I watched the fan-translated anime, then read the fan-translated light novels, then read the fan-translated Manga before finally getting my hands on this. So I knew what to expect going in.
When I first watched Sword Art Online, I thought it was the greatest "VR-MMO" experience a person could want, but after reading it again after some time has passed, along with experiencing other VR-MMO medium ( Log Horizon [ Anime + Light Novel ], Legendary Moonlight Sculptor [ Korean Light Novel ], and Ark [ Another Korean Light Novel ] ) -- I would have to rank Sword Art Online among the bottom of the group. But not at the VERY bottom.
In the year 2022, gamers rejoice as Sword Art Online - a VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) like no other - debuts, allowing players to take full advantage of the ultimate in gaming technology: NerveGear, a system that allows users to completely immerse themselves in a wholly realistic gaming experience. But when the game goes live, the elation of the players quickly turns to horror as they discover that, for all its amazing features, SAO is missing one of the most basic functions of any MMORPG - a log-out button. Now trapped in the virtual world of Aincrad, their bodies held captive by NerveGear in the real world, users are issued a chilling ultimatum: conquer all one hundred floors of Aincrad to regain your freedom. But in the warped world of SAO, "Game Over" means certain death - both virtual and real...
As usual, I love all things gaming related. I was completely absorbed in the concept of being "trapped" in an MMO. There are VERY few anime/manga/light novels that cover this premise -- the last one I had read being the .hack series of anime, which had already begun to show their age ( and that was yeaaaars ago ).
It started off on a very good note, hitting a lot of the key components that you would find in realistic modern MMO's, along with the usual crude humor and jokes that come along with it ( "GIRL: Guy In Real Life" ) -- which, hilariously, is exposed when everyone is reverted to their physical forms within the game. Which we get to see "beautiful women" turn into ...well. You get the idea.
Thankfully, both stereotypes ( unattractive men + only men playing women in MMO's ) are dying, and Sword Art Online conveys this by showing a fair number of ALL types of people. That was something I was thankful for.
But that was where everything started to fall apart for me ( on my second read through. On my first I was still in love with SAO ) -- in reality, any kind of "Virtual" environment would probably be a really, really dark place. No repercussions for your actions, "power" ( in the form of levels and magic ), and all that goes with it. But I can overlook that, given the target audience, and trudge on.
Yet we're never really given more to the world of Aincrad ( The MMO world ) -- there's none of the rich lore or interesting things you'd EXPECT to find in an MMO. It's just rehash after rehash. If Sword Art Online were a real MMO, it would've been as generic as you can possibly get. Even the world of .hack was more interesting, despite its age!
Just to stop people here. There is none of this:
Not even close.
Our main character is Kirito. When he is turned back into his physical form, he goes from a lean, muscled guy to a slightly androgynous guy -- but by no means ugly.
As a former closed-beta tester for SAO, he knows the in's and out's of the game like the back of his hand. He uses this knowledge to quickly gain levels and power in the MMO, but doesn't really do much with it.
As a main character, Kirito is a card-board cutout. He doesn't seem to have much in the way of ambition, goals, or trials -- because of his intimate knowledge of SAO, he breezes past almost all obstacles ( to the point that he gets a unique skill that ONLY one person in the game can get -- which he gets very, very, very early ).
It's that unique skill, and how ridiculously OP ( over powered ) he is that I realized -- there wasn't any real DRAMA.
This is what ultimately killed SAO for me. The fact that the main character was just ... Gary Stu. He could do ANYTHING and not even blink about it. It completely broke the story to the degree that I just couldn't even imagine the possibility of him struggling. With anything.
Sure, there's a morality conflict when he groups with another player ( and said player tries to get Kirito killed, but Kirito survives and the player dies to monsters ) -- but there's not much that really...happens, I guess? There's no -struggle- until the VERY end of the second volume ( which this manga covers ), and by then I stopped caring.
The main heroine, Asuna, had a few moments, which ranged from interesting to cliche, but she was more fleshed out than Kirito was -- yet she still lacked the "life" that others seem to be able to put into their manga characters.
I did like the fact that their romance was fairly well done, and a little on the endearing, but it wasn't enough to ultimately pull the rest of the volume up in quality.
The entire goal was to escape the MMO -- in order to escape, players had to clear the 100-floors of the hardest dungeon in the game. This premise starts off engaging, but quickly becomes cast aside in favor of showing Kirito doing other things or romancing with Asuna -- up to the very end.
Ultimately, Sword Art Online just didn't live up to the quality of other anime/manga that I love.
Rating - 2.5 / 5
Recommended : It's okay for a one time read through, but I wouldn't expect it to deliver on the amazing hype ( it's one of the most popular light novels ).