Sword Art Online is a master class of how to write a great main character, heroine, romance, story, and then balance that with top tier animation, fight scenes, and soundtrack. It’s why the first arc of climbing Aincrad is always considered to be one of the top arcs of all time by me. It just has everything you could want in a story so a movie retelling the events but in an alternate route where Asuna is the main character was a great idea. Similar to Fate it’s basically going to show how making a single choice can take you onto a whole different route and I’m here from it. (I mean it’s a little different since in Fate everything is exactly the same up to the decision while here things are a bit different but it’s close enough) I would definitely recommend this film to anyone looking for an excellent time.
The movie starts out by introducing us to Asuna who is a straight A student who excels in all students. It’s still hard to please her mother though who wants Asuna to keep excelling and doesn’t give her any real praise for this. Asuna’s only time to have fun is when she hangs out with Misumi who is the top student in the whole school but is a professional gamer on the side. Asuna wishes she could balance her time out like that and one day decides to make an impulsive decision of her own and borrows her brother’s nerve gear to play the new Sword Art Online game on its launch day. She meets up with Misumi but then she quickly finds out that there is no log out button.
It turns out that this whole game was an elaborate MMO trap. Every gamer who is in here cannot leave now and if someone tries to take off their virtual reality helmet from the real world then the player will die. The only way to get out of this game is to complete all 100 floors but as any MMO player will tell you, completing these games takes years and years. It’s nearly impossible to get through and you can’t speed run it. There are no revives either.
If you die in the game then you die in real life.
You have to let that sink in for a bit. Asuna was never much of a gamer but her friend Misumi is really good so perhaps the two of them will be able to clear this game. Their bond will be tested in this death game. Of course everyone’s favorite hero Kirito is around as always but this time it isn’t his story to tell, but Asuna’s. As you can probably guess this film can’t cover the entire 100 floor epic so you have to try and guess how far it’ll go and what the ending will be. With this new character, Misumi, in the equation you also don’t know how far the arc will diverge or if it’ll still play out the same.
Don’t worry though, we don’t have a “Chris in Sonic X” scenario here. Misumi isn’t around to steal scenes from other characters and instead she adds extra context and depth to Asuna’s character. I thought the movie did a great job of incorporating her character into the story in a very natural way. It’s part of why I’d like to see them adapt some of the video games at some point where all of the heroines from every future arc also get warped to Aincrad with Kirito and Asuna for the first time but it’s probably a very tough thing to adapt without it feeling forced. Throwing in one character is a lot easier.
Part of the appeal of Sword Art Online is just how cool it would be to be in this scenario. Who wouldn’t want to be warped in there with such high stakes? Personally I would love it and I think that’s why the isekai genre is so big. Living in a fantasy world like this where you have to fight to survive just sounds amazing. Of course you can die but deep down everyone figures they would be able to survive. I’m confident enough in my gaming skills to figure I’d do really well here and Sword Art Online handles the fantasy world angle way better than any other series.
As to the film though, we can go over the technical aspects first which are top tier as you would expect. The animation is really sharp and full on movie quality from start to finish. The show has already always looked good right from the start and the movie takes things up a notch. The fights are all very streamlined and the colors stand out. Then the soundtrack is also top tier with a lot of operatic themes going on the whole time. It helps make the adventure feel even more grand and it’s why music can always enhance a great film to be even greater.
As the main character Asuna is a very fun character. Initially she starts out as a rookie who is eager to learn but eventually it really becomes a matter of life or death. When given the option of fight or flight, she chooses to fight. She really works hard to keep on fighting at the top of her game even if it means putting her life on the line constantly. Asuna pretty much starts to use her cool and reason as she fights over and over again but she gets big props for always fighting.
Asuna is willing to take the high road and help out those who aren’t the best of characters and has more of a conscience than some of the others. She really still thinks of this as real life and acts appropriately. We also see a glimpse of her leadership qualities even if it doesn’t seem like she will be going that route this time. Asuna is a well balanced fighter and a quick learner and that makes sense since she was shown to be athletic and very knowledgeable. The intro scenes in the real world do a good job of establishing her character that way. She grew up with a very strict family but never shows any resentment about this. She certainly gets a little upset and discouraged at times since she is trying her best with no recognition of this but that just inspires her to keep on trying harder.
