Sword Art Online represents everything wrong with Japanese animation right now. No, seriously - and this isn’t because the show is irredeemably bad or anything. Rather it takes a decent premise and over the course of twenty-five episodes proceeds to waste pretty much every last scrap of potential this premise offers up.
Every time the plot presents an opportunity to explore a compelling moral dilemma, to better develop someone who could be an interesting character, to think about the implications of some new aspect of the world the writers have created, the show sidelines it without fail in favour of an easy out. This is what happens when you pander to a core audience of unrepentant nerds; the big questions never get answered, characters show neither growth nor depth and the world never gets explained in anything beyond lazy, formulaic clichés.
The plot is familiar territory, a near-future setting where the invention of fully immersive virtual reality means videogames have taken a staggering technological leap forward. The massively multiplayer epic fantasy world Sword Art Online has just come out of beta testing and thrown open its doors to the public. Thousands of players are taking their first halting steps through the game’s early stages, only when they try to log out they discover something’s gone terribly wrong.
Their headsets won’t let them log out, and the software’s been wired to kill anyone who dies in-game. If they’re forcibly removed, they die too. The only way to escape is to defeat the final boss - but persuading enough people to work together to get this done proves to be no easy task.
The audience surrogate is Kirito, a shy young man who’s on familiar ground, to some extent, as an avid games player and a former beta tester for Sword Art Online. Painfully conscious of the drawbacks that come with being so much more skilled than most of the hoi-polloi, after an early attempt to make friends goes disastrously wrong Kirito takes to throwing himself into the fray solo, shunning human contact as much as possible.