Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Nitpickery: Sword Art Online -- Aincrad Arc

Hey y'all.  So I have been working on stuff, and despite nothing showing up on my blog for a while, it has been coming along.  One of the things I did on my break was re-watch Sword Art Online, an anime that is quite fun.  Hey, I have to figure out what the otakus like so I can recommend things, no? It's all a part of being a bookstore worker.

Sword Art Online is the story of Kirito, a boy who has gotten absorbed into gamer culture of the future, where one can now put on a helmet and enter a fantasy world.  The latest game is called Sword Art Online, created by Kayaba Akihiko.  SAO is a fantasy swordfighting game set in a giant floating castle containing 100 different levels.  However, once the game has launched and all 10,000 players log in for the opening, no one is allowed to log out.  Instead, Akihiko tells them that they will never be able to leave the game until they clear the final boss.  If anyone in the real world removes the player's helmet, then they'll die.  And if they die in the game, they die for real.

Even without knowing anything about the .Hack anime (which other reviewers compare this to), this premise didn't seem all that original to me.  Being in a game "for real" is an idea that's probably been around since the beginning of video games, and not just modern ones.  Kids have been imagining themselves inside of them nearly as long as the games have existed.

You know what?  Who cares?  If the execution of the show is good, it can make up for an unoriginal premise.  The idea of being trapped inside of a video game is not only relatible to anyone who plays games or did as a kid, but is also a premise that can be taken in several different directions.  Maybe the creator of the game is very hands-on, trying to destroy the players.  Maybe the characters are going on adventures through games we all know and love.  Maybe it's a comedy, or a drama, or a romance.  The idea of being inside of a video game is very open ended, much like a zombie apocalypse story or eighteenth century romance.  It can go any direction the writer wants it to go.

In this case, the world of Sword Art Online is a case where the creator of the world is instead hands-off, allowing the players to play the game as they see fit.  The game is an MMORPG, based on swordsmanship, with neither magic, guns, nor long range weapons of any sort (seriously, so many problems in the game could have been solved with arrows).  So Kirito levels up his skills to become a powerful, single-player fighter, helping people along the way as he quests to end the game and get everyone back to the real world.

Oh, and nitpickery is spoilers.  Seriously, this is something that shouldn't be spoiled for you.

Thing is, this anime is divided into two parts.  The first part is just as I described, but with a surprise twist that ends up bringing our characters into a new game entirely.  The first half of the show is fun and exciting, even if questionable at parts.  The second half takes a huge nosedive into the realm of extremely typical tropes.  All in all, Sword Art Online is the exact sort of anime that will demonstrate to the viewer all of the typical Japanese tropes that end up in their cartoons.  It's a gateway drug, if you like.

It doesn't help that Kirito is a total Gary Stu.  He's wish fulfillment fantasy at its finest, with Kirito being super-powerful throughout the entire series, surrounded by women who adore him, and being the main hero in the end that saves everyone.  That being said, I didn't mind it too much, until the second half.

Actually, let me just divide this review into two parts, one for the first half and another for the second.  So from now on, just assume I'm talking about the first half until otherwise mentioned.

In any case, I didn't mind Kirito's power levels all that much.  The plot gives the excuse that he was one of 1,000 beta testers for the game, and thus knows more about it than most of the other players. Okay, that's something.  Only trouble is, by episode 4 he's so powerful that some player killers he encounters can slash at him all day without being able to overcome his regeneration powers. Seriously, episode 4?  And by episode 5, the players have made it to level 56?

Yeah, that's a major problem with the first half.  Everything for the first several episodes happens way too fast.  The viewer can hardly keep up with everything that's going on because it just jumps from event to event, without explaining a lot of things about this world.  For example, we never meet any non-player characters.  It's stated that there are NPCs in SAO, but none of them at any point, either the first half or the second, become part of the plot or even a flavor character for an episode. Given that they're an important part of most games, this is a very strange choice.

