No Game No Life

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12 episodes of praising Instrumental Reason doesn’t make for good fiction, but it makes it clear why the anime blew up so much. Popularity is never a result of quality, but of fitting in with the zeitgeist, the common biases and worldviews of an age. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular since it shows a masculinity that’s dark, therefore intelligent instead of the happy-go-lucky nonsense of 80’s action films. As for this anime, its popularity comes from how blatant it is in showing Instrumental Reason to be the supreme reason. Imagine those vegans or marijuana advocates who think that their pet issues would solve all the world’s problems.

Before we discuss why this anime is so bad, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘Instrumental Reason’. I capitalize it because it’s a useful term. To use Charles Taylor’s definition, it is reason which is about efficiancy and problem-solving. It asks how fast we can solve a problem, what is the best way to solve a problem.

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Take the case of a busted wheel. When your wheel’s gone bust, you don’t ask what it means, what ramifications it will have on pop culture or on our perception of gender and reality. All that matters is that we change tires as quickly as possible, and that the tire will be good enough to last as long as possible. While there are theories dissecting the meaning behind games, when we play chess we don’t think what the game means. Rather, we asks how we beat the game.

In contrast, there is what I’d call ‘reason of meaning’. By that, you ask what is the nature of things. We don’t just ask how to end racism and poverty, but what exactly is racism and poverty. We’re interested in understanding these issues, defining them, understanding what is bad. Instrumental Reason leads to a lot of money for hi-tech buffons, but it cannot solve all problems since it doesn’t tell you what the problem, or the meaning of things is.

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Sora and Shiro are one pair whose world is in Instrumental Reason. While games have meaning, the meaning is related to the mere act of playing. We don’t question whether or not we should win a game and what is the nature of winning chess – the rules decide that. The world of Disboard is a world where every problem isn’t just solved by games, but by Instrumental Reason.

That means it’s a world that doesn’t have any meaning at all. The nature of any problem doesn’t matter, since there will be an arbitrary equation that must solved. Once we solve this equation, the problem ends. The anime tells the story of a megalomaniacal brother-and-sister who beat people in games, gain power and minions and occasionally pay lip-service to morality.

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Now, if the series was an examination of such Instrumental Reason, it would’ve been fine. If Instrumental Reason was merely a dominant storytelling tool, then it could still have a decent story. By that, I mean that the show works similar to Death Note and Code Geass. The story moves mainly by challenges facing the characters, and the characters need to solve them. The viewer gains pleasure from trying to solve the riddle along with the characters. However, the meaning of these challenges isn’t important.

Instrumental Reason is so dominant in this anime that these challenges don’t even pretend to have meaning. Death Note may have been a series of riddles, but underneath it there was supposed to be a story about the morality of executing criminals. It failed because it didn’t create situations where we examined the issue, but rather only asked ‘who will win?’. In similar fashion, the only question this anime asks is ‘how will Sora and Shiro win?’.

As a storytelling tool, it’s incredibly boring. It’s essentially watching a staged game. The whole thrill of watching sports is that you don’t know who will win and nothing is decided until the last moment. Stories which use Instrumental Reason make you watch a man playing chess against himself, only with more narrative fluff and (in the case of anime) pretty visuals.

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So as a story, this is a complete failure. Really, it’s about nothing. Only near the end it says something about the nature of games, but the whole thing happens in an alternative reality. Once the characters are thrown into it, no mention of the real world. Without admitting there is a real world where not everything is a game, it cannot explore the nature of games. Many throw the word ‘escapist’ around and it’s always debatable how escapist a show is, but can anyone debate this? The characters literally escape the real world so they could play forever.

If the story is an absolute failure, at least it could do well in other aspects. Sadly, it’s all bad except for the art. The art is easily some of anime’s best. It’s such a shame that a highlight in anime art is glued to a horrible story. Look at those vibrant colors, how every scene doesn’t have so much a depth of detail but a depth of color. It creates the feeling of a truly fantastical world. It applies to character design, too. While the series is shameless in fanservice, each character gets its unique touch, unique eye shapes and hairstyles. Shiro isn’t the best design, but her design is a good case in point. Her hair isn’t just long but has a distinct flow to it. Jibril is another excellent case. For a character who floats around half-naked, they sure thought about a lot of unique touches – the asymmetrical gloves, the gardient in the hair.

