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Sword Art Online [Season 1] (2012)

In real life, the worse fate likely to befall you playing a videogame is sore thumbs (or maybe a dead leg) but the world of fantasy is very different. The fictional gamers who log in to the virtual reality MMORPG Sword Art Online, are not so lucky. Shortly after the game begins, the players are informed they are trapped within the game, and the only way to escape the game, is to beat it. The real big issue though? Die in the game, and it's game over for real.

It's a pretty fun concept -if not a particularly original one. So it proves and for the first ten episodes or so Sword Art Online is an enjoyable knockabout fantasy romp. If you're familiar with the fantasy genre there's little you won't have seen before, but it's an attractively designed and entertaining take on some well-worn tropes. Lead Kirito is likeable enough (if a little too perfect) while female lead Asuna is something of a bad-ass. You may be sensing already that there's a 'but' here... and it's a pretty big one. This is a series which manages to drop the ball and does so quite spectacularly, proving disappointing on a number of levels.

The rot sets in around episode eleven, when Kirito and Asuna decide to tie the knot. They forget the gravity of the situation they are pretty swiftly in and shack up together in a log cabin. At this point, Asuna transforms from an independent warrior woman to the fantasy of a Japanese housewife, who wants nothing more than to please her man. I mean, why would we want to watch Asuna fight off enemy hordes, when we can watch her learn to cook for hubby instead?

Around this time they also 'adopt' a surrogate daughter, and they spend some time playing happy families. Which is exactly as thrilling as it sounds.

When Kirito and Asuna have had enough playing house, the story then unexpectedly rushes to a conclusion, wrapping up the story of the original Sword Art Online around half way through the series. Credit where credit is due, Sword Art Online is not a series that hangs about for long and does have a habit of shaking things up every few episodes- for good or ill.

So where does the show go after the characters leave SAO itself? Separated from Asuna, Kirito heads into an entirely different MMORPG in order to try and find her. The second game has considerably lower stakes than the first half. Not only can you enter or leave at will, but there's no connection between dying in the game and your real world self. Essentially the whole point of the first arc has been dropped entirely. As a result, the second half isn't nearly as exciting as the earlier episodes.

Then there's the creepy stuff. Early on the series Kirito talks about his younger sister, only for some reason he feels the need to point out she is actually his cousin not really his sister. All becomes clear in the second half of the series when the sister comes into the series... only to fall in love with Kirito.

The good work building up Asuna as a character in her own right is further eroded in the second half. She spends virtually the whole time being little more than a damsel in distress, and the series even decided to bring in the threat of sexual violence at the end. Elsewhere in the series, although most of the female characters can hold their own in a fight, they're also all shown to be constantly fawning over Kirito and following him around like a harem of lovesick puppies.

It's a great shame as the series starts off well, before taking a total nosedive in the later episodes. Maybe its dodgy sexual politics wouldn't be quite so noticeable were it not for the fact that the later half is really just rather dull. What should have been a fun fantasy adventure ultimately turns out to be something that it's hard to recommend to anyone other than the most forgiving of viewers.

SWORD ART ONLINE is now available on BLU-RAY and DVD from MANGA ENTERTAINMENT in the UK and ANIPLEX in the USA. Also available streaming on Netflix, Crunchyroll and Hulu.