ANIME & MANGA - Review
17:00 - 31st May 2014, by David West

Sword Art Online: Part 4

After escaping the virtual world of Sword Art Online in the first story arc of the series, this time Kirito is on a mission to rescue his love Asuna. She's trapped within Alfheim Online, another virtual reality MMORPG, in the clutches of the Fairy King Oberon, the avatar of Suguo, who wants to use the game to conduct illegal research into thought control.

The second story arc of Sword Art Online brings with it a significant shift in tone and direction. The first half was all about Kirito adapting to life within the virtual world, falling for Asuna and fighting to complete the game so they could return to their real lives. The stakes were high because death within SAO meant dying for real. That sense of imminent peril is absent this time, as death in Alfheim is more of an inconvenience that means waiting until Kirito's avatar can reincarnate. There is a subplot involving conflict between the different fairy races than populate ALO but the main plot device to increase the drama quotient involves the unrequited romance between Kirito and Leafa, another player. The resolution of that strand is unsatisfying and avoids forcing Kirito to make any difficult decisions.

The biggest shortcoming of this storyline is the diminution of the female characters. While Leafa sacrifices her own happiness just to help Kirito in his quest, Asuna fares much worse. In the SAO arc, Asuna was a dynamic and powerful character who stood alongside Kirito as an equal partner. Here, she is reduced to the status of the reward at the end of the game, making her completely passive. The story includes a sequence where Asuna is grabbed by slug like creatures with long tentacles where it all goes a bit hentai, and scenes involving sexual violence directed against her, which only intensifies the sense of her being objectified. It's a shame that director Tomohiko Ito and his team of writers could not have found a way to let Asuna keep her dignity while she was waiting to be rescued.

Leaving aside the poor treatment of the female characters (one more gripe - suddenly all the females are very buxom), Kirito's quest to save Asuna means battling his way to the World Tree, located at the heart of the world of Alfheim, and then fighting his way to the top where Asuna is trapped in a bird cage (yes, a bird cage. Groan.). The events unfold in straightforward, chronological order, another change from the earlier instalments which moved between different time periods during the two years that Kirito was trapped within the game. The overall sense is that the series has lowered its ambitions, although the design work is still good, so Alfheim looks great and the different fairy races provide plenty of colour. A big plus is the inclusion of scenes set in the offline world which provide a visual contrast to the fantastical backdrops found within Alfheim, and expands the character roster with the introduction of Kirito's sister Suguha.

The SAO storyline of the first half of the series was big on romance, adventure and drama. But now that the locale has shifted to ALO, the tone is darker and noticeably nastier in several places. It's disappointing to see Asuna reduced in stature, but the visuals remain impressive and imaginative. And the door is open for a sequel.
SCORE: 3/5
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