Reaper's Reviews: 'Sword Art Online II'
Production: A-1 Pictures
Format: 24 episodes
Release: July 5, 2014 – December 20, 2014
Source: Light novel
Sword Art Online took the anime community by storm when it first aired in late 2012. As controversial and polarizing as it was, the series exceeded expectations thanks to its accessible premise and broad appeal. With a passionate fanbase and strong sales, it was all but confirmed that a second season will happen.
For most anime out there, especially those based on ongoing light novels, a second season is a rarity that almost never happens. But only a year after the conclusion of the first season, Sword Art Online II was announced to happen. Of course, the reactions to said announcement were mixed at best.
Whereas the first season was incredibly hyped and talked about throughout its run, SAO II came and went in a much quieter manner. Sure, people watched it, but it lacked the anticipation of its predecessor, which is understandable when one considers the mixed reception SAO received during its initial run.
As stated in my review for the first season, I enjoyed the series. I loved watching it. But it suffered from so many issues regarding its pacing, writing and characters that nobody could ignore them, and SAO II had the dubious honor to rectify the sour reputation the franchise has gathered at the time.
And so, this leads us to the review, for it is time to talk about the 2014 sequel to Sword Art Online, once again based on the light novels written by Reki Kawahara, directed by Tomohiko Itō and produced by studio A-1 Pictures: Sword Art Online II.
Story & Setting
The events of SAO II pick off several months following the resolution of the previous season. Kirito, Asuna and their friends all go to a school designed for survivors of last season’s disastrous MMO game, all while hanging out together playing Alfheim. This, of course, doesn’t last long for Kirito as the Japanese government - of all organizations - hires the veteran player to investigate a case of murders revolving around an enigmatic player called “Death Gun” in a new MMO game, the gritty shooter Gun Gale Online.
Gun Gale Online, or GGO for short, is nothing like Kirito’s previous virtual adventures. It focuses on player-versus-player combat and its participators earn money through their victories, which make some of the most successful players of GGO targets for Death Gun, who has the mysterious ability to seemingly execute players he shoots at and kill their real life bodies. As the biggest event in the game, the Bullet of Bullets tournament, approaches, Kirito finds an unlikely ally at a girl called Sinon, GGO’s top-ranked sniper.
This story arc, dubbed “Phantom Bullet”, is not without its fair share of issues (and we’ll get to that), but unlike Aincrad and Fairy Dance, Phantom Bullet at least manages to tell a more briskly paced and cohesive narrative that focuses more on characterization over romance or filler.
Aincrad suffered from severe management when it came to the direction of the story as well as being bogged down by fillers, but Phantom Bullet is a very straightforward arc that never falls to fillers. Its overall plotline is fairly simplistic, but it is this simplicity that makes it an easier to swallow and appreciate narrative than its predecessors.
That said, outside the arc’s outstanding lead heroine Sinon and admittedly refreshing setting, Phantom Bullet remains a fairly standard and by-the-numbers quest. It follows a familiar formula of Kirito teaming up with an attractive girl to save the virtual world and its inhabitants, as well as the girl herself, from the vicious villains.
I find Death Gun’s threat to be far more interesting than what Fairy Dance’s Sugo ever was, but a connection made to establish a link between the previous series’ events and this murderous rampage ends up feeling more like damage control for neglecting an aborted subplot rather than a fascinating addition to the lore and overarching narrative.
Death Gun does bring some interesting themes and discussions about mixing yourself with your virtual identity and succumbing to the lust for murder, but I don’t feel like these themes were explored particularly well.
It certainly ends on a more solid and satisfying note than Fairy Dance, even if it leaves out some hanging plot threads for future seasons.
Finally, before moving on to the other story bits, I just want to say that Gun Gale Online is an interesting and very refreshing setting, especially after a season that had two fantasy game settings and spawned multiple other copycats. Gun Gale Online stands out for its gritty, gun-focused mentality and separation from MMOs to being more map-based.
I enjoyed the vastly different vibe its community gave in comparison to something like Alfheim, with its rank-based and money-driven events and in-game celebrities, where hard-hitting action dominated over exploration. This was almost comical in a sense; whereas the gaming industry was plagued by dreary and mundane-looking shooters, the anime industry’s oversaturation of fantasy anime helped making a shooter-inspired setting feel new and inventive.
