"Sword Art Online" started off as a light novel which then later spawned a manga and anime adaptation. The story begins in 2022 when a new virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game (VRMMORPG) called "Sword Art Online" gets released. The game requires players to use a special helmet called NerveGear, which stimulates the user's five senses via their brain. This function allows players to control their in-game characters with their minds. Ten thousand players log into "Sword Art Online" for the first time on November 6th and quickly find out that the game lacks a log-out feature. They get told by Akihiko Kayaba, the creator of "Sword Art Online" and NerveGear, that to leave the action game, they must reach the 100th floor of the game's castle, Aincard, and defeat the final boss. If the NerveGear gets removed forcibly, it sends out a powerful microwave that kills the user. If the player dies in-game, the same thing occurs.
This feature suddenly makes "Sword Art Online" a death match, and as a story can adequately analyze the effects our virtual personas have on our actual personality as well as explain whether or not the friendships and relationships we cultivate in a game are real. The story follows a player named Kirito, one of the thousand beta testers from the game’s previous closed beta. He clearly has an upper hand when it comes to surviving in Aincard, and soon he and the other beta testers are viewed as cheaters and selfish people, spawning the derogatory term “beater”, a mix of the words “beta” and “cheater”. After online a month in the game, two thousand players have died, some by suicide and others from murder. The anime’s first arc focuses primarily on the power of determination and the power of a person’s will to live. After two years of living in "Sword Art Online," many players seemingly give up on escaping the game, instead focusing their days on simply enjoying themselves. Kirito marries a fellow player, Asuna, and falls into the same lull, until they both realize that their bodies are slowly rotting away in the real world. Determined to stay together, Kirito and Asuna discover the identity of Kayaba’s in game character and kill him, freeing themselves and the other players from the game. The first arc ends with Kirito rising from his bed to look for Asuna in the real world.
Despite having an incredibly emotional premise, the anime felt bland as soon as it enters its second arc. Kirito doesn’t exhibit any signs of trauma from his experience in "Sword Art Online" a few months after the experience. His body has regained normal functions despite being motionless in bed for two years, and his mind is equal as sound. It’s as if the life and death stakes of "Sword Art Online" had zero effect on Kirito, despite seeing close friends of his die before him. It would be expected that he would show some symptoms of PTSD and a hatred or fear of VRMMORPG’s, but he just jumps into another game called "Alfheim Online." This is a game in which the player is a fairy and can use magic, to save 300 "Sword Art Online" players who got sucked into the game by the developer for human experimentation. It’s understandable that he wants to save the girl that he loves, but the second arc just falls short of the excellence the first arc held. In the second arc, the viewer meets Kirito’s cousin and adoptive sister, Suguha, who is in love with him. This adaptation creates an unnecessary subplot about unrequited incestuous love.
The second arc does have some good points, however. The lore of "Alfheim Online" is interesting, and the game itself is entertaining. The introduction of magic made the battles more epic, with the fight between Kirito and Salamander General Eugene being my personal favorite. The villain of the second arc is also much more of a villain than Kayaba. Nobuyuki Sugo, Asuna’s real life fiancé and developer of Alfheim online, immediately makes the viewer's skin crawl. He’s a psychopathic sex offender who many times sexual harasses Asuna, to the point of almost actually raping her. It was more satisfying seeing Kirito defeat Sugou than it was to see him defeat Kayaba. Despite the blandness of the second arc it had a pleasing ending: Kayaba gives Kirito “the Seed” – a package program that allows people to create their virtual world. Kirito releases the Seed on the internet and revives the VRMMO industry. Together, he and a group of "Sword Art Online" Survivors recreate Aincard in Alfheim Online with the goal of reaching the 100th floor and beating the final boss, as the original game intended.
The show has its weak moments, but overall it’s an entertaining watch. I just feel like it should have ended after the first arc. Had it ended there, I feel like the show would have packed a stronger punch.