— Temporal Vortex

Sword Art Online Review – Volume 1: Aincrad [Part 1]

The first chapter of the volume never had an impending feeling about the tragedy that will befall the characters playing the virtual game. Although there were hints of how Kirito, the main character, is regretful of some things as he began explaining the exposition and the current status of the game, none of it was particularly referring to something. I thought it was a bit weird that the description of the battle during the first part was a bit overdone in such a way that it’s as if it was a matter of life and death despite being a mere virtual game and true enough, it really was. I honestly think that the foreshadowing done during the early chapters was excellent.

First, let me tell you that I’m one hundred percent MMORPG nut so absurd things might seem pretty much normal to me since I was wearing MMORPG goggles when I read this. You might get confused when you immediately read this review so I would recommend and appreciate if you’d read this post first because it serves as a prologue for this Sword Art Online (vol.1) review.  I would definitely spoil you to the max on this one, and assume that you’ve read some of it, at the very least.

Exposition

The novel was quite fantastic in portraying a slice of realism through the players’ actions and reactions after they listened to what Kayaba’s announcement meant. What they once thought to be a game suddenly became a matter of life and death circumstance. As a reader, I was able to feel the rawness of what I call desire to survive from almost every character in the novel, and it was a great read because it made me feel so emphatic to the characters while reading it.

Kirito mentioned something about humans being adaptable to changes and he’s right about it. Several players mentally broke down after Kayaba implemented the game’s radical change (Asuna, the main heroine, is actually among these people) but after two years of uncanny struggle, a lot of players were able to cope up with it and eventually recovered. It’s a bit far-fetched that the gamers were still stuck in the game after two years of game play trying to beat the game (imagine how their real bodies would look like by that time). This brought in the matter regarding the players’ dwindling motivation and drive to continue the brigade in order to finish the game. Everyone is starting to get used already to everything, of course except for their fear of death.

As time slips away, players’ enthusiasm to beat the game slowly fade away, not to mention others being complacent already to their situation. The biggest faction of the players which is dubbed as “The Army” once led the mission to clear the game. Later on, the number of fighters they send to the front lines gradually declined, and now simply for the purpose of deceiving other players to show that they still are interested in clearing the game.

The inner conflict that the characters feel was a nice element. It’s pretty much the thing that propelled the story. The listlessness that several players feel because rescue has yet to reach them, added with a large dose of  despair and a tincture of hope.

Social Order

Just like what I mentioned, it’s the trace of reality that’s fantastic to read about the novel. It was fascinating to read about the community that was established by the players inside the game. If you think about it, majority of the gamers stuck in this game are probably pros considering they were eager enough to avail the very first release of the game and console.  I was pretty expecting that they have a knack in stabilizing the situation despite the confusion because they are gamers at heart, thus I assume there are those who certainly welcome this kind of adventure. The Army is one of the spearheads on this one as they united majority of the players at the start. They were able to formulate a framework of distributing ration and collecting tax as a form of payment for the protection they give to other players who chose not to risk their lives.

The pseudo society in Aincrad (it’s the name of the entire land mass setting of SAO) is pretty much the same to every other game communities in such that there are always bane existences as an exception to the majority of the players who are trying to finish the game in utmost socially acceptable way.  I must emphasize that there are quite a number of players who partake to their delusions and refuse to believe that dying in the game really means dying. As for that, they justify their nefarious behavior and actions, such as killing other players, as something petty.

I must note that I still don’t know what’s behind the hatred towards “beaters” as what they call it (portmanteau of beta tester and cheater). Apparently, the main character, Kirito, used to be a beta tester before Sword Art Online was officially released. This explains his leverage in terms of experience compared to several players (I don’t think that’s something you can call cheating). I can’t comprehend why they choose to blame the likes of Kirito for the situation they are currently in despite everyone else’s incapability to foretell that something like that will befall them. This irrational hate annoys me because it’s like barking at the wrong tree at its best. But hey, haters are gonna hate.

Intermission! Long post is damn long. It was rather hard to look for decent fanarts so I went ahead and used the light novel cover instead. Now I would really be happy if I’d have a bigger version of this cover without the texts…

Character Development

I found Kirito’s and Asuna’s reasons for their desire to live a bit boring and ordinary during the start of the story. Almost everything felt superficial during the start due to the lack of development for both characters. It’s implied that Kirito and Asuna spent a lot of time already prior to the majority of the story told in the first volume but everything are just skimped through. The information on the time spent together by both characters was crucial because it was weird that the two of them somehow just suddenly grew closer to each other which isn’t the case (see Aria in the Starless Night). I see this lack of supporting details a weak spot of the story despite the hints because one would really question Asuna’s rather “quick” and groundless (well maybe not that groundless if you accept Kirito’s looks as a reason) interest to Kirito right at the start of the story.

