Sword Art Online Is The Smartest Anime I’ve Seen In Years (And It’s Only Half-Done)

Sword Art Online Is The Smartest Anime I’ve Seen In Years (And It’s Only Half-Done)

Sword Art Online is an anime based on a series of light novels which has just hit the midway point of its TV run. Twelve episodes in, it is the smartest anime I have seen in years — even including the recent Lupin III. But before we get into why this is the case, let’s take a look at the story.

When the first 10,000 lucky people log into “Sword Art Online”, a new, highly anticipated virtual reality MMORPG, they find themselves trapped in the game with no way to log off. Worse yet, the players discover that if they die in the game or the connection is severed from the outside, the VR helmet will microwave their brains and kill them in the real world. The only way out is to pass all one-hundred floors — each a self-contained world in and of itself — and defeat the game’s final boss.


Good — A Sense Of Time

In fiction, a story like this would normally last about a month their time — long enough for the players to become inseparable friends, but not long enough to change who they are at their core. Twelve episodes in and more than two years have already passed since the start — two years spent living in a VR world. This allows for an in-depth look at the psychological implications of being in a virtual reality for so long that you start to wonder if the real world even exists. And if it does exist, should everyone still be trying to get back to it instead of giving up and starting to make new lives for themselves inside the game world.



Good — The Implications Of Creating A Society In A Virtual World

But beyond discussions of reality, Sword Art Online also delves into the sociological issues of living in this virtual world. Some people trapped in the game are hardcore gamers while others — casual players or young children — don’t have the experience or skills to be risking their lives in the still unbeaten dungeons. So do you, as a hardcore gamer, draft the whole lot and make them fight? Do you just leave them — including the children — to fend for themselves? As a non-fighter, can you really spend all your time levelling up a trade skill — trusting the hardcore gamers to get you back to reality? And with a return to the real world always there to motivate you, can you justify slacking off, falling in love, or training in the cooking skill? All these questions and more are addressed over the course of the story.

Good — A Genre-Crossing Story

Because everyone is trapped inside the game, their knowledge of the virtual world is limited to what they learn in the game itself. So while everyone knows the basic rules of the world, no one knows the specifics other than the data collected in the beta test. This makes the world perfect for adventures from a wide range of genres. Sometimes it’s a mystery; sometimes it’s a love story; sometimes criminal suspense; sometimes supernatural horror; and sometimes it’s a straight-up fantasy adventure.



Good — Hooking Up Isn’t The End Of The Love Story

If there’s one overused cliché in anime, it’s that once two characters hook up, it’s the end of the story — like the relationship after that point is a given. Thankfully, Sword Art does not stick to the norm. Thus the plot explores a love story in Sword Art‘s unique setting and brings definition to exactly what love is like in a virtual world.



Mixed — Predictably Tragic

If there is one problem with Sword Art Online, it’s that it is overly tragic. No matter the situation, you are pretty much guaranteed the most tragic resolution possible (that leaves the main character alive). Even the most triumphant and uplifting moments are clouded by some major tragedy — usually involving the deaths of player characters. Because of this, the series becomes somewhat predictable since any happy endings are, by and large, off the table.



Final Thoughts

Sword Art Online is a fantastic anime series so far. While not the first anime to have the “trapped in an MMORPG” setting (see .hack//sign), it is certainly the deepest when it comes to the psychology and sociology behind it. Will it continue its high standard of quality for the second half of its run? Be sure to check back with Kotaku East for the final verdict when the series wraps up in December.


        • Yeah…no! Dot HAck is a way better franchise, have you seen any of the aime? Sign? Luminality? Roots? Quantum? How about the games. G.U. THe light novels? >hack has a much richer and practical story, SAO is just a dot hack rip off with snarfy writing, the fact that you said SAO is better tells me you never truly experienced Dot Hack. And lemme guess your what under the age of 18 right?

          • The “.hack” Series was a stab in the dark (Literally, No One had tried this and succeeded, Ever.) . The original was so bad i couldn’t even sit through the first 4 episodes. It was the first anime i’ve ever had to watch over a larger period of time (I typically watch them all at once.) The show was so poorly written i couldn’t even understand the plot. I had to force myself to watch it. The MC is the most annoying self-imposed person ever and is hard to relate to. One of the movies was okay but it wasn’t outstanding. All of .hack was missing one thing, And thats something to relate to. Onto SAO

            The reason SAO stood over “.hack” and always will is simple. it has everything .hack has and then some more (Like a if you order something from a vending machine and it gives you something you like more out of it for free as a bonus along with the thing you bought because you touched it in the right place). It has a 100% likeable character, better story, more flow (Although it likes to skip… A Lot…), it has decent plot development, it VERY CLEARLY states what the plot is going to be and how to resolve it (This is a great way to get fans hooked, E.G, The world only god knows “Plot: capture girls hearts girls to rescue them. or his head will fall off” Most anime that explains a story upfront is MUCH more loved.

