The title I’m writing about today has been featured in an AMV of the Day post by site founder Arleigh in the past, and it’s one that I’ve been meaning to write about ever since its licensing announcement back in October. But with that month being a horror-centric month, and last month…well, I was just really lazy last month. However, today I’d like to give my personal recommendation to one of the current biggest hits to come out of Japan, Sword Art Online.
The premise of the show is this: In the future gaming is done by immersing your consciousness completely into the game with a headset that’s pretty much the kind of virtual reality that some of us dearly dream was real. All senses are simulated so you can even eat food in the game and it tastes and feels like you’re eating real food. The newest, most sought after game in this time period is an MMO called Sword Art Online (what a coincidence, because there’s this anime with the same name that’s really good too! They should watch it.) and it’s a very exclusive game. Only 10,000 copies are released to the general public so getting the privilege to own a copy is like a status symbol. The main protagonist in the series, Kazuto Kirigaya or Kirito as he names himself in the game, is not only one of the lucky few who got a copy, but he was also a beta tester for the game. When the game goes live, he and the rest of the 10,000 log in and begin playing. I’ll admit it’s kind of amazing that all 10,000 supposedly all logged in at roughly the same time, but this show does require a few suspensions of belief. Anyways, after playing for a few hours and training another person on how to play, Kirito attempts to log out only to find that there is no option to log out of the game. Then all players are force transported to the square of the starting town where they are stripped of their avatars and their true selves are shown to be in the game. Then the creator appears via hologram announcing to them all that they are now trapped in the game until someone manages to clear all 100 levels. The real downside to this? If you die in the game, you die in real life. If your NervGear (the headgear that brings the virtual world to life) is forcibly removed, you will die. The only way to get out of the game alive is to clear it. And thus starts the adventure for Kirito and the people trapped in SAO.
The first thing to say about SAO is that the backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. This was obviously meant to be a big budget hit, and from character designs to backgrounds it sure doesn’t seem as if they went the cheap route. The boss battles are particularly noteworthy. This is one of the later boss battles, and this should give you an idea of the quality of the show, since often times the longer a show runs, the more likely the animators are to start cutting corners since their budget might be running low. This has not happened with SAO. (The subs are in spanish since I couldn’t find what I wanted in English, but you don’t really need to know what’s being said to appreciate the action)
Now I’m not big on playing MMOs myself. That whole teamwork thing isn’t for me, but this does give a good representation on what some of the tougher boss battles in MMOs are like. Now just imagine that your life was actually on the line and you can get a sense of the intensity in the battle.
Now, for the characters, your mileage may vary. Personally, I’ve liked the majority of them, even the “bad guys” so to speak, as they’ve done a good job of keeping them interesting. The main two are Kirito and Asuna, the girl in the picture and in that video, but there are others that make regular appearances, and then we also have one time showings from characters that become fan favorites like Silica Fett. Ok, she’s just called Silica, but she has the Boba Fett syndrome where she makes a lone appearance yet becomes a huge fan favorite. A couple seem like they were pointless additions, but mostly they’re there to show Kirito’s progression from uncaring loner to basically the hero of the game. This has led some detractors to label him as an MMO Jesus, in that he goes around saving people for no real reason other than to perhaps make himself feel better for past failings, but I liked seeing him grow up as it were and actually become a better person through the game.
As I write this, the show is still ongoing, so I’m taking a risk in recommending it. The show has switched gears a bit, and while I’m fine with where it’s going, since I haven’t read the light novels that this is based on, which I think are still ongoing themselves, the ending could very well shit the bed. At the very least it’s likely that the animation staff will have to make up their own ending, and even when that has the approval of the original creator, it tends to have mixed results. The tonal shift from the first season to the second is a bit jarring, and it kind of takes you out of the world that it worked hard to craft, but from what I’ve seen of the second season thus far it should transition well.
The musical score is also quite fantastic. It is largely composed by Yuki Kajiura, whom Arleigh and I had the pleasure to see in concert with Fiction Junction at this year’s Anime Expo. Each piece is well crafted to fit the mood of the scenes, from grand epic pieces to fit major battles, to slow paced, gentler sounds to complement quiet, everyday life. Music is essential in setting the proper mood in shows, and this is done beautifully here.
A major concern I have is from the licensing side. It’s been announced for release in the US & Canadia by Aniplex of America, and their prices tend to run a bit on the high side. I recently purchased Bakemonogatari from them, and that cost $150 for half as many episodes as SAO is going to be. The only comparable release that they’ve done as far as episode count would be their Blue Exorcist release, and that was only released on 4 DVDs which can be had for $100 now. But, at the risk of sounding like a video snob, this is a release that demands a blu-ray version. With Japan constantly crying about reverse importation, either it’s going to be a DVD only release or it will be an incredibly expensive BD release, possibly even along the lines of the infamous $700 Fate Zero release. Only time will tell on this, but fans will just have to cross their fingers that our Japanese overlords will be reasonable. Regardless, if the show can keep up the kind of energy and drama that it presented in its first half, then I’ll be hard pressed to pass by the eventual release.