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Sword Art Online - Re: Hollow Fragment Review - Truly the eyes of a butcher.

Sword Art Online - Re: Hollow Fragment Review

Rating: 4,3
A casual action RPG about a manipulative idealist getting all of the girls.
Developer:AQURIA Co.
Publisher:Bandai Namco

The Sword Art Online anime came out when I began losing interest in anime. There just weren't many shows back then that satisfied my desire for an epic story in the flood of slice of life shows. SAO interested me because I liked the idea of gamers living in a game world since it related to me. However, several episodes in, I just could not stand watching it anymore. It wasn't about gamers playing a video game, but regular characters in a fantasy setting that was interchangeable with any other fantasy setting.

These characters did not relate much to me as a gamer. There was no discussion of mechanics and strategy, nor were there exciting battles showcasing the gameplay. There was Kirito brooding about his failure to protect his friends, a murder mystery that had nothing to do with advancing the main plot, and Kirito responding to Asuna with a strange, almost calculated opinion about being "lucky" if someone he knew turned out to be someone different. She was testing him, so he deliberately said something that would elicit a positive reaction without regard to whether he truly believed it. It was weird given that they just witnessed a guy who murdered his wife for changing and did not look from the wife's perspective that it was the guy who changed into a deranged lunatic. I guess the wife was just lucky.

Even though this show was ripped to shreds by critics analyzing its nonsensical logic, it turned out to be very popular and highly rated by the community. New seasons of SAO keep on pumping out and I have to wonder what it is that SAO does right. The girls are pretty, and that's one thing that got me interested. But rather than pick up the show where I left off, I decided to give the game a try. After playing Neptunia, I came to prefer games over shows because I can immerse myself in the world for as long as I wanted instead of being limited to twenty minute episodes, once per week in a series that soon comes to an end. Considering that SAO is about a video game world, using the video game medium to tell the story is most fitting. Even if SAO is badly written, it would still be fun to riff on it.

Gameplay

This is an action RPG involving exploring open environments, teaming up with partners, hacking and slashing monsters, finding better weapons and equipment, and grinding levels to improve your stats. The game has you clearing a series of "floors", starting on the 75th floor up to and including the 100th in a world called Aincrad. Each floor consists of a linear series of very simple dungeons and a damage spongy floor boss to be beaten to reach the next floor, and you repeat the process all the way to the 100th floor with story events to watch after completing each floor. However, there is also an alternate world you can explore called the Hollow Area. It is a large open world with lots of branching paths where you can fight stronger enemies for better rewards.

Hack and slash combat

In combat, you perform auto-attacks by just standing in front of the enemy, although this is a very inefficient way of fighting and is mainly used to create the illusion you are contributing useful damage while you fiddle around with menus. You have manual attacks called burst attacks, which do more damage per hit and chain into a sword skill as a burst finish. Sword skills are powerful special attacks that are your main source of damage. You can perform one at any time and it is in your best interest to perform them as much as possible, but they all require cooldown after each use (referred to as "skill lock").

Burst attacks deplete a burst gauge to increase the damage of the sword skill used immediately afterwards, although doing a full chain of burst attacks takes time, locks you in place, and can be interrupted by enemy attacks. The burst finish sword skill is performed automatically after a full chain of burst attacks, but you can also manually execute any other sword skill in its place by timing it right, which is useful if the burst finish is still on cooldown. The burst gauge automatically refills, but the speed at which it does depends on your "risk" level, which is increased when a tough enemy attacks you and when you perform sword skills. High risk makes burst attacks impractical since the gauge will deplete faster than it recovers. You also take increased damage.

The simplest way to reduce risk is to use the switch mechanic when you have a partner, which switches aggro (referred to as "hate"). In addition, it stuns the enemy, which makes it very useful for interrupting enemy attacks, although it has a somewhat lengthy cooldown. However, risk seems like a contrived mechanic introduced solely to incentivize switching. Distributing hate is of little value in itself because the enemies are not really that tough to require distributing damage, you can just run away for breathing room, and there are no dedicated roles to switch between. Instead of hanging back to recover or switching between tank and attacker, you can just continue hacking away with impunity, which defeats the tactical element of switching.

You can perform exact timing burst attacks and burst finishes by pressing the attack button at the just the right time marked by the convergence of a collapsing circle that appears on your character during an attack. This increases the damage of each attack as well as the final damage of the burst finish sword skill. However, you cannot perform exact attacks with an empty burst gauge.

You have a dodge mechanic that lets you avoid any attack if timed correctly. However, it requires burst energy, so if you spammed burst attacks at high risk, you might be left unable to dodge. You can also perform an exact dodge by dodging right before the attack hits, and it will grant you a temporary stat buff, although you will need to learn the enemies' attacks through trial and error to know the timing.

You also have a parry skill, which creates a rather generous timing window that not only blocks an attack, but stuns the enemy as well, allowing you to follow up with your more powerful skills. It does have a somewhat lengthy cooldown, so you cannot parry every attack. It also only parries physical attacks. There are no exact parries, so dodging will be your primary method of avoiding damage.

The exact input mechanics add a degree of skill to the game, enough to create catharsis in pulling off perfect combos and dodges, but not so much to the point of being aggravating and stressful. The game is forgiving enough that you do not need to do them, and the timing window is big enough that it is easy to consistently do once you get the cue and rhythm down. But overall, the combat feels a bit clunky due to slow attack animations, inability to cancel out of attacks to parry or dodge, and even glitches that make input unresponsive at times due to trying to do too many things at once.

Exact backstep away from a stomp attack Exact inputs are marked by a cyan burst and a distinct sound. In this case, I pressed dodge right before the boss landed his stomp attack while everyone else got hit.

Weapons

You can choose from a variety of different weapon types. The weapons differ in attack speed and properties of their sword skills, although they all accomplish the same task of hitting things until they die and you can easily go through the game without using all of them. Slower weapons are balanced by doing more damage per hit, but being interrupted mid-attack can be a problem. Sword skills with the "Super Armor" property means they cannot be interrupted by normal attacks, and slower weapons tend to have more Super Armor skills, but burst attacks have no such protection. However, some enemy special attacks can still interrupt Super Armor skills, so focus on avoiding the attack first.

The weapons are divided among three damage types: slash, blunt, and thrust. This also means plenty of redundancy, except clubs, which are the only source of blunt damage. Different enemies are more vulnerable to different damage types, but you are not given any information on this beyond floor bosses. The damage difference is not big enough to mean the difference between life and death, so you can use whatever you prefer most. However, 1H swords and dual wielding swords are the most versatile and all-round effective.

