Come with me back to the wonderful days of 2012. When everything was splendid and we were blessed with the possibility of an apocalyptic prophecy that disappointingly never came to fruition. However, something else came to light, something that drastically changed anime as we know it today: Sword Art Online.
I don’t believe it to be an understatement to say that Sword Art Online almost completely reshaped anime into what we see before us nowadays. It marked the end of the rather strange era of 2008-2012, full of just weird yet oddly entertaining anime like Kampfer and Highschool of the Dead. At the same time, it gave birth to the now dominating isekai genre. Every season nowadays can have several isekai anime and it’s arguably all thanks to SAO.
However, it comes with its fair share of troubles. If you’re at least somewhat acquainted with the anime community, you’ll know that SAO is supposedly widely regarded as one of the worst anime in recent history. The amount of mockery it gets is quite honestly some of the worst I’ve seen with any recent anime. It almost seems like it’s despised by everyone, but that’s mainly because those that do enjoy it end up being the butt of other people’s jokes. It’s just not liked in the community, but why? Is it really as bad as people say, or is it just the product of a bandwagon that got out of hand? Well I didn’t just subject myself to three seasons of this for nothing, so let’s discuss, shall we?
As I’ll be discussing multiple seasons, beware some spoilers
Let’s take it from the beginning. If you’ve never looked into Sword Art Online, or if you’ve simply forgotten, it follows Kazuto Kirigaya: a fourteen-year-old boy who is one of a few thousand who got their hands on the first copies of the highly anticipated virtual reality MMO, Sword Art Online. Operating with a headset known as the NerveGear, the player is essentially put in the game with their senses and movements being translated in-game while their actual bodies reside in an unconscious state. The nigh-indistinguishability of the game from reality made it an instant best- seller.
However, things go wrong quickly when the creator of the game and the NerveGear itself, Kayaba Akihiko, announces that those in-game are now unable to log out and if they’re to die in the game, the headset would send a lethal dose of microwave radiation to the player’s head, killing them in reality. The only method of escape is to beat Sword Art Online’s 100 floors. Under the name Kirito (I’ll be referring to him as such from now on for simplicity’s sake), Kazuto sets off to gain strength and hopefully survive this death game.
Now that the summary is out of the way, we can get into this proper. Season one is split up into two major arcs: the first being Sword Art Online and the second being ALfheim Online. For the SAO arc, everything is fairly standard. If anything, it’s the most well-received part of the series. It deals with Kirito overcoming his fear of losing those he cares about and fighting against whatever the game throws at him.
Over the course of the arc, he makes friends and even falls in love with a girl by the name of Asuna (I get this is all common knowledge, but bear with me. There are still some people who don’t know). Encountering dangerous beasts and even other murderous players, Kirito pushes forward in his struggle to survive.
The biggest issue with Kirito is especially present throughout this arc: he’s a cliche, overpowered, self-insert protagonist with no real motive outside of wanting to protect his friends. Setting that aside, it really isn’t terrible. The story plays out as you would expect for a shonen, with plenty of fights won with sheer overpowered strength, through the encouragement of friends, or seeing said friends in peril. Because plot.
I will give credit where it’s due though, as the animation is one thing this show does quite well. The usually avoid the cop-outs of characters moving so fast that their movements are blurs or blocking everything with a flashy light show or explosions. That being said, the colors, even in the fights, are quite vibrant and appealing to watch. They seem to hit that fine middle ground, if you will. Just the overall design is well-done and appealing to the eye. So at the end of the day, I have to say the SAO arc isn’t too bad.
Now for when things started going downhill: the ALfheim arc.
After Kirito cheats death, beats Kayaba, and clears Sword Art Online, he awakes to find himself in a hospital in a severe state of muscular atrophy after having been unconscious for two years straight. Things seem to be right once again, but that’s far from true. Kirito comes to find that his love, Asuna, is still seemingly trapped in the NerveGear. What’s worse is that even in her unconscious state, she’s being married off to one of her father’s close employees unless he can find out what happened and save her from this fate. To do so, he has to venture into a new VRMMO: ALfheim Online.
Honestly, this arc isn’t completely unwatchable, but it’s far from great. As far as the story in general goes, it doesn’t give much in depth or complex emotion. It’s pretty much just shy of being on par with the SAO arc. But overall, I found it to be less appealing. Sure, we’re able to see more of Kirito’s “sister”, Suguha, and how their relationship builds back up. However, there’s just this overarching tension that I can only describe as “rapey”.
I’ll be honest, there are some scenes, especially near the end of the season that put me off, which isn’t an easy feat. Stretch that over the entire arc, and it just taints the whole thing.
As far as the animation and design go, it also kinda falls short of the first arc, at least in my opinion. It’s detailed, sure, but it just isn’t as pleasing to the eye and the combat scenes just don’t feel as satisfying to watch. That could just be a personal thing, though. The characters are a bit lackluster as well. It’s not like the first arc set a high bar in the first place, but still. The new characters especially, don’t have much to them and their emotions seem a bit manufactured. Overall as I said, it’s not great, but it’s watchable. Don’t go into it expecting too much.
