Review: Sword Art Online II

Sometimes I struggle with the things I decide to put out. I tend to only cover a show when I have something I want to say about it. Most of the time that’s due to having an opinion that just goes against the majority. My ultimate goal, after all, is to get people to think about the shows they like and dislike and why. But I don’t want to have a reputation of always going against the grain, because then it looks like I’m doing it for the sake of it. That’s why I try to go in an alternating pattern with at least my longer videos: I started with a less than stellar Clannad review, then praised ToraDora, then laid out my issues with After Story.

But sometimes I have to put that worry aside and say the things I want to say regardless. Which is why I’m now going to explain through a review why I think people give SAO II too much shit.

It’s important to say right off the bat that I don’t necessarily think SAO II is “good”, per se, but it’s nowhere near the worst thing ever made. It wasn’t even the worst show that finished at the end of 2014, that honor belongs to Psycho-Pass Season 2.

I think it gets a lot of shit because of how easy it is to hate. It’s practically the definition of low-hanging fruit. Sword Art Online doesn’t really try to be more than just entertaining. It doesn’t exactly have any messages or themes. At least none that aren’t at an in-universe level. Well, actually, that’s not true. It’s just that whenever it tries to do messages it sort of completely fails at it.

It’s also one of those things where if enough people hate a show, it gets publicly acceptable to hate, and that’s pretty hard to turn down. Though it can go to an even higher level: where you’re expected to bash it, and SAO managed to reach that point.

Maybe that’s why I’m so eager to defend it where I can. No show deserves its own personal mob. There’s loving to hate a show because you find its faults amusing, and then there’s loving to hate a show because you just enjoy swimming in the negativity. Plus, I watch a lot of shows. I’m pretty much always watching at least twenty airing shows at any time, so I’ve seen shows all over the spectrum. There are shows definitely worse than SAO. At least I can finish it relatively easily, which is something I can’t say for many others.

The series has its moments. It certainly stumbles… a lot… but occasionally the stars align and it’ll actually have a really nice scene. Not like Psycho-Pass Season 2, where I’m just constantly staring at my screen in complete bafflement at what the hell the writers were thinking.

Okay, enough ragging on Psycho-Pass Season 2 and the community aspect of SAO, I’m almost 500 words in and I haven’t even talked about the show itself yet. I’ll do the same thing I did with the first season and go over each arc in order. I’ll still cover general aspects though.

Which leads to the first thing I want to cover: I like Sinon. She’s probably the best female character in the show. …That doesn’t really say much, but still.

A common complaint people have with her is that she just joins in as another member of Kirito’s harem, but that’s not entirely true. The only scene that came to close to her showing romantic interest in him after the Gun Gale Online arc was when he grabbed her tail that one time, but it seemed pretty obvious that she was blushing because it just felt awkward for her tail to be grabbed, not because she was happy or something. She even took a swipe at him afterwards and seemed pretty pissed. The scene was mostly supposed to be comedic.

As for the GGO arc, yeah, there were times when it seemed like she was developing a romantic interest in Kirito, but I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and say it was unintentional. After all, there wasn’t much there following the arc that made it seem like the show was going for that.

I think it’s more an issue of the first season’s faults bleeding into the second season. Sinon’s struggle was that she wanted to be a stronger person so she could deal with her issues, and she saw that in Kirito. That doesn’t have to be romantic, but I think it was viewed that way because the first season had a bunch of girls falling for Kirito just because he’s a great player and such, so it was easy to view it as more of the same when it came to Sinon.

There’s also the issue of her trauma, which is… conflicting. On the one hand, it’s probably SAO‘s best job at handling a serious issue, and it’s about PTSD of all things, but on the other it’s handled really awkwardly. For example there’s the scene where the bullies are harassing Sinon and they make a finger gun, which is enough to send her into a panic. It just seems silly. But I’ve never had to deal with PTSD, so far all I know something like that really is enough to be an issue for her. But the thing is, when it’s a safe bet that your audience largely doesn’t have that same issue, you should really take it easy on the portrayal. Unless the show is entirely about the condition or whatever.

There was also her essentially creating a new persona in GGO in order to deal with her issues, but I’m actually fine with that. Creating new personas in order to deal with trauma is a thing people do in real life, even without the use of video games, so it didn’t bother me as much as it seemed to for others.

Which reminds me, Kirito also has a similar PTSD character arc given to him for GGO, but the less said about that the better. It’s not like it was a bad idea or anything, it was actually quite good, but they had to rewind and insert a brand new scene into the season one timeline in order to make it even fundamentally work. And then the way they handled it was just…. eh.

When he was at his worst some random hot nurse basically just told him everything was okay and then he was over it afterwards. When Sinon asked him how he deals with his past, he says that he does it by not dealing with it or something, it was just a mess. It seems like they could have made it work, but then at some point they just stopped caring.

Outside of that plot angle Kirito is still a massive detriment to the series. Besides the more minor issues, the biggest drawback he has on the show trying to be entertaining is his leaps in logic to figuring out what’s going on with Death Gun at various points.