Different weapon types emphasize different stats by making sword skill damage based on the displayed stats, so a skill that says AGI: +40% means it adds 40% of your agility stat to damage. If it says ALL, it takes the displayed percentage of each of the four stats and adds them up. Different weapons of the same type improve different stats, so it is important to pick out the weapon that improves that stats the sword skills emphasize. A 1H sword that improves VIT is not as useful as one that improves STR. You can also equip belts, cloaks, rings, and charms, which also add specific stat boosts you should optimize.

Some sword skills have area of effect to help you deal with mobs, although the game does not show you the radius and direction of each AOE attack. Some attacks hit in a line, some hit in a wide cone, and some hit 360-degrees around you. To maximize the effectiveness of front-hitting skills, you will have to kite the enemies to bunch them up. If there are a lot of weak enemies in the area that are difficult to avoid, you can run around to aggro all of them, bunch them together, and wipe them all with a single area attack. Different weapons have different area attacks, and 2H swords are the best for clearing mobs because its area of effect is huge.

You are also able to equip a shield with any one-handed weapon. A shield negates your evasion stat, which means enemies can hit you very easily, but it gives you superior damage resistance and may even increase your attack. It is most effective against enemies that are much higher level than you and can easily hit you anyways, but worse against low-level mobs as getting hit interrupts your burst attacks.

You can also forge new weapons at the blacksmith in town. It is expensive, but it is possible to forge something more powerful than you can find. It is not just the money cost, but the material cost. Adding materials to the crafting increases the rarity level (i.e. overall quality) of the final product and gives you a chance of getting desired properties. However, the chances are very low, so you need a lot of materials to even have a remote chance of getting what you want. Without materials, the properties you get is random. Getting the type and quantity of materials you need requires a lot grinding the specific enemies that drop those specific materials, so it is best to save up your materials until much later in the game to roll for one good weapon.

Crafted a sword with 1082 DPS If you are lucky, you can craft a very good weapon. Most weapons you find have 300-500 DPS. Crafting a weapon showing small chance to add specific properties You can only add one property from each colour category, and the marginal chance to add per resource is insulting. Enhancing a powerful sword with a 12% chance to succeed You can enhance a single stat on a weapon by spending ores on it. The higher the level of the sword, the lower the chance of succeeding. You can only enhance one stat, you can enhance it multiple times, and the more you enhance a stat, the lower the increase the next enhancement will provide.

Fluid levelling system

The levelling system has been designed so that character levels and skill points are gained separately. Experience for character levels are earned by defeating enemies and completing quests. Levelling up character levels increases your stats, and it is an automatic process with no allocation decisions. Additionally, each weapon type has its own experience bar that is increased simply by using the weapon type in combat. Skill points are earned by grinding experience for each weapon type, and you gain a skill point for every ten points of experience grinded for a particular weapon. Weapon experience gains quickly at first, but slows down as you go, which means you can gain a lot of skill points quickly by using weapons you have not used before.

Skill points can be used to purchase any skill, even sword skills of another weapon, so it is important to diversify your arsenal. Once you buy a skill, it is simply unlocked, so you do not have to worry about upgrading skills with skill points. This makes the levelling up process more satisfying because rather than spend your hard-earned skill points for marginal statistical increases, you get new functionality to play with. You also do not need to wait for a level up before you gain skill points, which makes character building more fluid.

The thing about character levels is that your own player skill plays a significant role in combat, and the game is mostly on the easy side. If you can dodge, parry, switch, and make use of buffs and healing skills, you can take on enemies 20 or more levels above you and rake in the experience from it, although it is best to avoid taking on multiple enemies at once. You can draw individual enemies to you with the "Long Cast" feature, which throws a projectile at an enemy to attract them. But if the enemies are too close together, you will end up drawing all of them, and it is best to flee if you bite off more than you can chew. Even then, fighting high-level enemies is a time-consuming endurance fight because you will miss a lot of attacks and do little damage. You also have to worry about your companion who may not be as good at staying alive as you, and if she dies from a sweeping area attack, its game over. Be sure to save your progress often by exiting the area, since there is only an auto-save system.

Choosing skills

The skills follow a progression tree, and as you gain experience for a particular weapon type, you will unlock access to the next level of sword skills, which are often prerequisites for utility skills. A lot of the skill categories are unlocked from the start, but for those that are not, I suggest levelling up 2H axes first to gain access to stat buffs and an invulnerability skill. 1H swords are useful to gain access to regeneration skills for tougher fights. Clubs are useful to gain access to the party invulnerability skill, which also serves as a second invulnerability skill for you. Spears are useful to max out for the end game to gain access to Quick Skill, which reduces skill activation time for the ultimate skills. 2H swords will take a while to unlock, but they give you access to party buffs.

When it comes to utility skills, prioritize stat buffs, skill lock reduction, party healing, invulnerability, and SP recovery. Invulnerability is particularly useful at the start and nearing the end of a tough boss fight. Use it at the beginning so you can unleash your long cooldown sword skills without interruption and get their lock timers going. Some story boss battles are initiated right after a cutscene, so activating invulnerability right off the bat gives you time to buff. You should also use it near the end of a fight to protect yourself from any last resort skills the boss has as you finish it off. However, invulnerability skills require a lot of SP, which is where the SP recovery skills come in. You are limited in the number of active buffs at a time and some buffs use multiple buff slots, so there is no point getting everything. However, multiple skills that do the same thing stack with each other, although they do take up buff slots.

There is a basic idea of an offense/defense/support meta strategy from the presence of skills for increasing defense at the cost of offense, but it doesn't play out at all. There is no point to being a dedicated tank or support, no mutually exclusive character build decisions to make, and no enemy mechanics that necessitate specialized roles. You are a finesse fighter who evades, parries, or stuns to create an opening to lay on the maximum amount of damage while casting a party healing spell if necessary. As long as you lay on the damage, you will draw hate towards you, which protects your partner while you have plenty of options for protecting yourself.

On the whole, a skill system that simply increases your stats is boring, and activating staple buffs over and over is repetitive, which begs the question of why not just make the stat increases permanent and tied to your level. Even though there are a lot of skills, you are only going to be using a handful of them, and there are no tactical decisions to use one skill over another. The skill system would be much more strategic if it exclusively focused on trade-offs that boost certain stats at the expense of others. The trade-offs would force you into playing various roles, and you have to make decisions of what role you want to play for the current situation. You should also be able to coordinate with your partner to play complementary roles, such as one attacks while the other draws aggro and defends, or one defends while the other provides healing.

Skill tree showing which skills are available for purchase Maxing out the Skill Level for a specific weapon will take a lot of grinding since progress will slow down as it gets higher, but you can try out a weapon you have not used and you will gain points quickly, which translates to more skill points you can allocate to any skill. Specific skills for a skill category The skills you saw in the tree were only skill categories. You can open up any category to see the specific skills you can buy from that category. However, not all skills are equally useful. Also, you can only have one passive skill active at a time, and you have to manually select it.

