ANIME & MANGA - Review
11:16 - 1st April 2014, by David West

Sword Art Online Part 2: Episodes 8-14

Two years have passed since teenage gamer Kirito first became trapped in the virtual world of Aincrad, his consciousness locked inside a MMORPG called Sword Art Online. The only way that Kirito and the other players can free themselves from Sword Art Online is by completing the game, but after two years of exploring dungeons and slaying monsters they still aren't strong enough to begin clearing the top levels. Moreover, Kirito's hunger to escape the fantasy world is compromised by his blossoming love affair with fellow player Asuna.

Where the episodes in part one of Sword Art Online were non-sequential, in this second instalment, events unfold in a more traditional, linear format. While there are still regular doses of action and intrigue, the focus does shift noticeably towards the romantic end of the spectrum and the relationship between Kirito and Asuna. Their decision to take a break from adventuring to play house takes the series into mushier territory than the monster slaying, and reaches its heart-string plucking zenith when the pair take in a lost little girl called Yui. This plot arc is far too predictable and easily the weakest section of this series to date. The foreshadowing is ham fisted, as is the attempt to squeeze every last drop of pathos out of Yui's predicament. And where did all the kids in the game come from anyway? Age and size are not barriers to advancement - Kirito is only a skinny teen but he is super tough in the world of Sword Art Online - so it's not clear why the children are all so helpless.

The animation quality, which at its best is very impressive, does dip in a few spots in this final batch of episodes, with a greater reliance on still frames than in previous instalments. But when it counts, particularly in the battles against the mighty end of level bosses, it always rises to the occasion. The fight against the big creepy skeleton / scorpion monster in episode 13 stands out, and director Tomohiko Ito and his team do a good job of smoothly blending the CGI with the hand drawn elements of the animation. The design work is another big plus point, and the scenes of Kirito and Asuna's idyllic hideaway home exude warmth and welcome. There is always plenty of detail in backgrounds and supporting characters, which makes every scene pleasing to the eye. The English dub and the script by Alex Von David and Bang Zoom! Entertainment are both top notch with no evidence of awkward phrasing in the matching of words to lip movements.

There are some questionable plotting decisions in the climactic episode, which the script attempts to smooth over with a single line of dialogue to the effect of, 'I didn't know that could happen!' - which does not carry much dramatic credibility. But the plight of the young lovebirds is sympathetic, and it is hard not to want Asuna and Kirito to succeed in their quest to stay together and complete the game.

Perhaps Sword Art Online tries too hard to appeal to both shonen and shoujo fans, moving as it does between fantasy action and romance, yet the battles are energetic and the romance sweet without being excessively saccharine. The big tease ending leaves fans with a hook firmly embedded to pull them back for part three. Don't log out yet.
SCORE: 4/5
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