Sword Art Online is the story of several players who play VRMMO's, which are games played in virtual reality. The second season follows the main characters, Kirito and Asuna, and their friends as they live their lives and deal with the consequences following the crises they faced in the first season. It is broken up into three arcs, two of which are covered in this review:
Mother's Rosario: Asuna has been through quite a lot in her teenage years. She survived for two years in Sword Art Online, suffered under the captivity of Sugou in Alfheim Online, and was helpless to do anything but watch as Kirito risked his life against Death Gun. Now, she is at a relatively stable point in her life, attending high school with her friends and playing online without risk of life or limb. However, Asuna's real life outside of Alfheim is about to catch up with her- and all of the troubles that come with it.
Excaliber: Alfheim Online's most powerful weapon, Excalibur, has only ever been used when Kirito summoned it using the administrator account. However, he has never quite given up searching. When the sword is discovered by other players, Kirito immediately sets out to claim it, but along the way he realizes that the sword might be more important to the game than he originally thought...
(Note: This is a review of the second half of Sword Art Online II- for the first half, please click here.)
*Spoilers for the first season of Sword Art Online*
One of the biggest weaknesses in the second arc of the first season of Sword Art Online (which featured Alfheim Online as the primary game the characters were involved with) was that the world within the game itself was left unexplored. This is rectified during the Excaliber arc, when we at last learn that Alfheim is based on Norse mythology, and details surrounding the world quests are given. Although I won't go into detail too much on the lore to avoid spoilers, it involves the famous sword Excalibur that Kirito originally summoned at the end of the first season.
What was most interesting, however, was the insight given on how Sword Art and Alfheim work, both being made from the original, more powerful version of the Seed. Quests are generated in-game and their results can dynamically change the environment (imagine WoW's terrain phasing, MMO experts) and are formed based on the lore put in place by the developers without actually requiring them to directly create each quest.
The title says it all. While she had been weaker or relegated to the sidelines in previous arcs following the everyones' time in Aincrad, Asuna is once again the center of the story during Mother's Rosario. However, this isn't just an opportunity for the author to say 'hey, I didn't forget'. One of the most interesting facets of Sword Art Online initially was the exploration of the psychological effects on those stuck in the game, and Mother's Rosario continues this by exploring what those originally trapped in the game feel a significant amount of time later.
Asuna has to struggle to balance her real life and her time in the online world which, despite having been escaped from earlier, she seems to continue to be drawn to. But the growth goes beyond that, and we see Asuna's life as the daughter of a wealthy family and all the expectations that go along with it. It's this development that really pushes the story forward during this arc, and I enjoyed the more character-driven story.
One of the bigger problems within the original season's Aincrad arc was that the story often would take large jumps into the future between episodes, and I sometimes felt like I was missing out on important events that surely had occurred during the skipped time. However, this is not an issue in Mother's Rosario or with ANY of season 2. I never felt like there was filler, and I never felt like anything was rushed.
In fact, I was initially shocked at claims that the pacing is worse than the first season's, because even if the pacing could be argued to be off, I thought it was significantly better than the first season. I think the primary concern is that since there are not time skips, the story progresses at a 'slower' pace than what original fans are used to. There is also an increased amount of exposition, which probably exacerbates this feeling.
The new characters are an excellent addition to the story, and help make Mother's Rosario an emotionally charged arc even though Kirito and Asuna are not under life-threatening conditions.
*Spoilers for the end in the rest of this section*
Previously, I have made the claim that Kirito is an example of a good kind of over-powered protagonist, partially because he loses. This is reinforced by Yuki, who actually beats Kirito twice in duels over the course of the story. Kirito says that she is a 'product of full-dive', because much like himself Yuki has been trapped online, albeit for different reasons, a thought which adds to the depth of the psychological implications of spending so much time online. But what is most compelling about the members of the Sleeping Knights is their optimism in the face of the reality that most of them are going to die. This drive is what pushes Asuna into such a quick friendship with Yuki, who is an effective foil for Asuna. Faced with the one of the greatest trials one could possibly face, Yuki is able to move forward and stay positive, while Asuna initially struggles. In this way, Asuna learns from Yuki and becomes stronger herself. Unfortunately, this also means a great sadness is felt once Yuki passes away.
The Excaliber arc was slightly anti-climatic for me, as it likely would be for others. The problem is that while the events transpiring do have an effect on what Alfheim Online will be like in the future, there isn't any real threat to the characters beyond 'dying' and respawning. The writers attempted to remedy this by emphasizing that the changes would affect the online world greatly, and although this means quite a bit to Team Kirito, who consider Alfheim their second home, it does not entirely translate to the audience all of the time, because most have never felt anywhere near the level of attachment to a game that the characters feel to Alfheim.
As many of you might know, one of the most unique parts of Sword Art Online is its ability to swap different genres in each arc, an element of fluidity not usually present in most anime. Mother's Rosario is closer to slice-of-life than any other arc, and while I enjoyed the less action-oriented story for what it was, it is likely not a sentiment that will be shared with all of the original fans. Since the point of the review is whether or not to recommend the show, I think it is worth mentioning that if you are looking for a large amount of fighting and high tension, you will not find it here, although the story is just as heartfelt.
Sword Art Online II, while fixing some of the flaws within the first season, unfortunately keeps a few as well. Sinon, who originally was a strong female lead in the first half of the season, has been reduced to part of Kirito's 'harem'. While I disagree that the 'harem' really is a harem, as that would imply each of the girls are love interests when we know that not to be true, the fact is that Sinon no longer plays a particularly important (or important, period) role in the narrative, and is almost completely absent following the conclusion of Excaliber. Sorry, cat-lady.
Sword Art Online II's second half was, for me, compelling. While Excaliber had its issues, overall this season managed to fix many of the problems that plagued the first season, even if it maintained a couple. Mother's Rosario is extremely different from the rest of Sword Art Online, so liking'disliking the first season does NOT guarantee that you will like/dislike the second one. I would say that it would be a good idea to at least give it a shot, but if you are primarily looking for an action-oriented story, you might not find the same enjoyment I did.
I feel like I need to say this before the comments come in. Please do not respond just to say that Sword Art Online is terrible or that because my opinion is different from yours that I am somehow 'misunderstanding' things. I am more than happy to discuss the positives and negatives with you, but I'm really not interested in arguing with people that haven't read the review. Thanks!
Sword Art Online II is available for free and legal streaming on Crunchyroll.
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Also, a special thanks to Rockmandash12 for checking over stuff, the stuff is better now.
This is one in a series of reviews I will be posting from the Fall 2014 season. I will hyperlink the others as they release on every review. Confirmed list of future/complete reviews (list not final):