33 CommentsSword Art Online / By Inushinde /

Sword Art Online Episode 2: A Step Backwards

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.

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  1. FlameStrike
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Hm well this adaptation did severely simplify all of the subplot and details of the original 100 page story in order to appeal to the masses with a cool battle. So the anime literally did sacrifice all the plot points for coolness hahaha.

    I’m a little puzzled by your assertion that all the characters are one dimensional though. That may or may not be true, but given that there are only two episodes, there hasn’t really been a ton of time to develop complex and branching characters right? I would be interested in seeing some examples of anime with complex interesting characters from episode 1 so I can make a better comparison.

    There are a ton of little details that are important better understanding the plot that you might have missed thanks to the adaption though. For example, you mentioned the needless sacrifice of the leader. Are you annoyed by the fact he choose not to take the potion, or that he died at all? If it’s the former then the anime didn’t show it perfectly, but it was implied that he was already beyond help. SAO has a system where damage dealt is done in increments over time, so he was already dead, and the hp bar was just ticking down.

    One thing though, did you catch the reason Kirito isolated himself? The situation was such that mistrust between normal players and beta players could escalate into a conflict between the two groups, causing many needless deaths. It’s not that Kirito really wanted to shove everyone away, but he played the part of the bad guy, making up a new category of Beater players to diffuse the situation. In order to prevent relations between beta players and normal players from deteriorating any further, he sacrificed his chance to work as a team with other players. A very admirable deed in my opinion.

    Well, seeing as SAO has is an adaptation from a popular light novel, there are bound to be cliches common from the genre. Shonen bravado and etc will continue, so if you really can’t stomach that stuff I recommend you do your self a favor and drop this show. It’s your call though. Some bloggers like to watch trainwrecks to amuse themselves at how bad a show is, so if that’s your thing be my guest.

    • Noname
      Posted July 16, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      Thanks for your explanations. I was truly puzzled by the blue dudes actions and didn’t understand why Kirito played the bad guy role.

      Also that slow diminishing HP bar is there so that there can be some hearth-breaking drama. “I am dying and I can’t be saved *insert cool last words*”

      So roll-eye inducing.

      Also yes the assertion that all characters are one-dimensional is strange because except the lead character all the people that we met this episode are first time shown.

      • Inushinde
        Posted July 17, 2012 at 12:26 am | Permalink

        I meant they’re one dimensional because I don’t see any potential for them to become more nuanced. Admittedly it’s not one of my most objective statements, but usually you can tell right away if a character will stand out or not. The show lacks much in the way of foreshadowing, is the point that I’m trying to drive at. There’s little effort to flesh them out or even hint that they can be fleshed out past the rigid archetypes that they’ve been set in. Again, it is pretty early, but my feelings haven’t been proven wrong yet.

        As for the sacrifice, it was the overly dramatic way it was set up that bothered me, rather than the sacrifice itself. It’s like the show set up this interesting story and dove right for the cliches instead, which is frustrating when I want to like it.

        And I understand why Kirito isolated himself for most of the episode, but it was his spiel at the end toward Asuna that made me want to cave in his skull for being such an angsty shit. If it had taken another episode to maybe build on the events put forth in the premiere, rather than skip ahead entirely to the end of the first floor, maybe I’d be a little less peeved. Sword Art Online is something that could be good for world building, but it’s squandered.

      • Posted July 17, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        “I meant they’re one dimensional because I don’t see any potential for them to become more nuanced.”

        I think that speaks more to a lack of creativity on your part than it does to whatever faults the show might have. Both the sacrifice and Kirito’s isolation were handled awkwardly, yes, but those scenes are clear evidence that the main characters, at least, likely won’t be one-dimensional.

        I’m also curious about what you mean by the plot needing more world-building. I think it’s already revealing enough (and in clever ways, like Kirito explaining the cream was a quest reward), and the last thing I want from this show is a bunch of people spouting exposition.

        Finally, your point about the characters not behaving like people trapped in an MMO is a bit flimsy given the context of the narrative. It’s been over two months since the first episode, and the group of people we see in the second episode are not your typical players. They’re the ones leading the charge and trying to get things done, not the ones hiding in the starter village (something Asuna mentioned she could never do). So not only have they probably accepted their new reality after two months of living it, but they’re also likely to be very comfortable with combat if they’re willing to fight the first level boss.

      • Inushinde
        Posted July 18, 2012 at 1:47 am | Permalink

        Fair enough, the characters have a good chance of being one and a half dimensional, in the sense that they’ll develop to the extent that their clearly-defined archetypes will let them, and not a bit more. It’s not terrible, but it’s boring and not all that distinctive.

