“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.
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.