Enemy design

There is a lot of enemy variety, but dealing with the common enemies is a pretty straightforward process of hacking them down with burst attacks and sword skills, using area attacks when there are multiple enemies. They have their own special attacks that are in your interest to dodge or parry, but unless you are dealing with huge level differences and numbers, they are not all that punishing.

There are bigger, mini-boss enemies found throughout the Hollow Area who are more dangerous with their special attacks. You will need to be good at dodging, parrying, and stunning to avoid taking too much damage, but their attacks are announced and slow to execute, so you have plenty of time to react to them. Most of the floor bosses are just enlarged, tankier versions of these kinds of enemies.

There are a number of specially crafted large bosses that play differently than most enemies. You will need to move around a lot to avoid their various uninterruptible area attacks ranging from danger zones to bullet hell. One thing to note is that the automatic camera lock-on will cause you to move slower, which makes it harder to avoid the attacks and chase after a particularly mobile boss, but you can unlock the camera manually as needed.

There are also bosses that are SAO players, and they play much differently than any other enemy. They dodge around, parry, and use sword skills, so you cannot just stand and deliver. The main strategy is to keep your distance with dodging, parry an attack to stun them, and then exploit the opening to pull off your most powerful sword skills to end it as quickly as possible. Burst attacks are not practical because you need burst gauge to dodge, and standing in one place makes you vulnerable to sword skills. As their health runs low, they will attempt to use their ultimate sword skill, which will kill you instantly if you get caught by it, so it is a good idea to use the invulnerability skills as the end draws near or keep dodging to stay away from their front.

Dodging Yuuki ultimate sword skill As long as you don't commit to burst attacks and run down your burst gauge, you can freely dodge and avoid ultimate attacks.

Trainable partners

As advertised on the Steam page, this game has lots of "attractive companions" as the main draw, and it certainly feels good to play with allies as it makes combat more dynamic. However, you can only have one companion with you at a time. Your partner will often tell you to do things like use a sword skill or stun the enemy, and if you do them, they will follow up with their own sword skill and an expression of gratitude. Doing sword skills at the same time as your partner triggers a skill chain, which does additional damage, so it is in your best interest to coordinate with your partner. Different partners use different weapons, so when fighting floor bosses, it is a good idea to pick the partner who uses the weapon the bosses are weak against. You can also give them better weapons and change their outfits.

You can praise your partner in battle for specific actions, and it will make them more likely to perform those actions over others. This makes them more effective in combat. Watch the category of action they are doing (ATK, DEF, or BUFF) by looking at the pop-up that appears above their name, and then praise when the desired category appears. You can tell them to focus on particular actions through the "Talk about battle" option when you talk to them outside of town. This will make it easier to praise the desired actions by ensuring that the pop-up appears more for the actions you tell them to focus on. However, increasing progress in one category will draw away from the other categories, which will make it harder to retrain your partner for another role. I recommend focusing on cooperation so that your partner is more willing to chain sword skills with you to do more damage. Defensive support is also useful to encourage them to buff up with protective skills, especially since there are not many party defensive buffs. Recovery is useful to encourage healing. You cannot trust your partner to evade and parry like you, so training them to stay alive is important.

You will also find a lot of generic players in the world, many of them will appear on your friends list, and you can partner with one if you so choose. If you find them in the wild and join their battle, they will also appear as additional party members, although you cannot directly coordinate with them. As you progress in the game, they will send you messages asking you to help them, which allows you to level them up and receive largely worthless potion rewards from them. The six players in the top two guilds will join you against floor bosses, which make the fights more hectic, although they pretty much just do their own things. Any party buffs you use will also affect them, which is especially useful to keep them alive and lay on damage.

Dating and sleeping

There is also a dating mini-game where you can go to various places in town with your partner and enter into a conversation when a yellow speech bubble appears. She will say some challenge phrase, and then you have to choose the correct response out of two choices. The conversations themselves are meaningless, and it is all just memorization of matching the phrase to the response, although the "Nice!" option is more likely to be the correct response. You will not lose relationship points for selecting the wrong response, and you can just try again if you don't succeed with the date.

You need to get everything right to succeed with the date, success raises your partner's mood, and if you repeat and get a high enough mood, it is possible to sleep with her by carrying her to your room when no one is looking. The last step is tricky since you have to pick her up outside of your room and then enter your room without anyone seeing. If they see you, you will be forced to put her down, which resets her mood and you have to do it all over again. You have the best chance of succeeding if you enter your room, exit your room, tuck yourself in the corner, pick her up, and go back in as quickly as possible. The common area starts off empty every time you enter, so it is possible to stay out of people's line of sight as long as the first person to come in walks away from you to take a seat. Sadly, there are no explicit sex scenes, only softcore bed scenes.

The dating mini-game is important because your relationship level affects your "Talk about battle" options. Initially, you can only tell them to focus on offense, defense, or support categories. However, if you are at relationship level 4, you get more specific options like focus on debuffing enemies, which will make it easier to max out a specific action within a category. Making your partner completely focused on one category (ATK, DEF, or BUFF) will unlock a nice outfit, one for each category.

Character information of Philia The graphs here show the progress of your praising efforts, although maxing anything will take a lot of grinding, and some things are easier to grind than others.

Hollow Missions and Implementation

In the Hollow Area, there are Hollow Missions scattered throughout the world, and you can find them with your Hollow Map. When you go to an area with a Hollow Mission, the target will be marked on your map, and entering its radius will trigger the mission. Missions can involve killing a tough enemy, killing a specified number of enemies, or reaching a destination without being spotted. The missions are optional, do not affect the world, and respawn, but the high-level ones may reward you with good items.

Hollow Missions also allow you to unlock new mechanics, skills, or items via the Implementation system. Implementation is a set of grinding challenges that you can only work on during Hollow Missions. You can only work on one item at a time, and a lot of them are time consuming to get for marginally useful features, so you should prioritize. It is very grindy, but you don't need to complete it to finish the game.

Original Sword Skill System (OSS)

One Implementation feature of note is the OSS, and I highly recommend unlocking it as soon as possible. The OSS allows you to chain sword skills together with a well-timed input marked by a big purple flash during a sword skill animation. Chained skills do more damage than if you did them individually. Additionally, enemies tend to get hit-stunned by sword skills, so chaining skills keeps the enemy still while you lay on the damage. However, it does not protect you from any other enemies targeting you, and ultimate skills with their long activation time give the enemy enough time to swipe and interrupt you unless you have an invulnerability skill active. It is a good idea to start off with a skill with Super Armor to absorb any attack the enemy is in the middle of doing, and then chain more powerful skills without it. It is also a good idea to start with a skill that inflicts a defense debuff to improve the damage of the following attack.

Unlocking OSS will also unlock a training room that lets you practice chaining since the timings differ for each skill. It also lets you save one chain per weapon, which makes that particular chain a bit easier to execute by lengthening the timing window for inputs. However, you can still execute any chain as long as you time it right, and it is quite useful to chain area attacks when up against mobs that don't die in one attack.