        As for the world-building, fleshing out some of what happened between the first day and where the characters are now would be appreciated. It’s a big jump forward, yet there’s not a sense that much has changed at all.

        I’m not asking for it to become Horizon, but there are some neat things, like the distrust of the former-beta testers, that I feel are neglected out of the immediate context. I mean you’d think that it would have come up before, and Kirito wouldn’t be so affected at this point. Yes, it’s shown at the very end when Kirito takes the cloak and the hilariously awful title of ‘Beater’, but it’s clumsy as all hell.

        The episode’s biggest problems are awkward implementation of plot details, and a lack of willingness to make characters “pop” for lack of a better word, not at all helped by jerky pacing. It could do some new things, but it chooses to stagnate and not let itself grow.

        I hope I’ve managed to explain myself somewhat coherently here, and I know I’m being pretty hard on it. It’s difficult to quantify my problems with the show since they do seem to be mostly my problems, but it just isn’t handling itself very well.

    • Nuu
      Posted July 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Actually he could have been saved. You always can as long as you have some health. Presumably he had a potion to heal @ least near half health. If you noticed he refused. Idk, I liked him too, but at the same time it was a risk-reward thing & he took the risk, but got hurt…and died.

  2. Posted July 16, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Yeah plot wise it will probably become something like Kirito learns the next bosses abilities and skills and then he manages to defeat the boss of the week! Easy rinse and repeat type of thing. As an active MMORPG player I really loved the whole raid set up for the episode, but of course that blue haired dude could have taken that damn potion and freaking survived…ah well he wanted the loot from the boss for himself so ya.

    I died laughing at Kirito’s comment to Asuna “You can’t do things by yourself in this world” Ahahahhaha says the one who walks off to become a solo player? GOOD LUCK WITH THAT DUDE! Eventually I know they team up because that opening shows it!

    • Noname
      Posted July 16, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Actually I think he said that solo players are quite limited in what they can do on their own. He didn’t say that they can’t do anything on their own.

      • Andmeuths
        Posted July 16, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Even many LN fans are very unhappy at this episode- just see this rant, for example – (spoiler free).


        I have a ugly suspicion you’d level the same charge as Red Nose Reindeer- mind you, most LN Readers would have rather seen the Second Episode made into Two Episodes (Since it’s source story, Aria is a whooping 140+ pages long), include the Side Story they skipped (First Day, which gave us a very good look into Kirito’s mind- and he’s hardly a traditional Shouen Hero of justice- far, far from it).

        The problem is this: Aria is hardly one dimensional, yet with 20 minutes, they were forced to stuff Aria into a one Dimensional box, cut off three main sub-plots that provided alot of insight (including an even more detailed introduction to Asuna, dozens of pages that really went deep into Kirito’s character and the entire Beater dimension).

        Thankfully, the upcoming third episode has less material, and is regarded as one of the more emotional stories. The fear among LN readers though, is that 20 minutes is to short to properly adapt that story- ironically, because of it’s content.

        And before anyone ask, no, SAO will definitely not go floor by floor. Even the LN has not yet written a floor by floor account of SAO.

        In the end though, I urge you not to condemn SAO based on a botched up Second Episode adaptation that tried to squeeze 140 pages into a single episode. Kirito and Asuna are protagonists that belong not in the Shouen, but Seinen genre.

      • Anca
        Posted July 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        Shounen leads > seinen leads. Seinen leads are Yujis and bland aloof angst-bags, and Kirito somehow came across as both this episode.

    • Posted July 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Oooooh right my bad! Thanks ahah

      • Inushinde
        Posted July 17, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

        I’m not going to muck about with genres because that’s a pretty ambiguous line in many cases, but Kirito being a carbon copy of every angst-ridden lead that constantly spouts some variation of “I work alone” is annoying no matter what kind of category he falls under.

        If what Andmeuths is saying is true, then this episode is a wreck both in adapting the material and as an anime, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be condemned for rushing through important plot points. I’m not asking for a slow boil, but some kind of character development would be nice. I mean hell, even Horizon manages that much.

  3. Noname
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Ah yes, I just remembered the thing that confuses me so much. Why are they eating virtual food? It makes 0 sense to me. o.o

    It’s not like it is nourishing or anything, it seemed like food was there so that we could see the protagonist and our heroine start talking. Icebreaker. A really weird icebreaker.