            Sao is a 9/10 for its first half “SAO” 7/10 for its second half “AFO”

            .hack is a 2/10 for most of the series, 5/10 for that one movie/ova/ona or whatever it was i don’t remember but for some reason enjoyed.

            And before you rant SAO LOVER FAG NERD, I hate SAO, At first i liked it due to the hype and i love the first season/part. But i hated the second part the only real good thing to come from that was sammich-kun.

            But i was interested in the content, The idea, And how the story would finish. Anything that can keep my attention for more than 7 episodes deserves a cookie.

            Well thats my rant, Chow http://myanimelist.net/animelist/Lward53

      • Same in terms of general plot (Stuck in MMORPG, try to find way out,) But otherwise everything else is pretty much different.

      • Lol, just what i was thinking.

        Did anyone else think that the anime for .Hack was pretty lacking? They didn’t even show the ending fight scene, and most of the series just had boring talking all the time! I mean, did they actually become lesbians in the end, or just had a platonic thing going?

  • It’s good, but to those who are interested, you should check out the light novels which serve as this anime’s source material that have been mostly translated online. It’s also infinitely better.

    Also, I hope they don’t rush it and spread the season out. Sword Art Online has a few arcs, and they’re all pretty different..

    • I completely agree, hoping they don’t decide to simply lengthen out the first arc and just end it there. I want to see the Fairy Dance and Phantom Bullet arcs!

    • yeah, i read the novels after people said they are better. they show a little more detail than the anime does.

      i’m also assuming this season will end the SAO arc, and if it gets renewed for a second, they’ll to the AFO arc (is that right? the fairy one) as the second season, and the Gun one (i forget the name of that one completely) arc as the third (once again if it gets renewed for a third)

      • It’s a two-cour series (26 episode) so I think they’ll fit in ALO at the very least, but here’s hoping they’ll also animate GGO as well

  • Gotta’ say, this is probably the most disappointing turn a series has taken for me. The series is rushed, and though I liked the first three or four episodes, I absolutely hate the way it is now.

    • i honestly blame it on the fact that they decided to include all of the side stories at the start, yes they were in chronological order, but in the books, it has the initial begining of everyone getting trapped, then imediantly goes to 2 years later… all the stuff in between is almost just filler…

  • Oh boy a certain imageboard is totally ripping this website and this newspost to shreds. SAO is okay but Accel World is a much better game to play.

    • Yes in the light novel it is explained that they have all of these peoples real bodies on life support as they cannot remove the helmet without them dying.


      people did notice. It became an international crisis.

      a whole government institution was created to take care of the victims during their imprisonment and the implications of returning to society after like 3 years of absence.

      im thinking though, for the anime to end like the light novel, they would need to go with the ambiguous ending (which sets up the future arcs). I think a ton of people wont be happy with it if they decide to make SAO a standalone series.

  • To all you people complaining about it feeling a little rushed that’s unavoidable. With all the jumps in time it just can’t be helped. They way they’ve shaped the plot around this has been really good. They’ve planted seeds in earlier episodes and have let us see them grow.

    Over the last few episodes things have really started to come together. My bet is it’s only up hill from here for what’s currently one of the most popular series airing. I have high hopes for future seasons as well given how much material is out there and that the author is only making more.

    If anyone is interested in this might I also suggest giving Accel World a go. It’s another sort of virtual world showthat’s been really good. The first seasons just ended too and a second is expected.

    Both shows are legally available from Crunchy Roll or less than legally subbed by the epic quality Unlimited Translation Works.

  • “Worse yet, the players discover that if they die in the game or the connection is severed from the outside, the VR helmet will microwave their brains and kill them in the real world.”

    This would be a heck of an interesting future for rogue-likes.

    • And neither is Lupin III, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Princess Mononoke, or Akira. Yet through the “1970’s superspy in a fantasy land with a samurai for a best friend”, “Giant robots made from cloned human flesh with the souls of the pilot’s mothers trapped inside” , “Human girl raised by giant forest wolf spirit fights an encroaching human army with a cursed 17 year old” or “Crazy Psychic teenager loses control of his powers, turns into supercancer and explodes like a nuke”, is some of the best writing in their particular story genres.

    • Anime doesn’t have to be plausible. Just epic.

      Furthermore I challenge you to tell me how it could not be plausible in a possible future.