Unfortunately, GGO isn’t explored or developed nearly as much as it should be, with the game acting more like a stage or a backdrop than an actual setting with its own depth and complexity. And you just know there is more to this muddy and grayer world, but it ultimately relegated into “just another VR game” and the plot shifts back to Alfheim for its second cour.
Back on Alfheim, the first of its arcs focuses on the efforts of Kirito and his friends to obtain the legendary sword Excalibur, one of the rarest weapons in the game. It’s a short 3-episode mini-arc that is more akin to a side-story.
To its credit, it has some pleasant character moments for the supporting cast that has been neglected since the arc finale of Aincrad, but in the end it feels more like a filler than anything truly substantial.
And then, the Mother’s Rosario arc happened. At this point I’m sure will expect that after a relatively solid initial story arc, this season of SAO will also pummel into the ground. But this might be the first time that the franchise had a narrative that wasn’t just a solid action flick, but a legitimately good story with depth.
Mother’s Rosario is set once again on Alfheim Online, but it immediately sets itself apart from its preceding arcs by shifting focus from Kirito to Asuna. Unlike any of the previous arcs, Mother’s Rosario has no real villains or sinister plotlines that devolve into mindless power fantasy. No, Mother’s Rosario is a story about bonds and life.
I won’t delve too much into spoiler territory, because it is an arc that I believe people should experience for themselves, but it’s the kind of story you’d never imagine finding in a series like Sword Art Online. It’s a lot more mature and slow-paced in comparison to previous stories, in spite of it being the second shortest arc in the entire franchise thus far.
The story follows the newly established bond between Asuna and an Alfheim Online player called Yuuki Konno, one of the best fighters in the game, while Asuna also deals with the growing rift she has with her mother as she wishes Asuna to abandon her SAO-related past to focus on her future.
What follows is a surprisingly poignant and bittersweet story about familiar bonds and enjoying life to the fullest. I feel like you do need to suspend your belief at times - given it’s SAO and all - but overall it treats its subject matter and core themes with tremendous amounts of care and respect.
Personally, I’m not sure whether this story arc can redeem Sword Art Online as a franchise in the eyes of its detractors, but I do feel like this little story does make up for the rocky beginnings the series suffered throughout its first season, even if it’s only an inch rather a mile.
Phantom Bullet slightly shakes things up with the introduction of Sinon, a stoic player in GGO who also happens to be one of the game’s top players, as well as it best sniper. In contrast to Asuna or Leafa, Sinon’s role in her arc equals in importance to - if not passing - that of Kirito’s.
For the most part, she doesn’t rely on Kirito to save her, she possesses a strong personality that stands out, and she doesn’t fall for Kirito as quickly as her predecessors. She is headstrong and assertive enough to feel like her own character rather than another fill-in for Kirito’s harem, and her quite frankly superb skills speak for themselves.
At the same time, however, she is not invincible, both in-game and her personal life. Due to a terrifying incident during her childhood, Sinon - or rather, Shino Asada - developed phobia of guns to crippling levels, causing her to sink her time into GGO as a sort of therapy, and her development throughout her story arc to overcome her fears is simply stellar.
Sadly, as all things are in the SAO series, she eventually loses her shine as she becomes yet another girl in Kirito’s harem, and even before that, the amount of male gaze she receives - sometimes in inappropriate moments - can be irritating. By the time Caliburn roles in her character regresses to mere supporting role, even if she still possesses chemistry more akin to friendship with Kirito rather than a crush on him, which I appreciated.
When it comes to Kirito, as a character he both managed to improve, and worsen. Sinon’s presence brings a sense of chemistry with Kirito that was never felt during the latter’s adventures with Asuna and Leafa. There is still almost nothing positively interesting to write about him as a character, but having somebody share the protagonist seat in an equal manner does allow his character to work better as the lead, because it covers up for some of his flaws.
That said, SAO II does a relatively poor job at humanizing Kirito. His involvement with Death Gun’s background comes out of nowhere and feels forced and artificial. It’s a jarring, obvious retcon that suddenly drives fear into Kirito’s heart. He starts to question himself over the act of killing, despite having already killed at least two people back in the first season and coming close to kill a third one by the end of the series.