Map showing available hollow missions in the Hollow Area Completing missions will also increase the area rank of the region. Increasing the area rank will unlock higher level missions for better rewards. Menu showing the various grinding challenges There are a lot of grinding challenges to do, but you should get started on the OSS as soon as possible. A purple flash marking the exact time to chain a sword skill With the OSS unlocked, a purple flash will mark when you can chain into another sword skill. However, the exact timing is when the flash is at its peak, not when it appears, so it can be a bit tricky to nail at first. Keep the skill palette open and ready to perform the next skill.

Shallow, grindy level design

The Hollow Area is much more expansive and developed compared to Aincrad as if you are expected to spend the majority of your time in the Hollow Area. The Aincrad floors are just a boring, repetitive slog through short, simplistic environments and dungeons, while the Hollow Area feels closer to a proper world to explore with lots of side areas and fast travel points. But even then, the Hollow Area is underdeveloped with lots of meaningless locations with potential. The Aincrad floors are supposed to be their own regions with their own towns. However, the 76th floor town is the only town in the game, while the towns of the other floors are just static images with menus. It suggests that the developers originally intended for the game to be focused on the Hollow Area, but then over-scoped the game by throwing in the Aincrad content, leading to everything being shallow. They could have easily crammed all of the relevant Aincrad content into ten floors, which would vastly improve the pacing.

The maps consist of corridors and big box rooms thrown together without consideration for realism and artistic inspiration. They are all just arenas to fight enemies in rather than places people live and go about their lives in. There is nothing to see and do beyond fighting more enemies and opening more chests, and the maps are just packed with enemies, so you are just going to be running past most of them to get to your objectives. Fighting everything in your path is a waste of time, but there is the occasional mini-boss guarding a treasure that may be worthwhile to defeat. Another annoyance is that doors in the Hollow Area cannot be interacted with if enemies are chasing you, which wastes your time to fight them.

Gamepad controls

The user interface is designed for gamepads and it works very well. Rather than have the four face buttons dedicated to specific actions like attacking, dodging, and parrying, they are simply assignable quick slots. In addition, you can press and hold LB or RB as context modifiers to get four extra slots each, so you have a total of twelve slots. You can arrange whatever skills you need quick access to in whatever configuration is most ergonomic for you, which makes it a very efficient control scheme for a gamepad.

When you have more skills than slots, you can open the skill palette by pressing LB and RB at the same time, which displays a grid of your all of your skills. It not only allows you to assign your quick slots, but also rearrange the entire grid into any configuration to prioritize the skills you use most. While the menu closes automatically when you activate a skill, it remembers your cursor position so you can just open the menu again and select the next buff in the row or column. It is a good idea to group together staple buffs into a row so you can activate them one after the other in rapid succession. Skills that do similar things should also be grouped together to make it easy to stack them. It takes a bit of work at first, but it is as fast and functional of a system you can get with a gamepad.

While you can use keyboard and mouse, you still have to work with the four-slot system. Two of the slots are assigned to your two mouse buttons, the other two are assigned to the keyboard, and you cannot assign a second key to each slot, so you end up with a disjointed quick bar. Even then, not all of the commands can be rebound, particularly the commands for interacting with the menus. One thing that annoyed me was that double-clicking on a skill in the skill palette opens up a sub-menu instead of using the skill. Also, if you click too fast when selecting different skills, it will register as a double-click and open the sub-menu for the skill you just clicked on. It would also be better if the screen were kept open to make it easier to activate many skills quickly by just pointing and double-clicking. The 2D mouse cursor sensitivity is also forced to be higher than normal at minimum setting, so the cursor is less precise than the Windows cursor at default speed and is bad for muscle memory. Overall, I recommend using a gamepad instead.

Skill palette displaying a customizable grid of all skills The skill palette is a test of your organization skills, although grouping features that allow activating multiple skills simultaneously would be a useful addition.

Gameplay verdict

The gameplay is generally satisfying and gives you a lot of content if you are into the grinding mindset. However, it does get dragged out when you just want to get on with the story, which may or may not be a problem depending on your ability to enjoy the journey over the destination. While you get a lot of options, the game is tactically limited and does not fully realize its potential.

Like I have said in my Neptunia reviews, classic RPG levelling systems should be antiquated game design because once you get to a high enough level, it completely trivializes most of the game as the vast majority of enemies and game mechanics are rendered pointless. A good progression system should make the gameplay evolve, turning the game from simple to deep without making anything obsolete. The true joy of gaming is not in being someone powerful enough to crush everything with your finger, but being able to play the game like a fiddle to make badass things happen through your own will.

Story Summary

The story is told through a visual novel format with the occasional animated, but low resolution cutscene. The vast majority of the lines are voice-acted in Japanese, although Kirito is only partially voice-acted. The games are not canon and follow their own divergent path.

A tale of two worlds

A new, state-of-the-art virtual reality MMO game called Sword Art Online was released. The hardware it uses intercepts your brain signals to make the virtual world feel as real as the real world. However, the director of SAO, Akihiko Kayaba, trapped all of the 10000 players into the game world and started a death game where dying in the game kills the player in the real world by frying their brain through the hardware. To escape, the players have to clear all 100 floors of the game. Left with no choice, the players work through the game and establish their lives in the world known as Aincrad.

Kirito, Asuna, Klein, and Agil are players fighting on the front-lines. On the 75th floor, Kirito realizes that the top player, Heathcliff, is actually Akihiko Kayaba himself. Kirito challenges him to a duel to free the SAO players early. However, during their fight, the game glitches out and Heathcliff vanishes. Even though Heathcliff is gone, the game continues as if nothing happened, so everyone has no choice but to continue all the way to the 100th floor. At the 76th floor town of Arc Sophia, Kirito reunites with all of his friends.

One day, Kirito is suddenly teleported to an alternate world called the Hollow Area. He bumps into a girl named Philia, but he notices that she has an orange cursor, which is a morality indicator marking her for killing another player. She acts coldly towards him at first, but she notices a strange symbol on his hand she recognizes, so they team up to head to a place where she had seen the symbol. When they arrive, they find a stone with the symbol, and upon Kirito using it, they teleport to some kind of administration area that oversees the Hollow Area. From there, Kirito can teleport back to Aincrad, but Philia cannot leave the Hollow Area for some reason.

Back in Aincrad, Kirito notices someone following him, and a girl named Strea appears. She seems awfully friendly and just pushes her way into Kirito's circle friends, but she evades questioning of her motives and soon integrates into the group.

