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Matt Kamen levels up on the RPG to end all RPGs

Kazuto Kirigawa is a reclusive teen, most of his free time invested in video games. As one of the few people selected as a beta tester for Sword Art Online, he’s been anxiously awaiting the final version for a chance to return to his unreal life as ‘Kirito’, his avatar. He’s not alone – advance buzz has been positive, and with the first production run limited to 10,000 units due to the proprietary virtual reality helmet, it’s been an instant sell out. Release day goes smoothly – until players realise it’s impossible to log out.

Suddenly, all 10,000 are teleported to the starting hub. The skies turn red, blood drips from above and a gargantuan hooded figure materialises. Revealing himself as Akihiko Kayaba, the creator of the game, he proceeds to go literally ‘god mode’ on the game. Avatars now reflect users’ physical bodies. The only way to leave is to complete all 100 levels of the game – something the beta testers never managed. The final twist? If health reaches zero in-game, or the helmet is removed in reality, the user dies – for real.

Once the inevitable panic dies down, those trapped have to start adjusting. Experience points, in-game currency, and restoration items all become precious resources, while factions start forming as people make plans to beat the game. However, Kirito’s beta testing experience gives him an edge and skills other players lack. Can he learn to trust other players, such as new gamer Klein or the enchanting Asuna, or is he better off sticking to his solo game? Either way, one wrong move for anyone and it’s game over – permanently.

Sword Art Online undoubtedly owes a debt of inspiration to the sprawling .hack franchise, even covering some of the same story templates, most obviously players trapped in an online game. However, while .hack’s multimedia empire tries to go mythic in its scope – ‘reincarnated’ characters, legendary powers, and epic adventures in a perpetual digital world – Sword Art Online skews smaller. Kirito’s journey is a personal one, focused on his survival and burgeoning relationship with Asuna.

The tighter focus and more developed themes of Sword Art Online stem from its prose origins. Written by Reki Kawahara, the ten book series takes time to explore the affects of player trauma and the emergence of new social structures, as people adapt to the bizarre situation they find themselves in. The first light novel was published through traditional channels in April 2009, though Kawahara had self-published the initial four volumes online from 2002 onwards. When publisher ASCII Media Works released it in print, the series came to mainstream attention. Its success spawned the first manga adaptation 18 months later, also written by Kawahara with art by Tamako Nakamura, soon followed by this animated iteration, directed by Occult Academy’s Tomohiko Ito.

You can dive into Kirito’s world with the first collection of Sword Art Online, available on Blu-ray and DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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