  • I am so glad this article was posted. It is very rare I find a new anime that I actually enjoy watching as much as I am enjoying SAO

  • Wow. So the writers forgot what this anime was about by the second episode. Episode 1 opens strong with great tension and fear of being forced and locked into playing a game where you must cooperate with complete strangers and can die if you screw up. By the second episode, people are talking about joining guilds in the future instead of worrying about getting out of the game and on with their life. They eat food and drink things in the game world, neither of which do anything for them since they aren’t actually drinking or eating anything. When someone dies, like (SPOILER ALERT) Diabel in the first episode nobody cares. Also, he seemed really content about dying. A normal person would have taken the hp potion to stay alive, not just accept it. Why is no one in the outside world attempting to find and put this person who did this to them behind bars and have him let everyone out?

    I’m seriously just waiting for a character to say “Man, I hope this dying thing doesn’t give this game bad press.” The characters all seem to not care about the consequences of their mistakes or the fact they’ve been pulled out of their lives and forced to play in a madmen’s twisted game. If the characters don’t care, why should I? If they don’t care about anyone or themselves dying, why should I? Furthermore, why all the pretense of it being in a virtual world? Whoever made this obviously just wanted to make a generic fantasy anime. Smartest anime in years? Maybe… If you aren’t paying attention. : /

  • You know .hack sign is not the only material for .hack, and its not even the best representation of the series, the games are far better, and way more interesting than SAO. Ever hear of G.U.? An amazing series showing just great the .hack franchise is.

  • Know one can say snarf about .hack until they play the games, much grander story than SAO, and waaaay more interesting characters.

  • There’s some things that really make the two quite different.

    SAO is coming along with a setting in MMORPGs that is post-world of warcraft. I know that most of you probably don’t play MMORPGs, but when .hack// was concieved, MMO’s were an almost obscure game genre that was the opposite of mainstream. They were huge and grindy timesinks, and thinks were a lot more sandboxy. .hack// as a series understands this very well, especially in Sign, and its ORPG/Diablo 2-like gameplay design. Things were just different, and the human interaction was a much bigger part of MMOs back then.

    SAO’s plot in the anime is ‘updated’ from the light novels, and the structured game design of the anime is almost non-existent in the novels from back then. It is good that they updated it to modern MMOs “theme park” structure, but it simply isn’t the way MMOs were back then.

  • SAO’s plot in the anime is ‘updated’ from the light novels, and the structured game design of the anime is almost non-existent in the novels from back then. It is good that they updated it to modern MMOs “theme park” structure, but it simply isn’t the way MMOs were back then.

    .hack//SIGN isn’t even in the same category of Sword Art Online. Sign is WAY deeper, and (as many people would agree) Sign is a show that holds its own in the hall of champions, the likes of which is occupied by Serial Experiments Lain, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell**, and other anime ‘classics’ that are simply way ahead of their time and are something that is always referred to as the standard in a genre when other projects are started, INCLUDING SAO’s anime.

  • .hack//SIGN is NOT an action show, it’s a psychological horror drama in a cyberpunk setting that TAKES ADVANTAGE of that setting to its full extent. Example? It takes the entire show of SIGN to get to a single sentient self-aware AI in full consciousness, and it’s a BIG deal in the plot. Some characters remark that its simply impossible to have such a thing occur, and the plot is structured around this ONE AI becoming sentient.

    Sword Art Online throws out Yui like it isn’t even a big deal. Are you kidding? I laughed when I saw this part, really. It was such a huge scientific opportunity, but the unrealistic attachment from Kirito and Asuna just seems way too exaggerated.

  • Another example is the concept of pain, which seems to be on a dramatic moment basis in SAO, is touched upon on a deeper level in SIGN as another subplot by itself. The biggest part to this is that SIGN has a lot more believable science with the exception of a single plot device, which is just that: a plot device.

    in SIGN, just figuring out Tsukasa is stuck in the game is a big revelation, people don’t believe it, he doesn’t believe it, and finding….uhmmm…his body is also an entire plot point. The entire thing is brushed under the rug as some medical anomaly, which is what would happen in the real world. Inside The World, Tsukasa comments that EVERY TIME he is hit, he feels the pain. When attacked, other characters even mock him, as if he’s being overly dramatic about engaging in battle. He can smell Subaru’s perfume, feel the wetness of water. This is totally alien and can’t be understood by other players, who are only wearing a headset and holding a controller.

  • in SAO, it’s total virtual reality, which I find extremely scapegoatish for having to deal with any of these issues, and as a whole isn’t a well explained concept that’s just full of holes. If this show was set way in the future, way farther than it is, maybe I could believe it, but putting on a helmet and laying in a bed just seems far too Questworld. The concept of pain is only used for dramatic effect at certain times, which fits perfectly for an action show, to its credit.

