Sword Art Online
If you don't know what Sword Art Online is, it's... confusing. I can't explain why it's confusing without possibly spoiling it for you. Essentially, the series begins with a new VR gaming console coming out which allows for people to be fully immersed in the game which they're playing, almost as if it induces a dream in which they experience the game. They're both awake and not awake while playing, essentially. One of the games for this new console is Sword Art Online which is a dungeon-crawler MMORPG (Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.) Loads of people join the game and find that they can't leave, they're then told that they need to beat the game and that, if they die in the game, they die in real-life.
I... don't know if I'd recommend Sword Art Online, honestly. The first half of the first season, I'd say, is what you'd expect to get from the synopsis of the plot. The rest of the first season and the entirety of the second season strays away from the original idea, however. I believe that the third and fourth season are pretty decent, though separated from the original concept, and it's been a while since I've seen the film, so I can't necessarily comment on that. If I were to recommend it, I'd say to go into it with low expectations. Around a third of all of the content within the animé is probably not what you'd expect to be experiencing, so be warned. However, the first half of the first season, the third season and the fourth season are, in my opinion, fairly decent, though they do have room for improvement as many things do. One of this animé's main strengths are the fights within it. They're exciting to watch and nicely animated, so if you like epic animé fights, you'll probably have a decent time. I'd say that it's worth watching if you like the idea of the plot (though it strays away from the initial idea fairly quickly,) the previously mentioned exciting fights, and if you like isekai animé. If neither of those apply to you, you probably won't enjoy this animé very much.
I'd give Sword Art Online, based off of my experience with it, 6/10. The first two seasons are fairly nostalgic for me, but I've never felt the urge to re-watch anything within the series. That probably says a lot.
Analysis/My thoughts (Spoilers included)
Sword Art Online was my introduction to animé. Given that I've loved gaming all of my life, the idea of a show about gaming was incredibly exciting to me, that being why I chose to begin my animé journey with Sword Art Online. Now, because it's the first animé that I've watched, I may be a little biased about it, though I'll try my best to look at the best and worst parts fairly (I agree with a lot of the criticism surrounding this animé, anyway, so that should be easy to do.) Also, because it was so long ago that I watched the first three seasons and the film (I watched the fourth season a few weeks ago when writing this) I may be forgetting certain details, events or characters, so I may have more things in mind- both good and bad- in regards to the series than what's here. I also won't be touching on the film as, from what I can remember, it was an improvement from the second season, but it wasn't outstanding or very memorable, and, honestly, I don't want to sit down to re-watch it.
So, the first two-thirds of the first season. Good. It's what you expect, it's exactly what's listed in the synopsis. There are a few things which I feel are fair to be criticised. For example, Asuna dies, yet she doesn't. Of course, had she remained dead, it would have left Kirito as distraught as he was following her death, but I feel like, maybe, it would have been a good idea to make that death permanent. Otherwise, it removes the stakes. If killing Asuna forever hadn't been an option, maybe because of future plans or the knowledge that it could create such a ripple in the fanbase that it would only have a negative impact, maybe it would have been better to have replaced Asuna's death with someone else, someone who doesn't do a lot following the Aincrad arc. Klein, for example. He doesn't do a lot- barely anything, from what I remember- following the Aincrad arc. Had he been the one to die, one of the first people whom Kirito had met within the game, that would have been able to realistically spur the same reaction on which came from Asuna's death while maintaining the stakes and making the animé feel a lot more captivating. If a character like Klein can be killed, who's to say that Asuna can't permanently die? Who's to say that there isn't a chance for Kirito to die? It would have made the remainder of the Aincrad arc and, maybe, future seasons, more entertaining and couch-gripping for the watcher.
Aside from Asuna's useless death, Kirito has the typical treatment of being an overpowered main-character (even if it is earned,) and that's to be expected with anything, really, mainly because it would be difficult to create an exciting animé where the main character sucks as the main character. It wouldn't be nearly as exciting if, for the entire series, we were watching and saying "oh, look, Kirito's just on the sidelines again while everyone else does the fighting." It would feel weird and boring, so that gets a pass. Though, mentioning that, of course, Kirito does get the sideline treatment in the fourth season, but, in that case, I think that it works very well. I'll get to that in a little bit.