The reasons were not that bad though since desire to live and self-preservation do not really require something grand for it comes as an instinct. If this was just used properly as an explanation, I don’t think the author will still need to go for the usual back story that needs to be filled just so we could say it’s this something that drives their desire to live.

During the latter part of the story, Kirito and Asuna cited the efforts and support of merchant and craftsman job classes as a reason as to why they must persevere in finishing the game. I liked this part since I believe it’s pretty rational to express gratitude towards these players who keep supporting the likes of them who fight in the front lines.

I really think that the first volume lacked interesting (it didn’t appeal to me that much) character development. This is very much opposite of the almost spontaneously appealing narrative whenever it involves plot and game mechanics.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have anything to offer. SAO still managed to put what’s vital, and that’s Kirito’s hedgehog’s dilemma as to why he prefers to be a solo player, contrary to most players who join guilds and train the usual way through partying. Why I didn’t like it that much? Albeit adequate for the story, I found it a bit overdone in the execution of the drama aspect. Still, it achieved what it’s meant for since it explained the reason for Kirito’s scarred mind, thus the solo hunting. Nothing much significant was mentioned on Asuna’s side (Aria in the Starless Night is a nice read to fill that void).

(Virtual) Reality?

One of the fascinating things here in SAO would be the irony in preserving a sound mind and maintaining a grasp of reality. The avatars obviously don’t need any food since they don’t really consume corporeal substance; it’s just data all along. Still, you’d find people who actually bother mastering the cooking skill than their sword mastery in order to produce delicious meals that could rival or even replicate the taste of the meals served in real life. It is interesting to witness people who actually wanted to escape from reality via playing games cling to things that would affirm their access to reality during these times. I thought it was a nice thing to ponder upon in the novel since it reinforces the idea of how the players coped up with their situation. Kirito’s dilemma on having a rare ingredient cooked instead of selling it for money pretty much speaks a lot about the perplexity he feels towards his longing to the real world.

“‘…this situation, this world, is this what Kayaba Akihiko wanted to make…?’ Both of us couldn‘t answer this question that was aimed half at myself.”

The quote above exemplifies the self-introspection of Kirito about the current status of the players and totality of the game itself. I’ve always enjoyed characters who often contemplate about their selves and I find SAO pretty engaging when it comes to that factor. It examines several things about reality, and on how humans perceive it (regardless of how borderline sci-fi it is).

The Romance and that Scene

I didn’t really thought that there would be a freaking sex scene (with an articulate, whole chapter description of the scene, mind you) in this light novel. I mean, come on! It’s virtual reality, for heaven’s sake! It’s about MMORPG! These characters should be having an epic battle with dragons and stuff! Not that I didn’t like it (lol) but, I won’t certainly praise it either. It came up and sounded like “We’ll all die tomorrow. I don’t want to die virgin, so do me a favor.” type of development. Just how cliché is that situation? I’m very curious as to how the anime adaptation will handle this one — on which I hope they don’t include it.

Note: To clarify things, the infamous chapter 16.5, the NSFW chapter, is a web-only version. The published novel didn’t have it — but the translated pdf version I read had it (I didn’t know!).

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image credits: abec

6 comments
  1. GustNo Gravatar says: April 29, 20125:32 pm

    Excellent review. I had a pleasant time reading it. As a gamer myself, I love how the author realistically portrayed the world and how the characters acted after Kayaba made the announcement. How many people were scared of death and how people chose to specialize in a single skill to make a living. The concept of it all and how it was handled was all very interesting to read. I also agree that the character development was a weakness in this novel. Especially the relationship between Asuna and Kirito. I, too, found their relationship very lacking and they practically got together too fast before I can even get a good grasp of Asuna's personality other than the fact that she's incredibly perfect. It also does not help that Asuna happens to be the most beautiful girl in Aincrad.. It just makes everything seem more superficial.. As for the beaters, from what I read, many of them didn't share their information with the normal players so that they were able to level faster and benefit from their advantage. In a real life/death situation, I'm not sure whether most people would actually keep that information to themselves and let others frail around, but it seems to be the case here. I don't quite understand the hate for them either. All and all, SAO was a very interesting read. Although, to be honest, I read it more for the world than the actually characters because it gets kind of ridiculous in further volumes.