    Although the soundtracks are from the same composer, there is absolutely no comparison at all. .hack//SIGN is one of those soundtracks that put Yuki Kajiura on the radar, the soundtrack is absolutely unbelievable, and I guarantee you that people who just stumble upon this music with no knowledge of its origins will love this music, it’s extremely high quality, not as a soundtrack, but simply as amazing music.

  • Sword Art Online’s music works better for an actual show, as it’s designed more as background music for specific scenes. There’s nothing wrong with this design choice, as it well..works better WITH the show, because its not as noticed, allowing the scene itself to be the “lyrics” to the music, which you aren’t really listening too. Think of it in the way that you’d see music in The Dark Knight vs. Kill Bill. The former uses the music to compliment a scene, the latter uses music leading INTO or OUT of a scene, to set the scene up or close it down.

    The plot of these two couldn’t be more different. SIGN takes a while to decide the plot, as it has several different layers, (I don’t care about the real world, how do I wake this girl?, how do I escape this world?) and resolves all of them with great focus, with all of them always present at some point. The support characters also have great subplots and roles, Bear wants to be a good father, Mimiru feels like a sister, BT is trying to find love, Subaru gives up everything to be with her love, Crim just wants to be on an epic journey like the Knights of the round table, Silver Knight is trying to prove he is worthy to himself, Sora just wants to be free, and Tsukasa is trying to heal her mind.

  • All of the characters have vivid, understandable, relatable, and deep motivations that give them all wildly different roles, which is EXACTLY what MMORPGs are about. You will meet TONS of different people with different motivations in a game, and to function you will HAVE to socialize.

    SAO isn’t like that, with the focus being on only one character, who, as much as I liked him for basically being me when I’m nerding out as the Dovahkiin, simply has no inner turmoil the way that any given character on Sign has. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING! This makes him easily relatable and fun to watch, and I DID IN FACT like Kirito. He’s a man who gets things done. What I DIDN’T like is how everyone treated a “solo player” like he was something special, as this simply has never been a remarkable feat in any online game in history, and has never been a topic of any special interest.

  • What I did find interesting however is that Kirito had gained the knowledge that Crim had in Sign, and that Subaru later figures out herself. Yes, when guilds get large they can become quite a burden, forcing you into roles and responsibilites that are much more like a job than a guild. I did like that the writers understood this quite well. The difference here is that SAO only explores a single side of this.

    Kirito comes into the show with this knowledge already present, yet does not pass on this knowledge or opinion, and like many things in the show, Asuna magically deigns it herself through extremely specific events that are incredibly unrealistic, where the writer put HER conflict and transposed it onto Kirito for NO reason, if SHE had a problem with the guild, it should have been part of HER character, with nothing to do with Kirito.

  • Subaru starts a guild with Crim, which becomes the largest and most powerful guild, and Subaru later discovers, through many, many, MANY episodes and events, that she has lost interest as her love grows for Tsukasa, and her concern, worry, and frustration with her own identity due to her responsibilities as a guild master. Crim, who started the guild with Subaru, quit long ago, wishing to regain his freedom as a solo player.

    It’s through Crim’s words, and her love for Tsukasa, that Subaru disbands the Crimson Knights, this is HER story, HER choice, done with great wisdom on her character’s part, with very visible consequences for the entire setting. I’m sorry, but SAO just simply didn’t have this depth in its supporting characters or situations it’s all “talky-talky” stuff that the kids didn’t like about the show.

  • Really, SIGN is a very cerebral sci-fi psycho-horror in a cyberpunk setting with a much deeper understanding of its setting and ideas, and far better supporting characters. It’s also based on MMOs the way they were before WoW, and predicted they’d be the massive social bank they are today.

    SAO is more modern in its approach to MMOs, but is an action show for action fans. It’s funner, I’ll give it that, but it doesn’t contain the depth of characters or understanding of its setting, going so far as “crazy man is crazy, traps people in game” for no reason other than that.

    Sign is a higher show for people who understand the internet, social games, and who are looking for something deep, dark, and mindblowing. It’s written by Kazunori Itoh, the guy who wrote Ghost in the Shell. Do you really think you can compare that with SAO’s distraction boobs every 10 seconds?

    I’m sorry, but there’s an ocean between these two shows. One of them is just an anime. The other one is nyerking ART.

  • Admittedly, this is a VERY late reply, but I just saw this wonderful multi-comment breakdown of both series and I had to throw out my two cents.
    I fully agree with your assessment. In terms of caliber, .hack outstrips SAO in terms of story and characters and, well, everything. SAO has sex appeal and bright visuals, and I guess some people prefer that over a story with characters. That’s fine, but it’s when they claim that SAO is the best thing ever that I put my foot down. It really isn’t, and it kills me inside when people claim that.

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