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Sword Art Online Blu-ray Box Set 1: Aincrad Part 1 Limited Edition Anime Review

12 min read

Sword Art Online
Sword Art Online
Caught in a virtual world that’s deadly, thousands of people find their lives radically altered.

What They Say:
In the year 2022, next-generation game Sword Art Online (SAO) is the world’s first true VRMMORPG. A virtual reality helmet known as “Nerve Gear” has been developed, making Full Dives into a virtual dimension possible.

SAO has generated worldwide buzz, and on its official launch day, one player, Kirito, immerses himself in its virtual world. But Akihiko Kayaba, the developer of SAO, proclaims the following to all players. “This game is inescapable unless all levels are cleared. And in this world, ‘Game Over’ is equivalent to death in the real world.”

Contains episodes 1-7 plus original soundtrack CD 1, a 16-page deluxe booklet, illustration pin-ups, and an exclusive collectible card, all housed in a rigid box illustrated by abec (Original Character Design).

The Review:
Audio:
The audio presentation here is one that has both language tracks but they’re not created equal unfortunately. The original Japanese language track is done in the uncompressed PCM format so we get the stereo mix in a very strong and clear manner here that sounds great and definitely conveys some solid warmth and overall forward soundstage directionality and depth. The English mix is stereo as well, but it’s encoded with the lossy Dolby Digital codec at 640kbps, which is certainly above the max that DVD can do, but it’s not what you expect from a Blu-ray release. It’s certainly a serviceable mix and it gets the job done and a lot of people will be hard pressed to find a difference, but it’s the kind of choice that for marketing reasons alone seems like a bad one to make. The mix does the same work as the Japanese mix and the dub is solid itself and both tracks come across clean and clear and we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.

Video:
Originally airing in 2012, the transfer for this series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The seven episodes in this collection are spread across two discs with four on the first and three on the second and extras mixed across both of them. Animated by A1 Pictures, the show has a gorgeous look that wowed me during the simulcast and it only looks ever so much better here. Colors are rich throughout with a solid and deep palette that’s used whether it’s the dark night scenes or interiors as well as the lush exteriors. Detail is well handled with crisp lines where appropriate and no problems such as line noise or breakup along it. The transfer here captures the source material in a way where there’s nothing to really find fault with during regular playback and it just allowed me to be sucked into this fully realized world in an engaging way.

Packaging:
The packaging for this limited edition release is really very good and definitely has a particular feel about it. The heavy chipboard box uses a different kind of soft wrap paper around it that gives it a great texture that shows through with the artwork. The front of the box has a great image of most of the lead characters, some of which don’t show up in this volume but do in this half of the season overall, and with the black and blues of the background and the detail character artwork, it just looks striking. The back of the box under the glued on insert is kept simple with some nice edging to it and Kirito’s sword through the center in the same gold line work. Inside the box we get a number of things, including two clear Blu-ray cases. The set includes a sealed one-sheet from Bushiroad that has a special edition Sword Art card (which will never be used by me!) as well as a great seven card postcard set made from a solid glossy stock that’s really appealing. We also get an illustration booklet that’s fairly short overall but has some great full color images from the limited edition Japanese releases as well as magazine spreads.

The two clear Blu-ray cases are nicely laid out where the show case has a good cover showing off the piece of Kirito and Asuna against the fantasy realm background with a lot of white space while the background gives us Kirito and Lisbeth with a mountainous background that’s quite appropriate. The case has artwork on the reverse side with a full color spread of the main entry city that’s very detailed. The other case in the set contains the first soundtrack and has a front cover that shows off the “world” itself from the outside with its many layers as it hangs in the sky with some gorgeous blues. The back cover goes for just a bit of simple widget styling and has a breakdown of the tracks by number and title which is a bit hard to read with a small font of black on top of the white and gray background. The case also has artwork on the reverse side showing off one of the areas the characters rest at during the series which looks good with its detail and color.

