WARNING: This article may contain spoilers.
With two seasons on the books and a highly anticipated third season almost guaranteed, Sword Art Online has been taking the anime world by storm for the better part of two years. A number of my regular sources for all that’s hip and happening repeatedly and emphatically raved about the anime, and after enough poking and prodding, I finally watched the first 13 episodes on Netflix.
What I found was all the makings of an incredible anime. A believable and high-stakes storyline, characters that are refreshingly devoid of most of the tepid overdone stereotypes that plague many modern anime, SAO immediately sucked me in. For 13 episodes, I was fixated (okay, slightly obsessed … okay, okay … really obsessed) with finding out what was going to happen next … and then it ended. Surprised at the early termination of what could have been a much longer and super emotional series, I was comforted by the fact that unlike most anime of SAO’s caliber, I would be treated to the after story.
And then the Alfheim Online story arc happened. Poorly paced, poorly developed, and even more strangely concluded, the story arc seemed almost like a completely different show. Asuna, the strong, badass character from the SAO storyline was reduced to a weak, ineffectual captive of a psychotic but rather poorly conceived villain. She went from independent warrior princess to damsel in distress, and it honestly felt like a step backward in her character development which raised so many red flags in my mind as a writer.
Another sticking point for me was the actual development of the ALO arc’s plot overall. The villain development was so weak compared to the egomaniac, Akihiko Kayaba, we’d met in SAO. It seemed like Nobuyuki Sugou’s (aka Oberyn’s) creepy fixation with Asuna was played up as being his worst trait, and the actual problem of him using people’s minds against their will for research was barely mentioned. Then there was that whole messy and completely unnecessary side arc with Kirito and his sister that just felt like a weak attempt at creating tension. Overall, it felt like ALO was desperately trying to compete with rather than compliment the SAO arc.
Similarly the Gun Gail Online arc started strong (though not as strong as SAO) but dragged by the end. The Excalibur mini arc and the Mother’s Rosario mini arc also suffered from poor pacing even though the stories themselves vastly improved. Unfortunately, the tepid stereotypes that had been absent from the initial SAO arc slowly crept in, and I felt that after SAO, Kirito and Asuna’s character development basically came to a complete halt in order to make them appear super powerful and cool players.
It still surprised me that even with all of that, I am highly anticipating the third season. In fact, I wondered for a while why I felt that way. The answer? I am waiting for this show to get back to its roots because SAO is a good anime that suffers from bad story arcs.
But wait, you’re thinking, “Isn’t an anime only as good as its story arc?”
As someone who has done both a lot of good (and bad) writing and watched a lot of good (and bad) anime, I’ve discovered one very important thing. There’s a big difference between a story that starts with strong concepts, characters, and novel ideas but is plagued by bouts of poor creative choices and an anime that starts with nothing good, ends with nothing good, and a lot of nothing happens in between. SAO is definitely the first of those, and I fully believe it can redeem itself if it can make its characters more vulnerable and embrace a stronger more developed arc that focuses on producing those same feelings of attachment, tension, and conflict that captivated SAO fans early on.
That’s some pretty big shoes for the Underworld Arc to fill, but as a true fan, I am hopeful that season 3 will breathe new fresh creativity into SAO. With any luck, I won’t have to wait long to find out! Season 3’s initial release date was slotted for the end of 2015 or early 2016 which is fast approaching. Plus with a newly announced SAO animated movie in the works, there’s a lot of potential there for a return to the key things that made SAO an amazing show.