THIS REVIEW IS ONLY FOR SEASON 1, AND CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS
Of all the anime shows I've seen, SAO is the one that people seem the most polarised about. Some people think it's great, while many others think it's awful and massively overrated. Now, while I fall into the "it's freaking brilliant" category, I will admit that the show does have some problems at times.
The basic premise of the first half of the series is that our main character Kirito (and several other people I'll talk about later) becomes trapped inside a virtual reality "death game", in which i you die in the game, you die in real life, and if anyone removes your virtual reality helmet, you die.
The animation quality on this show is astonishing, and not just in the show's spectacular fight scenes, but in all of the background art for the settings, the designs for for buildings, and even the sky. You can tell that people put a lot of effort into this, and the result is some of the best quality animation I have ever seen.
When we combine this with the spectacular soundtrack by Kajiura Yuki, what we get is more than just an animated show, it is something truly breathtaking in almost every moment. This show has to be watched to be believed.
But, as I said, the show does have a few problems (most of which in my opinion are in the first half of the series):
- Shameful underuse of characters: Characters like Silica and Lisbeth get so well written and so well developed in some episodes, and felt to me like they were going to become main characters, only to then never appear again (or appear in a very minor capacity). Similarly, the character of Klein had all the makings of a good goofy sidekick character, but he just kind-of didn't do anything for the story after his first appearance other than show up. Similarly, the cool, psychopathic character of Rosalia (pictured) had all the makings of a great Azula-esque recurring villain, but only appeared once in spite of how freaking awesome she was:
- The way Asuna and Kirito accepted Yui as "their child" was just plain weird. Seriously, they find this amnesiac girl (pictured below), and when she starts calling them "Mommy" and "Daddy", they just kind of deveop immensely strong parental feelings for her without any real obvious cause. With that said, a lot of the dialogue that Asuna and Kirito have with Yui is actually touching a little later on, once you get over how poorly written Yui's introduction was.
- Asuna becomes a bit of a damsel in distress in the second half and fails to properly utilise her badassery. With that said, it did make sense for her to be like this in terms of where the plot was going and what the villain wanted, and I don't think there was any sexism intended by the writers. I just wanted to see her badassery get used more.
- Those messed-up pervy blobby things in the second half. I don't even know what to say about these. They are terrible. I'm not even going to give you a picture, because I don't want to be haunted by the memory of them.
With everything I just said though, I will say that the character development and the quality of the writing in the second half just felt so real, tragic, and unforced, particularly when it came to the character of Leafa (Kirito's adopted sister, and her kind of messed-up feelings for him, and her tragically falling in love with his game persona without knowing who he was), and when it came to Kirito's determination to free Asuna, it felt like there was a genuine passionate connection there that wasn't just a lazily written "I love you" connection, like we see in so many other shows. This wasn't just some love story, this was freaking intense.
While I have some problems with the main villain in the first half, Kayaba Akihiko (in that he forgot why he did what he did, and he seemed in the end like way too much of a nice guy, so that all the things he did in the past just seemed out of character), the main villain in the second half (Sugou Oberon, pictured below) was just one of the most evil villains I have ever seen in anime, rivalling even Johan from Monster. This guy was a psychopath who was obsessed with Asuna (even trying to marry her in her comatose state while keeping her consciousness prisoner in a giant bird cave, where he implicity frequently rapes her, and in the last episode he horrifically molests her in front of Kirito).
It's not just what this guy does to Asuna though that's awful, he conducts experiments on comatose SAO players's minds to try altering their memories, the way they feel emotions, and, in his own words "Their very souls.", in order to become a "god". In that essence, he's kind of like a perverted version of Light Yagami, but much creepier.
In fact I'd say his English language voice actor Todd Haberkorn was just perfect for the role. He's previously voiced the similarly vile character Masao in Shiki, and I've got to say that based on his Shiki performance alone I'd have probably hired him as well.
I was actually surprised when I found out that the English language dub was one by Aniplex and not FUNimation, given the shear number of FUNimation's regular/frequent voice actors & voice actresses in this series, with them even using Bryce "Badass" Papenbrook (as I call him... It's the guy who voices Eren in Attack on Titan!) to voice Kirito.
So, in summary, this show may have it's flaws, but it's great, and it has plenty in it for people of all genders and ages to enjoy. Is it overrated? Maybe slightly, but that's a hell of a lot better that being underrated, and it means that so many people got to see and appreciate all of the amazing artwork, animation, voice acting, and music (especially those beautiful theme songs) that went into making this show what it is.
I'm Dan King, and in a few days I'll be reviewing series 2.