Another important part of role playing games is that players go through dungeons for money.  We only see three of them in the whole show.  One appears briefly in episode 3, but is only there to show the foolish deaths of a few players that tried to fight in a dungeon above their levels.  The next one doesn't show up until episode 9 as a background setting.  The final appearance is in episode 12, where Kirito and his love Asuna go in to look for a player trapped by too-powerful monsters.  What's wrong with all that, you ask?  The idea of a dungeon is never explored.  It's merely another setting for something to happen, and no episode is dedicated to simply showing how dungeon-crawling works in the game, or what a player gets by beating it.

And what about quests?  Why doesn't the plot show any in-game quests, like say a quest for rescuing an NPC girl, or finding an item for a village, or something?  As is, it looks like SAO the game has no internal plot, and the only goal of the game is to get to the end.  That's not very RPG of it.  Surely each NPC town would have its own story.  In the first part of one episode, we see Kirito demonstrating some concern for NPCs, but we no episode shows why he cares about them.  In fact, no NPCs appear on screen at all.  Weird.

So what is in the show, you ask?  Well, one person who reviewed this anime complained that the first half was a lot of "filler," while the main plot of the game was barely touched on.  This is a bit strange of a complaint, though true in the sense that Kirito doesn't spend a lot of time on the "front lines," or on the highest level that the players have achieved thus far.  Again, that's something SAO could have done better.

However, I object to calling the non-front lines episodes (3-7, 10-12) filler.  Kirito is our main character, and thus anything he does is technically the main plot.  Besides, one of the things Japanese work tends to do is focus on regular life.  Things like Azumanga Daioh and Lucky Star are all about regular things, and can be accused of having no plot because they're so casual.  While SAO doesn't go that far away from action situations (there is some great animation to be had here), it does show some deference to this aspect of Japanese culture by showing the daily lives of people who are in the game -- you have people who keep shops, level up to get stronger, buy houses, and even spend their time fishing on more pleasant levels.  Since the online game is a brand new world, there's much to be said for expanding on it and showing the mindsets of the people who have plugged themselves in.

The first couple of episodes kind of mislead you, though.  They make you think that you're watching a more thriller type anime, where the idea of getting out of the game is very important, and spending time clarifying the new lives of the players.  The first episode is more like a prologue, showing Kirito logging in as his sister leaves for kendo practice.  He then gets accosted by second favorite character, Klein (why would someone's gamer name be german for "small"?).  While Kirito is a very serious gamer, Klein is a little more carefree, but since he wasn't a beta tester, he begs Kirito for help in playing.  Kirito of course does, and we get to enjoy a nice scene where Klein learns how swordplay works.

Klein's a really fun character.  Because he's less serious and more fun than Kirito, he provides an alternate perspective.  Besides, it's really smart how he arranged to have his pizza and ginger ale be delivered to his house when he intended to log out.  The pizza he doesn't get to eat....dun dun dun. The only thing really off about Klein is that he's so obsessed with women, when Kirito mentions he has a sister, Klein gets really excited, despite the fact that they already know that the log-out option is missing from the menu.  Weird.

In any case, Klein provides a great personality for someone as serious as Kirito to bounce off of. Unfortunately, after Akihiko explains that everyone's trapped, Klein chooses to meet up with some real-world friends of his and thus never becomes the partner to Kirito that the viewers to this point were expecting.  Sure, he shows up once or twice in a few episodes, but the plot tries to pretend that Klein and Kirito are very close friends when they've spent almost no on-screen time together.  We never even get to know Klein's friends.  What a waste.

Still, when the second episode rolls around, you don't know that yet.  The second episode is also very focused and somewhat misleading.  In it, Kirito and several other of the strongest players meet together to find a way to beat the boss of the first level.  Diabel makes himself more or less the leader of this raid, asking everyone to form teams.  Kirito, being a solo player, is left out and forced to pair with another left out person, a girl in a cloak.

Ugh, hooded figures.  They can be really boring in fiction.  Fortunately, this isn't the case.  The hooded girl turns out to be Asuna, who over the course of the episode reveals herself to be a newbie, not only to SAO but RPGs in general.  This is misleading because Asuna later turns out to be neither mysterious or noobish, but a great fighter who eventually becomes second in command of a guild. Of course, that's not a complaint about the second episode itself, where she comes across as a skilled but sweet doofus.

