Back when the anime hit its halfway point last year, I called Sword Art Online the smartest anime I had seen in years.
And while the second half didn't quite live up to the promise of the first half, I found it enjoyable nonetheless. But like many anime, Sword Art Online ended at the end of a story arc, but not the end of the entire story. So as I got ready to play the new PSP game Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment, I decided to see how the story series continued after the end of the anime by reading the next story arc in the tale, Sword Art Online: Phantom Bullet. [*Note: This review contains minor spoilers.]
Rather than being set in the low-fantasy virtual reality world of Sword Art Online or the high-fantasy world of ALfheim Online, Gun Gale Online takes place in a post-apocalyptic future. And instead of swords and magic, GGO is all about Guns. Some guns are realistic, and some are fictional. The actual world is filled with every kind of natural terrain imaginable in addition to massive ruined cities. And as the game includes a real world money transfer system (meaning you can turn real money into game money and vice versa), there are many interesting social and economic concepts explored as well.
Sinon, the other main character besides Kirito, is easily the deepest character to come out of Sword Art Online. In the real world, Sinon suffers from severe PTSD due to her self-defense killing of a robber with his own gun at the ripe old age of eleven. So not only does she suffer from breakdowns at the mere sight of a gun, she is also ostracized by her peers because she is “a murderer.” Yet, she has discovered that while guns and gun-like objects cause her to panic in the real world, she can master her fears and take her life back in GGO. Day by day, her fear in the real world decreases as she grows stronger in GGO, and she hopes that if she becomes the best in the game, she will be free of her real world trauma once and for all.
Moreover, the complex emotions she experiences about being a killer also allow for Kirito to reflect on his own actions in SAO, where he too killed several people to survive the death game. Together, the two try to reconcile their past guilt and move on with their lives as they are assailed by perils both inside and outside the game.
The Sword Art Online arc was centered on a mortal crisis about people trapped in a lethal video game. The ALfheim Online arc was centered on a personal battle to rescue a loved one. In the Phantom Bullet story arc, however, the stakes are lowered substantially. While the past two arcs were survival and rescue stories respectively, the Phantom Bullet story is a murder mystery more than anything else.
When high profile players who are shot inside the game GGO die of a heart attack outside in the real world, Kirito is called in to basically be bait and draw the killer out. But of course the real mystery is how are these crimes being committed? Is the villain really killing people in the real world from inside the game or is it all a trick?
So while people's lives are still on the line, the overall stakes are much lower. As the mystery unravels, though, everything becomes more and more personal as Kirito learns that perhaps he is far more related to everything going on than he at first thought.
Over the course of the novels/anime, we watched as slowly but surely Kirito became the best hand-to-hand fighter in the game. In the SAO arc, this was all hard eared through constant fighting. In ALO, he basically cheated by importing his SAO character. But as both games were sword-swinging fantasies, it makes sense he would be incredibly strong in both regardless.
GGO, on the other hand, is a completely different kind of game. Not only does it have tons of different rules, but it is also gun-based—and thus something Kirito has no experience with whatsoever. Now while I buy that his speed and other innate skills would be largely undiminished in GGO—and thus make him capable of winning against the average player—the fact that even the best players in the game (including Sinon) fall easily before him not only is a little unrealistic but also belittles the overall threat of the bad guy.
Kirito does not need to smash every opponent he encounters to be an enjoyable hero. Losing early on as he learns the in and outs of the game would make him far more interesting than a guy who is unstoppable from the moment he boots up a game.
Sword Art Online: Phantom Bullet is a great read for anyone who liked the Sword Art Online anime and are dying to see where the story goes from there. Its look into the ideas of PTSD trauma and guilt are great in combination with the story's compelling murder mystery. While Kirito does feel a bit overpowered, the novels still impart the feeling that the characters are in mortal danger from a threat they do not completely understand. And while it does not quite live up to the original Sword Art Online story arc, it is certainly a step up from the events of ALfheim Online.
Sword Art Online: Phantom Bullet (volumes six and seven of the light novel series) were released in Japan in 2010.
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