Sword Art Online - Part 1 Review

The 2012 anime series Sword Art Online arrives in the UK with a high degree of expectation. In Japan it's been highly successful across a number of formats, originating as a series of light novels before inevitably being adapted to manga, anime and video game. Such a route is not uncommon for a Japanese anime series, but what's of interest here is how this particular anime manages to adapt a storyline that is itself influenced by and takes place in a MMPORPG video game playing world and how it makes it distinctive as a series in its own right. On the basis of the first seven episodes collected in Part 1 of the series, Sword Art Online has all the right elements in place to deliver plenty of entertainment and potentially throw up some surprises as it rapidly develops.

If the premise lacks originality and raises more questions than it initially answers, you can't deny that it at least holds plenty of promise. Set in the year 2022, the gaming world has finally achieved the ultimate goal of creating a VRMMORPG, a Virtual Reality Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game. Using new NerveGear technology will allow the Sword Art Online player to enter the immersive and expansive virtual fantasy world of Aincrad, and on November 6th 2022 14,000, players including a young gamer called Kirito, plug in. It sounds like a gamer's dream come true, but there's just one problem. If you die in this world, not only do you not have any extra lives, but you die in the real world as well.

It's not a bug, but rather the design of the Sword Art Online game creator Kabaya Akihiko. This comes to light when the players realise that there's no Logout button either and that the only way out is to complete the game by reaching level 100. Or die trying. Kirito knows how difficult this will be as he has had experience of the Beta version of SOA and this gives him something of an advantage, but even he only got to level 8 and it soon becomes apparent that some of the rules have changed since then. After one month - by the start of the second episode - 2,000 players are already dead.

It may be the design of an evil creator for some unspecified reason rather than technology failing and running amok, but the premise of Sword Art Online is still hardly an original one. It's what you do with the idea that counts of course, and SOA has a few interesting twists that may or may nor develop into something more interesting. For a start although it's a game world there's not a lot of time wasted laying out the rules and then game-playing them. There's more interesting things to explore here than game methodology. From episode to episode, the series expands its themes and surges forwards in huge leaps and bounds. By the end of episode seven here, the players have been on-line for almost two years, Kirito has reached level 78, is in the lead group and has a formidable reputation as the Black Swordsman.

By the same token, however it becomes difficult to gain an overview of the world and know exactly where the characters are at any given time. Not only is there no map provided, but after the first episode there's no context provided either and no flashbacks to the real world. It's entirely self-contained. This raises raises some interesting questions. Do the players really die in the real-world if they die in the game? No-one can know. Does the players perception of time operate differently in the virtual world? Otherwise, it would seem surprising that experts in the real-world would have been working at this problem for two years and still not found a way to switch the game off without injuring the players. Who is looking after the players' "meat" bodies in the real world? What point is evil Sword Art Online creator Kabaya Akihiko trying to make, and why hasn't he been caught and put on trial for mass-murder?

This evidently opens a number of intriguing avenues for the series to explore and raises some interesting philosophical and metaphysical questions along the way, and the status of Sword Art Online as a classic anime will no doubt be judged ultimately on how well it answers those questions (created in 2012 the anime is still on-going so it's too early to say). In the meantime however, the series at least has plenty of what it needs to keep you engaged through to the conclusion. For a start, the animation work of the A-1 Pictures studio is well up to their high standards, Sword Art Online fitting into the same look and worldview of Fairy Tail and Blue Exorcist, demonstrating the same technical excellence with regards to character design and development, with fluid animation and strong clear storyboarding.

One other essential aspect that immediately becomes clear as a feature of the series is that it's happy to play across a number of genres. Episodes 5 and 6 make up the first 2-part story, and it's something of detective mystery which has nonetheless a distinctive twist that comes with it being in a virtual world where the rules, regarding the laws around killing for example, are rather different. As well as the evident fantasy role-playing themes (quests, fighting dragons, gaining weapons and powers), the main genre that has a presence throughout the series is that of light romance, with Kirito encountering various cute girls - most notably Asuna, a Knight of the Blood Oath - and becoming involved in some chaste romantic situations that involve one or both parties blushing furiously.

At an early stage in the second episode, Kirito shares one such moment with Sachi. "Why can't we leave this place?", she asks, "What's the point of this?". "I don't think there is a point", replies Kirito, which when you think about it, could apply equally to the virtual world or the real world. The point might not be reaching the end of the game, but it's the playing that may be what counts, "living the best we can", as Kirito puts it in another episode. Whether Sword Art Online ultimately delivers on any of the deeper philosophical questions that the virtual situation proposes remains to be seen (many other anime series have done so successfully so I wouldn't rule it out), but it does at least be striving to do the best it can with what it's been given.

Sword Art Online - Part 1 is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray/DVD Double Play Combi. Whether it was for contractual or commercial reasons (or both), the first series has been divided into four parts, making the entire series very expensive to collect on Blu-ray. The Blu-ray wasn't seen for review, but on DVD the first part consists of the first seven episodes of the series (episodes 1-7) on a single dual-layer disc. The set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

The transfer is 16:9 enhanced widescreen, properly standards converted. A recent 2012 series, the animation comes across impressively, colours are bright and well-defined, the brightness and contrast are well balanced. CG effects are integrated seamlessly into the animation and the transfer is stable, the image flowing smoothly. Colour-banding might be evident in one or two places depending on your technical set-up, but I noticed no significant issues with it here. The Blu-ray HD transfer will undoubtedly look even better with improved colour definition and sharpness, but as far as the DVD standard definition transfer goes, it looks very impressive indeed. It's hard to imagine it could look much better than this.

The original Japanese audio is Dolby Digital 2.0, as is the English dub. I watched all the episodes in Japanese, but sampled the English dub in places and it seemed to me to work just as well in English. The quality of both stereo audio tracks is strong, clear and dynamic with good presence and a wide spread. The English subtitles are optional and are in a bold white font of a good size and readability. As usual, they can be a bit stiff and literal in places whereas the English dub adapts it well to make the spoken dialogue a bit more natural, if a little too 'hip'.

Extra features are limited to simply a Textless Opening and Textless Closing.

With only a quarter of the first series contained in Sword Art Online - Part 1, it's far too early to determine how successfully the series will develop its themes, but on the other hand there's a lot covered in these first seven episodes alone. The idea of being trapped in a virtual gaming world isn't exactly a new one, but it opens up lots of possibilities and raises genuinely interesting questions in parallel, particularly on the impact of technology on real-world morality. Whether the point is developed further or not, it's a rich world nonetheless for the A1-Pictures animation studio to work with and they do a terrific job here. There's no doubt plenty of action, adventure, romance and surprises to come.

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