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Review: “Sword Art Online II – Volume One Collector’s Edition (UK Edition)”: Bringing A Sword To A Gun Fight?

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saoii1-1As I said the last time I reviewed a show inspired by MMORPGs, the genre has never really been my thing. I have my creative outlets which includes writing (though my poor editor may feel differently) but I’ve got enough commitments and drama in my real life to carve out a second one. That said, many people I know (and many more that I don’t) love expansive RPGs and even if they’re not my cup of tea I can at least understand the reasons for the appeal and why in turn these could inspire other areas of fiction. I just wish there was more than apparently one story to tell.

Sword Art Online II is logically the direct sequel to the original Sword Art Online. Similar to .hackhttps:// it’s a near future setting where immersive virtual reality MMORPGs are the must play game.Sadly, also similar to .hackhttps:// (and so many others), this immersive second reality can be abused to imprison or kill people.

I can appreciate why this would be an appealing story. RPGs are about assuming the role of a hero and infusing this fictional champion with your own code and chivalry, so the idea of players having to step up and truly become heroes in their own right is at least partial wish fulfillment, as well an element that fits the initial “call to adventure” step of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” blueprint. But with MMORPG stories, if not video game tales in general, this plot point is overused. The first Sword Art Online used it as the driving plot engine for each of its arcs, and Sword Art Online II uses it again.

To its credit Sword Art Online II at least enriches the formula by making the protagonist Kirito introspective of the sheer trauma he’s endured up to this point, especially having to kill genuine human enemies by proxy during his time trapped in the original Sword Art Online game. This is counterbalanced by Sinon, a new female character who plays in the series setting of Gun Gale Online which eschews the sword and sorcery trappings of the previous settings for post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Sinon is nursing her own melodramatic trauma which leads her to play the gun heavy game as a form of immersion therapy. While the reason for her trauma and her logic on a fix are hokey, her baseline motivation and overall personality make her quite compelling and likable. There are any number of female characters in anime who completely switch off when faced with harsh realities, so it’s always welcome to see one who is actively working to solve her own problems.

saoii1-3The two characters cross paths when Kirito is hired by the government to go undercover into Gun Gale Online to locate a suspect known only by the alias Death Gun, who has apparently found a way to kill through the game players he holds a grudge against. The nature of the investigation means Kirito is less trapped in the game as he is playing spy, coming and going while keeping up the appearance of a rookie player new to Gun Gale Online. Part of this involves getting a female game avatar, with he and Sinon initially bonding as rare ‘fellow’ female players in the game. The show gets some brief comedy out of this before Kirito’s nature sees him confess to his true gender but not his mission. The interactions of the pair shape the seven episodes found on this set, with Death Gun only making a second brief but powerful appearance after the opening moments of the season. We quickly see that Kirito’s skill and experience from the first season translate easily to Gun Gale and this helps make Sinon’s role a lot clearer; although there is still story and emotion to be mined from Kirito, you arguably need a character at an earlier point in their journey in order to carry a new chapter. It takes a few episodes to settle in, but both characters are perfectly balanced to play off each other via a mix of shared pain and needing to learn from one another.

The animation is quite impressive for a television anime, with a range of detailed layouts and some great fight scenes. The care that went into the show is readily apparent with the moments when the real world is juxtaposed against the varied MMORPG settings, which have a mix of being lifelike yet also quite fantastical. In particular, the delightfully cheery blue skies of the fantasy game that is Kirito’s preferred haunt stand in marked contrast to the dark and lifeless landscape of Gun Gale. The game locales in particular impressed me for feeling like real worlds, yet having the kind of vantage points that game designers would naturally blend in to make them work as combat settings for players to match skills and strategies.

saoii1-2Japanese and English are the available audio options. I don’t think you can go wrong with either but I particularly enjoyed the English language cast. The show does venture into moments of questionable melodrama but the dub has an effective measured tone which stops you feeling bludgeoned as some other shows might do, making the drama and pathos easier to digest.

The Blu-ray/DVD combi set is certainly the way to go if extras matter to you, as only the textless opening can be found on the DVD. The Blu-ray supplements these with extended web previews (the episodes simply offer a title card preview) and Sword Art Offline, a pair of comedic magazine talk shows featuring the cast in SD style talking about scenes, revealing extra backstory and generally having silly fun. The combi set also comes with a translated 52 page booklet and initially a very classy looking collector’s case to hold all the volumes together.

Sword Art Online II might not be a perfect fit for me but it’s easy to get into and lives on some well handled, sincere character interactions. It would have been easy to just continue with the cast of characters previously established, but Sword Art Online II wisely restricts most of them to cameos. This ensures that fans get their fill of old favorites while allowing this sequel to focus its attention squarely on actual new story developments. It’s a rare sequel that is confident enough its new story and characters instead of relying on fanservice comfort food to keep attention. Time will tell if the rest of the show can maintain that integrity but these seven episodes pleasurably breezed by and I’m excited to see what’s next.

Sword Art Online II Volume One is available on Blu-ray/DVD combi and DVD from Amazon UK.