Last summer the second season of Sword Art Online aired. Having loved the first season, although the Fairy Dance arc didn’t quite live up to the quality of SAO’s first arc, I was extremely excited for the second season. The sheer volume of summer and fall reviews kept me from revisiting this for you guys prior to now, but #JRPGMonth seemed like a perfect opportunity to tackle this RPG oriented anime… so how did it compare to the first season?
Like SAO’s first season, SAO2 was split into two separate arcs. Unlike the first season, they took a bit of a break between the two arcs this time by offering a short story to wrap matters up. The first half of SAO2 was the Phantom Bullet arc, which then lead into the Calibur short story and closed matters out with the Mother’s Rosario arc. For the purposes of this review I’ll tackle the two arcs separately, since they differed so greatly.
Gun Gale Online is the game that this arc takes place in, and the core regions of GGO looked incredible. The scenery in that sort of grungy sci-fi city was amazing. They did a phenomenal job of conveying atmosphere with that, and it’s just a pity that it was used as little as it was. You see, most of the arc took place in a tournament that happened within a specially generated controlled space (think of a Battleground in World of Warcraft, if you want a comparison) containing a variety of environments, but not the same sci-fi vibe as the city. It did provide a good contrast to help you better appreciate the amazing art-style of the city, but it is a real shame to see such an incredible aesthetic so underutilized.
But that’s really the story of the Phantom Bullet Arc. Time and time again, the potential was there for the show to shine… but every time it just falls short. The arc takes on a dramatically different vibe than previous arcs within the show, becoming a mystery/murder story focused on people who Kirito seems to recognize, but just can’t quite place. Now, this would have been interesting if the Aincrad arc had featured the story segments they’re referencing…
You see, this all revolves around a fascinating storyline from the Sword Art Online era about the guilds from the front line going and assaulting the Laughing Coffin guild, a guild for ‘red players’ (when one player kills another player in Sword Art Online the murderer gets tagged in red). Sadly, the Aincrad arc never even mentioned this event, and all we saw here were flashback snippets and vocal references to it from Kirito, Asuna, and Agil who were all involved in the assault. Since that was all we saw, it felt incomplete and somewhat hollow. This really sapped the impact from the murder story. A murder story thrives on suspense… the feeling that you are provided enough information to try to puzzle it out on your own, but not so much that it is easy to do so. When you try to tie a murder story so completely to a previous event that wasn’t explored, it just doesn’t work.
The other half of the story revolves around new character ‘Sinon’ – a sniper and one of the best players in GGO – and her struggle to overcome her fears. You see, she suffered childhood trauma involving firearms and is using the gun-oriented sci-fi game as a form of therapy to try to overcome it. Now, the story itself isn’t really explored adequately, but it does build a relatively strong character in Sinon herself. The character development, spawning from her trauma and her involvement with the murder story, creates one of the series few relatively well-explored female characters.
Additionally, it seems as though they listened too much to people’s complaints about the first two arcs. Both Aincrad and Fairy Dance suffered from severe pacing issues – they both went by simply too fast, and left too little time for matters to develop. Phantom Bullet goes in the complete opposite direction, with pacing so pensive and slow that it just feels like almost nothing is going to happen for most of the duration of each episode. There are also random flurries of action that are too short to justify the buildup in most cases. But that action was what really shone about this show. The interactions between the various types of weaponry gave the show’s fight scenes an almost action movie feel. It was exciting, and a lot of fun to watch… just not nearly frequent enough to justify the slow pace of everything else.
GGO could have been great. They simply didn’t have the story set up to support it and, as a result, there was so much time spent on flashbacks that the show just felt far too pensive.
In between the two primary arcs of SAO2, they did a short arc spanning only a few episodes that takes place in ALFheim Online. This arc is a lighthearted, fun action story showcasing a giant world event within the game. Kirito and company, now including Sinon, are clearing a dungeon to save the world and reclaim the legendary sword Excalibur.
There’s very little story here, not much character development, and not a lot of substance. But that’s fine, because it really is just supposed to be filler. A way to fill a few episodes with fun before moving on to the next real story. There’s not really a lot to say here… it’s fun, it’s short, and it’s not really important.
Here’s where it gets good. The Mother’s Rosario arc is, in my eyes, the best arc of the series so far. The story explores Asuna’s character to a much greater degree than we’ve seen before, expanding on her beyond just being the ‘ideal gamer girl’ that she seemed to be built as in the first segments of the series. You get to explore the difficulties of her family life – being rich doesn’t solve all of life’s problems afterall – as well as get a better grasp on her struggle to figure out who she should be and what it is she wants to do. This all leads to some of the best character development the series has seen, turning a character who was clearly designed to just be as perfect as possible into someone who actually feels very real.
And it is all spurred about by a character named Yuuki, the leader of a guild called The Sleeping Knights with only six members. After fighting Asuna in a duel, Yuuki invites asks for her help with what seems like an impossible endeavor. You see, The Sleeping Knights want to get their names onto the Monument of Swordsmen which records the names of each party’s leader for the first raid to take down the boss of each floor. But if a boss were to be cleared with just a single party, each of the party’s members would make the list rather than just the party leaders. Which is the ‘impossible endeavor’ – clearing floor 27’s boss with just the Sleeping Knights’ six members and Asuna.
The reason why this is so important to them is tied into the arc’s most interesting story, and to even hint at it would be a huge spoiler so I’ll only tell you they have their reasons. And those reasons are fascinating, and lead into an emotional rollercoaster that will have you cheering at some parts and breaking down in tears at others. The heartfelt connection between Yuuki and Asuna (which sounds strange to say given that Asuna’s full name is Yuuki Asuna) is one of the medium’s most moving friendships.
What is so amazing is that after three arcs suffering from abysmal pacing, Mother’s Rosario is simply perfect in that regard. Character moments last just long enough that you never start to lose engagement, action happens with enough frequency to keep you excited, and the story always seems to be progressing and building. And when you reach the conclusion… the payoff is huge. Trust me, the finale of this arc is one of the best moments I’ve seen in any show.
The music from all three arcs is every bit as good as SAO has delivered in the past. I am somewhat enamored of ‘Courage’ which was from the Mother’s Rosario arc, but ‘Ignite’ – Phantom Bullet’s opening – was almost as good. And the opening and closing sequences themselves were really well done, setting the tone for each story quite well.
Mother’s Rosario is, in my eyes, the best that SAO has ever been. In fact, I’d go so far as to rate it among the best anime I’ve seen. The season on the whole is brought down by the Phantom Bullet Arc, which was mediocre at best, but I still enjoyed my time on the whole. Phantom Bullet is a bit slow but not a bad story and Calibur puts a few of the pieces in place for Mother’s Rosario, but is essentially just eyecandy… but Mother’s Rosario is so good that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you pass it up.
Oh, and Calibur contains quite possibly the most adorable sight known to mankind.