Of course, this episode does hint to what the future will become in how it treats its male characters. Diabel is killed against the first world boss because he, like an idiot, tried to get the final hit bonus by fighting on his own.  Oh Diabel, we hardly knew ye.

Another one-shot character is Kibaou, a guy who accuses all beta-testers, and eventually Kirito specifically, of being greedy cheaters who take advantage of their knowledge to level up more quickly.  Kibaou is really annoying, and quite frankly, I don't get why he cares if some were beta-testers or not.  Beta-testing is bound to happen, and it's not their fault that the game turned out to be a trap.

The reason why it's even brought up is so that Kirito can become the dark and brooding outcast that apparently the plot wanted him to be.  Kirito even gains a black cloak from scoring the final hit on the boss, making him even more emo.  This whole status of being a "beater" (beta-tester + cheater) seems like a poor excuse to force Kirito into a plot role.  Kibaou never showing up "on camera" again is proof of that.  While it's mentioned in a later episode that he was the leader of the "Liberation Army," he never appears in person.

Another character who does get to show up later is Agil, the token black guy of the series.  I love his Japanese voice actor.  In any case, Agil is never very well developed.  He's a fighter in this episode, but then later ends up being a shopkeeper in brief appearances later on.  While having an accessory character like this is fine, Agil really should have gotten more screentime to develop why he and Kirito are friends.  That, and if people whine about beta-testers being cheaters, they're bound to whine about a big, strong guy setting up shop instead of fighting on the front lines.  All in all, Agil is a serene, steadfast personality who adapts to different circumstances without complaint or drama.  I like people like that.

All the same, the first two episodes are very strong, and demonstrate the RPG elements of the game very well, along with having some fight scenes that people will certainly like.  While later on there'll be screentime issues with the characters, for now their introductions are good.

Episode 3, however, is very good.  It explains why Kirito is such a loner, in a way that is more sincere than being ostracized for being a beta-tester.  Here he joins a small guild of real-world friends, the Moonlit Black Cats (adorable!), and helps them earn the money to buy their own digital home.  One of the members, Sachi, is a girl very fearful of death, and also of failing to fight well for her team.  She develops feelings for Kirito (the one weakness of this episode), and despite knowing that Kirito is about double the number of levels that the rest of the guild, trusts him implicitly. Bonus: more Klein!

This was the right place to put this episode. To make this story more serious, we need to see the death of more characters.  That's right, the Moonlit Black Cats all die.  They've just earned enough money to buy their own home, and while their leader goes off to buy it, the rest of them decide to plunder a dungeon that's more dangerous than the ones they've gone to before.  And the idiot of the group runs right into a room with a lone treasure chest in the center of it.  I don't play RPGs, but even I know that's a trap.  Of course the door shuts behind them, and they all die like losers.  Except Kirito, who is too strong for the monsters to kill.  He blames himself for the death of the Cats, especially after their leader kills himself when he finds out what happened.

While the death of the person the MC vows to protect isn't original, it's effective.  Seriously, you knew Sachi was dead the moment Kirito promised her she would live.  But once she is dead, this is where things get good.  Kirito, devastated by what happens, hears a rumor that by killing an evil Santa Claus monster on Christmas Eve, he'll get an item that can bring a player back to life.  Klein helps him achieve this goal, and Kirito does in fact succeed.  However, he immediately tosses the item to Klein when it's all over -- the item doesn't work after the player has been dead for ten seconds.  Only a hidden message left by Sachi keeps Kirito from sinking into despair.

This episode is very strong, both showing the rules of SAO and dramatic tension.  Sachi herself is a bit of a weak spot.  Her...uh, romance I guess with Kirito (he didn't appear to see it as a love relationship, but it might have turned out that way if she'd lived) is awkward and not really presented plausibly.  She justs asks if she can sleep in the same room as Kirito, which is...uh, I don't know.  It's weird because Kirito doesn't seem to think of her as more than a sister-figure, and her feelings are hard to guess.  It's also strange for her to fear death, and yet also want to commit suicide.  Eh, confused girl, I guess.  But still, how did she know she was going to die so soon?  She clearly programmed her hidden message to appear on the midnight of Christmas Eve, an in it she mentions her death.  If she trusted Kirito to protect her, why did she leave the message and expect to die?  Did she not really trust him?

