Reaper's Reviews: 'Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale'
Production: A-1 Pictures
Length: 119 minutes
Release: February 17, 2017
Source: Light novel
The concept of established anime series and properties ending up on the big screen is not a new concept by any means. Back in 2013, Madoka Magica: Rebellion expanded on - for better and worse - the original series’ finale. Then around 2005 you had Conqueror of Shamballa, which continued the adventures of the 2003-2004 adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist.
And even earlier than that, you had big franchise movies such as The End of Evangelion and Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack that were released as the grand finale of their respective series. And of course you have almost every single big-name shounen franchise ever, who often release a hefty amount of films over a very short amount of time.
Ordinal Scale is somewhat different from the rest, because while it is meant to be a finale of sorts to the franchise, it’s more of a celebration for the Sword Art Online franchise as a whole up to this point rather than a theatrical release used to close the story. Because there is more story after this point; even before the announcement of Ordinal Scale’s existence, it was well-known that the series will continue past its second season.
But unlike many other movies releasing as tie-ins, side stories and just inconsistent cash grabs for other big-name franchises, Ordinal Scale stands out due to two reasons: for once, it’s written by the original writer of the SAO light novels, Reki Kawahara. And secondly, and the reason why I picked this movie for a review, it’s a canon.
It has a placement in the series, a semblance of weight to the overarching narrative, which, to me, makes it worthwhile to write about. And hey, Sword Art Online’s first foray into the theatrical scene will at least be pretty to look at.
And so, this time our review will focus on the 2017 theatrical sequel to the Sword Art Online series, based on Kawahara’s light novels, directed for the third time in row by Tomohiko Itō, and produced by A-1 Pictures: Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale.
Story & Setting
The events of Ordinal Scale introduce a new device called the Augma; being an augmented reality (AR) system, the Augma serves as an alternative to the declining virtual reality technology used in games such as Alfheim Online and Gun Gale Online. In fact, the Augma offers its own game: the titular Ordinal Scale. It quickly becomes the most popular game around with its intriguing concept and unique gameplay, and even the main gang sinks their teeth into it, except for - surprisingly - Kirito himself. The game even works parallelly to Yuna, a popular program dubbed the first AI idol in the world.
Of course, it won’t be Sword Art Online without some threat looming over the mysterious game. To the surprise of the players, many bosses in Ordinal Scale are taken directly from the original Sword Art Online game, without much an explanation. At the same time, the second highest ranked player of Ordinal Scale, Eiji, is revealed to have some connection to Kirito and Asuna, and his appearance is related to many SAO survivors losing their memories of the game.
At its core, Ordinal Scale is a spiritual sequel to the events of the first arc in the series, Aincrad. The original incident that took the lives of thousands of unassuming players has its marks all over this movie, from general game design to the motives of the main antagonists.
While there is a lot of humor and fun to be held here, Ordinal Scale is by far the darkest and most serious narrative that Sword Art Online has told, even if - spoilers - it doesn’t reach the same heights as Mother’s Rosario. Nevertheless, for the most part, Ordinal Scale tells a remarkably gripping - albeit still contrived and convoluted - story about loss and memory.
The movie drives home that despite all the tragedies and horrors many of the characters experienced throughout Sword Art Online, their memories of the death game also included fun and happy moments that helped contributing to their personal growth as well as relationships with other survivors.
The very threat of losing these memories and in a way part of their identity is terrifying and painful for some, and it’s the first time since the first season where the stakes are real, allowing for intense drama and raw emotion without making it feel forced or out-of-place. Aside from Mother’s Rosario, this movie as a whole was one of the few times I truly felt for the characters and their struggles constantly.
At the same time, Ordinal Scale also explores the emotional scars Sword Art Online left on both relatives of fallen players, and players who were forgotten or ignored by society because they didn’t play pivotal roles in clearing the game like Kirito or Asuna. It eventually asks the question whether it’s morally okay to keep memories from SAO despite the terror that occurred there, or would it better to remove those memories because of the aforementioned terror.
All this makes for a genuinely interesting conflict that strays away from the generic good versus evil plotlines that plagued arcs such as Fairy Dance and Phantom Bullet, all while expanding on the series’ lore. In spite of it, the movie is still fairly straightforward in its storytelling without bombarding the viewer with details or condensed subplots that would have derailed Ordinal Scale considerably.
