Sword Art Online is a light novel series by Reki Kawahara who also authored Accel World. The light novel was first published in 2009 with the intention of being a one shot. Due to the overwhelmingly positive reception. Reki Kawahara developed the series and published more works for the series. In 2012, Sword Art Online was adapted into an anime series with a two cour run of 25 episodes beginning on July and running until December of that year. During the two cour run, the anime covered two arcs – the Aincrad arc and the Fairy Dance arc.
The first arc of the Sword Art Online, the Aincrad arc, was carried by a strong premise that served as the long term hook of the series. From the very first episode, the audience was presented with a situation of perpetual desperation. From the get go, Sword Art Online sets Aincrad as the stage for a survival game where death in-game means death in real life. Coupled with this, the players who joined the game were robbed of the ability to log out of the game leaving them stuck in the prison of Sword Art Online until its completion.
The way the premise was presented served to create a hype similar to the level of Attack on Titan that really brings viewers back every week. Coupled with the strong premise was a strong main character, Kirito. The interesting aspect about this character was his laid back nature and aloof personality. While he was extremely skilled with exceptional in-game abilities, he was disliked by the general community who deemed him a cheater for having been a beta tester of the game. Because of this, Kirito’s friends consist of a small number of people who all respect his skill as a gamer and swordsman. Despite his small group of friends, Kirito is seen among the fighters on the front line clearing floors and leading the players towards the completion of the game. It is during many of these moments that we see Sword Art Online’s highest levels of hype that generate a lot of tension and keep fans hooked. On more than one occasion, we see Kirito being close to death in a game where there are no revives.
Aside from the intensity of the battles and the likable qualities of Kirito and his companions, the anime does suffer a lot in terms of plot. The first season of Sword Art Online in particular suffers from this element due to the arcs that it covers. The Aincrad arc for instance suffers from inconsistent pacing and its tendency to jump forward in time. Due to the nature of its source material, the pacing of the first arc could be forgiven but only to a certain degree. However, one of the biggest faults of this first half is the way that it cuts its own story short. Instead of following through on the premise of having to complete an insurmountable number of floors on the floating castle of Aincrad, we are shown a shortcut that makes the finale of the arc leaving an unfavorable impression on its viewers.
What aggravates the problem of Sword Art Online however is that the weak conclusion of its first arc is followed by the weakest arc of the series. The Fairy Dance arc is quite far in both tone and plot in comparison to Aincrad. The initial and long lasting impression of the second arc is that it shows a rather large disconnect from the Sword Art Online that we have initially gotten to know and enjoy. Fairy Dance introduces a lot of otherwise alien elements while removing others that have grown familiar. An easy example of this is how Kirito loses his hallmark dual wield sword skill in the new world of Fairy Dance. The simple act of removing this skill that defined Kirito’s character for the entirety of its first arc removes the impact that his character had previously established. Alongside the new setting, the plot of Fairy Dance was poorly written making it less than memorable.
Sword Art Online is a very controversial series due to its reception. Everything that it did right was stellar in quality making those aspects stand out and define the series. Its strong characters and Kirito’s distinct, hero-like qualities placed him above the rest and made him a character that was easy to follow and connect to. However, the weak aspects of Sword Art Online were executed terribly, amplifying the negative impact that they brought with them. Thus while the series did bring in a lot of fans, there was also a large number of people that were dissatisfied with the series.
Personally, I enjoyed the anime adaptation which led to me reading the light novels as well. Despite the weaker arcs covered by the first season, the series itself has a lot more to offer beyond what the anime shows. While I would be comfortable recommending the anime to others, I would stress that there is more to be gained from reading the light novels instead.