Menu:
The menu design for this release is quite nicely done as it has the logo moving through the background with a dark look to it that works nicely in blending it in. The foreground brings in different character combinations for each volume with the first one giving us the expected and welcome Kirito and Asuna combination. The logo is kept simple along the top with the Japanese and English versions of it and the movement throughout the menu sets the tone right. Navigation along the bottom feels “Japanese traditional” in a way where it’s just straight linework boxes with black and blue with white text that makes it easy to read and navigate. Submenus load quickly and easily and languages can be configured how you want with subtitles and subtitles+text available.

Extras:
The extras for this release are really good and have a lot of fun associated with them. The standards are certainly here as we get the clean opening for the first season, the US trailer for the show and the web previews for the upcoming episodes. The Sword Art Offline specials are here, of which there are three, and they run about eleven minutes each and provide comical recaps of events in the series itself as a news program of sorts. There are also three commentary tracks by the original Japanese team, both cast and creators, which are fun to listen/read as they talk about their time on the show, the relationships of the characters and the settings. They are similar to most other commentaries of course in that there’s a lot of fluff, but having the leads for some of it really helps to make it fun.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
With a slew of shows that hit during the summer of 2012, one that I ended up not taking on was Sword Art Online . I had been watching Accel World and getting that whole near future virtual gaming anime series thing there and I wasn’t too inclined to pick up another series of that nature even if it was from the same author. What a mistake that was, I found out later on, as I went and marathoned the first half of the series and just utterly fell in love with it. The series, from A-1 Pictures, is based on the light novel series by Reki Kawahara with illustrations by Abec. The novels began in 2009 and there are ten of them out so far as well se several manga iterations of different concepts, including a 4-koma book that has to be adorable.

Sword Art Online takes us to the world of 2022 where virtual reality gaming has hit a new threshold with some fantastically wonderful worlds that can now be created. A lot of this has come through the use of NerveGear products which provide for a full on connection to this world so you experience things in a great way when it comes to the visuals and touch interaction. While there have been some very popular games before, the latest one to arrive is Sword Art Online, which has a limited ten thousand copies edition starting things off after a beta period. Within that beta period, Kirito spent a lot of time in there and became quite familiar with the world. With the full release, everything’s reset and now it’s on to a much larger and more engaging world because of all of the other players. Not that he deals with the much since he’s a solo player.

The launch day for the game sets up things beautifully though as the ten thousand players get in, get gaming and enjoy the fun of it all, old and new alike. Unfortunately, something more sinister is going on as the games creator, Kayaba Akihiko, has designed things so that the players cannot remove their gear or logout of the game in any way. If the gear comes off in the real world, they die. If they die in the game, they die in the real world. And in an amusing twist, when Kayaba reveals all of this to the players in the Town of Beginning’s square, the program scans their real world faces and body types from the data entered and alters their in-game appearance to be the same thing. Suffice to say, there’s a few gender issues in there and not everyone is muscular or whisper thin.

What the players are challenged to is to climb the one hundred floors there are in the game, starting at level one where they are now, and face each of the bosses along the way. When they conquer the game, they’ll be able to return to reality. Knowing how the game works, Kirito ends up going off on his own in order to deal with character leveling and growth away from the mass of other players that will overeat the lower levels first. Being a beta player has given him an up on things, but there’s also a bit that has him labeled as a cheater, though I didn’t find that to be all that clear. The combination of those two things has him labeled as a beater, someone that the regular players dislike because he uses his knowledge and skills to advance quickly and on his own.

