One of the biggest series of recent years comes to the UK, as it starts off with an interesting promise, gets derailed by some rushed episodes and development but ends with some interesting potential with the two leads in this crazy scenario…
What They Say :
The first seven episodes from the anime series following participants in an online game who learn that their lives are dependent on their virtual exploits. It is 2022 and technology has advanced to the stage where specially equipped helmets can carry players into an immersive virtual world. As an avid gamer, Kirito (voice of Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) is desperate to participate in an exciting new project called ‘Sword Art Online’. However, once inside the game, Kirito and his fellow players learn that the only way to escape is by completing it – and that death in the game means death in real life. The episodes are: ‘The World of Swords’, ‘Beater’, ‘The Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘The Black Swordsman’, ‘A Crime Within the Walls’, ‘Illusionary Avenger’ and ‘The Warmth of the Heart’.
Set up in Stereo 2.0 in both Japanese and English, this feels like a bit disappointing in terms of a release as SAO was one of the big series I heard about without actually seeing, so felt it needed a 5.1 release (especially considering the RPG like settings it is in) – I had to turn up the volume from its default setting and in sync with my speakers it was surprisingly tough to get it set up to a degree I was happy with. Whilst no issues with the sound synching with the visual and subtitles, it still feels like an odd choice made. Video wise, no complaints – set in full screen, the aspect ratio is set and standardizes with the colours – no issues with pausing and animation being flawed or distorted, in sync with the audio and visually very stunning.
Set on a black background, with Asuna/Kirito on the left, a triangle with video images from the show on bottom right, top right having the choices of Play All, Episode Selections, Set Up and Bonus – selecting menus is very naturally flowing as well and easy to navigate whether on triangles with the episode select or just a simple menu selection with the extras. No problems selecting from the main menu or from the show itself and one of the better DVD menus in general outside of a Blu-Ray style selection just because of the style and how easy selections melted from one menu to another.
The only extras on this release were a clear opening and ending.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Sword Art Online was one of the major series in most recent years that got a lot of interest from a lot of the anime community including the UK one – within months of it airing I saw cosplays from it at expo and convention events, yet never saw the series myself. After watching the first disc, the best I can say is that it definitely has potential; it is just how it portrays itself when plot occurs will I see if the fuss is deserved.
The debut on a new role playing game online, using virtual reality technology called Sword Art Online which sells out its first log of copies (10000) immediately. We are introduced to our main hero, Kirito, who enters the game who was a beta-tester. He meets a fairly new player at first named Klein and teaches him a few things, and after some practice they decide to log out…only to discover they can’t. Suddenly, they and all the other players in the word are teleported to the town square, where the creator of the game actually tells them they cannot log out, and can only do so by clearing the game – and worse, if you die in the game world, you die in the real world as well…with anyone trying to take off the VR helmet in the world will also cause them to do. So with a mirror to change their appearance to their real life face, their only hope is to clear 100 levels of the game. Klein departs from Kirito to find his friends, but Kirito appears to be a loner as he intends to clear the game…
After the first episode, we get set dates when things occur and the episode focuses on that making it episodic and until the end of the first disc, mostly Kirito leveling up, meeting guilds and members, with death around him. Episode 2 however does introduce us to our other protagonist, a swift young lady named Asuna. The two are pretty much the only ones alone when a number of groups are attempting to attack the 1st tower, but when a beta player trying to get the rare item from the boss is given false information, it is up to Kirito and Asuna to defeat the boss. Kirito is ousted as a beta player which gives him distrust from a number of the members there (as of yet, none of them reappear bar the warrior store man named Agil, but you get the feeling they will be back), he also leaves Asuna but gives her some advice as they are sure to meet again…
It then becomes episodic for a while, as time passes in the games world, with Kirito becoming quite powerful compared to groups he travels with – the show tries to showcase the tragedy of knowing that deaths in the game world become real but sadly it does fall with lack of developing this. Whilst episode 3 when a trap is set for a guild he joins and kills most of the characters, you only feel the fact because of the young girl Sachi he becomes close with, almost to a romantic level, yet it still feels a bit too rushed. In episode 4 a similar situation in him meeting a girl named Silica, who as a beast master has her dragon familiar die so Kirito looks for an item to restore him. However again, Silica is only in this episode and whilst there are hints she could appear again, it feels too rushed (albeit it does showcase how strong Kirito is and how badass he can be when he makes the effort).
