By Andy Hanley.
Every light novel that enjoys sufficient success to continue beyond its first volume faces a single, pivotal problem – how do you take the core concept and then build or improve upon it?
This is particularly true in the case of Sword Art Online. Its original tale of a virtual reality where death within the in-game world of Aincrad also meant death for real, was a perfect distillation of fantasy MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) trappings with a long-held unease about the encroachment of technology.
The simple yet effective nature of this premise provided plenty of scope for tense drama and highly emotional story-telling – after all, life and death are such an important part of the human experience that its trivialisation in video games has long been a problem that the medium has struggled with when it comes to being taken seriously as an art form. This issue also extends into fiction set within video game worlds.
After the reduced jeopardy of the Fairy Dance arc which made up the second half of the first series, Sword Art Online II returns us to a scenario where death becomes a very real threat for the denizens of an online world. That world is Gun Gale Online – GGO for short – one of many virtual worlds that have sprung up in the wake of the terrifying events of the original story, and one which replaces the more traditional setting of swords and sorcery with gritty urban wastelands.
When a mysterious individual named Death Gun appears within the game and claims that he alone holds the ability to end the life of anyone within his sights, his boasts are laughed off. However, with these claims matching the inexplicable real-world deaths of several GGO players, something is clearly amiss, and a year on from the events of Sword Art Online it’s left to Kazuto Kirigaya to once again take his digital alter-ego, Kirito, into the midst of some decidedly dangerous business.
As a newcomer to Gun Gale Online, Kirito needs some pointers, and this is provided by Sinon, a well-known player within the game and an ace sniper who has her keen eye set upon winning the latest in-game tournament – known as the Bullet of Bullets. With Death Gun also citing the tournament as a vehicle to inflict his ill will upon any comers, the stakes are raised, and the pasts of both Kirito and Sinon come back to haunt them as their potentially lethal participation in the tournament begins.
It would have been so easy for this first story arc of Sword Art Online II to simply re-tread the original, but thankfully the Gun Gale Online arc manages to both encapsulate much of what made that original tale so successful, and also wrap it up in a suitably different way that still has something to say about Kirito’s time in Aincrad.
Indeed, it’s our two main characters, Kirito and Sinon, who really come to the fore throughout this story – the former’s time in Sword Art Online underpin some of the personal struggles he’s still fighting, while the latter also has a harrowing past which defines both her real and virtual existences in very different ways.
Compared to the overt and clearly defined mechanics of death in the original series, Death Gun’s menace is of an altogether different nature. His ability to bring about the demise of an individual in reality is threatening in itself, but the mystery surrounding how he does it and whom he targets makes him all the more terrifying as an antagonist. It’s a terror that is clearly realised as the veil is pulled back on his scheme to create the most memorable villain that Sword Art Online has seen to date.
The result of all of this is massively entertaining – Gun Gale Online’s in-game mechanics provide a very different viewing experience to the first series, with eye-popping action scenes differing vastly in scope and execution to what we’ve seen before. The personal aspects of its story dig far deeper that we’ve seen before. If you were drawn to Sword Art Online by its initial story arc, then Sword Art Online II opens in a way that will rekindle that fire, but also bring something very different, both visually and narratively.
If this seems like a hard act for the second story arc within Sword Art Online II to follow, then fear not. The Mother’s Rosario arc is notable for a few reasons, the first of which is one which becomes obvious almost immediately as we side-line Kirito as our protagonist to instead let Asuna take the lead. A strong, interesting heroine who has previously been given short shrift, this story finally allows us to delve deeper into Asuna’s character, and in particular her insecurities in the wake of her survival of Aincrad.
The long, effectively comatose period trapped within Aincrad has had major ramifications upon her personal life, with her education suffering. This, in turn, has caused a cooling in Asuna’s relationship with her mother, who is frustrated at what she sees as her daughter’s continuing over-reliance on virtual reality at the expense of her studies.
For Asuna’s part, her over-riding issue is far simpler, encompassing that oft-asked question of “what do I want to do with my life?” It’s a question that comes into focus over the course of the story, largely thanks to an encounter within the virtual world of ALfheim Online with a beautiful and incredibly skilled girl who is challenging all-comers to duels for reasons unknown. Asuna’s skills make an impression on this unbelievably talented swordswoman, and as a result we’re taken on an incredibly emotional journey (have a handkerchief at the ready).
It’s this encounter which leads Sword Art Online into some fascinating and previously unexplored territory – series author Reki Kawahara has always shown a deft touch at blending virtual video game worlds and reality, but the Mother’s Rosario story takes it to an entirely different level. Perhaps because we’re all becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of delving into an immersive virtual world in the search for entertainment (albeit not to the extreme offered by the NerveGear headsets), this particular arc casts its net wider and ponders what this technology could do in other fields.
This story allows us to ponder how virtual reality could prove invaluable in the realms of healthcare, offering an escape to those in pain and immobile, by combining drug treatments with a virtual social life. It’s a thought-provoking idea at the head of a number of similar musings that this segment of Sword Art Online provides, and although aspects of its medical science might be up for debate, it is a refreshing change from the intense action that we might be more used to from this series.
Even this, however, pales in comparison to the unmatched emotional payload at the climax of the Mother’s Rosario story, which gives us further evidence that there is far more to this series than swordplay and video games.
Sword Art Online II is a delightfully varied experience. It contains everything that you might expect of the series after the first season – if anything, it ups its game in terms of the kind of action and drama on show in its Gun Gale Online arc thanks to A-1 Pictures’ slick animation. But it also finds new territory to explore, to offer something completely new. For a sequel that could so easily have refused to budge from a successful formula, this breadth of story-telling is welcome and impressive, turning Sword Art Online II into a genuinely notable series.