PREFACE: Most of this post, up to the second half of the Alicization Arc, is a reworked draft of an old MyAnimeList review that I had, at the time, written from memory. If I mention anything about the actual story that ends up being inaccurate, it’s entirely on me. I did NOT feel like rereading volumes of something I don’t even like (spoilers: I, an Internet critic, do not like SAO) when I’m already swamped enough as it is. I hope you can bear with me.
Light novels had definitely changed drastically at the start of the 2010s, and it can largely be traced to one source: Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online, published in English by Yen Press. It was the first light novel I’d ever read. I enjoyed it at first (key word: “at first”), but since joining the anime community, I’ve come to know full-well the criticism that the series has garnered over the years. Due to its episodic nature, I will be splitting this post by story arc. Apologies in advance… I’m not going to be bringing anything new to the table.
Volumes 1-2: Aincrad
The world’s first VRMMO, Sword Art Online, is released. However, the first players who log in are unable to log out, and death in-game becomes death IRL, which is evidently all according to the keikaku of the game’s original creator.
The main character, Kirito, is as blank-slate as his character design, and is insanely powerful for no reason (I get that he played the beta, but it doesn’t explain his equipment setup, that the game ISN’T EVEN PROGRAMMED TO ALLOW). The far better female lead, Asuna, doesn’t take long to become a inconsequential girl with untapped potential. Kawahara develops a running theme of reminding us just how much of a beauty she is and that she is Kirito’s and nobody else’s. It gets annoying, especially since I don’t consider her THAT attractive.
Due to the series originally being an entry to a writing contest, it kicks off with a decent setup volume before it immediately guns it to the final boss. The second volume is filler that serves no purpose other than to introduce new characters who do almost nothing in future arcs.
Volumes 3-4: Fairy Dance
After the SAO Incident, Kirito finds out that Asuna has been imprisoned in the final dungeon of the new hit VRMMO, Alfeim Online. He plays it immediately, with no PTSD whatsoever (of course) and goes on adventures.
His sister Suguha (who gets her blandness from her brother) wants to commit incest with him for some reason, but she is ultimately another inconsequential female protagonist. Of course, the same happens to Asuna; here, she officially becomes a damsel in distress, instead of a strong, independent woman.
The story at this point is more focused than Aincrad, although there is padding. The arc is also notorious for a certain… choice scene in the climax, the likes of which WILL be rearing its ugly head again.
Volumes 5-6: Phantom Bullet
My personal least favorite arc. Because our Mr. Perfect, Kirito, is more powerful than the Japanese Self-Defense Force, he is given a secret mission (which takes all too long to explain even though we already see the incident told to us in the prologue) to find a serial killer in the new VRMMO Gun Gale Online.
Well, at least it’s a game that plays entirely different from SAO. Too bad he just uses a sword again and inexplicably dominates the best player in the game. Talk about beginner’s luck! That aforementioned best player in the game is a girl by the in-game name of Sinon, who would’ve had a decent character arc if she didn’t become another Kirito concubine. Sigh…
Despite its promising pulse-pounding action, the arc is somehow insanely slow. It has as much dialogue as a Monogatari novel minus all the charm of Monogatari.
Volumes 7-8: Mother’s Rosary and Filler
Kirito steps aside for Asuna to bond with a girl who’s first name is Asuna’s surname for some reason. Unfortunately, this other girl, Yuuki, is really uninteresting. While my Fault in Our Stars PTSD makes me hate Yuuki (since her whole character arc is her life-threatening disease), it is a decent look at Asuna as an actual PERSON. However, Volume 8 is filler, set in arcs that have ALREADY happened, making it irrelevant. And bad.
Volumes 9-18: Alicization
The most ambitious arc thus far, and the one that actually managed to curb some critics’ fervor against the series. However, I remain unchanged. After an IRL run-in with a Laughing Coffin straggler, Kirito is put into a coma… and strapped to another VR machine. Only this one takes him to a new project called the Underworld, a new type of virtual world with an overly long, complicated, and not at all engaging explanation as to how it brilliantly emulates real people… or something.
Unfortunately, while the ideas are amazing, the execution is still lacking. Despite how “human” the people in the Underworld are supposed to be, they’re just as boring and uninteresting as previously introduced characters. The ones who showed the most promise- more promise than anyone in SAO up to this point- are Eugeo and Alice, two “NPCs” who end up playing major roles. Kirito also has some genuine struggles, and Asuna shows some traces of her prideful, confident self from the beginning. But Kawahara’s old writing habits consistently get in the way to the point where it seems like he was actively TRYING to get in his own way.
While a good chunk of the second half of the arc is spent without Kirito onscreen, it’s not much better than what precedes it. A lot of the positive reviews of this section- the War of the Underworld, as it’s officially called- stated that it single-handedly redeems SAO as a whole by giving the side characters more development. One of my biggest pet peeves is the notion that character development alone, and always, equals good characters, period. Sure, on paper, it’s great that all those other people get fleshed out. But in the end, they were still boring, and I completely forgot who they were after finishing the arc.
As a final note, I’m not a fan of the art of SAO. While a lot of the characters do have the “overly complicated clothes” typical of a lot of JRPG characters, they’re facial expressions look generic and lacking. It also looks very shoujo-y, which earns even less points from me.
Verdict (Average of All 18 Volumes): 6.25/10
I acknowledge that what I’ve said here doesn’t bring anything new to the table. SAO has kind of become a rite of passage for any anime-related internet personality, so I decided to make my contribution now. I heard that Alicization marks the end of the stuff that Kawahara originally wrote when he was a teenager, so maybe it’ll actually get better moving forward. But for now, I can only recommend SAO for those who want a fun and mindless escapist experience.