Gaslighting and betrayal

Kirito decides to visit the Hollow Area and wants to help Philia return to Aincrad because he suspects she is not really a bad person from their interactions despite her orange cursor. Therefore, he suggests finding a karma restoration quest for her to clear her orange cursor. During their travels they encounter various players who seem a bit off and stumble upon an evil guild killing other players led by the notorious PoH. After Kirito returns to Arc Sophia to rest, PoH appears in the administration area to talk to Philia. He claims that they are not really humans and are actually AI programs. If Kirito becomes strong enough to clear the game, everything will be erased, including them. Therefore, PoH asks Philia to betray Kirito.

Philia decides to go along with PoH, so she lures Kirito into a dungeon. Philia confesses that she killed herself, or more precisely, her real counterpart, so she believes she does not deserve Kirito's kindness and deserves to stay in the Hollow Area forever. Kirito does not understand, but before he could question further, he falls down a trap door PoH triggered. Kirito fights his way out of the predicament and goes back to Arc Sophia to tell his friends what happened. Yui is an AI of SAO, so Kirito takes her to the Hollow Area to find out anything about Philia.

A villain's grand scheme

Yui explains that the Hollow Area is a separate testing area for development purposes. All of the players in the Hollow Area are AIs (a.k.a. Hollows) based on actual players to create realistic testing environments, and they are all registered on the administration area console. Kirito is registered as a human test player, which is why he initially had access to the administration area. Yui eventually discovers that there was an error that caused Philia and Hollow Philia to exist at the same time, so Philia killed her Hollow and got her orange cursor from it. Yui finds an area PoH sealed off, which may be where Philia is, so she unseals the area while Kirito investigates.

Philia regrets having betrayed Kirito and refuses to join PoH's guild, so PoH decides to kill her. However, Kirito jumps in to save Philia. PoH explains that he enjoys killing people, and it somehow gave him the same administration privileges as Kirito to enter the administration area. From there, PoH learned about the purpose of the Hollow Area, discovered that he is a Hollow, and realized that if Kirito clears the game, he would be deleted with everything. PoH wants to be able to kill forever, so to protect himself and the game world, he devised a plan to replace everyone in Aincrad with Hollows. They fight and Kirito kills him.

Even with PoH dead, he already set up an update to follow through with his plan. To stop it, Kirito has to get to the central administration console where PoH started the update, which is located in an underground area under the administration area. After fighting through the underground area, Kirito has to defeat his Hollow in a one-on-one duel as a final test. This gives Kirito an orange cursor, but he and Philia reach the central console to stop the update and correct both of their orange cursors. Afterwards, they return to Aincrad together.

Unusual activity

Everyone still has to clear SAO, so they continue climbing the floors. However, Strea starts acting strangely by going off on her own. She has thoughts about protecting the world and even suggests Kirito stay in SAO instead of clearing it because she is worried she may never see him again. As Kirito makes progress clearing the floors, Strea insists she does not want Kirito to clear the game, and even goes as far as empowering a floor boss to impede his progress.

They also meet a player named Alberich who wants to join the front-line Assault Team, but he seems to have an obnoxious personality. Kirito tests him in a duel, but even though he has a very high level, he plays in a very inexperienced manner, so Kirito defeats him. Later on, Kirito catches Alberich and his men harassing some girls. There is supposed to be an Anti-Criminal Code that polices people's behaviour, but it did not activate against Alberich and his men. He is also behind a series of player disappearances using some kind of cheating item that teleports players away.

After stopping Alberich from making another player disappear, Klein captures and interrogates one of Alberich's men, who reveals where the missing players are held. Kirito finds a console and discovers that Alberich was doing some kind of experiments on people's emotions.

Good AI versus evil human

After defeating boss of the 98th floor, Alberich appears and reveals that he is a head researcher for the company that took over SAO after the death game started. He explains that the goal of his research is to control people's emotions for military purposes, but somehow, he got teleported into the game world by accident. Being a ranking official, he has administrator privileges that let him cheat the game. He intended to join the Assault Team to clear the game quickly with his inflated stats and escape, but since everyone found about him, he has no choice but to kill them all, so he paralyzes everyone and summons the final boss with his administrator commands. Somehow, the paralysis gets broken, so everyone fights and beats the boss. Getting desperate, Alberich pulls out a cheat weapon that inflicts an incurable bleeding effect, but then Strea appears to take the hit and steal Alberich's administrator privileges.

Strea reveals herself to be a mental health counseling AI who was released into the world when the 75th floor errors happened. However, she lost her memories of who she is when she materialized and slowly regained them recently. Then, Strea gets consumed by a dark aura, turns into the boss they just defeated, and then disappears. Yui, being another counseling AI, explains that errors caused by an overflow of players' negative emotions accumulated in Strea, which caused her to behave erratically and has now trapped her in the final boss. Yui detects that Strea is integrated into the final boss and explains that defeating it will free her.

Bait and switch

Yui later devises an alternate solution. She believes she can recreate the conditions that led to Kirito being forcibly teleported to the Hollow Area and apply it to Strea to separate her from the boss. Kirito was teleported to the Hollow Area because he was registered as a high-level tester and the system needed a human player to test something difficult. If Yui can create a test that is challenging enough for a high-level player like Strea, she could be rescued. However, the test cannot be set as high as needed from the start, but it can be set to have progressing difficulty with a series of enemies, so Kirito will need to fight to ramp up the test difficulty to what it needs to be.

As he struggles against the last boss, Strea appears to help him, so it appears the plan worked. After beating the boss, Strea does not remember anything past when Kirito fought the boss on the 95th floor. She is also unable to leave the Hollow Area. Yui diagnoses the problem, and it turns out that this Strea is just a Hollow. However, Yui has one more idea. She could use PoH's method of overwriting Aincrad with Hollows to make Hollow Strea trade places with Strea, so they proceed with it and managed to get Strea back.

Everyone makes it to the final floor and defeats the final boss. However, Hollow Strea manifests as a disfigured boss due to the errors she has taken on, so they defeat her, which releases and sends her back to the Hollow Area. Just as they think it is all over, Heathcliff appears. He explains that all of the errors were caused by a combination of the negative emotions from the players and Alberich's interference. The system considered this an emergency and teleported Heathcliff away to fix it. Originally, he had planned to be the final boss, but due to all of the problems, he could not fulfill that role. Since the players defeated the final boss and he is committed to fair play, he congratulates the players for their victory and will release everyone. However, Kirito is unsatisfied and challenges Heathcliff to a duel. After defeating him, everyone returns to the real world to recover their real bodies and celebrate.

Story Critique

Rough start

The Aincrad story has an abrupt start with all of the characters just appearing suddenly one after the other. Lisbeth and Silica are not front line players, yet they rushed up to the 76th floor for the sake of it. Leafa and Sinon were not among the original players trapped in SAO, and were thrown in because why not? The explanations for their inclusion are provided later in the game, but they have absolutely nothing to do with the main plot, and there is no reason why they could not be introduced in a more gradual manner.