  4. enigmator
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    You know, I really couldn’t care less if the adaptation of the side story cut out a good deal of the original content. All the novel readers complaining about the adaptation need to take the limitations of the medium into account, not to mention the placing of the story within the anime.

    My only issue here is that this side story was never meant to be presented at this early point of the plot. Full appreciation of the entirety of this side story would require us to already be acquainted a good deal with Asuna’s character. Unfortunately, that is still not the case. This is a problem that is caused by the decision to air everything chronologically.

    I won’t lie. SAO is a mess when it comes to transitioning between different points in the story due to the fragmented nature of the plot thanks to it being divided into several side stories. As such, the original writing of the novel can be blamed just as much.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 17, 2012 at 12:45 am | Permalink

      I judge any anime adaptation as an anime first and foremost, like there never was any material from another medium to adapt, though it seems that Sword Art Online is clumsy as hell either way.

      Asuna is potentially interesting, but I don’t see any reason for her to be here that isn’t just to indirectly coax Kirito out of his self-imposed shell. I hope I’m proven wrong in later episodes.

      • enigmator
        Posted July 17, 2012 at 3:34 am | Permalink

        My comment wan’t directed at your post actually, and I apologize if you felt that it was. I was mostly referring to the legions of LN fans who are crying foul over some omitted parts in the episode when the fundamental problem lies within the source material itself. Mind you, I am a fan of the novels, but it pays to look at its flaws without prejudice.

      • Inushinde
        Posted July 17, 2012 at 3:51 am | Permalink

        Oh no, it was probably my fault for coming across as defensive. Apologies if I did so.

  5. Elanassa
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    It is a mess, but it’s more of a ‘labor of love’ type work than something professional written from the start. SAO was originally a web-novel freely available on the author’s website.

    It was only after he had some success with his other works that a publisher decided to release SAO. Volume one works quite nicely as a fully self-contained story.

    Apparently the publisher’s have allowed the author to go back and ‘reboot’ the series in the correct order in a new series called “Progressors” (IIRC?). In theory it’ll allow the author to connect all those separate stories together in the proper order, and fix a LOT of the silly continuity issues the novels have.

    As for the food bit? It’s an in-game cash sink. It’s a slightly silly one, but that’s what it’s all about.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 18, 2012 at 1:19 am | Permalink

      “Labor of love” does not equate to good. Granted, at least it’s only the second episode so I can’t rag on it too much, but it’s flubbed some pretty big things so far, and I don’t think a wonky publishing schedule can account for weaknesses in the anime’s plot.

  6. Embok
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    The same could be said of Black Rock Shooter, but that doesn’t make it true.

  7. diz1776
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like it therefore it was bad argument.

  8. Posted July 16, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I still enjoyed this episode, even if it wasn’t as good as the first episode and it had a little too many cheezy moments. I think it’s a little too early to be saying the problem with this series is that the characters are all too one dimensional. Sure that may be present now, but seeing as we’re only two episodes through, I’m sure they’re going to develop the characters soon enough. What I would love to see are some clips from outside this SOA world into the real one, or at least maybe some flashbacks to the real world to get a better sense of who the characters are. Though, I guess that’s probably unlikely considering it’d break the flow of the show…

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 17, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

      What flow? Really, it has nothing to lose at this point in that department, so periodically cutting to the real world would do it a favor.

      And it may have been a bit presumptuous to say that the characters are one dimensional, but I have the sinking feeling that I’m going to be proven right. I’d love if I weren’t, mind, but none of the characters are all that inspiring.

  9. BwackNinja
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    The first episode drove home the idea that interactions between characters would have to be the focus, because everything else would make this little more than a fantasy-fighting story.

    The second episode pushed the idea of individuality. Everyone was dressed the same and thus unimportant/unskilled except for Diabel (calling himself a knight and having the garb to support it) and Asuna (with her cloak). We don’t hear of any special properties of Kirito’s new cloak, but it makes him distinctive. It shows even in a crowd that he’s he’s not just anyone; he’s special. Such a special item would serve to solidify Diabel’s leadership and quell any dissent. It would have shown that it wasn’t just that we could win, but that you have a chance because of working under me. Selfish, egotistical, and given the battle that’s mostly right.

    I also actually liked Asuna’s characterization. She was simply introduced, mostly just at the point her cloak disappears. She was the only woman among a bunch of men, and you could tell her skill because of the fact that she had that cloak, making her look different than everyone else on top of the fact that she had never previously formed a party. She was immediately relied upon by Kirito and shown doing the most damage while Kirito just set up the hits. Her cloak hid that she was a cute girl, which meant that no guys were trying to hit on her or protect her, and her strength was established far before her face was shown. As a foil to Kirito, she was a loner by choice, not by having difficulty interacting with others.