The sudden trauma he experiences from killing people back in SAO makes him feel inconsistent, and when the plot demands it, he reverts to his usual calm state. I’m all for trying to humanize and add depth to a character constantly picked on for his blandness, but the second season harmed Kirito more than it helped him.
A lot of these issues are why he works better as a supporting character, which is why I like his role in the Mother’s Rosario story, where he only has one scene of importance, but it’s executed so well that you can’t help but cheer for him.
Speaking of Mother’s Rosario, Asuna finally gets the long-awaited development to her neglected character. After a painful downhill since her introduction last season, Mother’s Rosario brings Asuna to the spotlight as events unfold between her and her mother. While her relationship with Kirito is acknowledged, Asuna is finally set apart from the satellite love interest character she originally was.
Her friendship with the other arc heroine, Yuuki Kanno, is a genuinely sweet bond that subsequently matures her. Her character arc of both simultaneously helping and getting to know both her mother and Yuuki is emotionally powerful, as well as coherent and satisfying in a way that was rarely present in the series thus far.
As for Yuuki, she’s a great character. Aside from being the one female protagonist thus far to not join the Kirito harem or even bond with him, she stands as an excellent player that puts everyone in the series to shame. I won’t delve too much into spoiler territory, but I loved how she was treated with care and respect by the writers, and I enjoyed her poignant story and upbeat personality.
Now, going back for the first arc; personally I find Death Gun to have a more interesting motivation than either Kayaba (who lacked one) or Sugu (who we wished didn’t have one), but in the end he is rather bland. He’s a cold, ruthless player with a skull mask on his face, has intense hatred for Kirito and love killing people… And that’s it. Even the plot twist revolving his identity adds little to him.
The rest of the supporting cast of Phantom Bullet is not much better. They don’t get enough exposure and screentime to become memorable, and by the end of the arc you will probably only recognize Sinon’s part-time associate and employer Dyne.
Caliburn doesn’t add any new interesting characters, but to its credit, its focus on the main group for the first time is refreshing, as are new character moments for Kirito’s friends, especially Klein and Leafa who were a constant joy throughout the arc.
Finally, I absolutely adore the supporting cast for Mother’s Rosario, the Sleeping Knights guild. While they do fall into the cookie-cutter roles of their guild, their chemistry with both Yuuki and Asuna feels genuine and touching.
Animation & Sound
SAO II looks just as good if not better than its predecessor, which should tell you that it looks absolutely fantastic at times. While there are some relatively noticeable dips in quality, I’d personally say that every sink in said quality during the cooldown moments is made up for in spades with this season’s excellent action sequences.
If the first season showed me that A-1 Pictures know how to animate stylish sword clashes, then the second season shows they have no problem switching gears into bombastic gunfights and shootouts. There are some amazing scenes here, from Sinon leaping from a building in her second episode to snipe her opponent, to Kirito and Sinon escaping the horse riding-Death Gun in a jeep.
Quick shots, Matrix-like camera movements, dynamic movements and consistent animation make watching those fights so fun. And for those who preferred the sword-focused action of the first season, SAO II packs those too as Kirito uses a lightsaber in GGO to the logical extreme, while the second half of the season reverts back to the old-style action with some beautifully choreographed duels.
I also want to mention the aesthetics used for GGO. Unlike the bright, vibrant color palette of SAO and Alfheim Online, GGO is dark. Post-apocalyptic landscapes, ruined architecture and muddy skies give the setting a deliciously gritty and gloomy vibe that feels so refreshing among virtual world anime.
And before moving to the sound department, this is the moment where I mention that SAO II also has a healthy dose of fanservice, even moreso at times. Sinon’s rear gets so much screentime it might just be considered its own character at times. While fanservice is nice to have around from time to time, I would have preferred it significantly toned down around Sinon, as it can make for some jarring contrast with her dramatic character arc.
Now as for the soundtrack, my opinion about it hasn’t changed since the last season; it’s Yuki Kajiura, so it’s decent at the very least. But it lacks it own unique personality and ends up feeling like Kajiura repeats herself.