Perhaps my complaint can just be summed up to say that Sachi is pretty confusing as a character, because she's so young and unable to adapt properly to SAO.  That, and apparently a lot of her plot details were retconned between publications of the web novel and book publications.  Okay.

The next episode is mostly okay (or would be if you cut out a scene of a little girl in her underwear), and it's an episode where Kirito helps a girl resurrect her animal helper.  Yes, apparently SAO has animal taming.  Which no other episode shows or even implies is possible.  Maybe that part should have been expanded some, but I'll go with it for now.

Then it turns out Kirito is using this little girl to lure in a group of player killers, who apparently didn't believe Akihiko when he said that players who die in the game die in real life.  While I'm not sure if I buy that people will become murderers simply by joining a game, particularly not an engrossing game like SAO, they explain it plausibly.  After all, some gamers do go dark when they play.  Still, when you live in a world like SAO and are unable to log out, the digital world becomes the new real world, and you're bound to take it more seriously.  I'm willing to stretch a bit to believe that Rosalia, the leader of the player killers, wouldn't believe that the players die permanently, though.  It makes sense with her personality.

Of course, this is the start of one of the major complaints about the show.  From this point on, any girl that hangs out with Kirito starts to fall for him, whether it's reasonable or not.  That's what makes people call this a harem show.  Silica, the little girl he helps, starts having a crush on him.  And then there's the scene with the underwear.  I know it's a thing in animes for guys to like little girls, but that's just plain creepy.  Moreover, the episode would have been fine with Silica simply admiring him as a good player, like a little sister would.  Instead, the crammed in "romance," with her all blushing awkwardly, is just....well, awkward.

The next two episodes are perhaps two of the best episodes in the entire show.  Why?  Because they play around with the rules of SAO.  In these two episodes, more than the rest of the entire series, the viewer feels like he's watching a game.  There's a discussion of game mechanics: shared inventory, item durability bars, duels, safe areas, sleep-kills, etc.  We also get to see Asuna again, who is now in her new form of being the super-powerful Lightning Flash.

So Asuna and Kirito take a break from fighting on the front lines to meet at a cafe, but are confronted by the strange sight of a player being murdered in a safe zone -- and the game wasn't programmed to allow players to die in the safe zone.  So Kirito and Asuna have to figure out how the murder was committed by means of gameplay rules.  The solution to this problem is very detailed and interesting, and I refuse to spoil it.  The murderer is of course found (hey, it's that detective plot) and the way it's done is extremely interesting, with twists, turns, and a satisfying ending.

I only have two problems with this episode.  While the murderer had logical (to that person) reasons for his kill, this is the episode where the Laughing Coffin Guild is first brought up.  While Rosalia would plausibly not believe that in-game deaths lead to real death, the Laughing Coffin enjoys killing for its own sake.  Trouble is, the motivations for Laughing Coffin are never explained, not in this episode or any later one.  Sure, it's not that big of a deal in this two parter, as Laughing Coffin is incidental to the plot and not the main focus, but you've got a group of people delighting in killing for the sake of killing?  Why?

The other problem is the gratuitous booty shots in the first part of the episode.  Yes, I know that anime has a lot of fanservice, but fanservice detracts from storytelling, especially if the story itself is very good.  It doesn't help that Kirito is asking a grieving girl if she knew anyone who might want to kill the first murder victim, and then -- boom!  Half the screen is covered in a shot of her butt.  How friggin' tacky.  Come on, the girl just lost a friend.  Show some dang respect.

