‘In this world, ‘Game Over’ is equivalent to death in the real world.’
Thousands of keen players – including young Kirito – who have logged into Sword Art Online, the world’s first VRMMORPG, are horrified to hear this grim pronouncement from Akihiko Kayaba, the game’s developer. Kayaba tells them that they are trapped in his game until they can clear all the levels; if anyone in the outside world attempts to disconnect them, a device implanted in the game’s VR helmet will kill them instantly. In this not-so-far future world of 2022, the unfortunate players have no choice: survive, or die. And if that isn’t bad enough, they all have to play as themselves; their assumed avatars – even genders – melt away, revealing their true faces.
Kirito (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka/ Bryce Papenbrook) a loner at heart, determines to fend for himself at first, while others join up to form groups and even guilds. But as he makes his way through the gruelling world of Aincrad where kobolds, dragons and treacherous fellow players present a constant threat, the loner finds that he is unable to turn away when he encounters others who need his help. He may have earned himself a reputation as a formidable swordsman, but wary as he is, he finds it hard to resist an appeal for help from a vulnerable girl. Not to mention the independent-minded redhead Asuna whom he just seems to keep encountering on his journey…
It doesn’t seem any time at all since the days of the many and varied .hack// series which were all set in a virtual world and even though Sword Art Online has something of a Battle Royale vibe going on, it seems more reminiscent of the .hack// scenarios – heck, it’s even got a soundtrack composed by Yuki Kajiura. The problem with such series is – unless they’re very skilfully constructed – they tend to want to have their cake and eat it. Here the gorgeously iced cake is the virtual world, with all its impressively epic fantasy landscapes. Even the virtual deaths (even though we’re told they mean real death in the real world) are rather pretty, with the defunct character’s avatar vanishing in sparkling shards which just somehow fails to deliver the true impact of a real physical death.
Another problem here – and we only have seven episodes in this first release – is the bitty nature of the narrative. Kirito pursues his quest from level to level, encountering a murder mystery here that needs solving, a girl with a crush on him there, even a Christmassy episode…
Kayaba’s extraordinary act of megalomania merely becomes a device to allow the writers to put the hero through a variety of standard situations. What would have made SAO stand out from so many other series would have been to investigate why Kayaba has decided to play god – and the impact of the ‘lost’ gamers creates on their families and friends. We learn that Kirito has a sister and a mother in the outside world but the subtitles tell us that time is moving on from 2022 to 2023 and then 2024. If the physical bodies of the surviving players are lying in stasis for over two years, as we’re meant to believe, how are they being maintained and nourished? A lost day or two would be easier to accept – but two years? Seriously? Future episodes may well put all this in context but it has to be said that in these first episodes, Kirito just doesn’t make enough of an impact to create much sympathy for his predicament.
SAO is based on a popular series of light novels by Reki Kawahara, so perhaps familiarity with the original work would be helpful. I can’t help feeling that any series that uses the familiar tropes of playing games is taking on an insurmountable challenge. Such games – inevitably – often rely on epic fantasy clichés: magic weapons; treasures; guilds etc. which have been around since Dungeons and Dragons first appeared. To create something memorable and different with these rather tired and well-worn features needs a feat of some imagination on the part of the director and script writers and these first seven episodes just don’t deliver the goods. If it seems churlish to complain that not enough is being done to link what’s going on in the real world of 2022 with Akihiko Kayaba and the world of the game, that complaint is only made because that that’s where – for this reviewer, at least – the true interest lies. It remains to be seen if SAO takes that road or leaves Kayaba as merely the final Boss to be defeated at the very end.
Yuki Kajiura’s music seems – sadly – a pale shadow of her earlier scores. The Opening Theme is “crossing field” by LiSA and the Ending Theme is “Yume Sekai”/ “Dream World” by Haruka Tomatsu; both songs are rather ordinary ballads with nothing to make them stand out from a hundred others of a similar nature.
The character designs are pretty, yet also pretty generic, and the medieval townscapes and landscapes of the magical world of Aincrad though colourful, are, again, nothing unusual, even when seen in glorious Blu-ray.
A DVD version accompanies the BD (not seen) and the only extras are textless Opening and Ending themes.
Only seven episodes in the first set, so it’s hard to tell if SAO is going to deliver the goods in terms of story and character development; thus far it seems, in spite of its colourful setting, to be lacking something vital. Maybe it’ll all come together in the next episodes…