I also thought some of the mistakes she makes when starting her first VR game made a lot of sense. I could absolutely picture someone using their real name and image when setting up an avatar if they didn’t know any better. It’s all written well so these are rookie mistakes are opposed to them making her exaggerated in what she doesn’t know about the game. Even not understanding the menus to see someone’s name makes sense because sometimes I’ll be watching a Call of Duty stream and the menu is so cluttered with all kinds of stuff on the screen that I wouldn’t know what I was looking at. SAO does seem to have a cluttered screen so even if it seems obvious to see the name, I could see you missing it.
Kirito may not be the lead but he still gets a good amount of screen time here. He is a pivotal character in Asuna’s journey after all. He’s the classic loner who acts cold and aloof but is always the first to run in and help when things get tough. He’s the only one who tried to help the party leader when the guy got greedy for the kill bonus and of course he found Asuna and prevented her from meeting death early on. Kirito is just a great guy and he is very game savvy while also being good at reading people. So he foils the first attempt by Laughing Coffin to disrupt the player base and basically puts everything on his shoulders. Kirito is still the genius that we all know him of and the only difference is that he’s doing this in the background now. He takes more of a main character spot for the second half of the film though and that should continue into the sequel.
Then we have the new character, Misumi. In a way she serves as a role model to the person Asuna wants to be. Misumi is top of her class but still finds time to just have fun and do whatever she wants. While Asuna is burdened by social responsibilities, Misumi has none of that. At school Asuna is way more popular but Misumi doesn’t care about those kinds of things and just has fun her way. She’s a true free spirit and the two of them make sense as best friends.
Ultimately Misumi does make one crucial decision though which will be a big determining factor on if you like her a lot. She reminds me of the main character in The Mist in how she gives up a little too soon. When you have to make a crucial decision you really need to make the right move. When you’re in a situation of life and death you really see a person’s true colors and they won’t always turn out to be bright. So for me Misumi made a big mistake like Madoka’s Mami and that keeps her from being a top quality character.
You’ll still enjoy all of her scenes prior to that but it does leave her in a very tricky spot. It’ll take a whole lot for her to really rebound from that. I still respect her abilities though and it’s clear that she is one of the strongest players. She has a great dynamic with Asuna too and I’d like to see her interact with Kirito. I think there could be a fun rivalry dynamic there too. You could really have the 3 adventuring like a trio and then slowly continue to redeem her character. Misumi has a fun personality and is nice to have around so given enough time she could really rise up high in the ranks. Honestly I already like her more than virtually every arc 1 character so it’s not like she’s very low in the ranks. If she can get enough good scenes then we can start the conversation of her against characters like Yuuki and Alice but those are high bars to clear.
Now while the film is amazing all the way through it still does have minor issues. Mainly one would be that it still does indulge in some fanservice. We get the clichéd bath scene because SAO can’t seem to ever get away from that. Sometimes there will be a drawn out camera angle or some tricky visual choices but at least on the whole it’s nothing crazy. It never gets to Gun Gale levels of the camera being obnoxious or anything like that. It’s nothing drastic enough to hurt the film or anything and honestly SAO has been really good about this in the films compared to the show but it would still be nice if we could bypass that and then the film would be really close to perfect.
If I’m nitpicking a bit here as well, the world feels a little too empty at this point on the story. There is only one floor unlocked in the game right now so the roughly 8000 players left after the first 2000 died are all here. You feel like every area should be swarming with people after a while, especially the meeting place in the main town. I understand from an animation perspective it’s better not to be so cluttered but it’s something you’ll be thinking about the whole time. Beyond that I thought all of the mechanics and aspects of being in the game were really thought out though. Even the small things like stocking up on potions before a boss is addressed which is important. I would absolutely be doing that before any boss especially when you’ll die if you lose.
Overall, The film does a great job of introducing you to the world of Sword Art Online. Whether you’ve seen the series before or not the film is very accessible. You feel like they will have to cover more ground soon since you couldn’t take 100 films to finish the story. The first floor is important as an introduction to the characters though so I think it was the right move to spend the whole movie on it. After this you could probably do more like 10-15 floors per movie as not every floor is important. It would be fun to see all 100 bosses but you don’t absolutely need to have that. Still, if they want to drag this out as long as possible I’m game for that because this will always be the best arc in the franchise. I definitely recommend checking this out.