The next episode, Temperature of the Heart, is sort of good, sort of annoying.  It's basically the story of how Kirito gets another sword, and he and master smith Lisbeth go to fight a crystal dragon so that a special crystal can be made into an ultimate sword.  This is the episode that most fits the accusation of being filler.  Nothing really happens here, either in terms of story or learning about how the SAO game works.  Sure, they mention a few sword related things, but not much.  It's more just ditzy girl Lisbeth falling for Kirito as they do adventurous things, like battle a dragon or camp out in its den.

Granted, Lisbeth is pretty adorable, and you feel for her at the end when she notices that Asuna is close to Kirito, and she hides her feelings out of respect for Asuna.  Lisbeth is a solid character.  It's just that this is a fluff story. Many rightfully accuse this show of having all girls randomly falling in love with Kirito, but I'll defend the Lisbeth angle, as she seems like the kind of person that would get quickly attached to people or even inanimate objects.  She's a character that makes sense in her own silly way, and like most of this show's better written characters, she's shuffled off screen for the rest of the show.  Sure, she makes a tiny appearance during the last episode of the season (Silica and other minor characters do too), but the end of this episode has her asking Kirito to come to her shop whenever he needs his swords repaired.  It's not like Kirito is someone who would ignore this.  Can't she get a bit role in a later episode, or something?  Smiths are important to sword fighters.

Kirito himself changes in this episode.  This is the episode where he has his final sword sword designs, as well as the all-black outfit that is most synonymous with his character if you do an internet search.  I could sympathize with Kirito up until this point, but this is where he suddenly becomes a more shadowy, dark cliche rather than a rich character with an emotional background. The roots of this change certainly started earlier, but he gets especially emo after receiving his all-black coat.  Hey Kirito, there's these things called colors, and they're pretty awesome, y'know?

The next episode is the point in the show where the pacing finally settles down and starts running smoothly.  Well, after the first bit where Kirito reveals that it's been two years since they've been trapped in Akihiko's flying castle fantasy.  Come on, this is only the eighth episode.  Well, in any case, before this point all of the stories were separate, easily understood on their own without watching others.  Aside from the two-parter, but that's still contained to its two parts.  From now on, the plot of one episode leads to the next.

Episodes 8, 9, and 10 all concern the budding romance between Asuna and Kirito, conflict with the Knights of the Blood Oath, and fighting the boss of level 74.  Asuna, bored of hanging out with her guild, goes to Kirito and starts fighting with him for a while.  They discover the boss room, but decide to only glance at the boss before walking off and having some lunch.  They are briefly joined by Klein and his friends, but instead of actually learning anything about my second favorite character (Lisbeth being the first), everything gets interrupted by the guild, Liberation Army, which chooses to fight the boss despite everyone in their ranks being tired.

Oh, note on the guilds.  Those are just groups of people in the game that decide to team up with an official name for their group.  There's no explanation on the series for how guilds in SAO are different, but presumably I would know more about that already if I played RPGs more often.  In any case, while all the guilds before this have are logical (Moonlit Black Cats is just a group of friends, while the Holy Dragon Alliance and Knights of the Blood Oath are groups of serious fighters dedicated to fighting the front lines), the Liberation Army doesn't make sense to me.

Apparently it exists primarily on the first level, but sent up people to prove that they aren't being slackers.  Okay.  That part's fine.  But why are a bunch of video gamers acting like an army?  Gamers tend to be people who are more or less independent, and team up with people they like rather than people who are efficient. No one wants to play a game while being told to march and fight when they're worn out.  Gamers aren't soldiers.  Despite SAO being more serious than a normal game, the fact is that everyone who originally bought SAO chose to do so, and therefore everything that they do has to follow logical from the point of someone willing to stick a virtual reality helmet on their heads. Highly disciplined soldier types aren't likely to do that.

But whatever.  That's more or less just the catalyst to later plot and present action so that the episodes aren't too mellow for being primarily about Asuna and Kirito hanging out.  Probably my favorite scene in these three episodes is where Asuna is cooking some rabbit for Kirito, and we get to see how cooking works in SAO (touching foods with knives), as well as things like changing clothes (selecting from a menu).  It's a nice, quiet bit.  And it has a glass pitcher of flower tea, which is pretty cute.

