Sword Art Online Part 1 (Episodes 1-7) (Cert 15)
2 Discs DVD/BD Combo (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 166 minutes approx.
In the year 2022 the latest and most vividly realistic virtual reality online game Sword Art Online is released, immediately selling 10,000 copies at its midnight sale. In the game, the users don their NerveGear (virtual reality helmets) and head to the magical fantasy world of Aincrad where they can exist as an avatar of their choosing and experience the adventure first hand.
One such user is Kazuto Kirigaya, one of the few BETA testers prior to its release. Under the avatar persona Kirito he meets a first time user named Klein and shows him some tricks on how to play but when Klein needs to log out he can’t find the function. Much to Kirito’s surprise he too notices its absence. Suddenly all players in the game are transported to the city centre of the land of Aincrad where a hooded Game Master appears in the sky before everyone. He introduces himself as Akihiko Kayaba, the game’s creator, and informs everyone that they are indeed locked into the game and cannot leave until they have cleared all one hundred levels. Any attempt to remove the NerveGear by an outside force will result in death and if anyone should die in the game, their real life existence is also terminated.
Computer games have come a long way since the simplistic tennis game of the 1970’s, the Atari/home computer boom of the 80’s and the Nintendo/Sega wars of the 90’s. Many gamers have often wanted to be more than the controller of an onscreen cartoon figure and first person shooter games of the past decade have brought them a step closer to that realisation. But what if you could actually BE in the game yourself? Not literally but by a virtual reality system that manipulates the five senses of your brain to create that illusion as vividly as possible for you?
This concept isn’t a new one, having been explored as far back as 1982 with the visually ground breaking film Tron, while for anime the theme has served as a core premise for many a series including the seminal .hack franchise. The light novels of Reki Kawahara, upon which this anime series is based, brings the idea up to date in line with the increasing developments of first person computer games and the interactive technological world we live in.
One doesn’t necessarily have to be a gamer to enjoy this show but I do believe it helps, at least insofar as creating an interest in wanting to watch a series that embraces a secondary passion. As non-gamer myself the appeal is only in the idea of people being literally trapped inside a virtual world where they are playing themselves and not a character which they can switch off from whenever the need suits. This aspect is a clever development as it definitely separates the wheat from the chaff in the world of Aincrad although it also exposes an inherent problem that stretches the boundaries of suspension of disbelief just a bit too far. To wit: how quickly the players adapt to their new surroundings as a “real” person.
Having assumed versions of their real life forms in the game (yes many females in the game are actually portly males in real life) the users can now feel physical pain as well as hunger, tiredness, sadness, etc. That’s fair enough but we are expected to believe that just because they’ve slayed dragons, warlords and other dangerous opponents via a computer controller they can suddenly do so for real and with great success? Surely the drama of the tale should be how the users have to adapt to their new world and responsibilities and having to fight in physical battles that are essentially real to them and not simulations? Even with the time jumps (each episode is set on a different date, beginning in 2022 and reaching 2024 by the last chapter on this disc) this is never explored.
Conversely the other glaring plot hole is how the players continue to survive in the outside world. Since it has been months since they were trapped inside the game, they have presumably been sat or lying down with their NerveGear on for all this time; wouldn’t someone in their families have noticed this? And what do they do for sustenance, ablutions and other bodily needs?
Again this is probably over thinking it so switching off your cynical radar might be a good idea if you simply want to enjoy this show as the simple entertainment it was intended to be. On that front it isn’t bad as it delivers some fine fantasy based fights and collisions as well as exploring the human side of being trapped in a game. Kirito is naturally our hero, one assumes having been the most skilled and helpful BETA tester, and to that end is hated by the rest of the males but earns himself a female following. Leading the pack is the initially sullen Asuna, who it is teased may have known Kirito in real life, while other girls of differing ages find themselves falling for our rather bland but noble protagonist.
Off setting the derivative storylines and tropes, the animation is superb and the artwork looks a treat especially in HD for Blu-ray fans, with plenty of detail gone into make the world of Aincrad a beautifully realised one. Sadly, the character designs rather generic so outside of their costumes, no-one would really stand out in an ID parade of anime characters.
Sword Art Online is a show that has received a lot of praise but that may be from the audience that it is aimed at. Perhaps I am at fault for not being a gamer thus I’m taking it too seriously although others non-gamers might be more receptive towards it. Hopefully it will turn around and convince me more in the following volumes but for now it’s a “good but not great” vote from me.
English Language 2.0
Japanese Language 2.0
Ratings – ***
Man In Black