35 CommentsFirst Impressions, Sword Art Online / By Inushinde /

Sword Art Online First Impressions: It Actually Doesn’t Suck (Inushinde’s Take)

“By the creator of Accel World” is not a phrase you want to see plastered onto a series, no matter how much the quality flaunts itself in the face of low expectations. Yet, resemblances between Sword Art Online and Accel World are inevitable for a number of reasons, chief among them being that they’re made by the same guy, who apparently has a hard-on for virtual worlds rivaling that of the .Hack franchise. Yes, the creator of the functional yet boring wish fulfillment of Accel World, which I remind everyone I come across has a character whose name literally translates to fucking “Black Snow Princess”, also made the slightly grittier Sword Art Online, a tremendous leap forward in terms of quality and scope. And, flying in the face of expectations, it actually doesn’t suck. 

Whereas Accel World feels like a halfhearted, forced amalgam of video game mechanics, shounen clichés, and boring male leads without any of the urgency that those tend to entail, Sword Art Online gives off the impression of being a much more personal project, one that’s written out of love for the story rather than an obligation to meet the next deadline. While the first episode is hardly a life changing opening to a series, nothing feels especially forced, and I can’t find any criticism that ruins any joy one might take in seeing it unfold before them.

The story and setting are hardly original, with our perfect male lead having to force himself through an online world that wants nothing more than to slice him and everyone else in it to bits, but the execution is competent at worst, when it isn’t impeccable. There’s actually a reason to be in the game, and actual lives at risk in contrast to Accel World’s paradoxical lack of stakes; yes, it’s a tad excessive, but anything is better than “If you die in the game, your life goes on pretty much as normal, so your ridiculous investment in it is all for naught you goddamn loser.” This is also one case where the aesthetics truly make or break the show, and everything delivers wonderfully in that regard.

J.J. Abrams is shitting himself right now

If there is any weak point thus far, which I’m sure will be worked out later as the story gains momentum, it’s that none of the characters have much humanity on display. Our lead, Kirito, though hardly dislikable, doesn’t show much of a personality past being completely absorbed in the game. While it’s implied that it’s his escape from the humdrum of everyday life, that’s pretty much a staple of the genre at this point so it doesn’t score any points. So even though he’s in a life-threatening situation, there’s no reason for the audience to care what happens to him, at least not any more than the protagonist in any similar show.

The villain is in a similar boat, crafting the inescapable world of Sword Art Online seemingly for the purpose of going on a complete power trip; there’s no rhyme or reason past apparently just wanting to kill a ton of dudes by trapping them in his lovingly-crafted world. While neglecting any development on his part would be a disservice, it’s not like it would truly break the show, so long as Kirito is fleshed out along the way.

I went into Sword Art Online fully expecting to hate the opening episode as much as I did Accel World’s, and I walked out too engrossed to even care that the characters don’t have much dimension. It can’t be iterated enough that the amount of love that clearly went into this is on full display, and it more than makes up for the few shortcomings presented thus far. If the series keeps this up, it’ll be one of the greatest shows of 2012 without a doubt.

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35 Comments

  1. Jumendez
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    While it is definitely a step up from Accel World the fact is that, because of its cartoon villain and his equally cartoonishly evil motive, I can’t take the premise of the show seriously as much as just nitpick at the whole thing.
    Also was expecting to hear more Kajiura composure than what was in this episode. My ears have not been satisfied.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure there will be more Kajiura in episodes to come. Such a high profile composer isn’t taken on only to let her talents languish, after all.
      As for the cartoonish villainy, that’s the one thing that made me pause for thought. Realistic motives aren’t really the series’ strong suit, it seems.

      • Jumendez
        Posted July 9, 2012 at 2:12 am | Permalink

        Yeah, but I feel it’s going to undermine the melodrama that this show seems to be trying to build itself up towards. If I feel the situation they’re in is dumb to begin with, it’s going to be hard to sympathize with the characters.

