Sword Art Online is one of the biggest series in the Anime fandom today. It is an animated adaptation of the light novel series by the same name which follows the adventures of a player named Kirito in various online games. In this first volume of Sword Art Online, we focus on the first two novels, which in this adaptation, is the first two episodes (a few chapters in the first novel) and then a majority of the side-stories from the second. While Sword Art Online may be incredibly popular in the Anime community, it may not be for everyone.
The series starts off interestingly enough, there’s a new popular MMORPG out that everyone absolutely must have, but only 10,000 or so lucky players were actually able to get their hands on the game in it’s first run. Of these players was the main character, Kirito, a player that was also a part of the Beta Testing group of Sword Art Online, the MMORPG that the series is named after. The main plot follows the player Kirito and his harem of women as they progress through the world of Sword Art Online, which, due to a significant event on the part of the creator of the game, Kayaba, is now a game where if you die within the game, you die in real life.
This Beta Tester plot point is relevant to the story as early as the first episode (but more predominant later on), where the Beta Testers themselves are seen by the community as players with an unfair advantage. We see this concept at it’s first point of progression in the second episode though, at first where one particular player interrupts a meeting going on between a raid group that is going to take on the first boss of the game. We see it again just after the boss fight where Kirito takes it upon himself to take all of the blame that same character is placing upon the beta testers by making himself look like an edgy player and giving himself a title of Beater, which is a combination of Cheater and Beta Tester.
At it’s core, Sword Art Online is a love story set inside of an MMORPG, however, you wouldn’t get that impression after watching the first disc. This is because, for a reason that is logical but still a bit odd, the producers have kept the Animes story in chronological order to the events that have happened in the novels, rather than focusing on the main storyline as presented by the first novel. Normally, this wouldn’t feel as jarring as the first few episodes feel, except that these episodes feel entirely like filler, as the source material they were derived from were written in the knowledge that you already know bits and pieces about them. As a result of this, the first two episodes segue in together really, really well, but then you get this massive shift in tone that makes the entire series feel weird. Not only that, but each episode has a different feel and tone to each other, which further creates a bit of dissonance. It pretty much goes from hardcore raiding to murdering an entire guild, a detective story, reviving pet dragons and setting Kirito up as a massive Gary Stu character.
It’s a bit of a shame that Sword Art Online was produced this way, as we’ve seen the series as it was broadcast, so we know that it does get better. However, a new viewer that is marathoning this disc may get a little agitiated by the shifts in plot. Or maybe that was just us because we know how good the main storyline actually is. If the ordering of the series was so that the main story was handled first, and then the side stories later, like in the novels, it’d be a stronger series for it. However, we have to judge this particular disc on it’s own merits, and we feel that it is weaker for being mostly filler. We really hate writing that, as we’re massive fans of the series and know that if you stick to it, it gets a lot better, but sometimes we have to be critical of the things we love.
Generally speaking, we’re pretty indifferent to dubs. We’ll watch them where we can, we do enjoy dub-work generally, but man does the dub in SAO sound bland as fuck. Like, really, really, bland. I think the voice actor that voiced the main character had a total of one tone, bored. The vocal range on Kirito pretty much ranges from: disinterested to unamused. This really makes a lot of the more intense, both the emotional and action, scenes seem like they’re being played for laughs by the dubbing director. You know that you have a problem with your dub when character you see a total time of once have more of a range than your lead character does over the coarse of the entire selection of episodes present on this disc. For reference, we’re referring to the raid leader here, but you could literally point out any other character with minimal involvement with the plot and come to the same conclusion. What’s worse is that the secondary character (for this disc, but is actually the other Main Character), Asuna, is equally horribly dubbed. Which was weird, because I’m sure I’ve heard her voice somewhere before. Perhaps these episodes just didn’t allow her voice to shine, which could be likely, considering the plot has pretty much backseated her on this disc. While it is advisable to watch this with the Japanese language settings and English subtitles, it’s understandable that some viewers will not want to. Those viewers may become dissatisfied with this package. Watch in Japanese with subs. Do it.
As an aside to the previous paragraph, it is normal for some things to get changed around in the dubbing process, usually to make the characters more accessible, or to make a line or scene more workable in English. What doesn’t sit right is, in some cases, an entire change to the script. This is particular in one scene where in the English adaptation, Silica and Kirito are in this garden together and there are these couples. In the Japanese version, Silica just gets flustered when she notices this. In the English version, she mentions something instead of blowing it off. What’s even worse than these changes, are how the voice cast just seem to throw in 90s phrases like this was an early OVA style dub. Heck, they even throw in a few memes for good measure too. If we weren’t such active participants in Anime and Gaming culture, we’d have no idea what any of this was and it’d make less sense than it did already. Surely, we can’t be the only people that face-palm when people run around spewing memes outside of the internet?
The one thing that Sword Art Online has going for it is that it is an incredible concept that is, eventually (not on this disc), played to a near full potential. You catch a glimpse at the world building through the side-stories presented on this volume, but it all seems pointless until it all clicks with the main plot, which will begin at the start of the next disc.
If you’re a massive Sword Art Online fan, like us, definitely pick up this first volume of the series. However, if you’re new to the franchise, you may want to skip this until the next release. It’s definitely a must watch Anime, but not one that should be watched in broadcasted order. We say this as massive fans. The series has a huge fanbase, so you know there is some quality sitting around in there, just wait for it to be released.
Sword Art Online comes courtesy of Madman Entertainment here in Australia. The first volume, Aincrad, is available online at their store for $35.95. This review was done with the Blu-Ray release and as such, it should be noted that the visual quality was significantly better than the DVD counterpart.