This show was strongly recommended to me. Two people called Sword Art Online one of their favourite shows, with one of them going so far as to call it's what got him back into anime. However it also has lots of bashers. Apparently it's one of the biggest "love it or hate it" anime of recent years. Interesting?
Personally, I'm positive. I thought it was good, although I remember hating the first episode of Season 2 when I randomly watched it last year.
It's about massively multiplayer online games, i.e. virtual reality MMORPG worlds. Ep.1 begins in the year 2022, with a new one being released. It's called Sword Art Online (d'oh). It's a fantasy RPG with no magic, lots of monsters and a 100-storey tower that you've got to fight your way to the top. 10,000 players log in on the first day, only to discover that the game's programmer has disabled the log-out functionality and set up the VR headsets to fry your brain in real life if you die in-game (or if anyone tries to remove the helmet). The only way for any of them to get home would be for someone to complete the game.
Two years later, they'll all still be in there. Well, the survivors, at least.
It's based on a series of light novels and it's very successful. Season 2 came out in 2014, Season 3 is coming soon and there's going to be an original movie. (There's also been a compilation movie of season 1, but I don't know if I'll bother watching that.) What makes Season 1 strong, for me, is the thing that I've seen other people complaining about: the characters.
The main character, Kazuto Kirigaya (real name) or "Kirito" (game handle) is almost superpowered. He's already an experienced gamer before the start and he spends two years refusing contact with other people and just travelling around on his own, maxing out his stats. He's very, very tough. To his detractors, he's a bland Gary Stu, Black Hole Sue, Marty Stu, God-Mode Sue or whatever else you might call him. Those people think he's overpowered and that he kills the drama. In a gaming world, he upsets game balance.
Personally, though, I like him. To make the obvious point first, he's not infallible. He can lose fights. More importantly, though, to me these 25 episodes I've just watched aren't primarily about cool fights and fantasy hack-and-slash. They're about what living in a place like that does to you, then eventually about different kinds of love.
Kirito is pretty broken early in the series, with his loner attitude and rejection of human contact. We see post-traumatic stress disorder, survivor guilt and even suicide. As for the other players, some turn player-killer and join robber gangs. Others retire from adventuring and set up shops in safe areas that have been cleared. Still others spend years on the front lines, endlessly fighting monsters so that everyone can get home. Are such people heroes, or are they macho cretins leading other cretins to their doom? (Everyone's probably living on borrowed time, by the way, because their real bodies will be wasting away in hospital beds. Even if our heroes did eventually get out alive, they'd need months or years of rehab to return their bodies to working order.)
You can also get married in-game. Has this world been programmed to allow virtual sex? (Apparently it has in the original light novels, but the anime is less explicit on the subject.) I really liked this. It's going beyond the usual anime "will they, won't they", to explore emotional commitment and even parenthood. They end up with a family, although the exact nature of this is unusual. (Computer avatars don't get pregnant.)
I loved the sociological angle, e.g. the distinctions these people draw between their real and online identities, with expectations and customs springing up around that. I loved the basic idea of the series, which is an unusual combination of fantasy, SF and real-world gaming with lots of touches to which most of us will be able to relate. I loved the exploration of love, family and commitment, which is incidentally why I had no problem whatsoever with what's done with the female characters in the second story arc. I found that a valid, strong exploration of the show's themes. I approved. I cared about Kirito, Asuna, Leafa and Yui.
For me, that's what gave the show meaning. The lavish production values and well-animated fight scenes are just a bonus.
The villains aren't great, but they're interesting. Akihiko Kayaba is pretty cool, I think, because he's plays fair, doesn't hold grudges and actually doesn't seem like a bad person. Well, except for having committed mass kidnapping and murder by trapping ten thousand people in a death game. Is he even really a villain? Good question. Nobuyuki Sugou on the other hand is gloatingly bwahaha evil and so lurid that he's a bit of a cartoon, to be honest, but you can't say he doesn't deserve what's coming to him.
This show is different things to different people. Some see it as a power fantasy, usually negatively. Some see it as cool adventure in a life-or-death world. It looks great and has top-notch action. That's worth something. Some viewers even apparently can't get away from the fact that it's an MMORPG and so, for instance, think the show takes itself too seriously. Even if the players are dying for real, it's just a game, isn't it? (No.) For what it's worth, I think Season 1's story arcs are saying and doing different things, but that's fine since I find both interesting and emotionally effective. (I have my doubts about how successfully they'll manage to extend the love story in subsequent seasons, though.)
Give it a go. If nothing else, the people who like it often love it.
"That's what humans do during their boot-up sequence, isn't it?"