  2. volt9
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I did not enjoy it quite as much as you did. Especially the second half felt kind of rushed, as if they wanted to get to the actual plot as quick as possible. Because of that the whole ‘You can’t escape, you must kill the others’ thing felt pretty cheesy to me.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      Cheesy is good sometimes, and it works here for me. While I somewhat doubt that it can keep up the momentum, as long as it keeps the inherent cheese to a minimum while still at least letting it show, it should turn out just fine.

  3. crazyapple92
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t say Kirito has no personality. There seems to be some set up for him having some kind of emotional, social, I’m a loser so I spend every waking moment in the beta and now that this games back my life can continue so I won’t have to kill myself after all. And now that the game is real and stuff I’ll become a natural born leader and survivor and flourish in this game while gaining a party and overcoming all my strange social quips.

    Or something.

    I don’t mean to rag on it, it isn’t terribly original but it does what it sets out and not once did I find myself eye rolling or expecting to drop the series early in. In fact I as pleasantly surprised by how hard it was… or rather will be. The art and summary kind of had me expecting a series with characters and a target audience of very young preteens with annoying voices and a whole lot o’ blushing.

    All in all it’s not too shabby though I can see if kind of bombing once it starts introducing female characters into Kirito’s party. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll drop the ball come girly time.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      Damn wiminz ruining our animu.

  4. Banarok
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Since volume 2 make the series cliche and have alot of annoying covenient bugs.
    Volume 3 is called afterstories and tell about kiritos life in the floating castle, they make the series to a generic light novel.

    So if they adapt novel one without incorperating volume 3 in the first volume it will be decent for atleast a few episodes if they adapt it well. But i doubt it will keep that up, but i think this show will start to stink around episode 3

    • crazyapple92
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      Ahh, the dreaded 3 week stink… It’s common with anime and corpses… but never anime corpses.

      Let’s hope the director was given freedom with the series and has the good sense to leave it out.

      Though honestly a kind daily life of our hero episode doesn’t sound to bad to me.

      • Inushinde
        Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

        The character being given time to just act like himself sounds like a good idea, as long as it allows for development. While there is potential, certainly more than your usual light novel protag, I don’t care in the slightest what happens to him right now.

  5. Embok
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    “it’s that none of the characters have much humanity on display”

    Uh. How about the one of the three relevant characters in this episode that you didn’t mention? The one who’s the third coming of Kotetsu (or second coming of Mutta if that’s more your thing)?

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      Considering that his only role was to act either panicked or confused as a vehicle for exposition, I didn’t sympathize with him too much either. He’s hardly bad though, and I can see another episode or two being all that’s necessary to win me over.

      • Moomba
        Posted July 9, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        What, how can you not sympathise with the guy? He’s about to miss his pizza!

  6. Chipp
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    So here we go again…

    “SAO was originally published as a web novel slightly before .hack (afaik), but was published in LN format only years later.”
    Quoted for the truth.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      I never said that it came after or was influenced by .Hack, I’m just mentioning the inevitable similarities.

      • Chipp
        Posted July 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        “Who apparently has a hard-on for virtual worlds rivaling that of the .Hack franchise.”
        Looks like I misunderstood this sentence. Also I’m honored by your answer ’cause Scamp like to avoid most of the comments)

  7. Posted July 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    “perfect male lead”

    Actually, I found that our lead did have some story, although it was not spoken of.

    – He somehow got in the beta, which says something.

    – He played the beta a lot, most likely, considering him reaching that floor and knowing his surroundings.

    – He probably doesn’t have a social life. You could see those vibes in “reality” and how he wanted to do everything alone.

    – He only feels alive in the game.

    – He probably admired the Game Master, since he seemed a bit let-down when the game’s nature was revelead. (or maybe he was just interested in the game)

    – He… bought a game with such a few copies.