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Sadly, this is where the positives end. Some of the characters are good, but they need a different setting and a different storytelling method. Stephanie Dola could’ve been a light in the dark, a contrast to the world. Her emotional reaction actually could’ve added some ‘reason of meaning’, show us a character who thinks about other things besides winning. Too bad her role is to be slapped around, sexually humiliated and generally used as a tool. If so far you were convinced my rantings about ‘Instrumental Reason’ was just cranking about, here’s the final nail. The anime takes its one character who has a different view than constantly puts it down.

Sora is tied to this problem, and to the misogyny problem. He’s a 20th century masculine stereotype. Writing about transformation of masculinity in fiction is incomplete without him. We see how once the manly hero packed guns, now he’s shagging women and is being a conniving, selfish asshole. What defines Sora isn’t heroism like those in the 80’s movies, but his pure ‘Instrumental Reason’. All that matters to him is winning, all he can think about is winning.

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Occasionally he displays some moral code about being nice to those he lose. We never see the general ethics that guide him, though. Since he’s comfortable using everyone as pieces, he’s more like a Wolf of Wall Street, doing everything to win and using people as means to an end. It fits with the zeitgeist. Go to school, and they will teach you how the only important thing is making loads of money. Whatever technology you invent, whatever content you produce, it doesn’t matter so long as you get money. No surprise our politicians are so corrupt.

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Using people as means, besides pissing off Kant also gives the whole anime a strong misogynistic bent. You don’t just see women in sexy situations, but often humiliating situations. Stephanie gets the most of it. An episode is dedicated to treating her like an animal only to teach her a lesson. He also takes pictures of her nude without consent and there’s the whole ‘laughing at flat women’ thing. I don’t see anything funny about humiliating a girl, taking nude pictures of her and generally framing her as inferior and dumb. Worst of all, we’re meant to cheer for Sora and the characters eventually come to like him. I don’t see how his rise to power demanded treating Dola so awfully.

Contrary to the creator’s idea, I would rather have a beer with Stephanie Dola and not just because she’s a woman. No Game No Life is pure escapist fantasy for the hi-tech age. In an age where we want to just solve problems instead of thinking about their nature, it’s the ideal anime. I’m reminded of a story where some government officials asked how to lower the amount of poor people. Onc offered to change the definition to the American definitions, and then there will be less poor people on the count. Notice how the numbers change but no one asks what exactly poverty is and what’s the actual problem. It’s a comfortable mindset, but we don’t live in Disboard. Our world isn’t clean and ordered where each problems have clear laws. In this world, you have to ask what is the problem, what it means and the whole shebang. Also, you can’t go around treating women like Sora treats Stephanie. Somebody might come and get all 80’s Action Movie on your ass.

1.5 misogynists out of 5

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BTOOOM!

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It’s like Future Diary, only with all the good stuff ripped out.

Using characters as plot device is hard. Do it once or twice and it’s okay. When everyone becomes a plot device, your story becomes hard to believe. A world where everyone is a plot device is less believable than a notebook that kills people.

It doesn’t seem so bad at first. It’s dark and cruel, but this is a game where people are forced to kill each other. The first to die is boring as hell, but Future Diary‘s Third didn’t have a personality. He at least had an idea behind him. He was supposed to be a simple Unknown Danger. He has given a design that looks scary to make that convincing. His role was small and was the only plot device character.

No such things happen in BTOOOM!. Everyone exists for two reasons. Their purpose is first to be terrible human beings, and the second is to die. It’s hilarious how everyone is terrible, but no one has a personality flaw. One guy is a rapist. Another is a cold-hearted killer. Another one is a con artist. They’re unpleasant, but not interesting.vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h25m51s139

Such a dull edge

The cruelty is so monochrome. These are not the crazies of Future Diary. No one in that anime was sadistic for sadism’s sake. When they had a cruel streak, they had reasons for it. It was also specific. Third just wanted to kill everyone. Reisuke cared about having a mother figure. Yomotsu had a retarded sense of justice.