Of course, the movie is far from being flawless, as it still suffers from the same issues that persistently bothered the TV series, albeit on a much smaller scale than before. For once, Ordinal Scale still requires the suspense of disbelief with its fair share of physics-breaking battles, conversations on technology and the system’s integration to daily life. Oh, and we never really see how people outside of the game react to how Ordinal Scale plays, which was a shame.
Likewise, the second act of the movie feels somewhat rushed and condensed in comparison to the slow, deliberate beginning act and the explosive finale. After crucial members of the cast are taken out of commission, the middle act simply follows Kirito investigating the incidents while the antagonists are scheming.
It gives excuse for some great action sequences, but skimps a lot of potential development for Kirito as well as further build-up for the villains. It’s wasted running time that could have been handled much better.
Finally, further inspection into the movie’s plot shows how it is still carried by plot devices and deus ex machina moments, with a prime example being the final clash between Kirito and one of his opponents, with almost no build-up to this resolution besides a very brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foreshadowing. And this is present in the entire final act, as well.
It makes me wonder if the setting and premise of Ordinal Scale may have been a little too ambitious in movie format, as you are far more restricted in a two-hour format in comparison to even a 12-episode series which has twice the running time. Because as packed as this movie was, it is clear it had to cut out a lot to to pass as a movie-length feature.
Interestingly enough, Ordinal Scale also seems to benefit from its flaws. It’s fully aware of the issues and handicaps it has, but it manages to downplay many of them while also focusing on everything that makes SAO stories work: fun and inventive settings and premises, slightly cheesy scripts and admittedly fascinating takes on science and video games.
This leads to a point that, while the movie never reaches its full potential as a narrative piece - something that it could achieve with better execution and screenplay - Ordinal Scale doesn’t get as hurt by its wasted potential as much as its predecessors did because it accepts all rough areas and focuses on delivering yet another fun, sometimes thoughtful, adventure.
This is also why the final act is an excellent finale; it suffers from quick, far fetched solutions and a handful of convenient moments, but at the same time it manages to both pay homage to everything the series achieved since its inception, and provide an emotionally powerful conclusion to the story and its characters.
Oh, and on a related note; while the movie can be enjoyed to a certain degree without being familiar with the franchise, I still advise people to watch the two seasons that precede it. Because in the end, this movie is more or less a celebration of everything that makes the Sword Art Online series noticeable, for better and worse.
With a few notable exceptions (Sinon, Yuuki), the Sword Art Online franchise has always suffered from poorly developed characters, shallow interactions between them and cookie-cutter archetypes. While Ordinal Scale doesn’t do enough to fix all these problems, it does manage to do one thing rather well: the relationship between Kirito and Asuna.
While the villains’ plot is the generator of the story, Kirito and Asuna’s love is the driving force behind it. As alarming as it may sound, Ordinal Scale portrays their relationship competently, including various touching and heartwarming moments without over-relaying on them. Their chemistry this time around is a lot more robust and dynamic than previously.
Asuna in particular continues to shine after her wonderful role as Mother’s Rosario’s main heroine, and the first act of the movie is owned by her as she climbs through the ranks of Ordinal Scale. Unfortunately, she does get sidelined through the middle act, but even then the story uses her temporary inactivity to build upon her and Kirito’s bond, which - as insincere and forced as it was in the first season - feels warm and genuine this time around. Her lack of action in the middle act is also more than made up to during the climax.
As for Kirito, he’s a lot more consistent than what he was in the second season. The fact that the movie has him starting as a fairly average player in Ordinal Scale was refreshing as he decided to stay away from it. The movie unfortunately skips his progress throughout the second half and by the time the endgame has began, Kirito is on par with Eiji as far as combat concerns.
It’s rather disappointing for Kirito as he was given a decent jump start to grow from, but I do understand that there wasn’t that much time to focus only on his training, and at the very least he was given a few scenes that showed his progress, as brief as they were. On the other hand, he maintains good dynamics and chemistry with several characters, particularly Asuna and Sinon.
The other characters that are given as much focus or importance as Asuna and Kirito are of course the new movie-related cast; the antagonist duo that is Eiji and Ordinal Scale’s creator Tetsuhiro Shigemura, and the AI idol Yuna.
