Alright, do not let the "online" part of the title fool you. This is NOT a review of a video game. I repeat, this is NOT a video game review. This is a review of a anime series... That takes place inside a video game... Okay so it's not a video game directly but it still has something to do with video games.
For those of you who do not know what "anime" is, it is a genre of TV show originating from Japan. Sometimes very successful anime series are brought over to the good old West. Sword Art Online is one of those anime series. But let's get one thing clear. Is Sword Art Online perfect? No. Is it bad? Also no. It's a really enjoyable twenty-five episode long romp through Virtual Reality. Unless we add in Sword Art Online II, which is actually just season two of this show, but Netflix seems to consider the two completely different things. Anyway! On to the actual review.
Now the first season of Sword Art Online has two major story arcs, the Aincrad arc and the Alfheim arc. And literally everyone who loves this show (myself included) generally agree that the Aincrad arc is vastly superior to the Alfheim arc in just about every way. So to make it fair I will review each of them separately. But first, don't go to the Sword Art Online comment section on Know Your Meme. Why? There's SO much hate in those comments, that I feel like this 99.9999% of the time...
Anyway, first the Aincrad arc. Being the first of the two arcs of season one, this arc runs from Episode 1 all the way to Episode 14. Let's start at the beginning...
It's the year 2022, and the new VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role Play Game, in case you wanted to know what it stood for) had literally just been launched. The main hero of the show, a young man named Kirito (pictured above)) is one of 10,000 people who log in to the game... Only to find they can't log out. What's worse is that if you die in the video game, you'll die in real life. And the only way to leave the game is to kill the final boss. So Kirito sets off on a mission to get back to the real world, kick some serious butt (I swear Kirito could probably take on the Avengers lol) and (hopefully) live a normal life. Along the way he meets a girl named Asuma who he falls in love with (Sword Art Online is a better love story than Twilight!). Although there's a very minor oversight I've noticed with the show (the following picture spoils the fact that Kirito and Asuma do indeed escape the game)...
Oh, and before you ask, Kirito and Asuma really were stuck in the game for two whole years. Anyway, Something I LOVE about the show is how it embraces the fact that pretty much the entire world is in a video game, with Kirito pointing out that "If your stats are high enough, you're invincible.", one supporting character proudly claiming that the "job [he] rolled is Knight." (job-rolling is kind of like a Terraria class challenge where you intentionally prohibit certain weapon types to create a more refined fighting style) and the fact the game has a friends list. Although, when I said that if you die in the game, you die in real life, I wasn't kidding. I swear, with the lone exception of the mini-series focusing on Kirito and Asuma's honeymoon (yes, they do get married in this show, unlike literally every couple in pop culture ever since their shows/movies/games end as soon as they get together but here comes Sword Art Online where the two heroes not only fall in love but also get married), at least one supporting character dies on screen. Some of those deaths are absolutely gut-wrenchingly tear-jerkingly sad.
RIP Sachi... We hardly knew ye...
But when a villain in the show dies, they die in incredibly violent but epic ways. Oh, and now's a good time to mention, Sword Art Online is rated TV-14, which is basically the same thing as a PG-13 rating. Although, it really pushes what it can get away with using that rating as the show progresses towards the Alfheim arc. Now you must be wondering, what on Earth does Sword Art Online get away with? Well, I refuse to answer that question directly, but it's rated TV-14 so kids should not watch this show anyway. But then again, kids should not watch anime in general since with a few exceptions, most anime series have teenagers and young adults as their target audience.
This is Klein. He's my favorite character. Klein is
the best. AROUND!!!!
Something that Sword Art Online doesn't handle as well, however, are the supporting characters. When I was watching the first couple of episodes I expected Klein (pictured above) to be the goofy, comic-relief sidekick that would follow and (try to) help Kirito on his adventures any way he can, and in a way he still is, but he shows up every five or so episodes and spends most of his time building up a guild. Similarly, I expected the big tough Agil to be the tanky lightning bruiser of the team, but he gets the same treatment as Klein. But they got the better end of the stick since Klein and Agil actually appear now and again to help Kirito and Asuma throughout the Aincrad arc. Lisbeth and Silica each had an entire episode devoted to them... And then they never show up for the rest of the show aside from the occasional cameo. One of the few things I despise about the Aincrad arc is that it focuses way too much on Kirito and Asuma, and rarely gives it's supporting characters a chance to shine.
