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I haven't watched too many animes, but I've loved those that I have seen. Even though there are often English dubbed episodes available, I still prefer to watch anime with the original Japanese voices because it feels a bit wrong to watch anime with a squeaky American voice over the top. I was looking for a really good anime, with lots of romance but also some sort of other purpose and my friend recommended Sword Art Online to me and I really regret not listening to his advice sooner, because it was awesome!
SAO is basically about Kirito, a teenage boy, who is really into gaming and was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the one thousand beta testers of a new game: Sword Art Online. This game is like pretty much any other video game (it kinda reminds me of Zelda) except you're plugged into the system via NerveGear which is like a helmet that you put you put on whilst playing and your human body basically turns comatose until you log out of the game. The beta test is really successful so it isn't long before the game is mass produced and there are ten thousand players plugged into the system (think Matrix). The only problem is, this time they can't log out. It turns out this isn't a glitch in the system, but something put in place by the SAO's creator in order to trap these ten thousand people in a virtual reality. To make matters worse, your prolonged existence in the real world, depends on your ability to stay alive in the virtual reality. When your HP reaches zero in SAO, your real body will also die. The only way to escape SAO is to reach level 100, beating the boss at each level. Still thinking this doesn't sound so hard? Well, the boss on each level is pretty much impossible to get past, unless you're Kirito with bags of experience from the beta test. Within a few weeks, thousands of the players have died and those that remain are desperate to reach the top. Instead of partying up with other players, the safer option, Kirito insists on making his way through the game alone, but on his way up he meets Asuna, another pretty damn good player, and from then on their stories are intertwined.
SAO is actually split into two series, there's a part one and a part two. The paragraph above is a very brief summary of the premise of part one but I can't really tell you anything about part two without giving away what happens at the end of part one. There is quite a definite divide in between the two series and although part two continues straight on from the end of part one, the two stories are really different and yet really similar at the same time. I suppose the general structure and set up of part two is the same as part one, but as the plot is different and the characters have developed a lot.
Personally, I found the story to be really emotional and I mean genuine emotions and not the sort of emotions induced by a whishy-washy rom-com. I think I cried several times whilst watching SAO because it is really heartbreaking at times. The first half of part one is quite action based and I didn't find this part as interesting as the second half of part one. However, the first few episodes are very good for setting the story up and introducing different characters. I think this first half was needed to establish that this game was no joke and that the subject matter of this series was actually quite serious. I do not mean to say that this series is serious as it's actually quite amusing and heartwarming at times, but I think that the creators were really good at mixing the lighthearted material with the fact that all the characters were trapped in a virtual reality where most of them were doomed to die and the balancing of these two things is what made this series so great.
I think that character development and character relations can be quite weak in animes, but I think it was very much the opposite in SAO. There are many, many characters that come and go, but the two protagonists are Kirito and Asuna. I found the relationship between the pair of the to be absolutely beautiful and it developed at exactly the right pace (no insta-love to be seen - hooray!). There were a few moments where I thought the relationship between some characters was getting a little weird, but these moments were infrequent and pretty inconsequential. (I also think that what I think is weird, probably didn't seem that weird to Japanese people). Kirito plays a much larger role than Asuna and therefore you can see the relationship between himself and many other characters play out too and those are equally well developed and allow you to see the different sides of Kirito. Unsurprisingly, the characters are all very much affected by their traumatic experiences in SAO and I'm glad the character development reflected this and everything that happened was rather logical, despite the fact that this is a fantasy.
I don't think that the graphics in terms of fluidity of movement and all that jazz was particularly outstanding or noteworthy; however, I do feel that the stills that you could gleam from this series (i.e. screenshotting certain moments) were really beautiful. The characters themselves, the costumes, the scenery etc. is all really intricate and just darn cool. If you're not going to watch this series, then at least google 'Sword Art Online' so you can see for yourself the awesome images which are either really bright and colourful or dark and sinister looking. The way that things look is probably one of my favourite things about this series and I'll definitely be drawing (make that attempting to draw) a couple of the stills.
I think I listened to the SAO OST before I actually began watching it and that was the final push in getting me to start watching. I believe that the OST of any drama/anime is so important as it really sets the tone of the whole series and the SAO OST complemented the action so perfectly. It wasn't just the opening and ending tracks that had me hooked, but also the score from the actual episodes, so the background music during fight scenes, romantic scenes etc. The opening/ending tracks actually change half way through when part two starts and I think that perhaps the OST for part two is slightly better, though, all four tracks are excellent. I think I'm going to download the SAO score and play it in the background as I go about life just to make everything seem more dramatic and important because it really was that awesome. Usually I don't pay much attention to the score as in general the opening and ending theme songs tend to stick out a lot more, but not with SAO. In this case, the score was probably even better than the opening/ending tracks which is quite a rarity.
All in all, this anime has a great plot, great characters, beautiful artwork and an emotional OST - I don't think it's done anything wrong. A perfect balance between romance and action is struck in SAO so I think it will appeal to all anime fans, whether male or female. I am completely in love with the OST, in fact I'm listening to it right now; I've changed my desktop wallpaper to a shot from SAO and if I ever decide to participate in cosplay, I can tell you now that I'll be dressing up as Asuna. This series gripped me for all 25 episodes and my interest never waned. Although each episode is only twenty minutes long and yet so much seems to happen in each episode. I thought that the ending of this series could've been slightly better, but it was by no means disappointing. I honestly cannot recommend this series enough and if you've never watched any anime then SAO would be a great place to start as it mixes a lot of different anime genres together.