Anyway, of course Liberation Army can't defeat the boss by themselves, so Kirito, Asuna, Klein and his friends go help out.  Kirito reveals that he now has a secret ability: duel-wielding, which is why he needed another sword from Lisbeth.  Kirito hid this from the others because he didn't want to make them jealous and be even more outcast.  Okaaaay.  I still don't buy that as a reason for him to be ostracized by anyone besides petty idiots.  Since nobody's made fun of his powers since Kibaou did back in episode two, it feels like weak reasoning.  It also takes Kirito's status as "the one" to a new level.

Of course everyone hears about this secret power, and while no reactions are shown, it's implied that everyone is impressed.  Not so Kuradeel, Asuna's guild-assigned bodyguard.  Kuradeel isn't that interesting.  He's there to make comments on Kirito's "poor reputation."  So where did that come from, again?  Oh, wait, Kirito is the ultimate dark reject, one who is very powerful but scorned by everyone else because it's the emo thing to be.  Like Zeratul from Starcraft, only less interesting.  So Kuradeel nags Asuna about hanging out with Kirito because emo.

I might be making too much of Kirito's special little snowflake status.  Despite it, the episodes are still interesting.  Granted, not as interesting as the later ones.  While it's nice to be up at the front lines for once, the bad guy is just a generic giant monster, Kuradeel's tiresome, and the Liberation Army lacks unique individuals.  Still, there's Asuna's cooking, Klein's appearance, and a duel with Heathcliff to keep things watchable.  Heathcliff is the leader of the Knights of the Blood Oath, and he's concerned that Asuna hanging out with Kirito all the time is splintering her off from her duties as second-in-command of the Knights.  That makes sense.  So does Heathcliff's solution: duel over her, and if Kirito wins, he gets to keep her, but if he loses, he becomes a Knight of the Blood Oath.

Cool.  Guess what happens?  Kirito loses.  I like this bit.  For one thing, Heathcliff is amazing, and he actually defeats Mr. All Powerful.  ....With a special move that is obviously OP.  Well, at least Kirito's impression of power is taken down a notch.  It's nice to see him not being the uber-fantasy all powerful emo kid for once.  And it's also nice for him to wear actual colors, too.

And heck, the episode where they show him going on his one mission as a Knight of the Blood Oath started great too.  He, Kuradeel, and a player named Godfrey all go on a mission, and it's funny because Kirito and Kuradeel are forced to put bad blood behind them and just move on.

Aaaaand then Kuradeel turns out to be a guy who is not only a part of the Laughing Coffin Guild, but an insane demento that takes pleasure in hurting others.  Guys, let's make something clear: a demento character is just as boring as a "take over the world" villain.  Y'know, one of those cartoony "the world will be mine!" sort of guys who wants to take over just because.  Demented characters are just like them in the sense that there are fewer contexts in which they work.  Neither has very clear, understandable motives, except a desire that makes them a convenient bad guy.  They only work in goofy, humorous shows, or if the main character has a personal history with the demento that makes the viewer hate the baddie.

Neither exists for Kuradeel.  Sure, he and Kirito never got along, but there was no sign that Kuradeel himself was every a sick person or unnecessarily violent.  He seemed like one of those straightlaced fellows that takes stuff too seriously.  If Kuradeel had been a spy, or if the Knights had been fighting Laughing Coffin, or Kuradeel did something earlier that hinted that he wasn't on the level, it could have worked.

(Actually, while I'm thinking about it, why hasn't anyone ever tried to take out Laughing Coffin?)

As is, Kuradeel's change just ruins what could be a fun story of him learning to respect someone he doesn't.  He hits both Kirito and Godfrey with a paralysis potion, then of course the lovable and funny Godfrey dies.  Of course Asuna shows up just in time to save Kirito.  Of course she makes a mistake and has to be rescued at the last second by Kirito, just as the potion conveniently wears off.  Yawn. Couldn't they have just fought off some Laughing Coffin guys, or let Kuradeel reveal that this is all part of some master plan by his death guild?  Kuradeel is just nuts, and decides to reveal it for no reason?  Okay....