I think the biggest stand-out on that front is when he figures out there’s two Death Guns because he sees a lizard with two tails. I know I’m not the only one that realizes just how dumb that is. It’s obvious what they were going for, but it’s just such a massive leap in logic for the silliest reason. It would have been the same amount of logic if, earlier, Kirito had gone:

“Wait a minute…snap1

“Two butt cheeks…snap2

“HOLY SHIT THERE ARE TWO DEATH GUNS!”

But the thing is, SAO gets entertainment on a basic level (usually), and Death Gun is easily the most intimidating villain the show has done so far, so there was actually some decent tension a fair chunk of the time. The scene where Kirito realizes that Death Gun is an SAO survivor was actually really solid. It was a good example of how to actually do a scene with tension. I know that sounds basic, but you’d be surprised how many shows don’t actually know how to do any kind of suspense.

I also really liked the grenade scene at the end of the tournament. It was cute.

The point is that while the GGO arc has no shortage of minor issues, as do most arcs in SAO, it mainly succeeded on a basic level, which is why I think it’s probably the best arc in the series so far. Did drag on an episode or so longer than it needed to though.

Then it’s followed by the Calibur arc. …Ooh boy. It was pretty much as bad as the ALO arc, but at least it had the decency to only be three episodes long, so it’s harder to complain too much about it. Doesn’t make those three episodes any less awful, of course, but still.

While it was nice to see the whole cast actually do something together, there was no reason to care about the events that were happening. Kirito wanted a shiny sword. That was it. You couldn’t care about the weird AI angels plight because it was so poorly explained what they were, and they talked about how the giant elephant-squid things going extinct would drain their power without saying how they were co-dependent in the first place. It was just a giant mess.

Remember how I was saying that GGO at least had a somewhat intimidating villain, tension, and stakes? Calibur is just blatant padding.

Then we finish with Mother’s Rosario, which was… conflicting. On the one hand I can see the arc as being something Kawahara wrote because he had something to prove and I can respect that, but my god the man doesn’t know what the word “subtlety” is.

Constantly throughout the arc when it comes to Yuuki, there’s always this urgency to get their names marked on the plaque and such. It’s just so obvious what’s going on! I mean you probably won’t be able to figure out the exact situation, but it’s just, “Gee, I wonder why there’s this sense that there’s a time limit to do this, and why everyone looks all sad when talk of staying together forever comes up?”

If you’re going to work with this kind of storyline, subtlety is kind of important.

It is nice that Asuna got to take over as main character, though. Mainly because almost any character other than Kirito would be a better lead.

Actually, on that note, they actually used him correctly at one point during this arc. When Yuuki and friends are about to get swarmed before they can get in the boss room, Kirito shows up to lend a hand. Yes, I’d say this is a good use for an overpowered character.

The best ones are given their own agenda, but may or may not have some investment with the protagonists (which obviously Kirito does being married to Asuna). That way, they can be doing their own thing for the most part, but when they occasionally show up to help, it’s a “fuck yeah!” moment. They can’t completely fix everything though, and Kirito didn’t. He just bought them time so they could fight the boss, it’s not like he ran a sword through the monster himself.

But, again, the arc’s biggest issue (and arguably a massive issue with all the other arcs too) is the complete absence of subtlety. When you know a character is going to get killed off, and there are some scenes that seem to exist for the sole purpose of making you get attached to a character, it’s hard not to see what the show is going for.

It’s not like you can’t still get attached to a character that you know is going to be killed off or anything, the problem is the bluntness with which the show tries to get you to form that connection.

In proper English, Yuuki doesn’t feel like a character Kawahara was passionate about in and of herself, so much as what he could do to his audience through her. It’s basically similar to the issue I have with the Clannad series, but I’d rather not stir that pot again.

I swear I remember reading at one point that Kawahara doesn’t like the earlier arcs in SAO anymore because he can see all the faults in them now, and I wanted to go over that, but I couldn’t find it. I did, however, find something even more interesting.

Reki Kawahara had a panel at the last Anime Expo, and it was brought up that between SAO, its spinoffs, and Accel World, he puts out about eight light novel volumes a year. That’s a huge amount! Most light novel authors only write one series at a time and put out one or two volumes a year.

So it was unsurprising when Kawahara said that when he writes, he doesn’t really think about the plot. He just sort of… writes. In a way, the series is written pretty well considering how quickly they’re done and how many different stories he’s juggling at once. However, it definitely explains the multitude of minor slip-ups and inconsistencies.

I’d really like to see him write an arc that he actually, you know, spends time on. Which is why I’m actually excited for the inevitable third season: he’s been writing the Alicization arc for six volumes now, and it’s still going. While he still puts out volumes at an absurd rate, having a longer arc could still give him time to think about things and go step-by-step through events. But we’ll see.

Anyways, If I were to list the SAO arcs in the order of which I view to be the best, it’d look like this:

GGO > SAO >>> Mother’s Rosario >>> Calibur > ALO

So I’d say this second season was an improvement over the first. Still not a great show or anything, but it could get there. I already mentioned I was excited to see what a third season could offer, and you know what? I’ll take a mediocre show on an upward trend over a good show on a downward one any day.



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