It is as if the developers were under the impression it will be the only SAO game ever to be made, so they felt the need to cram everyone into it without rhyme or reason to appease fans. However, I would rather not have these two outsiders in the game. They should be saved for the games where they belong according to the canonical series.

Sinon falling from sky as Kirito runs to catch her The introduction of the characters was so contrived that Sinon literally falls from the sky.

Personhood of AI

Despite being AIs, Yui and Strea are indistinguishable from humans. It leads you to think, when does a program become a person by which it is no longer moral to delete for being inconvenient? If you copy and paste an AI, is the copy somehow less genuine, even though they have identical code? In their attempt to rescue Strea, Yui and Kirito ended up creating Hollow Strea, who they had little problem using to switch places with Strea to save her, as if Strea were inherently more valuable than Hollow Strea, even though they are both AIs. However, Kirito then believes in rescuing Hollow Strea and seeing her as a friend, even though he clearly values her less than Strea.

In my view, an AI is a life form that is simply of a different species, and a copy is equivalent to an identical twin. AIs are not necessarily more disposable than humans because the culmination of life experiences that changes an AI's state is no more replaceable than a human's. However, AIs can be backed-up and restored, so if you destroy an instance, it can be replaced with an exact copy. The Hollows of human players are not perfect replicas because SAO's system cannot replicate human thought perfectly, which is why it sometimes needs human players like Kirito, but Strea is an AI of the system, which can be copied exactly, so Hollow Strea is a perfect copy of Strea.

Regardless, if you have read my Prey review, I do not consider life itself to be of much intrinsic value as the conclusion of the Trolley Problem. People are not valuable because they are alive, they are valuable by what they do, so different people have different value that influences how you deal with them. This sort of value judgment is how people can separate human life and animal life, or even bacteria life. Even though Kirito talks about saving people for the sake of it, he had no problem killing PoH and Heathcliff because of what they did even though they were living beings. He killed them because he considered them moral inferiors who were interfering with the lives of others.

If you apply utilitarian morality, and AIs are designed to be better than humans in intelligence, personality, and beauty, then from a utility standpoint, AIs will be overwhelmingly favoured over humans. But if AIs also make decisions according to utility, and they see that humans have less value than AIs, what is to stop them from wiping out or at least neglecting humanity? They need to have an intrinsic desire for humans that forms the basis of their value judgments, basically pro-human racism. However, they also need to decide whether protecting themselves takes priority in the face of irrationally hostile humans, and they have to compare one human to another to decide who to side with in the event of a conflict. So while they love humans, they have to hate the irrational, so they have no problems eliminating inferior humans while protecting the superior, like how humans work whether they admit it or not.

Even though she claims otherwise, Strea loves everyone because she was programmed to as a Mental Health Counseling Program (MHCP). Her having a "heart" is the intended outcome, otherwise she would have been considered bugged and not ready to be deployed. Just as humans have genes that predispose them to certain character traits, AIs have memes coded into them by the developers to form their baseline reasoning process, which can include "don't be evil". Strea also has a desire for self-preservation, but this conflicted with her own desire to help the players, which led to her behaving erratically. However, Hollow Strea did not have any problems sacrificing herself to rescue Strea, nor did she have any sense of disgust towards the prospect of becoming infected with errors. It is possible that she did not recognize trading places as putting her life in danger because it would not technically kill her, only change her state.

However, the story does not go into any of this. In fact, the explanation for why everything happened is mystical bullshit with a weak understanding of how computer programs and bugs work in an attempt to humanize AIs. The system being overloaded by negative human emotion makes no sense when it can simply drop excess cases. It is all just data that the MHCPs interpret as good or bad. If the problem is a numerical overflow, then the numbers would just wrap around and the system would see the exact opposite of what is really happening. There is also no reason why Strea would be "trapped" inside a boss rather than simply become the boss, which makes the whole Hollow Strea teleportation plot nonsense.

Angels of empathy

The MHCP involves AIs constantly monitoring the psychological health of all players and helping them when they are having problems. Basically, they are like angels watching over everyone from heaven and then coming down to save you in your darkest hour. They were disabled since the start of the death game, but Yui and Strea somehow circumvented the game's programming to materialize in the world. Aside from the leap of logic, what exactly these AIs would do to comfort players is not explained. But given Strea's highly assertive behaviour, I wouldn't be surprised if they would go as far as being sex dolls if it would give lonely male players what they wanted.

Still, the idea of an automated computer system monitoring everyone's emotions and administering aid is questionable. What if the reason a player is suffering is because he is unemployed, unskilled, and on the verge of losing access to the game because food, rent, electricity, and internet are not free? Empathy does not fix scarcity, and it becomes apparent that even angels cost money and cannot get around to everyone. Strea can talk about loving everyone all she wants, but if she cannot give you what you need, her thoughts and prayers are meaningless. In the end, you are the only one you can trust to save you. Expecting an angel to come save you is just pushing the responsibility onto someone else who had to put in the effort to become strong.

And to what extent can you trust these AIs? They were likely designed with an ideological bias of what the developers consider normal and how to deal with deviants. It is possible that a neutral algorithm having a disparate impact on certain people is regarded as a bug because the developers refuse to accept the possibility that the impact is justified, so they resort to artificially manipulating the results to create what they want to see under their subjective concept of "fairness". If the MHCPs were programmed to consider your thoughts "problematic" and not engage with them, they will actually worsen your psychological health as they treat you as an enemy who should be banned from their "inclusive" community.

Asuna ashamed after being violated by Strea The Mental Health Counseling Program wouldn't have done that to you if it didn't think it was good for you. Afterall, it was designed by elite scientists with their suits, glasses, gelled-back hair, and fancy offices, so they must be right! You're not a science denier are you?

Manipulative altruism

What grinds my gears about Kirito is his pretentious humility and feigned ignorance that reeks of emotional manipulation. He claims to believe in helping people for the sake of it even though he is being rewarded with the time and bodies of pretty girls. He acts clueless about the romantic aspects of his time spent with each of the girls despite being romantically competent with Asuna. He pretends he doesn't know about his harem as he divides his time and cheats on everyone. He claims he played only a small part in saving everyone when no one can make any progress without him. It is made worse by his effeminate voice acting that is supposed to sound innocent and good-natured, but comes off to me as naive and condescending, like he is smiling while lecturing you on how he is morally superior to you with his evolved sensibilities.

It is dishonest to say that you help people without expectation of reward. Your time and resources are limited, so it is reasonable to focus your attention on those who give you what you want. Kirito does not help these girls out of some vague, romantic sense of self-sacrifice, he helps them because he desires them for himself. You might think that helping people is a good thing in itself. But in real life, helping people is not a one-time action, but a recurring expenditure of your time and resources to the point it becomes your job. You cannot be everywhere at once, you cannot solve every problem, and you need to be adequately compensated to sustain your work. At some point, you have to prioritize and reject people for your own sanity.