There was almost something comic about it. None of that exists in BTOOOM!. No one has an alternative moral system. No one’s sadism is understandable. A fat guy attempts rape and we get to see it graphically, yet we don’t know what’s behind him. The creators try to shock us with Himiko’s pain, but it’s only unpleasant to watch. More shocking would be if they made understand the rapist and his point of view. This way the viewer might find he shares some thoughts with him, which is both horrifying and meaningful.

Some get a half-assed explanation, like abusive parents or a military past. These are just placeholders. The characters aren’t very different besides one being more sadistic. Both Tsubaki and Reisuke have a sad past, but it’s a different kind that transformed them differently.

The creators miss the best part of the Death Game scenarios. The Death Game throws a bunch of characters in a situation that forces them to confront each other. It needs different personalities. The clash between them is what creates tension. Some explosions will never be as exciting as a blind crazy, a yandere and a misanthrope meeting in the same place.

These personalities make us view these characters as human. We’ll care about them, understand them and have empathy for them. The deaths will be sadder because we’ll see a human who is like us fail, perhaps of his own undoing. That’s how tragedy works. Tragedy isn’t just making characters suffer but have them (and us) understand it. Characters just explode here.

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Random unimportant asshole

If BTOOOM! chose the way of Saw it would’ve been better. It’s not a show of aestheticized violence. Such violence is overblown and disconnected from reality. It can be fun to see limbs being torn and people explode, but there’s no sense of fun here. The action scenes are tedious, consisting mainly of pointless inner monologues. The fact characters suffer is emphasized more than how fun it is to throw a bomb.

Any momentum that a scene generates is immidiately smashed. There are a lot of inner monologues. It’s a wonder the series didn’t pull an Evangelion. They had enough for 3 episodes. Action scenes are about movement and set-pieces. Some dialogue can also help if the interaction is meaningful enough. Thoughts are static. No one has room for introspection during such scenes. You don’t have them running in your head in a video game, so in real life?

It’s the stereotypical edgy anime that thinks violence, gore and suffering makes for something profound. It tries to something about how humans are cruel, but when everyone is cruel for no reason we it’s hard to believe that message. How can be believe humans are as cruel as the players when the strings behind them are so obvious?

The symbol for caring and companionship is your typical harem protagonist, without the harem. Sakamoto has no personality whatsoever. He kind of cares about others, but why? He’s the main character because it’s easier to sympathize with him, rather than the rest of the meanies. More correctly, it’s safer to make him the main character. Following one of the bad guys would mean they’d have to to do more than be cruel for a while than die.

Himiko isn’t much better. She’s an insutling portrait of the Clinging Woman. Everything Yuno satirized is in her. The parallels are so obvious, you have to wonder whether it’s a response. Both girls rely on their men, but differently. Yuno relies for psychological stability. She acts less to please the guy than to fulfill her own desire for love. Himiko exists for Sakamoto and no other reason. Her love isn’t related to personality. She’s a reward Sakamoto wins twice, first for being a great player and second because he’s saving her.vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h28m47s108

For the glory of Satan

She’s also an object of sexual gartification, both for characters and the viewer. She gets near-raped a few times, and these scenes are filled with nice shots that give you a clear picture of Himiko’s body. These are not the expressive flashbacks of Tsubaki. You might be able to catch a nice shot there, but they’re too expressive and short. The don’t emphasize just the sexual part of it but the pain.

It made Tsubaki hateful of the world and everyone in it. It was her undoing, but she was portrayed as a tragic character. Himiko is turned into a silly tsundere who slowly learns to ‘trust men’, as if she should just get over it.

The ending is also insutling. It’s the definition of ‘inconclusive’. This criticism has been brought up a lot, but many short shows have some arc that concludes. The grand story of Freezing isn’t over, but there is an arc that concludes which defines the two seasons. BTOOOM! just ends. It makes it all feel like an advertisement for the source material.