One thing which I think was done well in the first two-thirds of the first season was the lead-up to the final Aincrad fight, where Asuna dies and Kirito fights back to get everybody out of the game early. The character development from the very beginning of the season, I think, was fairly balanced, meaning that, once this fight had arrived, it made sense that Kirito's skill alongside the boosted adrenaline given the situation led him to victory.
Now, the last third of the first season. Alfheim. Why does it exist? Purely for filler. It acts as a hub for the group to meet in the future, such as in the second season where, while Kirito is in Gun Gale Online, the group meets there to watch streams of the events in the other game. Fair enough. But why do we need what must be at least ten, maybe at most fifteen episodes spanning over the series which take place purely in Alfheim with nothing pushing the plot forward? It's pure filler for the most part. In my opinion, it would have been much better had there been more content within Aincrad, even if that had been filler, because Aincrad is the basis of the series. Had there been an extra handful of episodes in Aincrad to show Kirito and Asuna training, or their relationship progressing, or more of the actual dungeon-crawler aspect, I think that it would have made more sense and would have ensured that the Aincrad arc wasn't left feeling half-finished, feeling rushed which, in my opinion, it was to some extents. It's the same for the second season. Why not only have half a season (twelve episodes, if you don't know) of Gun Gale Online, then nothing following that until the film or the third season? Alfheim doesn't make sense to exist as anything more than a hub for everyone to meet. Maybe the occasional episode taking place there could work, but nothing more than four episodes at most. At this point, it just feels like Alfheim was created as a substitute for Aincrad, to give us the dungeon-crawler experience within the animé after having skimped-out on it in the actual Aincrad arc.
Gun Gale Online. It's fine, I suppose. I think that it was worse than the Aincrad arc mainly because Asuna was essentially replaced with Sinon. After only one season with Asuna, she gets replaced by someone else who, yeah, doesn't fully replace Asuna, she doesn't take Asuna's place as Kirito's girlfriend (though Sinon does seem to want that at one point) and, yes, Asuna returns later, but it still doesn't feel right. To me, it feels as if Kirito and Asuna should be separated as little as possible so that we can see their relationship together a lot more, plus making it more impactful when they are separated in the third season.
Alicization is a brilliant season, I think. It essentially reboots Kirito's story, which is interesting given that he regains his skills, though I was left confused at the end of the fourth season when I remembered that, in The Underworld, it was shown that Kirito, Eugeo and Alice were friends as children when Kirito was only sent into the world at what must be around eighteen. These things didn't really happen, but everyone, including Kirito, remembers these events. It was something which I don't really understand, maybe because I only watched the final quarter of the third season as a reminder when going into the fourth season, so I might just be blanking on that, therefore, take that thought with a grain of salt. Still, though, I wanted to mention it, at least.
The fourth season is one which I really like. I think it may be my second-favourite of the four seasons, in fact, just because, for almost the entirety of it, Kirito is inactive. We get to see the other characters whom we've gotten to know during the third season, mainly Alice, do the fighting. It also made it so much more impactful when Kirito finally stood and fought, though I do feel that it was slightly strange for him to have been in a wheelchair for what must have been at least a few months, having not stood at all, but having been able to return to fighting as he usually does without any physical limitations. Of course, it's an animé, so I can't hammer the "realism" card in too much, but it does feel weird that he hadn't weakened after having not lifted anything in however long, that he was able to stand-up without a support after having been in a wheelchair for so long.
I don't have a lot more criticism for the fourth season, just tiny details, mainly that all of the fighting began to feel repetitive and drawn-out fairly quickly. Also, what looked like Asuna's entrance into the world at the end of Alicization was disregarded, Asuna entering what was a few months in the future in The Underworld, so it must have been about an hour later in reality? What was the point of Kirito seeing her at the end of Alicization if she wasn't going to turn up for another twelve-or-so episodes?
Overall, I like Sword Art Online, though I feel as if it could have been a lot better. Had Alfheim been more absent and had we been given more content for Aincrad, I think that I, along with a lot of people, would have enjoyed it so much more. I'm waiting for the fifth season eagerly, but I'm a little scared that it will go back to being mediocre, honestly. When it eventually arrives, I may update this to include my thoughts on it, depending on whether or not I remember to, but, as it stands right now, the first half of Sword Art Online is nostalgic and the second half is better than the first half, in my opinion. There's definitely potential for the fifth season to possibly be even better than that, so I guess we'll just have to hope that it goes in the right direction.