At the end of episode ten, Kirito proposes to Asuna.  This is sort of fast, but since they've been hanging out a while and we all knew they were going to get together in the end, it doesn't feel that off.  Except for the awkward bit before the proposal, but we won't go there.

Episodes 11-13 start a new arc, one that is set on Kirito and Asuna's honeymoon.  I'm a little sad that the wedding isn't shown, the gameplay aspects that change aren't discussed, and the difference between in-game and out-game marriage isn't talked about.  Then again, it's nice for the plot to just get a move on.  This is supposed to be more of an action anime.  The two of them go to a lower level that's very peaceful and pleasant, and there, after a couple of days of fun, discover a strange girl walking in the forest.  This girl passes out, and they take her to their vacation home.  The girl has no memory, but they call her Yui and decide that she is their daughter.  "I don't know who you are, little girl, but I love you and I'm going to let you call us Mommy and Daddy!"

Buh....this is probably the strangest part of the Aincrad arc.  Sure, Yui is cute and all, but she feels like a distraction from other important things.  Kirito and Asuna have no reason to feel attached to her.  While I can buy that someone like Lisbeth would quickly get attached to a lost little girl, Asuna over the course of the show has always been someone who is a little gruff.  Kirito, even more so, fears taking on responsibility for someone because he's afraid he fail them.  But no, they want to be parents of a random girl?  Whatever.

They don't go completely insane, however, and they go back to the Town of Beginnings on the first level to find out if she has parents.  No one recognizes her, but they decide to help the second in command of the Liberation Army rescue their leader, because Kibaou, the guy that hated Kirito early on, has taken over the Liberation Army and made it oppressive.  No, we never see Kibaou again. This whole Liberation Army bit comes across as an excuse to progress the plot and send Kirito, Asuna, and Yui into a dungeon.  I like the gimmick that earlier level dungeons become more dangerous as higher levels are reached, though.  It makes sense for the SAO game to try and punish lazy players.

I say that the Liberation Army plot is all setup because once it leads to the climax of Yui's story, it's abandoned.  The group encounters a very powerful boss and -- actually, before I go on, can I just say how tiresome it is to see "ignoring an order for love" again and again?  You know, how a person will try to fight a bad guy or something, and he orders his friend (usually a woman) to stay back or leave while he deals with the problem.  Then the other person stubbornly insists to stay anyway, conveniently saving the first person along the way.  This little tidbit happens in so many movies and shows, both comedy and drama, that I'm just so bored of it.  Just once I'd like the second person to do as they're told, or for the disobedient person to make things worse by sticking around.  Or maybe not write the situation at all, y'know?

In any case, just as Kirito is about to die, Yui protects him, revealing that she can't be destroyed. She's an "immortal object."  She kills the monster, but as she does, she reveals that she's a computer program, one that has suffered lots of errors.  Now that she's used her powers to destroy a monster, the game will know that she's operating out of bounds and delete her.  Kirito manages to turn her into a game object before she's completely destroyed, and she becomes a necklace for Asuna.

Sure, it's sad when Yui sort of dies, but we've known her for all of two episodes.  It only works to the viewer if the viewer gets attached to her as quickly as Kirito and Asuna do.  Not likely, that.

In any case, Yui's plotline is perhaps the weakest part of the entire Aincrad arc.  Both her story and the plot with the Liberation Army just goes by too fast, without any real emotional attachment on either count.  Sure, they're not boring episodes, and the idea of a tyrant guild is intriguing, but it doesn't go anywhere particularly interesting.  And never gets mentioned again.

Episode 13 is more of what I would have liked from a honeymoon period.  That is, it just shows Asuna and Kirito hanging out, enjoying a small period of peace while new aspects of the game reveal themselves.  They actually meet one of the guys responsible for programming SAO, who happens to have found himself as another hapless victim of Akihiko.  There's a cute little bit where they have to beat a fish boss -- the programmer has become an accomplished fisher while on SAO, but he needs help fishing out a lake's boss.  It's cute, sweet, and gets unfortunately interrupted when Heathcliff recalls Kirito and Asuna.  They have to fight the boss of level 75, who apparently is really dangerous.

