Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Sep 9th 2013
Sword Art Online
Blu-Ray 1 - Aincrad Part 1 [Limited Edition]
In 2022, gaming is taken to a new level with the development of NerveGear, a helmet that allows players to become fully immersed in their games so that you don't just play games, you live them. The latest game to utilize the NerveGear is an MMORPG known as Sword Art Online (or SAO), and only 10,000 hard copies are available to the lucky few who wait in line to get them. A high school student whose handle is Kirito is one of the those few, but after logging in to the game, he and the other players make a horrifying discovery – there is no logout option. The game's creator, Akihiko Kayaba, has programmed SAO to be a tap, and now to die in game is to die in the real world as well. This shall go on until someone beats the final boss and frees the players, and Kirito finds himself trying to keep himself and others alive in a fantasy world suddenly made real.
The allure of the MMORPG is easy to see – for a little while, role-playing games allow us to forget the nine-to-five of our lives and to become someone we could otherwise never hope to be: a hero, an adventurer, a master mage or smith or chef or jewelcrafter, or even just someone else. For Kirito, a high school student living in 2022 Japan, the creation of NerveGear simply makes that dream life more accessible. NerveGear is a helmet that allows players to become fully immersed in their games by “full dive.” This means that once the helmet is on and activated, the player's body becomes immobile as the brain sends signals to his digital avatar, making the game “real life.” Kirito is one of the lucky gamers who gets to play the new MMORPG Sword Art Online, a tower-based RPG where players must defeat increasingly difficult bosses in order to progress upwards. He's making friends and having a good time when suddenly he notices something strange – there's no “logout” option on the menu. The next thing he knows, the game's (and NerveGear's) creator Akihiko Kayaba is explaining that due to some easily exploitable flaws in the helmets, all of the players are now trapped in the game, and that now death in-game also means the death of the physical body via microwaves emitted by the NerveGear. The only way to free everyone? Climb the tower and beat the final boss.
At this point two things should be fairly obvious – the spiritual link to the .hack franchise and the major glaring issue with SAO's premise. In all honesty, the former is simply something that the well-versed anime fan will remark upon and doesn't really have much of a bearing upon one's enjoyment of the show, and indeed it is interesting to see a similar idea played out in a different way. The latter observation, however, is a problem. In the first episode it is explicitly stated that Kayaba invented both the NerveGear and SAO with the intention to exploit them, and he goes on to say that NerveGear uses some sort of microwave technology which he will use to kill players should their avatars die. The glaring question is, how did these pieces of gaming tech get past the Japanese Consumer Affairs Agency? It takes more than one person to create a game, plus we know that SAO was beta-tested (this is a major plot point, in fact), so how did any rogue code go unnoticed? And how could something that one wears on one's head be so poorly regulated that it could go to market without better safety oversight? Perhaps this is being too nit-picky, but this is sloppy writing and the sort of glaring issue that can make SAO distinctly less enjoyable for some viewers.
Fortunately there is still a lot to enjoy in these seven episodes (somewhat oddly spread out across two Blu-Ray discs). The idea of being trapped in one's fantasy is an intriguing one, and for the most part SAO does a good job of showing the ups and downs of in-game living. Kirito quickly realizes that he doesn't want to be a team player and would rather fly solo, using his knowledge and skill to help from the background, and some of the other players' reactions to him and other proficient players reflects the cattiness that can be found in online games. We see players who refuse to believe that the game is anything but, and others who find a new purpose in determining to beat it, like love interest Asuna, who at this point in the show is as prickly and determined as they come. Still other characters like Lisbeth and Agil simply forge new lives for themselves in-game, living as if this were their normal existence. While Kirito's interactions with those who aren't Asuna certainly cast him in a slight Gary Stu light, and a good chunk of these first seven episodes have a “Kirito helps the ladies” vibe to them, there is a warmth to his character that grows as the series progresses. If one doesn't watch the “Sword Art Offline” extras, it is easy to read these episodes as sort of short stories to the main plot rather than the assemblage of a harem, and given the rest of the show, this seems a reasonable interpretation. In the three short extras, however, much fun is had at the girls' expense, with not only Lisbeth but also Silica wearing hearts on their sleeves.
The extras, distributed across both discs as well, are fairly impressive. There are the three aforementioned shorts, which take the form of a news program and are quite funny, four episodes with Japanese commentary, English trailers, clean opening, and episode previews dubbed into English. The limited edition also comes with a small artbook, postcards, a collectible card, and a soundtrack disc containing background music by Yuki Kajiura. While the music isn't as memorable as her work for Noir or .hack//SIGN, it is still a nice CD to put on while working. The quality on the Blu-Ray is really nice, with images being crisp, clear, and colorful enough that on a large television the show feels almost as immersive as if you were wearing NetGear. It also makes the slight distortion when we see through a character's eyes stand out more, which is quite interesting.
The English dub feels quite strong. Bryce Papenbrook's Kirito has a slightly rough start, but once he gets going, it is very much comparable to Yoshitsugu Matsuoka's performance, achieving the same warmth at times. Strains of Fairy Tail's Lucy Heartfilia can be heard from time to time in Cherami Leigh's Asuna, but she is very convincing as the prickly character, and Lauren Post's single episode appearance as Rosalia is absolutely worth listening to, making her stand out more than the featured girl, beast-tamer Silica. With many of the characters there is a sort of “matching” between the English and the Japanese voices, so which you should watch is basically dependent upon your preference at this point. As the show gets into meatier content in the next set of discs, it will be interesting to see if this holds true.
Sword Art Online isn't the most perfectly written show and it suffers from a few logical issues that can distract from the enjoyment of what is otherwise a fun, interesting tale of an RPG gone real. In a sense, the episodes on these discs were more enjoyable when watched once a week, as it was easier to ignore some of the issues of storytelling, but this is still a solid piece of entertainment. With strong performances in both languages and good attention to the small details, such as how Kirito's armor changes to show the passage of time, SAO deserves a fair amount of the notoriety it has achieved, both good and bad.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Small details like armor evolving are well done, good performances both dub and sub. Lots of extras, both physical and digital.
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