    Kirito donning the cloak was the first time he addressed more than one person at once, while every other time was a pained silence where he could not assert himself. Now he is able to go all the way, essentially saying that everyone should respect him for his skill, not look down on him for it and that everyone in the end is responsible for themselves, not to just be babied by the strong and holding everyone back.

    This properly establishes itself as no stupid underdog “I want to be the best and I can succeed because I believe” story, but rather a story of being the best to the point where it’s a stigma and playing selfishly to win, not to be the hope of the masses. The first episode left me wondering if this would end up being a generic bore, but now I’m convinced that this is far more interesting than your normal trash and I’m excited to see what’s in store.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 20, 2012 at 4:25 am | Permalink

      Asuna’s introduction is the one thing that I’d say was done well in this episode, only because it was so understated. But hey, if you enjoyed it, more power to you. I just found the episode too dull/rushed.

  10. spazer
    Posted July 17, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    Hilariously enough, during her first appearance in the LNs, she is saved by Kirito.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 17, 2012 at 5:28 am | Permalink

      Oh the irony.

  11. Posted July 17, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    From a viewer’s perspective who doesn’t read Light Novel I found episode 2 to be interesting where it goes straight to the action. I can’t comment yet on the traits of the characters and say that it’s one dimensional cause it’s just the second episode – I think I’ll leave it there for a moment and wait till it’s halfway and say – Ok it’s one dimensional. Perhaps they reserve this thing for character development so who knows.

    The only thing that bothers me are the technicalities like How the heck do they survive without eating in real life? Unless there’s a cliche where a minute in real world means a month in the the game. Anyway great episode 7.5/10

  12. Posted July 18, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    What a godawful episode. SAO is in that gray area between a parody of the fantasy genre and an actual show.

    The stereotypes are so bad that I can’t take it seriously as your average fantasy adventure. I started laughing at Blue Hair’s death scene and couldn’t stop, especially after that ridiculous “Beater” bit.

    And on the other hand, it’s not a true parody. I can’t take the flaws in stride because I know SAO is actually trying to make me feel bad that Blue Hair is dying, or that Kirito is becoming the scapegoat (a la Cart Driver).

    I’ll continue to eek out my pained laughter, but this is not a good anime by any means.

    P.S., offtopicish: I get ticked off when people mention that any MMO fan or gamer would be able to appreciate this show. Sure, the setting is an MMORPG, but anything beyond that is a real shame and an embarrassment. Just watching people cower in fear at a boss that *gasp* has more than one attack pattern is painful. And add this little element of crap onto a growing pile of one-dimensional characters, stereotypes, and the worst setup ever conceived by man…

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 20, 2012 at 4:32 am | Permalink

      I’m not all that upset by the setup. I mean it’s stupid, but they could make it work if they went all out. It’s just a shame that there’s no effort put into actually trying to contextualize the events, or grow the characters any.

      The Beater thing was the low point of the episode, though such a low point that I couldn’t stop giggling at it.

  13. Nuu
    Posted July 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Wow I just typed up a damn book…lemme start OVER. Btw, if anyone wants to know my take, just check out my video review on my site.

    Ok, while I do agree about the one-dimensional aspects you brought up, I’ll have to disagree, at least partially. The shows just started, but more importantly it’s an MMO where people’s lives are on the line. People don’t know each other and are hesitant to open up or trust people who could potentially stab you in the back for some rare loot.

    If character developement doesn’t get better by episode 5 @ the latest, then I’ll definitely agree 100%. And while Kirito isn’t a new or uncommon archetype in general, he’s still a team player even when he’s standoffish. And honestly, I’d rather have him, than a little bitch who whines &/or cries, trying to act strong when they’re insanely weak. Kirito knows his limits.

    I suppose right now this show is a matter of taste, but hopefully things will shape up for those who aren’t completely taken away by it. I sincerely think both sides of this show can be argued until sunset, so I guess well just have to watch the show more :p

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 20, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

      It’s a little early to call foul, but to be fair, it’s not exactly filling me with confidence that it’ll be all that great. Only time will tell though, I suppose. I’m not going to take the Light Novel into consideration here, so it’ll truly be a surprise if it does turn out well.

  14. Someone Else
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    They really should just adapt 1/2 Prince when talking about VR worlds, too bad its a Taiwanese(?) manga/manwhua

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