The most prominent track will probably be “Gunland”, a remix of the iconic “Swordland” theme, refitted with electronic guitar and drums, and overall I like it better than its forerunner, so there’s that. There’s also the gorgeous piano piece “You Are Not Alone”, which makes for the best piece out of Kajiura’s SAO record.
The highlights of the soundtrack are the opening themes. “Ignite” by Eir Aoi in her second song for the franchise, is a dramatic, almost telenovela-like song in its execution, which needed some time to grow on me, but eventually I came to enjoy it and its relatively unique style. However, “Courage” by Haruka Tomatsu (who sang the first ending theme of the previous season) ended up being my favorite due to its slow, gentle build-up and emotional connection.
On the other hand, none of the ending themes really did it to me… Well, maybe the third one, “Shirushi” by Lisa, but that’s mostly because of my emotional connection to Mother’s Rosario. "Startear" by Luna Haruna and “No More Machine Time” (also by Lisa) are lovely songs, but ultimately standard fare. “Startear” does deserve a mention for its relatively unique art style, using rough drawings and bright, blue colors for its animation, which was a nice touch.
Okay, fine. I will also mention the absolutely beautiful song that is “Separate Ways”, also done by Haruka, which is just a gorgeous song to close the series with. It's just too painful for me to remind myself that it exists.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about the voice acting. As with the previous season, the English dub is solid all-around. Bryce Papenbrook continues his role as Kirito, and he’s as good as always. Meanwhile, Cherami Leigh does a fantastic job as Asuna, giving her character the emotional depth required for her development.
Michelle Ruff as Sinon and Erica Mendez as Yuuki are the real stars of the cast. Ruff as an actress is exceptional in transitioning from a cold, emotionless girl to a lively performance when needed, and I loved her work as Sinon. And Mendez’ role as Yuuki is phenomenal, with a performance that is equally-part fun to listen to, and equally-part touching.
The biggest question regarding Sword Art Online II would be whether or not this season redeems the franchise following its disastrous second story arc. The answer would be a very faint yes. Is Sword Art Online II good? Well, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. The season starts with a half-decent action flick and continues with a short side story that, for the most part, are not bad. Sinon is a gift to the series and she’s the most intriguing character that SAO has made thus far. The problem really lies with the fact that the second season still falls to the same issues as its predecessor.
The season is unfortunately bogged down by familiar plot structure, poorly explored setting, inappropriate fanservice and Kirito’s character. Unlike its first season, however, SAO II finds its footing with the Mother’s Rosario story arc, which not only shows the series’ potential to tell a powerful, character-driven narrative, but blows it out the water thanks to a heartfelt message and strong characterization. Coupled with exhilarating action scenes and excellent opening themes, SAO II won’t win over many detractors, but it will be a treat for fans. And if it will continue with the steady improvement, then perhaps the future of the franchise is bright.
- Sinon is a great character with excellent development that easily steals the spotlight this season.
- Mother's Rosario is the best story arc told in the series thus far, and a well-written story in general that finally gives Asuna the respect she deserves.
- Excellent production values that showcase beautifully animated action and striking artwork.
- "Separate Ways" and the scene it's related to.
- Kirito's characterization remains bland for the most part, as well as suffering from inconsistency when the series tries to humanize him.
- First two story arcs still fall to the same pitfalls the first season fell in terms of structure and writing.
- Gun Gale Online as a setting is poorly explored, forgotten too quickly.
- Fanservice surrounding Sinon can feel out-of-place and uncomfortable at times.
& the Ugly:
- Even Sinon's rear had more screentime than Klein.
Now, as for alternate recommendations to close this review:
- Btooom! - This is probably the closest game-focused anime that I can think off that focuses more on "hot" weapons than bladed fantasy-related ones, although this one focuses more on different types of grenades. It's a very solid series from Madhouse with decent action and character development, although I should warn that it's left open-ended.
- No Game No Life - Speaking of open-ended shows by Madhouse, No Game No Life is a lot more lighthearted than SAO, but it's a gorgeously animated series that is all about fun. It doesn't take itself seriously and simply asks you to enjoy your time with it, so it's a decent alternative to SAO II.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Raziel Reaper