Tuesday, 22 April 2014
REVIEW - SWORD ART ONLINE [SAO]
I watched Sword Art Online last year (2013), but in light of the news that a second season entitled 'Gun Gale Online' is coming in July 2014, I felt I had to revisit this masterpiece once more and share it's brilliance with everyone.
Sword Art Online (SAO) is a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG), released in 2022. With the help of special equipment called Nerve Gear (a virtual reality helmet that stimulates the user's five senses) players experience and control their in-game characters with their minds. On November 6, 2022, when 10 000 players log in for the first time, they discover that there is no log-out button and that they are stuck. The game's creator, Akihiko Kayaba, informs them that if they want return to the real world, they must reach the 100th floor of the game and defeat the final boss. However, should their in-game bodies die, their bodies in the real world will also die. One of these players is Kazuto Kirigaya AKA "Kirito" in-game. He was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the 1,000 beta testers in the closed beta test before the game's release. Since he has prior experience and knowledge of the game, he feels that he can beat the game easily. As a result, he sets out on an adventure to complete the game and return to the real world.
The protagonist for one is extremely likeable and is an absolute baddass. Seriously, this guy even looks good losing! No joke. When Kirito fails, it still feels like he just succeeded, except the plot reminds you shortly after that he actually did just lose, despite how cool it might've looked otherwise. Kirito prefers to play 'solo', meaning he dislikes playing in a party with a group of people. This choice is partly his own and partly because of circumstance as he is labeled a 'beater' (a combination of beta tester and cheater) early on by the players in Sword Art Online who dislike individuals like him who have an unfair advantage in the game (Kirito used to help test the game before it's release). He uses his foreknowledge of the game to quickly power up and emerge as a frontline floor-clearer known as the Black Swordsman. Bryce Papenbrook voices Kirito in the English dub. The voice fits the character very well and it's not the first time Papenbrook has voiced a character who plays online games. Papenbrook manages to give Kirito the right attitude without making him sound smug or arrogant.
Despite the entire cast being well developed and well liked (by me at least), special shout out goes to Asuna, Kirito's 'partner' when he's not playing solo. She starts off as something of a noob, but gets promoted to second in command of the Knights of the Blood Oath, who are acknowledged as the strongest guild in the game. Asuna is a strong-willed and often clashes with Kirito over his solo style play, but eventually falls in love with him (not really a big surprise) and they marry in-game (big surprise!). What is also a surprise is how mature and deep the writers take their love. It doesn't feel like boy-meets-girl, boy-messes-up, girl-forgives-him-and-they-live-happily-ever-after. No! This game spans two years (over the course of 14 episodes) and we see people actually start to depend on each other 'emotionally' for support as opposed to chance meeting and finding each other irresistibly attractive. Cherami Leigh voices Asuna in the English dub. This is a perfect choice as Cherami usually does exceptionally at voicing emotionally strong spirited individuals without it feeling forced or cheesy. A real treat to listen to.
The series also features a funny and interesting set of characters in Klein. Klein is a laid back player that meets Kirito at the start of the game and who quickly befriends him. There is a minor arc regarding him and Kirito going on that stems from them having to go their separate ways despite Kirito inviting Klein to share in Kirito's advanced knowledge of the game and Klein declining in favor of helping his own friends instead. There is also Agil who looks like a bald axe wielder. He owns a shop in the game and spends most of his earnings helping players in the middle floors. Yui is an artificial intelligence program designed to monitor the emotions of players and appear at their sides to hear and help them out. She meets Kirito and Asuna whose emotions stand out as a beacon of joy and peace in a sea of fear and despair. She aids them in clearing the game. Suguha "Leafa" doesn't appear in the SAO arc, but is referenced indirectly. She does appear in the Alfheim Online arc afterwards that spans the last 11 episodes. She is the younger cousin of Kirito and she herself goes through a very tragic journey when she teams up with Kirito.
Sword Art Online has a lot going for it. It is one of the smarter series I've watched in a while. The general plot isn't that new though. .Hack//Sign featured a plot where only one character got stuck in the game world. Highly recommended, but not the topic here. I'm a huge fan of people who take very unusual ideas and then tweak them just a little, opening up a whole world of new opportunities. This is exemplified by the psychological effects the characters show while managing to defeat the game. Instead of one character, 10 000 people get stuck! That changes everything! Now we have the concept of greed, dictatorship, escapism and the moral question of 'is killing someone in-game considered murder in the real world'.
Yes gamers! PKs (or player killers) now seem a whole lot more dangerous, don't they? Not annoying anymore. How do you prove they killed your best friend in a 'virtual' world? Are they accountable? What about the spectacular psychological experiment and deep insight regarding virtual reality on the human psyche weaved into the plot. This is kinda like being pushed into the 'adult' world. You have to fend for yourself. Money? Safety? All these aspects get covered in SAO which makes the plot seem so much more real than your normal 'help-I'm-stuck' gaming storyline. There is also a quite a few genres running through the series: Romance, survival, guilt and pain.