ah yeah SAO was good overall with some flaws in the story and it’s setup.

    What annoyed me the most, were the number of timeskips at first, somehow I couldn’t really take a feeling for this virtual world, it was rather episodic, with explaining all these things like cheating, teamkill and so on.

    Aside from the very tough Asuna as main character, SAO felt pretty outdated at some points, it was quite cheesy and especially the villain design for example was so cheesy and ridiculous, stupd laughing, stupid evil grin and completely despiseful two dimensional characters. That felt like they were from a Punch and Judy show for kids.

    I liked Kirito as main character a lot, he was quite strong, but also a sensitive hero without being a wimp or crybaby.

    Im a sucker for romance and the way it was portrayed in SAO was lovely, like this house at the lake episodes with Asuna and Kirito and later Yui ^_^

    Well, at some points I preferred Suguha / Leafa over Asuna, but that outcome wouldhave been too brave from the author.

    I would have loved more romance by the end, the Seed sidestory was quite lame as the last part. Overall it was a great anime with epic music and good visual effects.
    Wieselhead recently posted..Queen’s Blade Echidna by MegaHouse

    • The timeskips were annoying at first, but I thought they were necessary to lay the foundations of the story, like what Kirito has been through and how there were player killers in the game. As for Suguha, I really didn’t think her story fit into the series.

  2. The Clockwork Alchemist says:

    I personally liked SOA a lot, but it does contain my second biggest bone in anime, a missed chance. This had the chance to be something more by addimg a multi-lingual layer by varying mouth movements in just a few characters to match a different language. No subtitles needed and it accounts for say someone in the USA nabbing one of the online copies.

  3. To me the biggest problem I had with SAO was disappointment. It’s fine if Kirito is the perfect wish fulfillment hero and Asuna the perfect wish fulfillment heroine. It’s fine if some things are glossed over to play on the rule of cool.

    What bothered me the most was the wasted potential, SAO kept setting nice opportunities to explore but did nothing with them. Kirito’s initial bad reputation as a beater, his struggles as a solo player, the weight of the deaths he caused, his relationship with Asuna rubbing people the wrong way, his eventual foray into her guild. All those lasted a few minutes or an episode at most.

    Same for the second half I’m okay with the incest pandering and all that heartbreak but that arc was unnecessary perhaps if it had been as a way to reintroduce and explore the previous side characters would have worked out better. After all, the friends Kirito and Asuna made would have come to his aid if he asked.

    In the end, did I like it? Yes I did. Do I think it is the best show of 2012? No way. Will I watch an adaptation of the rest of the novels? Probably.
    Miette-chan recently posted..Let’s do a quick unboxing – PSP Puella Magi Madoka Magica Portable

    • It definitely had a lot of potential that it didn’t build upon. On the bright side, it leaves room for a lot of fanfics, but like you said, it leaves the actual series rather empty. Personally, I enjoyed it because of Kirito and Asuna’s relationship. If they had done some of the other stuff that you mentioned, it would’ve made it even better.

  4. I really can’t agree with you on this Nopy (despite normally being kind of your equivalent lol).
    I personally liked both, the 2nd Arc AND the final “battle”. Actually, the desperateness of Kirito wanting to save Asuna made me anticipate episodes even more than in the 1st Arc (although I found the first arc to be superior in general). Also, the final battle was really satisfying for me personally, as I wouldn’t have wanted such an obsessed a**hole to be a powerful guy and I really liked the built-up. Also, I wouldn’t place Suguha as “another sidecharacter” – she was clearly the most developed character besides Kirito and Asuna and brought another dimension to the 2nd Arc INGAME. As for her real-life issues, well, that WAS out of place you’re right on that.

    Anyway, it was clearly my favorit anime 2012 besides Kokoro Connect, and while the 2nd Arc was weaker overall, I think it’s similar to Death Note in this aspect. Worse than awesome can still be great ;)

    • Well it was inevitable that our views would diverge somewhere. Sure Suguha did play the third largest role in the series, but in my eyes it was always about Kirito and Asuna, especially since the Leafa/Kirito relationship was one-sided.

      I was actually disappointed in everything about the last boss, including his personality. I wanted him to be more like the game creator, but more evil; instead, he turned out to be a creepy middle-aged guy that’s into underage girls.

  5. Well, yeah, it was anticlimatic and he was just a little douche… but to me it was satisfying seeing him getting roflstomped. If he were more of a badass “cool” evil guy I’d have loved a great final battle. Still, if I had to rate the first Arc as a 10/10 I’d still rate the second around 8.5 ^^

  6. I don’t particularly hate this series as much as most people do, or love this series heads over heels as some do, but it’s true that I didn’t think much of the series as well.

    I think I’m of the same opinion as most that I like the first arc better, but the second arc just puts everything into a blunder. Likewise, I also like Asuna at first but she became a damsel-in-distress like you said, and even became an NTR target, lol.
    Kai recently posted..Time Hollow Review

    • I think I’m somewhere in between too. I didn’t think it was the best series of the year, but I didn’t think it was the worst either. It had its strong and weak points.

  7. Nice review there Nopy. Sword Art Online was one of the most talked anime of 2012, and it was enough to draw my attention and come out of the rock to watch it.

    I think that the main characters are a forte for the anime, while the story is more like something running in the background. The first half is quite enjoyable to watch, being quite serious and concepts easy to take. The way the 1st arc ends feels a little abrupt, and the 2nd arc doesn’t feel as much as an “omph” as the 1st one, be it the settings or the characters, but it’s more understandable as the situation is not as dire. One thing I notice that a lot of the characters are met just once or twice, then are not seen again. Kinda wished they had more of an expanded role in the story.

    I think SAO is overall an enjoyable series to watch, and I won’t mind watching more if there are sequels in the future. Despite that I don’t think that much out of it, or at least it’s not enough for me to say this is the best thing out of 2012 etc, or that I want to get merchandise for it.
    Q recently posted..Volks Hobby Tengoku Photo Shoot

    • I didn’t like how characters were introduced and thrown away right after either, it didn’t feel like they served any purpose. While I did enjoy the series, it certainly could’ve used some improvement.

  8. I watched the first episode and it looks interesting. Planning to watch some more soon and see how the story develops. Asuna is cute in the photo above, I don’t remember seeing her in the first episode though.

  9. I’m a bit late commenting but I find the incest pandering funny. You find out pretty early on in the 2nd arc Kirito is adopted so by blood it’s not his sister. Also she falls for Kirito player and his real self, but she doesn’t know they’re the same person so even if they were blood related they would have been oblivious in-game to anything being wrong with their relationship. I loved the show if only because I grew up loving things like The Matrix so I like the virtual reality part.

    I found the final battle disappointing but after it seeing what administrative rights could do I thought back to the original SAO and wished some player had pulled off a few hacks to get them through the game such as accessing unfinished areas just for the fun of the plot concept. They could have had them caught before it aided them too much and got the killed for it to keep it from being too easy. I hated Asuna being locked up because she was originally a badass player and they made her weaker so Kirito could protect her the longer the story got. They could have made the run slightly longer by actually beating the game, but the world seed leaves the concept open to alternative world type shows in the future based on the original plot. In the end the first arc was the best as while I enjoy real games with magic I think the original fighting style was better for TV plus the second arc seemed to have less fighting overall. In the end I’m sad it’s over and sad it didn’t reach its full potential. Still I don’t want to knock the writers and definitely not the artists as they did an amazing job. Heck except for killing you it made me really wish a real SAO existed.


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