Sometimes, you have high expectations and end up being disappointed. For me, this happened with Halo 4. Sometimes, you have low expectations and end up being pleasantly surprised. Take how much I enjoyed Gurren Lagann as an example of this phenomena. Then, you can come into a situation not knowing what to expect, and be absolutely blown away. Enter Sword Art Online.
I simply didn't know what I was getting into. Sword Art Online was a webnovel series that was eventually snagged by a publisher to become a light novel series (in Japan 'light novels' sort of equate to 'young adult fiction' here in the states, though not necessarily aimed at teens). It spawned a Manga, then a 25 episode Anime.
The story of Sword Art Online is of a Virtual Reality MMORPG that goes horribly awry of what the players expected, when the game's creator informs them that they cannot log out, and if they die in the game, they die in real life. The only way to get free of the game is to beat the boss on the 100th floor. Former beta tester 'Kirito' vows to do just that. But there's more to the tale than just what happens in the floating castle Aincrad, as amazingly, episodes 15-25 are the novels' second story arc, which involves Kirito's desperate mission in ALfheim Online, a subsequent, similar game.
- Character. Unlike a lot of Anime, the characters in Sword Art Online are ALL exceptional. Not powerful or special, I simply mean that they are all well thought out and written. There are no characters that make me shake my head or get annoyed. There are no 'Suzie Q' characters. In the original subtitled or dubbed version, there are no annoying voice actors.This alone makes Sword Art Online exceptional in my mind.
- No Fillers. All of the episodes are important and there are no 'duds.' While usually, even a heavily action based series will have 'downtime' episodes where the characters chat and do 'normal' stuff, in Sword Art online, even these episodes are jam packed with mysteries and story.
- The First Half. While it is true I enjoyed the first half more than the second, it is only comparatively, as the second half was tremendous, and only proved disappointing in comparison to the stellar Aincrad first half. The ALfhiem story arc, while less intense in terms of peril for the antagonist, does have a lot of 'aha' moments of satisfaction where secrets are revealed and odds are overcome.
- Kirito and Asuna. I'm not getting into it too much, because here thar be spoilers, but the romance subplot between Kirito and asuna is one of the most mature and comprehensive looks at love in an anime thus far.
- Clever, I think readers must have assumed this from the intro, but I really love the setting of this anime. It's very similar in concept to a lot of other 'killer app' type films, such as Tron or the Matrix, and KE554 even said it was similar to Avatar (that was when I stopped discussing it with her). On the other hand, this is a perspective of the genre that has no been looked at; a rather in depth examination of how psychology, love, crime, and property would be dealt with by a society of people who only know each other in a virtual world. Also, as they all wish to leave the game alive, it's also fun to watch how they try to resolve disputes with causing problems for themselves.
- Brevity. This is a balancing act, because if they stretched it too much, I would have complained about filler episodes, right? Well, in this case, my desire for more overcomes my wariness of unnecessarily stretching the story.
- Now You See 'Em. Some very interesting characters are worked into the narrative along with the main antagonists, but many of them only really appear in a single episode. Silica and Lisbeth are prime examples of characters I would have loved to see more of. Liz does appear in two other episodes in the series, but these feel more like cameos than real roles, and Silica only reappears at the very end scolding Liz. Sort of a twofer cameo.
Sword Art Online is maybe the best anime out there. Is this what I think? Yes, tentatively. It's really very good. There is one episode that made me cry. Previously, I had not cried since 1993. This made me cry for the first time in 20 years. It's that good. Is it my favorite anime? I'm not ready to say that. I have a lot of history and investment in Evangelion. But I can watch Sword Art Online and come out feeling better than when I go through EVA, because of the more positive moral and message. Plus, the fact that SAO really is just a terrific anime on its own merits is a big help too.