While I like this bit, Asuna starts to get creepy.  She reveals that the only reason she has come to accept being stuck in SAO for two years is because she believes she fated to meet Kirito.  And if the boss kills him, she swears to kill herself.  Didn't quite realize she was so emotional, but okay then.  It fits with her episode 2 appearance where she's conflicted over being stuck in the game.

Episode 14.  That's a thing.  It's a really good thing.  Again, spoiler warning.

This episode, the Knights of the Blood Oath team up with anyone they can call to fight the floor 75 boss.  Agil and Klein make appearances too.  Nice to have them, but they don't do much, plotwise. So the boss of floor 75 is Skull Reaper, a skeleton centipede creature.  They beat it with 14 casualties, and are all exhausted from the fight.  That's when Kirito notices that Heathcliff's health isn't even halfway down.  He strikes Heathcliff with his sword, only to have the message "immortal object" pop up over his head.

I can't spoil everything about this episode.  The thing is, there's very little to comment on about it.  It's just good plotting with dramatic animation.  While I take issue with Asuna's selfish behavior near the end of the episode, that isn't so much of a critique of the show as just an opinion on a perfectly consistent character.  It's like Ariel being stupid in the Little Mermaid -- good characters sometimes make bad decisions.

In any case, the episode ends with the ending of the game.  Everyone still alive wakes up, and the last shot while the credits play is a severely emaciated Kirito getting up from his hospital bed, on the search for Asuna.  Now that's a great ending.

One nitpick I have is that we get to see a short list of some of the people who survived the game. One of those players is the murderer from the murder mystery two-parter.  They let him live?  Weird.

This is the end of the Aincrad arc.  Overall, the plot is really good, and most of the negative comments I have up there don't hurt my enjoyment of the show.  Not by much, anyway.  While what's there is good, the real flaws of Sword Art Online are in what they chose not to show rather than what they did.

How to fix Sword Art Online: Aincrad Arc:

Yeah, I'm going to be presumptuous like this.  Because it's fun.  Actually, it's the second part of the show that needs this, but why not go over it anyway?

Like I said, it's more about what's missing than what is there.  The pacing is just too fast early on. This would be easily solved by adding more episodes, such as an episode showing how Kirito gets leveled so fast, or one centered around a dungeon crawl.  Given that this story started as a novel, the pacing problems probably weren't there originally.  Did the anime not get the budget or contract it needed to get more than one season?  Did some producer think this show was too risky?

In any case, we needed to see the development of the side characters a little more.  I know that Kirito is the main character, but side characters flavor a story.  And well, let's be honest, most of the side characters are more interesting than he is.  Like, what's Agil's deal?  Why is a non-Japanese guy in Japan, playing a game?  And what's Klein's background?  Both of these guys have more fun attitudes toward life, and having them around more often to contrast with emo boy Kirito would be great.  In fact, one of my only two major writing critiques is that Klein should have been more of a partner to Kirito, perhaps when Kirito reaches a point where he can't power up as much on his own.  It's fun to have a more masculine adventure where he's fighting with friends rather than just rescuing helpless dames all the time and being persecuted for no reason.

The other of my two writing complaints is that the introduction of Yui was very forced.  She's discovered one morning, and then is suddenly all like, "Mama, Papa!" and they're okay with that? It's ridiculous to introduce a character in this way and then "kill" her off the next episode.  She should have been around, one way or another, for a longer period of time, either by extending her storyline or finding some creative way to hint at her existence before she officially appears.

Most of these problems would have been solved by giving the Aincrad arc a full season.  Just let the story progress naturally, with characters doing what players would do if trapped in a game.  And let the male side characters get something to do.

On the other hand, I have to be careful when I critique SAO for not having enough of any element. While there are many gameplay developments that could have used expansion, the story benefits from leaving a lot to the imagination.  That way the viewers can imagine in the things that aren't shown on screen. You'd be surprised how much a good gap can keep people interested and talking about your story.  It certainly works here.  People go on and on about Sword Art Online.  It's just a fun idea.

Well, the Aincrad Arc was.

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