ANIME & MANGA - Review
16:00 - 27th December 2013, by David West

Sword Art Online - Part 1, Episodes 1-7

Kirito is a dedicated gamer who lives in Japan in 2022. He was one of an elite group of Beta Testers for a brand new MMOPRG called Sword Art Online, and is also one of the lucky people to join the game right at the start when the full version goes live.

To play Sword Art Online, users have to wear a NerveGear helmet that offers them a fully immersive experience in the game's virtual environment. However, once inside the game, Kirito finds he can't log out. Kayaba Akihiko, inventor of both Sword Art Online and the NerveGear, has trapped all the players in the virtual world called Aincrad. The only way out is to complete all 100 levels of the game without dying, because death in the virtual world means expiring offline too, thanks to a deadly microwave burst from the NerveGear. Bummer.

Sword Art Online is based on the light novels by Reki Kawahara, and the anime uses a non-sequential chapter format to tell the story. Months can pass between episodes, and recurring characters can be absent for long periods before rejoining the adventure. The premise, players trapped in a game, is not particularly original, but the most glaring omission in the screenplay is the absence of any sense of what is happening outside Sword Art Online. Given that months pass at a time, it seems unlikely that no one in the offline world would have tried to hack into the game to free those trapped within, and it begs the question of what is keeping the players alive in the real world, where they surely still need food and water to survive. There is not much sense of urgency for the players either. Some gamers buy homes and open businesses within Aincrad, rather than trying to fight their way to the final level and freedom, which seems an odd choice. Perhaps these questions will be addressed later, but they are not even hinted at in this first volume.

The Sword Art Online game itself follows a standard Dungeons & Dragons RPG format, with quests to undertake, magical items to collect, and monsters to slay in order to complete each level. However, the anime does not follow a monster of the week template, but instead deals with unrequited romances, a murder mystery, and Kirito helping out a girl whose pet has died within the game. When the action scenes do come, they are fun and briskly paced, but they are not the focus - the confrontation between Kirito and a gang of renegade players in episode six ends with a whimper, not a slugfest. There is the possibility of a romance between Kirito and feisty warrior-girl Asuna, but it is too soon to tell if that seed will blossom. There is a small harem developing around Kirito as several girls take a shine to the lone swordsman, although thankfully this is no fanservice-packed, comedy panty fest. The production values are good, although the character design work is not especially striking.

This first volume raises many interesting questions and slowly introduces the rules of the virtual world of Aincrad. What is less clear is what direction the series is going to take - will there be more action-heavy episodes, or more sad stories that pluck at the heart strings? And seriously, why is no one more freaked out by their predicament?
SCORE: 3/5
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