Last time I mentioned that I was watching Sword Art Online II, and enjoying it quite a bit. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to talk about part three of a series without spoilers, so I figured I’d save the discussion for next time. So today, let’s talk about it!
This column contains spoilers for Sword Art Online. I won’t talk about any of the big reveals or twists, but information of the “which characters don’t die” sort is impossible to avoid. I personally think you’d be fine reading this and then watching it, but you can make your own decision!
Sword Art Online is a 2012 anime based on a series of light novels. In the near future, a new type of MMO is released: using a system called NerveGear, it directly interfaces with the player’s brain to put them entirely in a virtual world. The first of this new breed of VRMMORPGS (vir-muh-more-puh-guh?) is “Sword Art Online”, a fantasy game where players can learn to trigger magical sword techniques by their actual swordplay.
The game is finally out of beta, and thousands of people log in for release day. Everything goes wrong when they’re called into the central square for an announcement from the game developer. First, he transforms everyone’s avatar to look more or less like their real-world self, causing much consternation among a few internet couples.
Then (appearing as a giant specter of death) he tells them that they are all trapped in the game. The NerveGear helmets are booby-trapped with microwave bombs, and any attempt to remove them will fry the player’s brain. Moreover, if a player dies in the game, the bomb will kill them in real life. There are 100 levels to SAO, each with a boss, and only by clearing the final boss will everyone be released from the game.
Needless to say, with their actual lives on the line, people react a bit differently. The majority of the player population hangs out in the towns, where it’s safe, while a few guilds form to push the front lines forward and risk their lives to clear dungeons. Our main character is Kirito, one of the beta testers, who uses his knowledge and MMO skills to get an early advantage.
So, (thus far) the show is divided into three parts. The setup I’ve described here is for part one, the first 13 episodes. This part started a bit shakily for me — the first episode was great, but after that it skips forward in time and introduces a few characters we never actually see again, or some plotlines that don’t pay off. I suspect this is a result of the adaptation, where the anime creators are rushing ahead through the novel plot to make sure it fits in a season. There’s a few good bits, though — Kirito takes a lower-level adventuring guild under his wing, and gets in trouble when they get in too deep. Or the scene where he rescues someone from player-killers, just standing there and taking all the damage, and remarks, “Okay, yeah, you just about match my passive regen…”
About halfway through the first part, though, the show hits its stride when Kirito gets together with Asuna, who convinces him to join the front lines instead of being a lone wolf. The relationship between the two of them is one of my favorite things about the show, and really refreshing in an anime — they fall in love with one another, and are honest about it, and get together without a ton of unnecessary drama or misunderstandings. Once the show settles down, Kirito’s character is fun: practical, heroic in a matter-of-fact sort of way, with a good sense of humor. And Asuna is actually competent, that rarest of traits in an anime love interest — she and Kirito fight together, without one of them constantly rescuing the other.
By the end of the first part, I was solidly on board. While I won’t spoil the exact ending, suffice to say that they manage to escape from SAO and free the surviving players, which was somewhat surprising — I figured that would be the whole show, not the halfway mark. The second part started off pretty well, too, with a bit of actual realism — after spending months in SAO, with his real-world body on IVs in a hospital bed, Kirito has to undergo extensive rehabilitation before he can walk again.
In the second part, we discover that some select players from SAO, including Asuna, never escaped from the virtual world. Kirito tracks down her real body and goes to visit her, and ends up getting involved in some of the politics of her very wealthy family. He finds out that the codebase and resources of the now-defunct SAO company were taken over by a new game company, which has produced another VRMMORPG called Aincrad with new, guaranteed murder-free equipment. Certain that there must be some clue in there to freeing Asuna, Kirito goes back in to try and figure it out.
This part was a pretty big downer for me, in several ways. On the most basic level, without the threat of real-life death, a show about people playing an MMO is not all that interesting. (“Oh no, if we die we’ll have to start over at the graveyard!” It could be interesting if it’s more about character interaction than fighting, see Log Horizon.) Kirito also doesn’t really know what he’s doing, so he sort of wanders across Aincrad hoping to stumble on to some clues. It also features the kind of misunderstanding-driven plot that the first part was free off — his primary companion, Sugu, is in fact his own sister, which neither of them is aware of even though they’re playing the game from the same house. (And she kinda-sorta falls in love with him? Because of course she does.)
Asuna, in the meantime, is indeed trapped in Aincrad, literally locked in a golden birdcage at the top of a giant tree. This is the biggest issue for me — it’s like they looked at the reasonable relationship they’d established in the first part, and said, “Oh dear, we can’t have that! Put her in a tower somewhere to be rescued!” They keep cutting to her during the show, and she has an “attempting to escape” subplot that goes nowhere, but the rest of the time she’s being menaced by the scenery-chewing villain and literally tentacle monsters. The villain is another disappointment — the first part didn’t really have one, other than the mysterious programmer, but this one has this guy who might as well have “I’M A BAD GUY” tattooed on his forehead.
While having to rescue Asuna does provide some level of stakes for the plot, on the whole it felt like a serious step backward from what I liked about the first part. So, when the first season (comprising parts one and two) wrapped up, I wasn’t really eager to see more. Then, this summer, Sword Art Online II started up, and I was genuinely surprised by how good it was.
A year or so after the SAO problems, VRMMORPGs have become widespread, and Kirito is contacted by a government agency investigating the mysterious deaths of players of a game called Gun Gale Online, a Call of Duty-esque modern shooter. He reluctantly agrees to investigate and enters a tournament called “Bullet of Bullets” (I am 100% certain that was supposed to be “Ballet of Bullets”, because that would actually make sense) in order to lure out the mysterious “Death Gun”, who has connections to a player-killer guild from SAO that Kirito helped exterminate.
So, on the downside, Asuna and all the other characters from previous show are basically sidelined, but at least they don’t keep reinforcing their absence by giving them screentime to do nothing. In the meantime, Kirito (who fights with a lightsaber in GGO) teams up with Sinon, a sniper, and the interactions between them are excellent. (It helps that Sinon is voiced by Sawashiro Miyuki, who is a fantastic voice actress.) Kirito, by virtue of all the stuff he’s survived, has become a calm, collected badass in a believable way; Sinon, who came to GGO in an effort to reach that state herself, has a really interesting dynamic with him. (After a bit of misunderstanding/stupidity at the beginning.) The introduction of a guy who can maybe/kinda/sorta kill people in real life (it’s not clear at this point, but nobody wants to risk it) restores tension, and the plotting is tight and focused, more so than either part of the first season — no side quests or episodes devoted to characters who don’t appear again. All in all, it’s good writing and excellent production.
So can I really recommend Sword Art Online overall? It’s hard to say. After season one, I would have said no — another show that failed to live up to its early promise. But the first half of season two has turned me around. There’s a second half, so we’ll see what that brings, but I’m at least eager to have a look. (Though if they lock Shinon in a cage with tentacle monsters, I’m done.)
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.