Both Eiji and Shigemura stand out from the previous villains of the series for being flawed, heartbroken individuals who act out of grief and anger. Their acts of villainy are often as a result of their motives rather than shallow sadism, which was a breath of fresh air after a sociopathic game master, a pathetic molester and a stoic murderer.
Eiji gives a fascinating insight into SAO survivors who, in his words, were deemed not important enough to be remembered by the masses in comparison to direct combat players such as Kirito. His contrast with Kirito makes him an incredible new villain at first, and while unfortunately he loses his momentum way too quickly, he was still a step up in the right direction for the series.
Similar to Eiji, Shigemura gives an interesting example of someone who was deeply affected by the SAO incident, albeit without being directly involved. I can’t talk too much about him, but let me just say that in spite of his brilliant set-up as the overarching villain, he didn’t appear enough to develop as one. His plan is intriguing and his motives are relatable, but he still feels wasted in the end.
Finally we have Yuna, who similarly can’t be talked about without spoiling much of her character. So instead, let me just say that she’s one of my favorite characters in the franchise as a whole. Despite her appearance as an attractive and upbeat idol singer, there is so much more to her than just a walking fanservice girl, and out of all three movie characters, her personal arc gets the most closure.
If you’re expecting anyone else aside from the aforementioned five to have any actual development, then you’ll be disappointed. However, Ordinal Scale at least gives the majority of the series’ long-standing supporting characters enough moments to shine on their own.
Klein would be the best example; the first act of the movie gives him an impressive set of action scenes, and during that time he is noted to be far better than Kirito in Ordinal Scale before getting out of commission until the final battle. But even though he gets sidelined quickly, I enjoyed him receiving just enough time to establish him as a skilled player on par with Eiji and Asuna.
You also have Silica and Lisbeth who get a bone thrown at them. They get scenes that focus almost exclusively about their friendship and personal interests, with Silica even gaining an amusing singing scene early on. Their respective crushes on Kirito are downplayed to the minimum, and they actually share more scenes with Asuna than with "The Black Swordsman".
Leafa doesn’t get much besides one jiggling chest scene, although if it makes any Leafa fan feel better: she was excluded from much of the action due to the fact that her inclusion would have solved the movie too early, so there’s that. Yui and Sinon are mostly there to provide technical support, although Sinon in particular also gets a slick team-up with Kirito during one action scene, which was really fun to watch, especially due to their close bond together.
Agil is just there, to be honest. But hey, it’s better than him being neglected as he was in Fairy Dance, Caliburn and Mother’s Rosario.
And finally, the movie also includes cameos and guest appearances from the majority of the friends and allies, and it all comes together during the final battle of the movie. Even if those were mere cameos, it was exciting to see almost everyone teaming up with Kirito and Asuna to save the day.
Animation & Sound
Sword Art Online was always a pretty-looking anime; A-1 Pictures proved that they know how to spend their budget on incredibly detailed backgrounds and fluid action scenes. And as a movie, Ordinal Scale has a much higher budget than its television counterparts, spend across a shorter running time, and it shows. Beautifully so.
The backgrounds are highly detailed, vibrant and lifelike with their realistic portrayal. The bright urban areas contrast well against the ominous and Gothic style the maps of Ordinal Scale possess, each packing an insane amount of polish and little details. You could seriously take almost every shot of the background and it would be a lovely desktop image for your computer.
The lighting and textures are exceptional, and I have to admit that the special effects used for scenes such as environment changes to the Ordinal Scale stages, players transforming into their avatars and enemies being defeated were really damn masterful. It’s wondrous, it’s eye-popping, it’s shiny and it looks absolutely gorgeous.
The character designs also come off as a lot crisper than I remember, with more polish to them. They possess a more metallic style to them that is akin to Ufotable’s works, making them look slick and sharp.
And finally, the action scenes in this movie are some of the best - if not the best - Sword Art Online ever had. Even without the numerous merits the story and characters have, this movie could be sold entirely on being a spectacle to watch.
There are plenty of action scenes in its two-hours run and all look incredible both in terms of production values and choreography, not to mention a large array of fan-favorite bosses who got a new, polished look. And of course the cherry on top of it is the final battle, which is nothing short of spectacular.