Aside from handling it's supporting characters poorly, Sword Art Online's Aincrad arc is actually really good. It had good music, good voice acting (I watched the English dub because I do not know Japanese and I cannot stand subtitles period), and a mostly good story. When I say mostly good I am of course referring to the whole "can't handle supporting characters" thing, but also the romance aspects of the second half of the Aincrad arc. Some moments are actually kind of heartwarming, other moments are downright sappy/cheesy. But aside from cheesy romance elements, and the lack of development to the supporting characters, the Aincrad arc is pretty good... Now on to the dreaded Alfheim arc... *shudders*
Alright the Alfheim arc... Taking place shortly after Kirito and friends escape the first game, Kirito learns that not only was Asuma the only person to not reawaken in the real world, but her mind is trapped in a second game called Alfheim Online. So Kirito goes into THAT game to save Asuma. And I got to say, Alfheim Online has without a doubt...
Seriously, the game didn't bother teaching Kirito
the controls at all!
But here's problem number 1 with the Alfheim arc. The stakes are a lot lower, since not only can you logout whenever you want, but now you don't need to worry about dying in Alfheim online, since you respawn shortly afterwards. Secondly, Kirito got a massive jump-start into Alfheim Online, since Sword Art Online (the titular game Kirito was trapped in) and Alfheim Online were made using the exact same programming, Kirito's fighting skills and stats were left untouched. I actually don't like this because while Alfheim Online and Sword Art Online do share the same programming, Alfheim Online is a separate IP from Sword Art Online, which means that from a technical stand-point as well as a copy-right standpoint this should be impossible. It would be better if Kirito had to start from square one during this arc, since underdog stories are better than over-powered super-hero *cough cough* Dragon Ball Z *cough cough* stories.
Oh, and minor thing. Kirito is now a fairy during
this arc. Why? Because Alfheim Online turns every
player into a fairy. Because fairies are cool!
Problem number threesies (if you get THAT reference you must really like Disney) is while the Aincrad arc did neglect it's supporting characters, it at least gave them a cameo. Alfheim completely ignores Klein, Lisbeth, Silica, and Agil for the ENTIRE ARC save for the final episode. That's it. One of the things that the Alfheim arc did right is give some screen time to Suguha/Leafa (Leafa's her username), Kirito's sister. Speaking of Suguha, want to know a secret? Her name... Is actually "sugah" with an extra U. Now you can't unsee it! But anyway, Suguha is... Well, I got to give her bonus points for using her knowledge of kendo (a form of fencing, for those of you who don't know what kendo is) to give herself a head-start in Alfheim Online! But there is one major problem I have with Suguha. She... *scans brain for the right words* I don't know, she just doesn't do a good job being Kirito's Asuma-away-from-Asuma. At least, that's how I feel. She does redeem herself during the big finale, but still.
But the biggest gripe I have with the Alfheim arc? The way Asuma was handled. Prior to this arc, Asuma was actually even better at combat than Kirito (he literally says that she easily out-speeds him and has much more precision with her attacks). Now... She's just a damsel in distress. I might be spoiled by Hunger Games having the single most epic female protagonist ever, or maybe I'm just sick and tired of the distressed damsel trope being literally everywhere, but seriously, the least they could have done was give Asuma ONE action sequence to herself like oh, I don't know, helping Kirito take down the villain of this arc? But NOOOO, they reduced her to the grand prize at the end of the adventure.
Alright, I'm not going to lie, The Alfheim arc wasn't that good... But then again, literally EVERY Sword Art Online fan agrees on this: Watch the entire Aincrad arc (episodes 1-14) and skip the Alfheim arc (episodes 15-25), or watch the Alfheim arc for the lols. Or just to see how bad it is. But I can't deny that BOTH arcs have some really epic sounding songs in it's soundtrack. Also, literally every fight scene in this anime is phenomenal. I rate the Aincrad Arc an 8/10 but I give the Alfheim arc a 4.7/10 (I think that's the lowest I have ever rated something lol). But I recommend watching this show if A) you like anime or B) you like video game-themed TV shows.