There are tiny worldbuilding things that come off as moronic. There’s no sensible explanation why the game exists. Hints point toward the good old cliche of human experiments or evil corporations. The bombs also somehow can tell whether their owner is dead or not. Then again, I keep praising a show about diaries that predict the future. If the world doesn’t make too much sense but serves the purpose, it’s okay. If your story is full of holes, it’s a magnifying glass to how stupid your world is.

At least the art style is nice. Since this is supposed to be deep, we get a realistic art style with no crazy ideas. The designers still managed to give everyone a distinct look. At least in that department, BTOOOM! has something to teach others. Even characters that appear for a few minutes get their own unique look. It’s too bad these designs weren’t used in a different, better anime.

The OP ends with all the characters standing and looking towards the horizon. It reminded me of the first shot of Future Diary‘s ED. It summed up what made that one so good – a cast of crazies, which with flawed personalities that make them understandable even at their worst. BTOOOM! has no such empathy. It treats its characters like they’re from a video game. They exist to kill and die. The protagonist has as much character as a silent protagnsit. It’s amazing how bad it is. ¬†has almost everything I want in an anime, and wrecks it.

1.5 bombs out of 5

Dennou Coil

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You can’t talk about Dennou Coil¬†without talking about Digimon Tamers. They don’t just use a similar technique to tell their stories. Their stories revolve around the same theme. The ending also includes a girl trapped in a visualization of grief. It never feels like a rip off. Both shows wanted to explore a subject that needs exploration, and found different inspirations.

The core difference between the two is the mode of storytelling. Tamers was a heroic journey, but Coil is closer to something like Mushishi. It’s more concerned with the world it created and what it means.

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Nature is odd, but so is technology. At some point, inventions become so advanced we can’t predict their behavior. Even the most simple ones contain surprises. They often spin out of control, and the internet is the perfect example of this.

Do the people who invented the internet thought it would be used to exchange Japanese cartoons, cat photos and have people’s suicide notes on them? The internet is now out of our control. It’s a constantly-changing frontier, with pages being born and dying. It’s a way to connect to others, where bullshit rumours spread and where you can escape your reality.

The technology in this show is just a visualization of this idea. It juxtaposes the exploration of the virtual frontier and the physical one. You might think kids today are all just stuck on their computers, but weren’t the astronauts stuck on exploring the moon, rather than the Earth?

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Space is not the final frontier. The internet is another one, but it’s one that we create. The spaces weren’t here before. Every piece of data was created by someone else, a product of their thoughts. Exploring the internet is exploring what others think, whether you’re looking for funny pictures someone uploaded, their writings or stuff they thought was cool and reblogged. I think once someone said we are the final frontier. If this is true, then the internet is how we explore it.

The kids in this show may seem too independent,but this isn’t a plot device. Kids on the internet are often more independent and loose than outside of it. If you play outside, your mom can still look out the window and see what you’re doing. If you go somewhere, she’ll want to know where.

It’s easier to build an independent culture when you’re on the internet. Close the door or minimize the window when mom comes in. If she doesn’t know the address, she’ll never know what’s going on. Even if she does, you’re creating a new identity she might not recognize.

The new culture the kids have built in Dennou Coil isn’t alien. I’ve seen it happen myself. I remember those message boards that were the beginning of Nerdom in my country. I still see communities with a distinct identity in message boards or video games.

Here, we got a physical reality along it. So the rivalries aren’t just name-dropping in forum posts but the old fun of shooting each other. That’s something people do online all the time. They shoot cyber-avatars of other humans.

These avatars can be convincingly real, even when they were just pixels. That’s the problem with the internet. A lot of it appears real, and the line between reality and the virtual blurs. Maybe it doesn’t exist at all. Densuke only appears when you put your cyber-glasses, but you can only see Jupiter with a telescope. Densuke is not a real, biological dog. A real dog is also not a virtual one. What makes one dog better than the other?