It isn’t until episode 5 when Asuna returned as a vice commander of a guild known as the Knights of Blood Oath where some significance of character and plot continues. The plot is of course them trying to escape SAO, but there are several real life style mysteries involved and the two begin to team up more on a regular occurrence. There is a lot of fun moments between the two, as you are unsure at least at the moment if it is just friendship or something more – here at least, the relationship is given time to develop on screen, not just off. They investigate a murder in a supposed safe area, helping a young woman named Yoruko who believes a ghost of a former guild member of hers is after revenge. This mini-arc for 2 episodes is actually really clever in the discovery of how the deaths occur in a safe area, and just how creative the players can be. It is also a showcase of Kirito’s intelligence and how well he plays off Asuna. The two aren’t a classic team as of yet, but the development is definitely there and the potential is all there to see.
The final episode is actually my fave as we are introduced to someone who Asuna has mentioned a few times in the episodes, her favourite swordsmith, a young woman named Liz. Liz is very inquisitive about Asuna apparently going away for meetings, as she suspects she is interested in a boy. The next day after she jokes this with her, Kirito appears and is looking for a better sword. However when his current sword breaks her strongest sword, Liz’ pride is hurt and she travels with him on a quest to get a material from a dragon which can make her stronger swords. Here, we get Kirito being full one playful and rude at times – a hint at his true personality more so, there are elements with Asuna but here it is full on as Liz gives as good as she gets. Liz actually becomes quite attached to Kirito during the adventure depart her snarking (albeit perhaps a bit rushed) and seems to fall in love with him, but when he sees Asuna and Kirito interact, she recognizes he is the one that Asuna likes. Liz does the next best thing as she feels her love will be unrequited and now become his swordsmith as the release ends.
The first disc is very much setting the scene and mostly that. Kirito is very well introduced, at first as a beta tester and gamer who seems to be a lone wolf, a bit selfish and reserved, but definitely has a good heart ready to help those in need, though hiding his kindness when he feels it isn’t necessary. He’s a strong gamer, far stronger than mostly everyone so far besides maybe Asuna. The show does well showcasing that, and the fact he does have a personality and shows emotions despite his initial portrayal quite well. I do feel that in this DVD at least, it is quite rushed as most of the encounters have been with people only in one episode, and in some cases, didn’t even live (though the end of episode 3 was quite sad) but with him now getting more interaction with Asuna, this may change soon.
Asuna herself has a lot of mystery about her – she too like Kirito seems a lone wolf, yet after her introduction she is now a leader of a guild. We know she is strong and determined, but at the moment there is not enough information to judge her, outside of being embarrassed occasionally by Kirito. It does seem like they are going to be the battle couple, whether it does end up romantic is most likely but it is just sowing enough seeds to be ambiguous in these early stages before they properly develop as a partnership.
The animation is pretty good and the setting is very unique – the plot, whilst not focused too much is always in effect, the fact they will die for real if they die in the game world keeps everyone (and the show) on its toes, whilst despite the one episode character like effect, you get the feeling there is more to come with a number of the characters (we see Klein in one episode with his guild trying to talk Kirito to be with his group but at the same time doesn’t force any issues, I get the feeling he will be a bigger player and more important as the show goes on) so the setting is just right for the moment.
Overall, there is definite potential with this show. The development so far outside of the main lead is basic, and a lot of the story feels rushed as we don’t see how he became so strong, just the fact he knew about some stuff as a beta player. The small stories are good, but again feel too short to be too effective, even the sad stuff. However, with him teaming with Asuna more, the story is there to be explored as they head to the tower 100. The action is good, the voice acting is going in both languages, the situation is unique and it is definitely a show which is just enjoyable to watch if nothing else. Let us hope that it continues that way but adds more to it.
Sword Art Online is an experience which definitely has a lot going for it. Whilst the initial episodes feel a bit rushed in terms of story, it does introduce a world, outline its main character, set trials for him and relationships to be developed. Kirito is definitely a good male lead and whilst not a complex character, his interactions are fun and his humanity at least is never lost despite this new world he has to be in. It needs time to find its feet but it has a good enough start to speed along.
Content Grade: B-
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: N/A
Menu Grade: B+
Extras Grade: C-
Released By: Manga Entertainment UK
Release Date: December 16th, 2013
Running Time: 175 minutes
Review Equipment: Playstation3, Sony Bravia 32 Inc EX4 Television, Aiwa 2 Way Twin Duct Bass Reflex Speaker System.