WARNING: moderate spoilers below.
The first half of Sword Art Online’s 25 episodes includes some of the most enjoyable, memorable and entertaining anime I’ve seen. The VR world of Sword Art Online is very well-realized and the main characters, Kirito and Asuna, are likable, engaging and sympathetic. The early episodes feature some great individual storylines, lovely environments, and terrific fight scenes and boss designs. It’s a constant pleasure to see MMORPG mechanics and tropes reproduced so lovingly and in amusing ways, and to see the dynamics of player interaction portrayed on-screen.
SAO also manages to capture an uplifting energy, despite the setting, which is quite inspiring. In fact, Asuna explains this herself towards the end of SAO’s first half: it was Kirito’s positive attitude and ability to relax and find pleasure in the moment of living, even in terrible circumstances, that attracted her to him. At its best, the show does a great job of capturing a sense of joy and compassion that is often one of the hallmarks of the best anime.
I didn’t mind that several episodes were devoted to Kirito and Asuna’s “marriage” and honeymoon, even though it distracted us from the main storyline. It was a nice change of pace and really charming, and allowed for a couple of moving episodes about a young child seemingly lost in the game. It was quite welcome, as well, that they pulled the trigger on Kirito and Asuna’s relationship, in contrast to so many shows that beat around the bush (excuse the phrase) so much that you’re tired of the pairing before they finally get round to hooking up.
We were enjoying the show so much that the events of episode 14 came as a shock and actually were quite distressing. That probably sounds melodramatic, but the sudden and abrupt ending to the story arc felt massively premature and we weren’t emotionally prepared for it. They really should have done a better job of teasing what amounted to the end of the world (albeit a VR world) beforehand. Precisely because the world of SAO was so rich and deep, the fact it was suddenly obliterated was somewhat upsetting. I suppose I should stop being so sensitive, but it kind of sucks if you feel like you’re being punished for your emotional investment in something. Clearly the characters in SAO were being forced to stay there against their will–although some had found happiness and meaning through their relationships there, as Asuna explained–but I was enjoying the ride. Oh well. There are eleven more episodes for us to watch but my enthusiasm is well and truly sapped at this point, which feels like a shame.
As a flippant aside, it amused me to find out by episode 14 that Kirito is 16 years old, implying he was 14 when he started the game. No wonder he was so zen about spending his life inside SAO. How many 14 year olds would jump at the chance to fast forward a couple of years and spend the entire time playing video games? Bit different to those older players with wives, families, careers etc on the go.
It’s difficult to give a score to SAO, but here goes. I’ll forever have fond memories of the first 13 episodes, which rank among my favourite anime; but the abrupt ending to the arc felt wrong and premature. So for episodes 1-14 I’m settling on an eight.