Sword Art Online… or is it Alfheim Online?

So I wrote a post about the first arc of the Sword Art Online anime a few months ago when it concluded, but the first season of the show had more to offer than that. The second arc has just concluded, with the season finale, episode 25, airing today.

I’m going to be somewhat brief here, because I don’t want to just offer a synopsis. The basic premise is that some of the people from Sword Art Online – including Asuna – never woke up. Kirito, finding out that she may be in a different game, begins searching for her.

Let’s Start With the Bad…

The main ‘villain’ is designed such that it is almost too ‘villain-y’. He’s a character that could potentially have been slightly relatable, a villain whose backstory offers some options to be the type of character you actually feel a little bad for… except that they made him so vile and so evil that it was hard to really look at him and not cringe. These types of villains don’t really feel right in an anime like SAO, which left me a bit out of sorts watching the show unfold. When you watch the second arc unfold, you’ll see a number of incredibly disturbing moments involving him, and at the conclusion… well… let’s just say that he’s such an awful character that it’s hard not to cheer when things turn around on him.

The other key fault is the pacing. For a situation that is on such a stringent timeline, it feels like they spent an inordinate amount of time on poorly conceived world-building. While the world building is certainly important, it could have been handled much better. It takes several episodes to really build up to the interesting parts… and since this is midway through a season, that feels disjointed. You get a high-action, exciting, emotional conclusion then immediately afterwards you’re shoved into what should be a high-suspense situation; yet doesn’t really feel that way for several episodes.

The only other real issue I had, and this was fairly minor, was the almost-incestual fascination his cousin/sister has with him. Suguha is a major character in this arc, and there’s a lot of her falling in love with him… and it kind of feels disturbing and creepy. There’s one particular episode where it all comes to a head and it just feels really disturbing… it should be a touching and emotional moment but I was instead left feeling just a little creeped out.

On to the Good

On The Wings of… Fairies?

So this arc takes place in a new virtual reality MMORPG that was actually built using the code from SAO – effectively the world was copied and modified to suit their needs. The key difference, aside from the fact that most people are able to log out of this one, is that people can fly for a limited duration. This sounds like a minor change, but it really does make a huge difference. The ability to fly makes everything feel different. The 3-dimensional element to the fighting scenes, the incredible views you get from the perspective of a character midflight, and the sense of magic created from the thought of a ‘fairy’ all help to really bring home the fact that this truly is a different… and utterly fantastic world.

A Fantastic World

The world of Alfheim Online, the new MMORPG, is gorgeous. I thought the SAO world was beautiful, but the ALO one takes it another step up. When you look at the world of Sword Art Online, sure it’s clearly a fantasy world – there’s no questioning that – but with the characters and the more… man-made… sense to it, it feels kind of realistic in a way. Not so with Alfheim Online. Between the cities clearly designed with flight in mind, the distant view of the unearthly ‘world tree’ and the almost-magical scenery everywhere it becomes clear that this world is anything but ‘realistic’. And that just helps to make it all the more amazing. The pure and utter fantasy of it all makes it enchanting.

The Suspense

As I mentioned above, the pacing wasn’t handled all that well in the early episodes of this arc… but the motivation and the suspense are very much present throughout the entire arc; and are very relatable to almost anyone. Rescuing a loved one… and suspense is created by placing a quite serious time limit on matters… Kirito only has 1 week to master this new world, find Asuna, and figure out a way to rescue her. A seemingly impossible task, yet certain factors play in his favor to make it seem a little less daunting without killing the urgency.

Overall

I have had more fun with SAO overall than I have with any other anime I can remember. The show is utterly fantastic, one of the best anime I have ever watched. Between the fantastic characters and character development, the incredible story elements, the unbelievably amazing set design, and the exciting and dynamic combat… you can’t go wrong with this series. Not every episode is perfect, but even the episodes that aren’t up to the caliber of the series still help to build the series on the whole.