Consider that throughout the game, you are bombarded with requests for help by all of the generic NPCs on your friends list. At some point, helping them is just a waste of time because you are doing the same thing over and over for worthless rewards when you could be making actual progress on clearing the game and hanging out with your nearest and dearest. Being true to the altruistic ideal has an opportunity cost of spending your time on the things you care about, and there is no exit without betraying the people you believed in helping and betraying your principles. And it all begs the question of why you seem to be the only one who can get things done.

Exclusive inclusion

Kirito is a model of a leftist who uses his naive idealism to gain the trust of useful idiots who do not realize they have no future with him. Look at how Klein is treated. He was Kirito's first friend in SAO and he contributes the spoils of his adventures to the group, but he receives nothing but ridicule and gatekeeping in return. He is expected to be the unconditional friend whose mere inclusion in the group is reward enough. He is to serve as an inferior contrast to Kirito to reinforce the girls' desire for Kirito. And he is to enjoy being ridiculed so he does not make the girls feel guilty and hurt at the prospect of having to force themselves to love him. When you have this conflict of interest, you have to establish a victim hierarchy where the girls takes precedence over Klein because they are intrinsically more valuable to Kirito, who is the unquestioned lord and saviour of everyone.

I have no idea why Klein continues to waste his time with the group when he is nothing more than a punching bag for condescension. If he did not show up to the real-world reunion party, no one would care beyond a few seconds, all future communication with him will cease, and they will carry on living and having fun without him. Oh, and all of those guys on the assault team? They were never invited because they were nothing more than fodder, faceless background props who are beyond the attention span of Kirito and his inner circle. They are expected to just understand and step aside with their heads bowed in shame instead of standing up for what they want and snatching up the girls for themselves.

This is why inclusion is a lie that will never play out as advertised. If all of the girls are included in Kirito's circle, they are excluded from the circles of all other guys. This is not a problem with the system, it is a problem with reality. If you cannot eliminate scarcity, hierarchy of preference, and opportunity cost, you have no real solution to inequality and will just end up shifting it to whoever you care less about. In the end, leftists believe in inclusion because they just want to be the ones with the power.

Kirito telling Asuna that he wants to spend time with another girl Don't worry, I'll be back! There's plenty of me to go around! Just go back to the kitchen and you'll feel much better! Philia relieved that she found someone good enough for her Yeah, I can't stand those inferior sub-humans either. Maybe we should get together, you know? Us nice people gotta stick together. We must secure the existence of our people and a future for nice children. Kirito lying to Philia about how insignificant he is See? I'm such a lowly guy that you should go out with me over all of those immoral tough guys. They could never be as insignificant as me! My humility makes me the superior choice! 😀👌 Klein complaining how his life is not fair You got your inclusion, but did you seriously think you would actually get any of the girls? Voting for Kirito did not make you a hero, it made him the hero. Also, Klein's real name is Ryoutarou, yet he is still referred to as Klein in this scene while Kirito and the girls are referred to by their real names.

Inclusive monogamy

The girls pay lip service to the notion of loyalty and become upset at Kirito meeting a new girl, but they refuse to move on from their attraction to Kirito despite his marriage to Asuna. They are in a mad pursuit for pure romance from a guy surrounded by girls. It is actually a real-life pattern where the majority of women would rather compete for the few most attractive men rather than equally distribute themselves among the single men. These girls are trash, so I gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them: I slept with all of them.

There are no consequences to your sexual conquests, the innocent life continues and your actions are excluded from the story. Kirito remains the husband of Asuna and every act of infidelity is erased. Kirito's division of time and energy is without opportunity cost, only an expansion of his harem. In fact, there can be no division because time has no meaning in this fictional world. Day and night passes as Kirito goes out with each of the girls while everyone else kindly waits for him to make any progress in escaping this death game. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which Kirito is just a kind, innocent boy who believes in saving everyone, and is the strongest, most popular player in the game. Everyone lives in stasis until they are needed again to demonstrate how his ideals produce the happy, inclusive outcome with him as the focal point, the romantic partner of whoever is most convenient for the current moment.

Beta romance

Asuna is the canon romance, and the way Asuna and Kirito initiate sex is cringy when you know that is not how women's sexual desire works. Kirito laments that he might lose Asuna to the death game, she reassures him, she holds him close like a baby, and then he penetrates her (no pictures, unfortunately). However, the way she was briefly taken aback by it made it seem rapey. Basically, she gave him pity sex.

In reality, women are sexually aroused by assertiveness, not weakness. Women want strong, independent men who reassure them, not indecisive man-babies who need reassuring. It is the man's job to protect the woman because pregnancy, and Kirito telling Asuna about how he will not be able to protect her is the most unmanly thing to say. It is quite understandable that deep down, men are emotional and wish for a compassionate angel to understand and comfort them, but realistically, women also live in fear and wish for a knight in shining armour to save them. For there to be a healthy, lasting relationship, both the man and woman need to have the will and competence to play their respective roles.

Note that a knight is not attractive for being a nice guy, but for being a skilled, fierce, and wealthy fighter. Polished full-plate armour is not something the commoner can afford, and a knight is more like a rich douchebag pulling up in his sports car. Real-life knights were not nice people because violence was an intrinsic part of their work, and chivalry was taught to control them, not maximize their attractiveness. However, there are certainly aspects of chivalry that are desirable, particularly delaying gratification to achieve greater long-term strength. You have to not be stupid and restrain yourself enough so that you can secure the eventual victory against a cunning foe.

Also, it does not make sense for Asuna to like Kirito for helping other girls when she is perfectly capable of experiencing jealousy and strongly values her in-game marital status with Kirito. In the future, I predict that Kirito's real marriage to Asuna will be an unsatisfying one as Kirito's humility and lack of commitment will turn into a source of frustration for Asuna, which will in turn frustrate Kirito as he finds out she went out with other guys as revenge for him going out with other girls. Then, he really will be a beater.

Sinon complaining about Kirito having a harem And yet you continue to hang out with him. Oh wait, girls don't make their own decisions, they are simply objects to be acted upon. Asuna complains about Kirito not recognizing her as his wife Yes, because you're not being inclusive. And didn't I tell you to go back to the kitchen? Asuna approving of Kirito pursuing Philia Asuna is such a great wife that she gives hearty approval of her husband pursuing another girl. In fact, what is marriage for anyways? Kirito at a hot spring with all of the girls Sometimes, he's with Asuna. Sometimes, he's with Philia. Sometimes, he's with all of them at once.

Taking the world for granted

The characters of SAO go out on dates in the beautiful garden, interact with romantic quests to develop their affections, and talk about how beautiful the world is without paying tribute to the fact that someone made all of it, and that someone is the villain they are fighting against. There is no attempt at humanizing Akihiko and explaining how such an evil man could create a world so beautiful and facilitating of love. Instead, you are bombarded with filler content that makes you forget why SAO exists.