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Both dogs actually exist. Both respond to us. Even a virtual pet in an RPG game responds to your actions. The fact one is manmade isn’t much of a difference. Dog breeds are an invention of men. The difference is that the virtual world is full of data and information, but nothing sensory.

Stuff on the internet is not something you can feel. That’s why some people can be social on message boards but socially neurotic in real life. Densuke is a virtual dog and will never be a real one. If we try to program humans, they will just be virtual versions. They will never be a real human.

Grief does its thing, though. It messes with our minds, and we want more to find a new reality where the event didn’t happen than find good in our reality. A character gains the option of creating her own reality without the death of a close person.

A purely man-made reality is nothing, though. Nothing is purely man-made or exists on its own. A reality where nothing is connected is barren and dry. This is the same world of the D-Reaper. A grieving person can’t escape into his world. He’ll just dive deeper into his own sadness.

All we create is just a reflection of us. Isako couldn’t re-create with her brother. She could enjoy a projection of him, something similar. It’s not the real thing, and in the end it’s not a proper replacement. Things can’t be replaced with second hand versions.

If this sounds like it’s too heavy for children, then you’re not paying attention to the best of children’s fiction out there. Children deal with loss. Their stories need to address it.

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While Dennou Coil treats it with maturity and empathy, it falls short of Tamers. Its technology is more imaginative and conceptually deep. The Digimon are a plot device, but the idea of a ‘virtual reality’ isn’t explored. Tamers kept the technical stuff at bay. At too many instances the mechanics of the virtual reality will be explored. None of it is ever coherent. It’s just a physical manifestation of the internet and that’s it.

Dennou Coil also sports a problematic art style. There is a great difference of creativity in the character design and the virtual reality design. The designs of anything virtual are beautiful. They’re simple, but the little details are excellent. The Illegals’ black, blurry body, Densuke’s round shape, Oyaji’s lack of mouth and small eyes are all details that stick out.

The character design does the minimalist-realist Mushishi did. It’s not as bad as that one. They find subtle details to give them personality, but too often they feel dry. Auntie is supposed to be the beautiful character, yet nothing about her looks significantly different than the others.

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Two episodes are noteworthy. One is the comic apex of the series. It’s a brief history of humanity as if they were the hairs that compose a beard. The episode is complete with a bearded old lady. The other episode comes right after it, and is actually the most psychologically deep one of the series. The climax isn’t as powerful as Tamers’ D-Reaper. In that episode, it is. If only they could use the ideas there, reshuffle them and make a different climax.

Even if it doesn’t manage to reach the heights of Digimon Tamers, it comes close. It’s not treading the same grounds. It uses the same tools to tell an equally deep story with its own take on things. In some places, it’s weirder and bolder. Anyone who wants to see how good children’s fiction can be should watch this.

4 illegals out of 5

Sword Art Online

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What a glorious mess. Average should mean unremarkable. Average things can sometimes be worse than bad things, because they can’t make you react. At least something that’s offensively bad makes you angry. Sword Art Online is average because there’s a crappy, overly serious hero’s journey here mixed with a subversive, psychological sci-fi story.

Villains often want to make a change to the world, and that takes the form of destruction. Saving the world means not letting the villain destroy it, whether it’s a senseless bad guy or a specific idea. We rarely meet villains who are creators. We sometimes get the ‘death game’ creators (Saw, Death Race), but all they do is make other people destroy stuff.

Here, we get an actual creator. Our main villain is in a position of God. He created the world, he controls it and he doesn’t let people just easily exit. On paper, this sounds like an exciting adventure which will explore interesting themes like suicide and optimism. Harlan Ellison tackled the God-like character in his brilliant story about mouths and screaming.

Sword Art Online isn’t a death game like the aforementioned films. It’s a real world with slightly different rules. You can die in it just like you can in the real world, but unlike Death Race you’re allowed to do more things than fighting or dying. That’s why it makes sense when some people decide to stop trying to get out of SAO.

Instead of trying to Win at Life, they’d rather slow down and find a few things they like. For some of them, the world of SAO is far more exciting and beautiful. Then again, isn’t that why some people play video games and watch anime? They’re trying to escape from one world to another. Yet when they get trapped in that world, they want to escape back to the real world.

