Like any dalliance with a psychotic yet attractive stranger, the happy relationship I had with Sword Art Online had to crash and burn at some point, albeit without physical injury on my part. While I would have expected it after the plot picked up steam and decided to kill off characters for a number of arbitrary, easily avoided reasons, I didn’t expect my euphoria to end abruptly three minutes into the second episode. So you can imagine the look on my face when I realized that Sword Art Online wasn’t an attractive stranger at all, but a baboon wearing the skin of an attractive stranger, hopped up on amphetamines and bloodlust.
The opening episode of Sword Art Online was a pretty good introduction to the world that got by on the virtue of balancing exposition with a more potential for nuance than was expected. There wasn’t much of a plot to speak of, so just looking nice and having decent execution was enough to get my hopes up. The story realized that it set itself up pretty well, smiled triumphantly, and proceeded to stick its thumb up its ass and throw up a gooey mess of clichés for episode two before calling it a day. Seriously, as far as weaving so many clichés into a plot goes, Sword Art Online deserves a damn medal. There’s needless sacrifice by the group’s leader, a predisposition toward keeping others at a distance on Kirito’s part, and an overall focus on sacrificing plot for perceived coolness.
The big problem so far is none of the characters are anything more than one-dimensional archetypes that lack any sense of depth past the one personality trait that defines them; Kirito in particular is guilty of this, retaining all the annoying traits of aloof shounen leads with none of the likability. While there could be a focus on how he seems hell-bent on pushing others away despite their usefulness, it’s only just been hinted at with no sign of follow-through.
The only thing that was handled more gracefully than expected was the introduction of Asuna, the female lead opposite Kirito, and that’s only because she didn’t have anything to do aside from acting shy and mysterious. It’s not exactly high praise, but at least she didn’t start out as the requisite damsel in distress, unless you count bland food a mortal danger.
For being people stuck in a virtual world where every misstep could mean their death, these characters don’t act at all like they’re people. While this could be a subtle nod on the story’s part toward the total immersion changing the way the players’ minds are wired the longer that they’re exposed, it comes across more as sloppy scriptwriting than effective commentary. The plot’s also linear as all hell, unfortunately offering very little in the way of world-building or subtext.
The best thing I can say about the episode is that it looks good, but the same could also be said of atrocities like Black Rock Shooter. It isn’t bad, but it’s clumsier and less substantial than expected, opting to follow a well-trodden route in lieu of actually adding anything to the story or setting, missing several chances for growth in the process.