To say I've been out of touch with the Anime scene would be a pretty accurate statement. The last I bothered to watch was Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The last one I actually bought on DVD was Cowboy Bebop, also known as the greatest thing Japanese animation has ever produced. At some point, I grew bored with it and decided to take a break from it entirely.*
Flash forward to today, where I stumble on Sword Art Online, which might have brought me back into the fold. I binged on it - watching the entire series in a day - and immediately found myself looking to see what else I might have missed while I was away. Even when you're sure you're out, all it takes is one good hit to bring you back in.
The premise of the series is that VR tech is now a reality and video games have naturally begun to make the leap, especially MMO's. Unfortunately, the creator of one such VRMMO - the namesake, Sword Art Online, to be exact - has essentially done the equivalent of spitting in the players faces and waving them the middle finger. There is no logout button. The only way to escape the game and return to reality is to clear all one hundred floors to reach the final boss. If you die in the game, your VR headset will fry your brain, killing you in real life.
With a premise like that, you'd naturally expect a lot of action and for the majority of the series to focus on finishing the game, but a lot of what I appreciate about Sword Art Online is that it does the opposite. The quest to return to reality isn't as much a driving force for the series as you might expect. Rather, the series focuses on the effects that being trapped in a situation like this might have on ones psyche, relationships and demeanor. Some crack under the pressure, some fight hard to clear the game.
Others, like the hero, drift between a desire to clear the game and to just live. His own philosophy, the one he teaches to the heroine, is that even if they're stuck there, it's like it's own reality. Why waste it? You are still alive. Life goes on. It's a message that we see in non essential characters, as well; some of those too afraid to fight or die turn to simpler lives, building families, businesses and even hobbies such as fishing.
All of this is the sort of thing you'd typically see a series gloss over entirely; which is often a shame, because more than once I've found background bits and implied consequences just as interesting as the main plot. But with Sword Art Online, the things you might expect - guilds forming, grinding, everything associated with MMO's and the overall action - are just a backdrop. The characters are the focus and it's easy to grow to like them. It certainly helps that the animation is amazing and the soundtrack is appealing as well.
One other thing I enjoyed about the series is that it's not afraid to switch genre's from time to time. One episode might focus on a boss battle, while the next will consist of a murder mystery the protagonists will have to solve. I don't intend to compare the two series, but I do feel like mentioning that it reminds me of Cowboy Bebop in that regard, which was a series that was unafraid to throw almost any style of story at the wall if the writers felt it would make for a good episode. It lends a fair bit of variety to Sword Art Online and helps to keep it from growing stale.
Not to say Sword Art Online is perfect, as if anything is. The fourteen episodes of twenty five that the characters are stuck in the first MMO - the namesake - take place over the two year span they're stuck within virtual reality. As such, we often jump a month or two in time between each episode. As much is implied in this series as is shown - though we see most of the important character interactions - and that is not something that is going to work for everyone. Some people like a defined plot with a clear throughline from point A to point B. There are plenty of shows like that, but SAO is not one of them and I imagine that is going to hurt it with some.
I also hate to say it, but the second half is a bit weaker than the first. By that point, you care enough about the bond between the hero and the heroine that you're invested in his quest, but it sacrifices some of what made the first half quite as memorable for a clearer direction and goal. It's still very good, but in a different way, perhaps more akin to what some people seemed to expect from the series to start with.
Something about the second arc I also feel ought to be addressed is the fact that the heroine is reduced to a damsel in distress, not to mention absent for the majority of the eleven or so episodes the Fairy arc is spread across. It's a little jarring - the two protagonists define the Battle Couple trope and it's shown she's pretty damn near his equal in battle - if perhaps necessary to keep the series grounded in it's VR concept, seeing as she and some other players are still stuck and need rescuing. Assuming Sword Art Online has a second season/series - and there's more than enough material for that, since the source material is still going and there are two more full arcs after to adapt - this will be less problematic, because it will just be one arc of several, instead of about a third of the series.
It's worth noting she doesn't just sit on her hands though, held captive or not. She escapes at one point through use of her own wits and almost manages to log herself out. She doesn't sit and wait to be rescued the entire time; when she got an opportunity, she went for it. So there is that.
MY OPINION: WATCH IT
All told, I'd say Sword Art Online is well worth your time. I'm actually not sure how good or bad the dub is, as I watched it subbed, but even DVD's seem to have both language tracks on disc as a standard these days, so it doesn't much matter. It rekindled my interest in Anime, so give it a look. You might love it like I did. Even if you don't, I'm sure you'll agree it's damn beautiful.
* I kind of took a sabbatical from both manga and anime. Naruto was what actually did it. I ended up becoming so disgusted and so pissed off at that goddamn manga that I probably stayed away from Japanese media for longer than I intended to.