    • foomafooNo Gravatar says: April 30, 20123:26 am

      Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the entry. I honestly think SAO's coherency would greatly improve if ever the anime follows the chronological story board with all the side stories from volume two and Aria in the Starless Night. Character development would greatly improve if they do that.

      Ah yes, I've been considering that as well on why they hated the beaters but I thought they really just benefited from a handful of beta phase experiences like locations where it's easy to level and such. Also, information is pretty much the most important thing to have in SAO in order to survive, or at least that's what i believe. This is why I thought it's just right to hold price for useful information just as how maps to the boss dungeons are sold, right? I mean, the advantage of beta testers are bound to expire since it's not that exclusive to begin with. It's not like not telling people that they should use this item instead of a certain item would totally cost someone's life. The difference is so trivial — and I don't think beta testers would not share an info that would expose other people to danger. It's just that these players just hated how beta players seemed to hold a leverage, nothing else, and they hated it. They didn't like the fact that they had to experiment first before they figured things out, in contrast to beta testers who already knew their stuff. (Of course, this is just how I viewed it. The novel didn't really say anything about all of this) I'm totally sounding here like a wicked person, aren't I…

      I definitely liked and prefers the world of SAO, compared to ALO and GGO.

  2. anon says: May 16, 20127:53 am

    lol chapter 16.5
    Just so you know though, that chapter was actually released on the author's website, and was not published in the book, so I highly doubt the anime would even try to adapt that.

    • foomafooNo Gravatar says: May 16, 20123:23 pm

      yep, that's what the red text at the entry says. I do hope the anime won't have it. It's too much, if you know what I mean.

  3. durararaftwNo Gravatar says: July 13, 20122:07 am

    While I appreciate a sidestory that goes into why he's called a Beater, Aria is still pretty inconsistent with the rest of the story. Aside from the fact that it tries to do way too much (Kirito meets Asuna for the first time, meets Egin for the first time, acquires his black coat, comes up with the name Beater for himself and starts learning his rare Martial Arts ability within 24 hours of each other), Asuna in this sidestory is put on the path to making clearing floor as soon as possible by Kirito, in basically that many words. Asuna at various points remembers her first moment with Kirito as her feeling the need to point out to him that he needs to make clearing floors a daily routine, and never are we asked to see this as heavily ironic.
    Moreover in Aria Kirito is able to motivate her further too seek out foods on other floors, whilst see particularly recalls her only first trying to enjoy life at SAO after Kirito tells her to enjoy the weather many months later,and that's when she noticed him.
    And more still, in both volume 8 and Aria at two completely different times Kirito points out that this is his first time partying with Asuna.

    Seriously, I can overlook some discontuity here and there but Aria was absolutely riddled with it and putting it in the anime heavily changes how Asuna and Kirito's relationship is presented to us. They really weren't supposed to be partners from the first floor onward.

    • foomafooNo Gravatar says: July 13, 20123:37 am

      Actually, the whole "this is the first time we partied" is also vague to me. In Early and Late mysterious murder chapter, the two of them also partied while investigating the case. It is safe to say that this happened way before vol 1 Aincrad since Heathcliff has been heavily suggesting Kirito's Unique Skill and we all know that it was revealed right after the Gleameyes battle from vol 1. It should be noted that during this case, Cline was also involved in calling the back ups and yet Cline was very surprised when he saw the two in vol. 1. Cline should have known by then that it wasn't the first time that Kirito and Asuna partied.

      The thing is, I don't think it was mentioned in vol 1 that it was their first time to party with each other. The inconsistent part is where one of them said that they haven't met yet outside any boss battle which is not true if we'll based it on Aria since they met on that cave — which is also mentioned in Alicization Beginning.

      The enjoying the weather scene was presented more clearly on Early and Late and I don't think it's just during then that something sparked inside Asuna.

      Just to clarify, the coat he got from the Kobold Leader isn't his final coat, or the coat he wears in the vol. 1 cover.

      I don't get what you said regarding Kirto motivating Asuna to go clear the floors as a routine. I think Aria's point is to present how Asuna immediately became attached to Kirito. He basically saved her when she collapsed. They are not partners from the very first floor. Although Kirito remarks Asuna's potential, and were good combination there are in between events like Sachi and the Black Cats after that to make Kirito numb to whatever happened prior volume 1. It was just during the volume 1 that relationship of the two was rekindled.

      Thanks for the comment!

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