When Sword Art Online aired two years ago it left me disappointed and frustrated. As I’ve written before, the idea of focusing a story around video games and virtual reality is one that has fascinated me for a long time. Instead of using that idea to its strength, it merely seemed like an afterthought in Sword Art Online.
In episode after episode the game rules were smashed into an unrecognizable mess, making it feel less like a game world and more as a self-fulfilling fantasy world where anything could happen if it meant to spur our hero Kirito. Furthermore, the world was never very carefully crafted and the story felt haphazardly put together – jumping from side story to side story with no tangible relation to the overarching plot – along with characters with paper-thin personalities. It felt like the author Kawahara Reki never actually had played video games.
As such, the second season comes a bit of a surprise. After four enjoyable episodes in a row, I must admit that I really like Sword Art Online II at the moment. It has everything the previous season lacked so far and more. You can clearly see how Kawahara Reki has grown as a writer over the course of the series. In fact, you could already see part of his growth during the first season, as the second arc called “Alfheim Online” – despite the poorly laid out story progression and resolution – featured actual character development in the form of Kirito’s cousin Suguha.
With Sword Art Online II there is a sense of self-confidence and self-awareness lingering after each episode.
The first episode serves more or less as an introduction episode, re-introducing us to the setting and the characters while hinting at what’s to come. Within the first few seconds we are shown Gun Gale Online, the game the second season will take place in, and an in-game debate regarding what seems to be a balance patch and how it will affect the upcoming tournament “Bullet of Bullets”.
Already here we can spot the growth, as the players are discussing matters in a smug manner while touching upon the technicalities and reaching the obvious conclusion: patches change things, deal with it. Add the fact that the debate viewers feel tricked for putting their stats into the wrong fields and you have a moment which feels awfully true to reality.
Another notable moment in the same episode is when Kirito discusses an in-game murder with his “employer” Seijirou at a well-renowned café. Throughout this really serious discussion about murdering players inside games there are some ladies in the background sporadically observing the two in dismay, giving some much-needed distance and perspective to a seemingly ridiculous topic including words such as “Death Gun”.
What’s more, Kirito is actually quite uncomfortable during his meeting with Seijirou; everything from being called his in-game nickname “Kirito” rather than his real name, having to choose order from an expensive menu to being allowed to order another cake if he doesn’t barge out and leave. Not to mention how he is noticeably bothered by the idea of involving himself in this, as it all boils down to “Go get shot, Kirito” in his perspective.
The whole scene displays another side of Kirito we never really saw in the first season. It’s used to belittle Kirito as a character and show how even he can be a tad bit immature at times. Compare this to the first season where he was nearly perfect and did the correct thing in every possible situation to trigger some sort of reaction beneficial to him (for example, nibbling on Suguha’s fingers – while also showcasing his immaturity – was used to create a love interest rather than seeing his childishness).
This sort of change in writing is also very prominent in the following episodes. Especially the second, ditching Kirito altogether for a new character known in-game as Sinon, effortlessly fleshed out the whole world of Gun Gale Online in what on the surface is only an ambush. To make it even better it does all this subtly, putting the world-building into the dialogue and actual gunfights instead of info dumping in an unnatural manner.
Sword Art Online II is so far the complete opposite of the first season. The world is carefully crafted and there are clear rules to follow, with the characters forcing themselves to adapt to the world rather than the opposite. The story may be simple, but it’s built up slowly and it took whole four episodes before Kirito even ventured into the game!
As for the characters, Sinon has her own backstory while Kirito is constantly being made fun of due to his own “perfectness”. Even what could possibly be the villain already has an actual motive as opposed to the previous season where they had literally none.
It’s entirely possible Sword Art Online II will end up bad, or at best a decent action series, despite of this. It still has the occasional questionable moments, such as a misused pseudo-philosophical chat about the difference between reality and games – one that in theory could be interesting – or unnecessary perverted titillation. Yet, everything else appeals to me.
I really like Sword Art Online II so far. Nothing will change that.