All of this sounds really clever, only there’s no character psychology to give substance to these themes. Akihiko’s motives for creating this world are, what? Just to observe people in action?

When Harlan Ellison created AM, who has the power of God, he tries to think what kind of power can do to someone. In his eyes, it would drive a person insane and made torture people because he got nothing better to do. I kept waiting for something like this in Akihiko, some motive that will make his actions make sense or how creating SAO affects him.

How does all this power affect him? What did he learn from his observations? Maybe he’s like Attack on Titan’s Hanji, a person who’s too caught up in his research to notice people? He delivers some speeches in the end of the arcs, but he might as well walked with a sign that says ‘a winner is you’. That would be funny and more clever.

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Wine bottles from Skyrim make a cameo appearance

It gets worse, though. Akihiko is an interesting character whose psychology was left on the floor of the board meeting. Sugou is just a cartoon. He’s evil for the sake of it. There’s no difference between him and your average Digimon Adventure bad guy, only he doesn’t look as cool. The package comes complete with grand speeches about evil ambitions, mind control research and slug-like creatues who want to molest poor Asuna. Just in case you didn’t get it, the bad guys are ugly slugs.

It was going so well until then. Some complained about the time skips, but I just see focusing on what’s important. The format of ‘This happened, and then this happened’ is boring. Storytelling is choosing what to include and exclude. In those Slice-of-Life-esque episodes, the creators chose stories that will illustrate how the world works and how people behave in it. This is how worldbuilding should be done.

Even the romance section wasn’t terrible. It was actually one of the highlights. A romantic story doesn’t end when the two get together. There’s a story to be told of how their relationships work. These romantic scenes make us care about their relationship because we see it in action. We see them laugh, think about the future and enjoying each other’s company. Put them next to the stories when they deal with death and it’s even more effective. Sachi’s episode remains hard-hitting, and the first episode hints at something unsettling like Digimon Tamers. We even get color schemes that echo the D-Reaper, and you can’t go wrong with that.

Then it degenerates into Rescuing the Princess. Kirito’s a Gary Stu, but it doesn’t become as annoying until that happens. SAO swings from a fun adventure to serious Sci-Fi without notice, which makes it just an admirable failure. When Sugou does his sexual molester stuff, the series just gives up.

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Personaliy + twintails. What a waste

I could tolerate Kirito in a more light-hearted context. He and Asuna are both pretty perfect, but there’s charm to his humble, yet powerful persona. He’s stuck in a show that keeps pointing to depth. Since we never get enough meaningful moments, the Gary Stu problem just makes it obvious how shallow it is.

I found myself more interested in Sugou than Kirito. We never get to see Kirito’s hard work. He’s doing nice things because it’s nice to do them. He never strives for something, but why should he? He’s an alpha male who get a beautiful girl and got some others going after him. He has all he needs in the world. Even the hard re-adjustment to the real world isn’t addressed. He just goes off to rescue the princess.

That’s a static character whose role is to mow down mooks, not to make things happen. Sugou is interesting. He doesn’t just react but acts, creates conflicts and his wants, needs and flaws.

Yet, even when this series gives up on itself you get a moment that reminds you of what it could have been. There’s a harem thing going on, but it’s much less prominent than people say. It also lets us see the rejected character deal with heartbreak and trying to get over it. The incest thing may have been out-of-place, but at least it’s handled well. Suguha isn’t cast aside, but reacts to the heartbreak.

Those moments were enough to make me curious to check the light novels, but the anime is just a collection of good ideas brought down by cliches. It’s Date A Live all over again, only less brave. It’s weird. Date A Live was more obvious in its harem, but it never settled on clear heroes and villains. Sword Art Online is a cool series that gives up on itself, tells the hero to go rescue the princess just because they’re sick of the whole thing. Someday, someone will remake this and fix these flaws. Until then, I’ll sit back and watch people get really angry over this on message boards.

2.5 swords out of 5