In the year 2022, next-generation game Sword Art Online (SAO) is the world's first true VRMMORPG. A virtual reality helmet known as Nerve Gear has been developed, making Full Dives into a virtual dimension possible.
SAO has generated worldwide buzz, and on its official launch day, one player, Kirito, immerses himself in its virtual world. But Akihiko Kayaba, the developer of SAO, proclaims the following to all players. This game is inescapable unless all levels are cleared. And in this world, 'Game Over' is equivalent to death in the real world.
Have you heard about the Oculus Rift? It's a VR headset that's been slowly picking up speed in the last year or so. It has no connection with the anime series Sword Art Online. Having watched a few YouTube videos of the Oculus Rift in action, then coincidentally have this disc drop in my lap, well let's just say it gave me a vague, albeit scary idea of how it might feel to "play" SAO.
Unlike our real world's Oculus Rift, Sword Art Online's is more like a VR helmet which connects to your brain, aptly named the NerveGear. By connecting directly to your brain, it stimulates (or maybe simulates?) senses by re-directing its signals. It can also purposely kill you if your HP reaches zero, which is unbeknownst to players on entry.
One of these unsuspecting players is the quiet Kirito, one of many to purchase this game Sword Art Online on day one. He was previously one of 1,000 beta testers before the game's official release, so he knows a bit more than your average gamer. Logging in, Kirito rushes out to begin his quest, then bumps into a newbie named Klein, who begs for some tips. Later on, all players are summoned to the nearby town square, where the game's creator, Kayaba Akihiko, appears in his pixelated form. What begins as an exciting introduction, the game's hype is spoilt with this deathly statement: Until the game's 100 floors (dungeons) are cleared, you cannot return to the real world.
As I hear this, I recall my younger days playing the infamous World of Warcraft for hours on end - it doesn't sound too bad! That is, until he mentions how dying in-game effectively means dying out-game. Virtual has suddenly turned visceral. Cue panicked players and unsightly shedding of avatars! To add insult to injury, players' bodies are replaced with their actual real life bodies, results of which will make you either laugh or shudder.
Kirito recommends that he and Klein jump to the next town, as the current one will be too busy. Klein politely de-kleins, eager to find his IRL friends that he'd met waiting in the queue for this Sword Art Online hub-bub. Kirito feels left in the dark, but alone he bolts onward.
Along the way, he finds new friends, including Asuna, another player who seemed to be going alone. They fight together briefly, taking down anything in their path. It feels like a match made in heaven. But instead of staying partied with her, Kirito encourages Asuna to join a guild. Instead of joining other players and forming a party, he decides he is best working alone as a solo player, helping out players on the side. Staying alone, Kirito manages to climb to the highest levels, quickly becoming the object of hearsay and jealousy among other players.
As we watch Kirito transform from a quiet school boy, into a silent assassin, there's that familiar underlying plot regarding trust, friendship and teamwork, its meaning, its pros and cons. In a pixelated wonderland, these humanizing basics can be easily forgotten, lost or misinterpreted. But if remembered, a player would be much rewarded, in a way that no amount of programming can replicate. That is quite beautiful.
Sword Art Online's premise is one that has been explored time and time again, from 1982's Tron to 1999's The Matrix. Move on a decade more and here we are, living in the internet age itself. Naturally, the series has been a big hit all over, even spawning a number of projects focused on creating a SAO fan game.
Luckily, it had been pre-empted as a cult hit, the production is superb. The blu-ray plays out SAO in gorgeous crispy lines, colours and sound. The animation is produced by A-1 Pictures, who have worked on game-based anime in the past (Valkyria Chronicles, IDOLM@STER, Persona: trinity Soul). The soundtrack was also composed by Yuki Kajiura, who has worked on the Xenosaga games. She also worked on another anime that has a matching premise to SOA, .hack//Sign.
Being an avid gamer myself, I found SAO a joy to watch. The plot is a bit linear in places, but that could be down to me playing too many games in the past. The costume and world designs aren't anything new, but I think that helped its success. SAO's generic design makes it viable to anyone who has played a fantasy JRPG or MMORPG before. Notably, the character designs come from the original novel's illustrator, Abec, who is apparently still in high school as I type this!
There are also nice touches that only a gamer might notice, like a cool HUD (Heads Up Display) reminiscent of The Sims, and spawned enemies called kobolds. I don't think there is one fantasy MMORPG out there that doesn't have kobolds in them! I highly recommend any one who likes JRPG games to watch this. Or even better, introduce your anime-hating gamer friend to it, they might love this. I only wish this was an anime I could play. Looking forward to Part 2!