By the time SAO’s first season ended, I had gone off it in a big way. At the start, pretty-faced Kirito was an underdog I rooted for, sweet-natured and ostracised in an unoriginal but interesting world. By the end, he was the undisputed master swordsman of all the universe, replete with powers that were his alone and not just a beautiful and adorable – if rather dull – girlfriend, but a whole harem of girls to suit any taste. Including those who like the idea of their sister having a crush on them. He was no longer in any way an underdog, the way situations resolved themselves were very contrived, and the cloying way everyone worshipped his every action – including pseudo-government types taking him on as a kind of consultant – became annoying. Kirito became far too like a male Bella Swan, who everyone also loves for no reason.
For all that, though, I was willing to give the second season a chance. There was a lot of talk about the later arcs being much better from fans of the books, and it was after all a cover of Kirito with a mysterious cute boy that drew me into the series in the first place...though the boy, Eugeo, has yet to appear. Guess I’ll have to see in season 3.
Sword Art Online’s big problem is Kirito, and this season doesn’t quite deal with that problem – though the second arc here finds an interim solution. Kirito is just not very likeable, nor identifiable as wish fulfilment. His skills continue to be a cut above, and he seems just a little smug about that, and more crucially the stakes are very low now. He’s in online games, not fighting for his life. Plus he is pretty enough that when his character gets long hair, people think he’s a girl. Perhaps that’s meant to make him the butt of a joke, but its effect is to make him seem yet more perfect and beautiful. And it’s annoying!
The reason he has a new avatar is that he’s sent into a new game to track down a killer. A mysterious figure seems to have the ability to shoot a gun in the game and kill someone in real life. Of course, Kirito is the one to be sent to sort this out. Though this is an American shooting game, Kirito of course not only adapts to it immediately but decides to use a lightsaber and charge down all the campers and duellists. Because he’s super special.
Of course, he finds a new girl whose deep mental issues he manages to solve with a few platitudes, so he can add one more to his harem. Sinon is a sniper and using the game as therapy. By sheer coincidence she has a personal connection with the bad guy in the picture, and super Kirito figures everything out.
After a brief and not very interesting side-quest wherein Kirito and the gang finish a quest that might have destroyed their whole world and of course rewards Kirito with Excalibur, Best Sword in the Game, the final arc begins – and yes, it’s the best arc since the first one. That’s largely because Kirito is taken out of the picture – a little like how the best part of the Suzumiya Haruhi franchise is when she disappears. Instead, Asuna is placed centre-stage when an incredibly good swordswoman takes an interest in her and recruits her into defeating a boss with just a small but elite party. Not only does Asuna figure out why the party had been failing until that point (they are being spied upon) and lead them to final victory, she comes to understand the swordswoman well. Yuuki and her friends have come together because they are all terminal patients with extremely weak bodies, eager to make a lasting impression at least on a virtual world, which will record their names. Some parts of the story I find rather weak and exploitative, with overwrought sexual tension between the two girls screaming fanservice rather than something sweet, and the set-up being blatantly contrived to have an attempted tear-jerker ending. As a result, I found it rang a bit false.
But overall, it was beyond a doubt a breath of fresh air. Asuna may not be a very interesting character, but she was given some new dimensions here. The scenes in the real world were quite delicate and sweet, especially when Asuna fixed it so that she could take Yuuki’s virtual presence with her for an ordinary day at school, and I’d quite like to know more about the other group members...especially the cute boy whose name – a little gratingly for me – was Jun. Perhaps they’ll crop up in future episodes.
The fact is, I’m fairly sure there’ll be more Sword Art Online, and that I’ll watch it. But I can’t say it will be with much enthusiasm. The series outstayed its welcome, and thus far not enough has been done to make it better. It’s one of the success stories of recent years, but really it’s a show that’s still trading on its strong opening episodes and cute designs...
That said, it surprises me that Kirito remains a very popular character. There’s still a very loyal fanbase to this series! I guess there are people who don’t want to root for the underdog – but want their avatar in a story a bit overly perfect. Which I suppose would also explain No Game No Life.