If you’ve heard people discuss Sword Art Online, you’ll probably have heard that season 2 is where things really take a turn for the worse. Well, they’re right.
The second season as a whole is just annoyingly bad as far as plot or characters go. But let’s start with the first arc: Gun Gale Online. Taking place about a year after the SAO incident and a few months after the conflict in ALO, Kirito, Asuna, and other survivors of Sword Art Online are attending a school designed to handle those who’ve fallen behind academically after being trapped in the game. All is well and everyone’s happy.
That only lasts for a short period of time, as Kirito is approached by the head investigator of the SAO incident and asked to check out a rumor about a person going by the name of “Death Gun”. This player is supposedly able to physically kill the top players of a VRMMO called Gun Gale Online by shooting them in-game. Reluctantly, he goes in and meets a girl going by Sinon. They both enlist into a battle royale tournament with Kirito hoping that he would be able to lure this supposed killer out by winning.
All in all, it’s not absolutely horrible story-wise, but it’s far from great. It’s predictable, a little bland, and wraps up the final conflict with a deus ex machina. Now it may be my incredibly low expectations talking, but it was still watchable. I found a bit of enjoyment in going, “Ha. I fuckin’ knew it.” One of the benefits of a predictable plot, I guess.
As for the characters… eh. Kirito is pretty much the same cliche self-insert protagonist and the set characters don’t really waver much from how they were (although it helps when they don’t really show up through most of the arc). The new main character introduced, Sinon, is a bit iffy in my opinion. Her design is well-made, but her personality seemed a bit plain at first. To the show’s credit, it does improve as her character develops, but that doesn’t really take much effect until the end of the arc.
So overall, the Gun Gale Online arc is a step down in quality, but it’s still hanging on by a thread.
The unfortunate thing about season 2 of Sword Art Online is that when people talk about how bad it is, they aren’t just referring to the GGO arc. After Kirito confronts Death Gun and saved Sinon, everyone goes back and has a good time in ALO. And thus, the entire second half of the season is filler.
On one hand, you could call it a benefit that it isn’t yet another life-or-death situation, but even still, it just isn’t very gripping. It splits itself into two little arcs, one dealing with claiming Excalibur and defeating the king of frost giants, and the other focused on Asuna helping a small guild defeat a floor boss on their own before disbanding. Both are relatively pointless.
None of the characters introduced in the arcs ever show up again and the entire situations don’t come back up after they’re dealt with. Having that much run-time dedicated to something that doesn’t affect the story at all is just bad. There’s nothing to grasp onto to make you care about anything that’s happening. The show set a scale for the tension it would put itself in and rather than easing out of it, they just cut it all away completely.
Overall, I had a difficult time pulling myself through the second half of season 2. At least the side characters get more screentime, I guess.
Thankfully, though, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Season 3 breaks off of the beaten path by having the arc span throughout the entire season. The Alicization arc deals with Kirito helping test out a new full-dive VR technology called the Soul Translator (STL). It apparently has the capability of reading one’s soul and using that to put the user into a virtual world completely indistinguishable from our own (visually speaking).
For confidentiality reasons (supposedly), Kirito is unable to retain his memories from the STL. Thus, after an attempt is made on his life and he wakes up in the world of the STL, he has no idea what’s going on. He gets his bearings and meets boy about his age named Eugeo. After some time passes, Kirito helps Eugeo to find his childhood friend Alice, who had been taken and supposedly executed six years ago by the dominant authority over the land.
Venturing onward, they come to realize that things are much more sinister than they first appeared. All in all, I enjoyed Alicization. It’s quite interesting to see the change in direction that they took with this season because dear God does it get dark. Much bloodier and more intense than anything SAO has offered before. The characters are enjoyable and the new ones are actually impactful.
One of the issues on this front though, is that the old characters don’t really do much at all through the whole season. They pop up like twice throughout the whole thing, but they don’t really do anything of note.
The story, however, actually caught me a bit. It was more appealing overall despite the overwhelming amount of things that make no sense. For example, everyone seems to just be completely on board with the idea that souls not only exist, but can be used in VR technology. They just accept it without question and very little surprise. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. But even still, I have to say that I actually enjoyed the plot as a whole. It’s nothing too fancy, but it was a good watch.
All in all, SAO isn’t the worst thing in the world, but dear God is it far from great. The story and characters may be lacking (quite a bit, might I add), but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. I have to hand it to the animation team because I found most of the series great look at. It’s lack of reliance on masking the fighting with light shows and explosions showed that a good bit of effort had been put into its production. It’s just a shame that the writing team had no such drive.
Overall, the show’s one to watch when you don’t care about story and you just want pretty scenery and decent action. One of those anime you kinda turn your brain off and watch, if that makes sense. So at the end of the day, my answer to the question is: No, Sword Art Online is not as bad as it’s made out to be. It has plenty of flaws, but the hate bandwagon gives a fair bit of undeserved criticism.