As for the soundtrack, Yuki Kajiura returns once more. The score itself can be best summed up as more of the same, which is not bad by all means; hell, I love the orchestral piece, “The Place We Should Have Reached”, which is used for the final fight. But where the soundtrack really shines is with its slew of insert songs used during crucial fights.
All of them are credited as songs by Yuna, voiced by Sayaka Kanda and composed by Kajiura. The variety here is great, from the catchy and upbeat “Ubiquitous dB” to the ominous and atmospheric “Delete” which sounds like it came from a Nier game. That is without mentioning the movie’s main theme, “Catch the Moment” by Lisa, with its hard-hitting vocals and pump-up music.
You also have songs such as “Longing” which I swear took some musical cues from “To The Beginning” from Fate/Zero, the more rock-focused and faster paced “Break Beat Bark!” (which also has a version sang by Lisbeth and Silica), and the slow-paced, melancholic “Smile For You”, which captures the characters of Yuna, Shigemura and Eiji beautifully.
The English dub is more or less the same as before; I still like Bryce Papenbrook as Kirito, Cherami Leigh as Asuna, Kirk Thornton as Klein and the rest. They have grown into their characters and they have decent chemistry with each other.
As for those who were introduced in this movie: Chris Patton and Jamieson Price voice Eiji and Shigemura respectively, who both have done more than a few roles to assure anyone that they can do excellent voicework. And then you have Ryan Bartley, who hasn’t done that much in anime, but her work as Yuna was splendid and I hope to see her in more roles in the future.
When it comes down to it, Ordinal Scale won’t convert many detractors into Sword Art Online. However, for fans of the franchise this is a treat that will reward them for sticking up with Kirito and Asuna’s adventures for the last few years. It’s a celebration of sorts for the series, featuring everything that made Sword Art Online liked (and yes, there are people who like it) and doubling down on it. It fails to completely fix all the issues present in Sword Art Online, but that just adds to the movie’s overall charm, and for its credit - it tries its damn hardest. Rarely do I encounter an anime that tries to improve and evolve itself while retaining its more recognizable characteristics.
This is the best installment of Sword Art Online yet, even if once again the leap is not that impressive. It’s far from perfect, but Ordinal Scale is still a pretty good movie in its own right. It tells an intriguing and emotional - if somewhat condensed - story that brings a sense of closure to the original Aincrad arc, and finally gives some sorely needed development to the relationship between Kirito and Asuna. Even if doesn’t revamps the series, Ordinal Scale is still a visual spectacle with exhilarating action sequences that will surely leave people speechless. And for fans of Sword Art Online, Ordinal Scale will be a delightful watch.
- Slick, intense narrative with an interesting concept and emotional pay-off that pays tribute to the series as a whole, all fueled by sympathetic villains
- Strong emphasis on Kirito and Asuna's relationship that finally adds depth to the romantic elements, while long mainstay characters get a chance to shine
- Tremendous production values spent on beautifully detailed environments and stylish action
- Gorgeous insert songs by Sayaka Kanda and Yuki Kajiura that cover a range of genres and styles
- Middle act feels rushed and condensed in comparison to the rest of the movie, and skimps over crucial character development moments
- Several plot and setting elements begin to crumble over further inspection, while the story as a whole doesn't get fully realized
- Eiji and Shigemura feel wasted in the end, and their character arcs never reach their full potential
& the Ugly:
- Seeing how Sword Art Online: Alicization is going to ignore the vast majority of the movie.
As for alternate recommendations, perhaps I have something to your liking:
- Accel World - I am actually surprised I haven't recommended Accel World earlier. In relation to SAO, it will probably best known for being authored by the same novelist, and its first - and currently only - season is arguably a better-written affair than SAO's first season. While a second season is still nowhere in sight, Accel World is a fun, slick series with an interesting yet familiar game-like premise and shiny visuals that should be watched by anyone who even remotely liked SAO.
- Fate/Zero - Unlike Accel World, Fate/Zero gets more recommendation for its similar visual style and sense of scale than a relation to SAO or familiar premises. It's a much darker, almost nihilistic series with an eerie atmosphere and a slew of well-written character interactions. On top of that, it's one beautiful-looking series with epic action sequences and gorgeous backgrounds. It's more fantastical in setting than SAO, but it is definitely a good pick if you want something just as stylish and intense as Ordinal Scale.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Raziel Reaper