Sword Art Online, or SAO, means a lot of things to a lot of people. The anime practically blew up to the point where at least everyone with a casual interest in anime has heard the name. As popular as it may be, that was also its downfall. Nowadays, any mention of the anime usually comes with a lot of criticism for lack of depth, character development, and flaws. After all that, I still feel that this series is something magical. It may just be my own bias, as it was one of the first series I ever got heavily invested in. Seriously, I've watched it six times (twice sub, and four times dub), and now I've just completed the first eight books of the series (which is as far as the English translations have gotten). Of course, after all of this, I'm a little burned out on SAO. Of course, that's not going to stop my from giving my final impressions on this series that means so much to me.
Anime – Overall
Just from taking a look at the anime, it's pretty good. The animation, done by A-1 Pictures is stunningly beautiful, it's no Unlimited Budget Works, but it still looks nice. The series progresses from arc to arc very gracefully, as you would expect any anime to do. However, the Aincrad Arc, which is the first and by far the most important one, seems way too rushed. I mean, they cover 75 floors in a matter of 13 episodes. It would have been nice to see a little more detail in this arc, or all of them for that matter.
Despite its being rushed, it's still a better than average fantasy anime for those who like that type. There are plenty of fantasy elements as we follow Kirito through the vast virtual worlds of Aincrad, Alfheim, and even Gun Gale. The problem with this, again, lies in the details. There are minor inconsistency which becomes more obvious if you watch it more than once. For example, Kirito's battle healing stat that is only existent for one episode. Every episode thereafter his health never renews the way it does in that single episode.
Despite the minor flaws, and rushed development, the anime still opens the gateway to a wonderful, fantasy, virtual world.
Light Novels – Overall
My anticipation whenever I started the light novels was the cliche “The books are always better” saying. I have to say, that still holds true, but only someth and in some of the books. Aincrad arc is still way too short, but we learn why. The original book was written for a short story competition, and had a lot cut out of it. Then the author went back in short stories in the second and eighth books in order to make up for it. Thus, the anime is the patched together work of books 1, 2, and part of 8, which even the author admitted there were plenty of inconsistencies. Honestly, who could blame him? Between book 1 and 8 a whole two or three years had gone by.
There were still more detailed moments, though. Scenes that did not make the cut for the anime that were important, and even worse, stories that got condensed. “Murder in the Safe Zone” is one of the most boring parts of the anime in the Aincrad Arc; however, the book it is exciting. The book is far more in depth on this particular story than the anime ever is. For example, the book involved other people such as Agil and Heathcliff, that never made an appearance in this story in the anime. Not to mention Schmidt's personality is completely different in the story from the anime.
It's little things like that that add up and make the books better. Little scenes that the anime thought was not important enough to make the cut, add up into better character development. For another example, there is a whole scene with Kirito and Klein that drastically improves their development in the story, that never made the anime. Quite sad really.
Honestly, they could have easily made Aincrad last a whole 24 episode season if they wanted to. If they did that, people's opinions of the show could be drastically changed.
Now I know I'm burned out right now, but there is still plenty of SAO to be had. The next arc, Alicization, not yet translated to English yet, so I can not read it. Also, with the confirmation of SAO Season III somewhere in the future, you have to bet that it is going to be based on that Arc. Of course, this raises some concerns for me. The Alicization Arc itself is as long as the entire series has been up until now, which means there is a whole heck of a lot of information in there. My concern is that they are going to try and chop it down into twelve or thirteen episodes when it could probably easily be twenty-four as well. Guess I have to hope for the best.
SAO is still one of my favorite anime shows out there, even with its flaws. Because of SAO, I found and fell in love with similar stories such as Grimgar and Log Horizon. In fact, SAO is the reason I got so big into anime in the first place! I owe this series so much, and it pains me to see people criticize it, but I understand why they do. It has its flaws, every show does. Deep down, I truly believe it is an amazing story that everyone should give a shot, at least the Aincrad Arc.
I guess I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, or partial quote rather, from the one and only Kirito:
“In this world, strength is just an illusion.”