After about a year following Kirito beating Sword Art Online and freeing the trapped players, things have returned to normal for many of the survivors. However, Kirito is contacted by a member of the Japanese government to assist in investigating the mysterious events surrounding the deaths of a couple famous VRMMO players in the game Gun Gale Online. This draws him into the game, where he meets a girl named Sinon with a story of her own.
( Note:I decided that due to the unique nature of the two halves of the second season of Sword Art Online separate reviews would be necessary in order to better capture the essence of the show. Spoilers concerning the first season!)
Throughout the story of Phantom Bullet, Kirito chases an urban legend in hopes of discovering the truth surrounding the deaths of famous players. I had my doubts about how necessary continuing the story of Sword Art Online was, since the anime had concluded wonderfully in the first season.
However, these fears were unfounded as the story was able to once again draw me in in a different way as I wondered exactly how these murders were being carried out. While the way Kirito eventually figures everything out is a bit crazy, the entire plan actually makes sense, something I had a hard time fathoming before the show proved me wrong.
The ability for Sword Art Online to change its genre with each arc is quite the incredible feat, and the transition to a murder mystery is no exception. Alfheim Online had the issue of feeling like it was under-developed, but Gun Gale completely avoids this issue despite going into little detail about the game itself.
It is able to pull this off so well because it creates a condensed feeling to the story by driving character development and plot together with very little filler. While there are times where the pacing slows down, I did not once feel like my time was being wasted as I watched. A consistent wave of emotions and suspense manages to pull viewers in and cliffhangers are not Attack on Titan-level unbearable.
While the over-powered protagonist is an element of anime that many disagree on, I have always found Kirito to be one of the more compelling of these cases, and this remains true in the second season. Kirito does two things that many other heroes of his type don't: he loses, and he has legitimate emotions. While there was no major time where Kirito completely failed, he was unable to save all of the victims in his investigation, and Sword Art Online managed to make me believe that his life was legitimately at risk.
There were actual consequences if he lost, and I was momentarily convinced that a happy ending might not happen during some tense moments, partially due to Kirito's emotions. Empathizing with characters is a critical element of any story, and I was able to do so with Kirito during Phantom Bullet. When I was watching, I was able to connect with Kirito despite being nothing like him due to the insights gained to his personal thoughts, and this made him far more interesting to watch than some of the over-powered protagonists from other shows.
One of the biggest complaints of the second half of the first season was the reduction of Asuna's role in the story by making her essentially a captured princess. Fortunately, the new female character Sinon is incredibly interesting and strong.
She suffers from PTSD after a childhood event involving guns, and firearms trigger panic attacks- even if she knows that it isn't a real gun. This stress has caused her to seek a life more pleasing than her own, and through this search she joins Gun Gale Online and works to become the greatest sniper in the game. Her relationship with Kirito, from friend to rival, serves as an interesting story as both face great trials and changes.
Unfortunately, while I was infused with curiosity about the new villain and interested in the development of Sinon, old characters from previous arcs were almost entirely excluded. While the story had a perfectly good reason for it and managed perfectly fine without the characters, I still felt slightly annoyed that the only time I saw Asuna was when she was being romantic with Kirito in the beginning and watching him fight in a tournament. Thankfully, the second half will bring most of these characters back into the fold.
There were a couple of times when the writing in Phantom Bullet got slightly sloppy, and the successes of the plot were driven too much by coincidences.
One example would be at the end, when Kirito manages to avoid death because the lethal injection that Shinkawa attempts to put in his system fails to work. The reason? Because the needle is deflected by plot armor- *ahem* I mean by an electrode left over from the government's monitoring of Kirito while he was in the game. There are so many creative and reasonable ways that could have accomplished the same goals in suspension without this, so it was unfortunate that the event was handled this way.
Phantom Bullet turned out to be a very interesting arc that managed to add on to the story from the first season without feeling inferior and avoiding many of the issues that plagued Fairy Dance. Although it had some minor issues, I looked forward to watching it every week and seeing the plot and characters develop, and would highly recommend taking a look.
Sword Art Online II is available for free and legal streaming on Crunchyroll.
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Also, a special thanks to Rockmandash12 for looking over everything and making sure things weren't ugly. Without you... things would probably be ugly.
This was the first 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):