I will admit that the first season of Sword Art Online didn’t leave me with a very good impression. While I felt the concepts presented in the show were well executed, I felt the over all story was kind of weak. I also didn’t care for the main character and the obvious lack of any real character development. The fact that Kirito essentially over powers everybody by a large margin and has a harem on top of that really bothered me. Paired with a weak second half I left the finale with only so-so feelings. This baffled me a bit considering the series popularity. What was the hype about? I couldn’t really figure it out. I heard season two was on its way and I was unsure about the new setting, a world where guns not swords were the primary focus. I decided to give the show a second shot. Approaching the new season with an open mind, I found it being a lot better. But did it pierce the veil of mediocrity ? Read on to find out!
Therapy through games
The first episode of the season ends with a woman laying belly down and getting ready to take a shot with a sweet sniper. This is our secondary protagonist for the season, Sinon. Sinon is a tough as nails sniper in game. Her design is actually really cool but I feel that there is too much emphasis on her lower half. The show often has her laying down in ways that shows off her ass. I understand fan service can help your show but I found it to be more of a hinderance from the sheer number of times it happens. I’ll at least give them credit that their attempts are not totally tasteless. In the real world, her name is Shino Asada, a high school student who has a “traumatic” past. Usually when I say that sentence there is a very heavy sarcastic tone that is applied. This time I’m being totally serious. To avoid spoilers, I will say she had a terrible incident that involved a fire arm. This gives her a severe case of PTSD to the point that even seeing a toy gun causes her to convulse. It feels very real and I know some will be able to relate. A friend of Asada introduced her to the MMO called Gun Gale Online and she uses the game to help her overcome her PTSD. Sinon becomes a well know player within GGO and is preparing to enter the “Bullet of Bullets” tournament, the biggest player vs player free for all for a huge cash prize.
The antagonist for the set is an interesting character as well, I just wish he was given a better name. He goes by Death Gun (I found myself mocking his name frequently in conversations about the show). From a design stand point is where the character deserves his credit. His look is basically a skull like gas mask and a black cloak. Simple, but it conveys a sense of fear and mystery. He also has a bad ass mecha-horse (Props for that cool addition!). What sets a tone of mystery for the character and the plot is how he kills people.
Just shy of a Bulls Eye
The first season’s execution of the story was decent at best. I never felt any connection to the characters and some of the events kinda fell flat considering the events themselves were supposed to carry weight in the overall cannon. I feel this time around the series has a better balance of things and the story has the sense of weight that makes the plot feel more in line with its popularity. The story is broken into two halves and covers three stories in total.
At this point you’re probably wondering how Kirito fits into this situation. After his time in SAO, he was recruited by a government official and asks Kirito to investigate the death of one of GGO’s top players. He reluctantly agrees and enters the world. Kirito essentially meets with Sinon and forms a relationship early on and the two work together for the rest of the first half, though not without a few bumps. The two of them enter the Bullet of Bullets. There is actual character development for the series main character. Kirito has his first battle in GGO, immediately followed by a tense brush with Death Gun. We learn Death Gun was a SAO player who was part of a murder guild, The Laughing Coffin. These two events cause Kirito to have a major panic attack and triggers his own symptoms of PTSD. Sinon encounters him during this and begins to realize they are similar, something that makes their duel very personal. After the two face off, both qualify for the tournament and go into the mayhem of it. This is the part of the story that really kicks into high gear. During the tournament death gun begins running amok and kills several players. The ensuing chaos leads to our two protagonists to work together and finish the fight. A lot happens in roughly 15 episodes. Which leads us into the second half where the pacing and tone are almost totally different.
The second half of the season felt almost rushed, as there is two stories they focus on. The first is a small story about somehting that could dramatically change the landscape of ALO (Alfheim online) both literally and figuratively. It focuses on a quest to prevent giant trolls from destroying the natural balance of the world. This particular arc only lasts a few short episodes but features some neat touches from norse mythology. It’s a nice distraction and segway into adding sinon to the main group from a more or less isolated incident. The real meat of the second half is the “Mothers Rosario” story line. It gives the reins to a character who has basically been a wallflower and a mary sue to this point, Asuna. Asuna learns of another player, Zekken, who has enough skill to even defeat Kirito. She attempts to face them, she fights Zekken to a draw, to which they then enlist Asuna to help them with a much bigger goal. Enter the small player guild “Sleeping Knights”. They want to be the first to clear a floors boss, and have their names engraved forever into the game. Asuna agrees and helps the Sleeping Knights. There is a battle that is waged on two fronts. Not only does she fight to help her new friends online, but she has a personal battle with her mother. During this conflict, we learn alot about the Sleeping Knights and especially their leader Zekken (whose actual name is yuuki) that hits home yet again in reality. This arc was incredibly empowering. There were times I actually teared up, and that doesn’t happen for me often. The development of tow characters that I genuinely disliked hit me like a sack of bricks. I actually care to about Asuna and Kirito now. Well played Sword Art, well played. I was much more impressed this time around. The delivery was great and it was more than point A to B.
Line of sight
SAO’s animation is something that conflicts in my mind. The show animation was once again handled by A-1 Pictures (Black Butler, Fairy Tail). The animation is generally very smooth and colorful. I don’t know if it’s the odd angles of the faces or the way they do their eyes, but I can’t shake the feeling. The art isn’t bad, just not great. The action sequences however are still beautifully well done. The action sequences are of special note. When situations get intense, there are times it drops in quality. This is not the case when it comes to Sword Art Online. A minor gripe, there is some CGI done here and there. This didn’t bother me this time around for two reasons; The CG was used very minimally, and the little bits that were done are quite polished. I had a hard time taking my eyes off the screen. The openings and endings were also great. I felt the second opening gave a few too many hints at a few of the elements that were supposed to be revealed during the plot. Luckily, they were not major spoilers. I figured out a couple of details but the big surprises are still intact. I don’t know if they will ever change the style of it to accommodate for my first grip about their faces, but if they keep the current pace would still be acceptable. I also The sound was also held to the high standard from the first season. The openings and endings presented here show off the studios talent and are overall great.
The sound work and voice acting for the show were one of the few things I praised the first show for. The cast members all reprise their roles in the show and I am grateful for that. They all fit the characters and their delivery never feels hammy. The over all sound production is also quite crisp and is especially awesome when the bullets really start to fly. The whistling of a sniper bullet in slow motion, the explosion of grenades, and the roar of thunder are all quite blood pumping. Combined with a nice score composed by Yuki Kaijura (Fate/Zero, Puella Magi Modoka Magica) helps to bring both the intense action and the more tender moments to an emotional plateau. I’m not quite as big a fan of her work here as I have been for soenm of the other shows shes composed for, but not because of the quality. It’s definitely very well done, but I don’t get the same feelings with ehr previously mentioned works. as far as the openings and endings go, I loved the first set and mostly enjoyed the second set. The Openings “Iginite” (By Eir Aoi) and “Courage” (By Haruka Tomatsu) were great for setting the tone of the first and second halves respectively. I listen to Ignite fairly regurally now, it’s a great song. The endings, Star Tear (by Luna Haruna) and “No More TimeMachine” (By LiSA) are more character centric and perfect pallet cleansers.