While Kirito does have a friend there in the game, a slightly older man named Klein, he’s on his own for the most part. When he does get caught up with others, it tends to go bad. But some good does come as well, such as an early encounter that pairs him up briefly with a young woman named Asuna who is very, very skilled as well. The two don’t exactly hit it off, but they have some very good skills in working together and his praise goes a long way with her, so much so that it ends up getting her to join a guild in which she eventually becomes the vice commander of. Asuna’s introduction sets up the romantic possibilities to be sure, but she’s not a constant and there’s a ton of time without her. But that’s more in a creative fashion than an on screen fashion, though she doesn’t take part in every episode which was a welcome change. Asuna’s the kind of character that could be played badly, but instead she comes across really well for the time that we do know her.

And that’s one of the things that really got me about the show as it dealt with the game angle. With everyone trapped inside, time does pass. In fact, over the first seven episodes, the real world progresses by about two years. Everyone inside the game has to live their full, daily lives and move forward. We don’t see all of it as it skips months at a time sometimes, but the growth is measurable by the positions we see them in, floor placement and other aspects. Giving us this passage of time keeps it from feeling too compressed by a huge amount. But it also shows us one of the really interesting parts in how the people in the game shift to almost forgetting about the real world at times and just living in this fantasy style game and doing what needs to be done to survive. There are things you have to ignore, such as how their bodies are being taken care of in the real world, but the majority of it is just fascinating to watch.

I also really liked that we see a good shift between groups being formed, guilds coming up and disappearing and the change in the dynamic from powerful players to those that want to just do the skill based gaming, such as smithing and so forth. We get the powerful players that take part on the front lines where they work to map out the areas, deal with the bosses and push them all along to higher levels. Each new jump in floor brings us a variety of new creatures and new lands that expands it beautifully. And I also really liked the use of the player killers in here, kept small but cunning and coming at unusual times, with the Laughing Coffin guild that factors into events. They don’t dominate but they have some very key moments.

Sword Art Online gives us a variety of stories as it moves forward with Kirito as its center, showing us different floors, ways of surviving and time spent both alone and with groups. His time with one guild reminds him why he typically plays alone. Another instance when things get higher has him forced into a guild. There are some very fun dungeons that are explored and the cast grows but isn’t always kept around. And characters do die. Several hundred died when the trouble started as they were forced out of their NerveGear and a few thousand more die in the years since from fighting the monsters, bosses and the Laughing Coffin group itself. It’s diverse and thoroughly engaging, especially if you’ve ever played games like this before. Having been a GM myself for an online game company, I know this touches on only so many things, but what it does do is to really make this work very well while keeping you engaged with it.

In Summary:
Sword Art Online is one of the series that was jockeying hard for the best of 2012 and in a lot of ways it was a small group of titles that made that list where I just couldn’t rank them. The series has so much of what I wanted out of a virtual world game series where there are rules to how people exist, few ways to really exploit issues and a serious passage of time that allows for growth and change on screen and off. The first seven episodes is focused heavily on world and character building and it deals with the slowly percolating romance between the leads of Kirito and Asuna perfectly. The different levels of the world, the forming of groups and the kinds of dynamics that exist between them and individual players is spot on.

There’s a rich world that’s built here and it’s played in a way that really sells it perfectly, making you commit to the concept, dealing with characters being killed off and seeing some of the consequences with others that survive. There’s always room for more psychologically probing material of course, but with what the series is trying to do, it hits the marks beautifully. Simply the progression of time and change – more of which really happens in the second half of this season – only further cements my love of it. Coming back into this a year or so after originally seeing it has just reinforced why I enjoyed it so much and leaves me glad that Aniplex gave it such a strong product here, at least outside of the weak English audio encoding. Fans will have to make their choices when it comes to cost vs. value, but the product itself is definitely done to maximize things for the fans in terms of quality.

Features:
Japanese PCM 2.0 Language, English Dolby Digital 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Trailer, First Season Textless Opening, Audio Commentary by Creators and Japanese Cast, Special Animation “Sword Art Offline,” Original Web Previews

Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A- (Japanese) B- (English)
Video Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: A-

Released By: Aniplex USA
Release Date: August 13th, 2013
MSRP: $112.98
Running Time: 175 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation 3 via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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