    I actually loved this episode. It captured the feelings of an MMO and didn’t really have anything I was bothered with.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      “He probably admired the Game Master”
      I’m actually pretty sure that was mentioned in the episode.
      Anyway, I have to agree with you. Just because the male lead is competent in an online game due to his advantage as a beta-player, he’s not perfect. As you’ve already pointed out, there was also some subtle foreshadowing that he has problems with his real life.

      Personally, I liked this quite a lot. I’m totally hyped for the second episode, can’t wait for it.

      There’s still one thing one has to wonder about: How do the players stay alive? Do their parents feed their unconscious children or something?

      • Inushinde
        Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

        I assume that getting out in time to grab basic necessities is part of the dilemma, unless a total deus ex machina is introduced that allows players to remain alive without outside assistance, which in all honesty seems pretty probable.

        As for MC-kun, I did like the symbolism of the real world being dreary compared to his online life, as blatant as it was. As much as that adds to his character, it’s kind of a staple of this genre, so it doesn’t get any points from me.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      Good question to how they stay alive. I mean, in the beta, they didn’t come very far (might’ve been a short one though).

      And in the first month, 2000 died. This implies they can survive in real life. Perhaps they get transported to a hospital or something?

      Or magic.

      Yeah, I’m hyped on this show.

      • Inushinde
        Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

        That’s very true. How they survive will hopefully be because of outside intervention though, because trying to explain away how VR gear keeps them fed/watered would not be pretty.

      • Thrashy
        Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

        IIRC, they truncated the big bad’s speech from the novels; I seem to remember that he gave a three-hour window to relocate all of his victims into hospitals, after which remaining unplugged would trigger the helmet death-ray.

      • Inushinde
        Posted July 9, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

        Well that’s not a good thing. If it’s not included in the next episode, that’s one huge miss for SAO right off the bat.

  8. Adrian
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I liked the episode overall. Couldn’t stop laughing at the poor guy who thought his partner was a girl, because it happens so often in MMORPG’s.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

      Easily the high point of the episode, and the one I’m sure everybody could relate to.

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

    I really enjoyed the first episode. I, also, went in expecting trash. Came out with something more. I still see myself dropping this in the future. There are too many girls on the main picture, and I am pretty sure they will bring pain to the show.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      Oh yeah, the introduction of female characters will probably be a bit problematic, unless they’re shown to be able to navigate the world competently enough on their own. As long as the damsel in distress thing isn’t played out, I’ll be happy.

  10. Posted July 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    I really liked this episode. As Draggle pointed out in a comment on his post, the most important thing that will either make or break this show is the other lead character we will hopefully see next episode.

    If that girl is another cliche, boring, run of the mill, generic character, then it is done. Game over.

    If however, she is at least as likable as our protag-kun, then well, it is pretty much game-set from there.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      After such a good opening episode, I’ll be expecting big things from this show. The writing seems to be pretty decent, so I’m also expecting the female lead not to become a worthless liability.

  11. overlyanimated
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I like the take how you brought up Dot Hack. Every anime slash manga and such based on a video game will always take it bases from Dot Hack. But the real change of pace that I really like like you did Inushinde was the urgency of life and death. It slightly does make you want to get pulled in wondering what will happen to the characters.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

      .Hack came after this, supposedly, so I can’t call foul for ripping it off. Every kind of virtual world show does have similar roots though, so similarities are bound to show up.

  12. Nebulous
    Posted July 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Don’t worry, once they introduce the woman it’ll turn to shit.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Oh good, I was worried that I’d have nothing but positive things to say about this series. Thanks for disproving my fears!

  13. Nuu
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Ohhhh so that’s why I had this thing in mind about “Accel.” I just knew when I thought about it, I didn’t have any motivation & couldn’t put my finger on it. Anyways, I guess you’ve convinced me to watch this. When I saw the description, I figured it’d be cliche, and one of those last-5-mins-has-action kind of shows. Nice to know it seems legit so far.

    • Inushinde
      Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      It has yet to be seen whether it’ll hold up to the high standard that I have after this episode, but the start is promising at the very least. If it doesn’t muck things up in the near future, I have a feeling it’ll keep up this momentum.

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