Earlier this year when Sword Art Online hit its halfway point, I called it the smartest anime I had seen in years because of its in-depth look at the long-term effects of being trapped in a virtual reality world. This last week Sword Art Online finished its run on Japanese TV. And while the second half of the series was still entertaining, it didn't quite manage to live up to the thematic highpoints of the first half. [*Note: This review contains major spoilers for Sword Art Online; check out the review of the first half for a more spoiler-free review.]
When I wrote my review of the first half of SAO, I had seen up to episode twelve. The main characters were off on a series of side-stories as part of their honeymoon, and there were still 25 floors left to clear till the end of the game. Little did I know that two episodes later, the series would change completely due to the greatest plot twist ever: the hero wins early.
After discovering the creator of the game is actually one of the players—and the final boss of the game to boot—the creator gives Kirito the chance to fight a one-on-one duel. In any other anime, the hero would have lost and the villain would have escaped to await the main characters at the final dungeon. But in SAO, Kirito wins, and the villain, true to his word, sets everyone free from the online world. What's more impressive is that this doesn't happen at the halfway point of the series where you might have expected it; rather it happens two episodes after that. Moreover, it happens right after a seemingly irrelevant side-story about fishing, making it one of the most unexpected plot twists I have ever seen.
Of course, with 11 episodes left in the series, some sort of conflict has to remain after everyone escapes Sword Art Online. And the conflict is this: 300 people—including Kirito's love interest,
Asuna—have still not awakened. However, Kirito finds a picture from another VR MMORPG, ALfheim Online, that shows Asuna being held prisoner. Thus, it is up to Kirito to enter the new world and fight to save the girl he loves.
By heading into ALfheim Online, we, the viewers, get to learn about an entirely different VR world. While Sword Art Online was a world without magic, ALfheim Online is a game built around magic and one other gamplay mechanic: flight. So while Kirito may have been the best at Sword Art Online, he is a complete newbie when it comes to ALO. It's fun learning about this new world alongside him.
Starting up the ALfheim Online arch of the story, I had one question: How do you make a better villain than a man who trapped 10,000 people in a death game for no adequately explained reason? Easy. You just show how good that guy was by comparison to the new villain.
The villain of the second half is almost the polar opposite of the first villain. The first villain was honorable (in his own way), played alongside the players, and had some sort of higher (though unexplained) goal for trapping the people in the game. The second villain, on the other hand, is cowardly, fancies himself a god, and is torturing people just to make money. More than that, he is also constantly threatening to rape Asuna—both in the game and in the real world. Simply put, he has the greatest hallmark of a good villain: He is a guy you love to hate.
While the Sword Art Online arc dealt with the thematic issues of living in a virtual world for long periods of time, the ALfheim Online arc has no such deep thought put into it. Rather it is just a simple classic story: the princess was captured and locked away, so the hero must go on a quest to rescue her. Along the way, the hero makes friends and learns that alone, he is weak; but with companions, he can save the woman he loves. It is not a bad story, but it is a common one that you have no doubt already heard many times before.
In Sword Art Online, Asuna was a great leader and strong fighter. In ALfheim Online, she is a damsel in distress and spends the entire arc locked in a cage moping. The one time she tries to escape, she proves herself totally helpless in a fight. It is sad to see such a strong female character reduced to nothing but the quest item the male lead is hunting for.
A lot of the ALfheim Online arc is spent dealing with Kiroto's adopted sister, Sugu, falling in love with him both in and out of ALfheim Online (though having no idea that the in-game him is
her brother). The problem with this is that it is presented as a love triangle between Kirito, Sugu, and Asuna when that is clearly not the case. Kirito's devotion to Asuna in the SAO arc was such that even implying he might consider giving up on her for another woman—especially while she is in mortal danger—is ludicrous, to say the least. Moreover, in anime in general, when the "not-really-his-sister-I-promise" character is involved in a love triangle, she never wins. Simply put, when the outcome of a love triangle is obvious from the start, it adds no tension to the story and is instead just filler.
Much like its sister series Accel World, Sword Art Online is a series where the first half is far stronger than the second. The first half is interested in the psychological and sociological issues of living in an online world, while the second half decides to instead take the simpler route of retelling a classic myth in a modern setting. Both, however, are enjoyable for what they are.
In the end, if you wonder about the quality of Sword Art Online overall, know this. The moment the credits began to roll after the last episode, I immediately cracked the spine of the fifth novel to continue on from where the anime left off. I think that action speaks for itself.
Sword Art Online aired every Sunday at midnight on Tokyo MX in Japan. It can be watched in the U.S. subtitled in English for free on Crunchyroll.