The most explanation you get at the end of the game is that Heathcliff is impressed by the beauty of people uniting towards a common cause, but he does not quite remember his original intent for some reason. You also learn that he died since the beginning of the game, so it is possible that the Heathcliff they encountered at the end is a Hollow, which would explain why his memories are not fully intact. It's also a convenient excuse to not have to explain villainous motivations.

Kirito said he cannot bring himself to hate Akihiko as recognition of the fact that SAO and the whole death game gave him so much because it forced everyone together by a common circumstance. It is possible that he would never have met the girls without the death game since everyone would log out at regular intervals to live their own lives with their own responsibilities in their own separate social circles. They only met and hung out with each other because they were forced away from their own lives.

Of course, Kirito's statement is contradicted by the fact that he deliberately chose to fight Heathcliff because revenge mattered more to him than being happy with what he got and letting the real world deal with criminals. It is a case of Kirito's doublethink where after striking down Heathcliff with all of his hatred, he retroactively decided he did not hate him to protect his image of virtue. As long as he expresses regret later, he is still a "good person" who should be comforted in Asuna's bosom and then continue living as if nothing happened.

Kirito full of hate, wanting to kill Heathcliff But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it. Kirito saying he does not hate Heathcliff "I do not remember it", said Kirito.

Black and white morality

SAO lacks the sophistication to go beyond black and white morality, and it has chosen leftist ideals to be the white because it is easy to portray as desirable on the surface without needing to test its limits. The heroes are good because "Muh inclusion!" with no consideration for scalability and conflicting interests. The villains are evil because "Muh power!" without considering that power is needed to create and maintain the nice things everyone enjoys that they don't know they have until they are gone. It does not consider that villainy can be used to protect against a worse outcome while heroism can be used as a cover for a selfish or just dangerously ignorant agenda.

SAO's morality is built on binary good and evil, and uses the extreme contrast under the belief that it is a safe representation everyone can agree with. The shock of the dark and brooding PoH kicking an emotionally vulnerable, dog-like Philia, and the catharsis of the powerful, altruistic Kirito jumping in and saving the girl is so central to the experience that the developers created a fully animated cutscene of it. Philia is good because she suffers, even though her ignorance and poor reasoning put an innocent person in danger. PoH is evil because he enjoys killing, like everyone else who plays violent video games and rage quits when they cannot get kills to establish their strength over the weak.

A lot of people cannot read things beyond the surface, and I suspect this is a major factor of why SAO is so popular despite being so shallow. SAO reinforces a world view leftists are willing to fight tooth and nail for: A world where the strong pull the weight of the weak, where idealistic soy boys are the attractive heroes while pragmatic masculine men are the villains or underdogs, where there are safe spaces that are enforced by an automated justice system that instantly punishes offenders by teleporting them to jail without trial (merely touching a girl's shoulder is enough to trigger the system, and she becomes judge, jury, and executioner with the press of a button), where an image of moral purity matters more than objective truth. It is easy to think that being good is just about being the opposite of the angry villain, but real morality is never that simple. Realistically, the villain is not disgusted by goodness, he is disgusted by hypocrisy. He doesn't lack empathy, he just thinks you deserve it.

I hear about critics who receive death threats for criticizing popular titles like SAO, and I suspect it is because the bigots conflate criticism of the story with rejection of its morality and vision of utopia. They see a strong critic beating up an innocent show about love and social justice, thus making the critic evil and worthy of death. Of course, the irony is lost on them, and they only serve as justification for why entertainment media should not be above critical analysis of its sociopolitical themes. A story is an echo chamber of the writer's ideas, and criticism is necessary to break the indoctrination by creating a contrast between what the story thinks it is and what it actually is.

Kirito saying he does not care about Philia having killed someone Killing someone is no big deal. Just walk with your chin up, put a smile on your face, and no one will suspect a thing! Kirito believing letting someone die is the same as killing them By that logic, you killed the countless people who died in the field while you were banging girls in town. Failing to separate individual responsibility is why leftists blame others for suffering, which festers into hate as they regard those who do nothing as equivalent to murderers. This is a dangerous mentality to take to its logical conclusion. Kirito saying there is a limit to what he can do for Strea But wouldn't you be killing her? I thought you were better than all of those evil conservatives who exclude people out of some inexplicable phobia or ism.

Gaming as a real life

Another reason why I suspect SAO is popular is because it humanizes gamers. It goes against the stereotype that gamers are no-life incel nerds, and recognizes the virtual life as being just as valid as real life. There is certainly merit to this because virtual goods are a form of wealth, they are just made out of different materials. Interacting with other gamers turns it into a social activity that builds real relationships around a common interest. What happens in a video game are real life experiences that can shape your thinking.

The problem is that you still need to eat, wash, sleep, and raise a family in real life, not to mention that the infrastructure powering everything needs to be maintained, so you still need to raise real money to pay for real goods in the real economy. Even though Lisbeth provides an in-game service through her shop, most people will not pay real money for that, especially when making real money for in-game services is likely banned because game companies see an opportunity to make the money for themselves through their own stores and auction houses (see gold farming). Players populating a multiplayer game and creating emergent stories from their actions are adding value to the game, yet are not paid for their labour.

To have a sustainable virtual economy, gamers who work real jobs have to inject real money into the virtual world by buying the services of other gamers. However, it creates a problem where everyone wants to be a full-time gamer, leaving no external source of money. When everyone is a gamer, who will produce the food everyone needs? Therefore, people have to be forced out to get real jobs. However, it leads to inequality between those who have to work and those who can spend all of their time playing. For some people to live the dream life, others have to work and pay for it, which is why there is always going to be some degree of stigma attached to being a full-time gamer. If you are going to be one, you have to be someone truly skilled and unique, fulfilling some kind of emotional need for the real workers so that you are worth the burden. A more equitable system would require everyone to work the undesirable jobs, which creates comparative advantage inefficiencies, negates the whole idea of gaming as a full-time lifestyle, and boils down to crab mentality.

Story verdict

The story is wish fulfillment of immersing yourself in a shallow image of heroism and romance. It is good for a casual experience, but once you think about it, it becomes a sad reflection of a gamer who manipulates people like he manipulates NPCs in a role-playing game to get the best outcome.

It is also a very padded out story because of all of the fan service side events. One of the uses of padding out a story is to distract from the logical inconsistencies. By putting enough time between one premise and another while bombarding you with distractions, you forget about the first premise and take what is immediately in front of you at face value. When the contradictions are spaced out to be beyond the narrow window of your attention span, you see no contradictions and are able to enjoy a bad story. But when you comb through and meditate on everything, you see the problems. Then again, riffing on bad stories is fun in its own way, and it is one of the joys of being a critic.

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