*Minor spoilers ahead*
There are a lot of things that can be said about Sword Art Online, and most of those things are not pleasant. I will not mince words: I am no fan of the series. The first season was filled with so many issues, both significant and minor, that even watching a single episode was an incredible test of patience. There were some neat ideas hidden in between the mountains of nonsense, and while I can understand why the show was so enjoyable to so many people, in my case, it was like an aneurysm waiting to happen.
There is often a dichotomy of opinions towards the show. There are the fans who adore the characters and setting and staunchly defend their right to enjoy whatever they please, and then there are the critics who despise everything the series stands for, often going to the extreme of attacking the fanbase and treating the series like it is an abomination forged in the fiery pits of hell. And that is precisely why, regardless of which side you stood on, Sword Art Online was likely not the kind of series that could be given a shrug and promptly forgotten.
"Was". The same cannot be said for the second season of Sword Art Online. Whereas the first season was either the song of angels or the cacophony of demons, the second season is the essence of mediocrity. It delivers even more of the virtual reality-MMORPG setting and Kirito's usual 'time to save the day and wink at my bitches' attitude, but that's really all it is: 'more'. It's not offensively bad like the first season was (though it does come close at times), nor does it deliver anything to keep the fans particularly excited. It is a sequel that exists to be a sequel. It exists because the author created a successful franchise and thus he needed to keep the fans appeased by throwing more Kirito and Asuna their way. The story could and should have ended after the first arc, but profits seem to speak more than artistic expression. So it goes.
To have a discussion about Sword Art Online is to discuss its flaws. There is almost an endless supply of issues to complain about, and while I will not be able to mention all of them (lest this review reach novella length), I also do not believe that enjoyment alone is enough reason to praise an anime. So you will have to forgive me for nitpicking the show to death. The little things do add up after a while. Death by a thousand cuts, they say.
Sword Art Online's lacklustre second offering begins with the initially promising (and quickly disappointing) Gun Gale Online, or GGO arc. After the events of the first season, Kirito is tasked with investigating the murder of several people within GGO, because... well, apparently a teenager is more capable than the police or a federal agent who has actually been trained in investigation. He is also forced by his contractor to play in the game as a female avatar, because reasons. If that is supposed to be a method to help conceal his identity, it certainly does not have any effect when he continues to refer to himself as "Kirito". Most likely, the author simply put this in so that the fans might be able to write yuri doujins and fulfil their secret desire to be the little girl. That's cool either way, but it doesn't do much to establish the series as something that can be taken even remotely seriously.
Speaking of his female avatar, Kirito is seemingly the only guy in the entire game who plays as the opposite sex. You would think that pretty normal (it's common enough that people often have to question the real-world gender of female avatars), but every single guy in the game believes without a shred of doubt that Kirito is actually a girl. And so they hit on him and fawn over him. Sinon even goes into a full-blown rage when she finds out about Kirito's actual gender, stating how she feels betrayed and how Kirito was a liar for not telling her in the first place. Like... okay? I guess the author felt it necessary to turn Kirito into a heroine himself because there somehow wasn't enough fanservice already, what with all the frequent shots that stare directly at Sinon's butt.
Kirito being Kirito, he immediately makes a name for himself by winning a near-impossible minigame with little to no effort. And while, sure, it isn't too strange that someone would immediately get the feel for an MMORPG, it is certainly a problem when his playstyle is utterly contrary to the nature of the game. GGO is not a game about melee combat; it is about guns, grenades and positioning. If a player decides to pull a knife twenty feet away from someone with a machine gun, they will be absolutely and utterly destroyed. Or at least that would be common sense, if sense actually applied to Kirito. He decides to use a lightsaber (yes, seriously) in a first-person shooter and then proceeds to dodge or cut every single bullet that ever crosses his path, and in one case, even sends a bullet flying into a building which then causes the entire thing to collapse (apparently he deflected a tank shell). Perhaps Kirito is some sort of god, seeing as he can think and react thousands of times faster than any other human being. The show explains it away with some 'high agility stats' nonsense, failing to realise that Kirito predicting the path of dozens of bullets two feet in front of him requires superhuman thought just as it requires superhuman speed. It seems Kirito is so powerful that petty concepts such as sense do not apply to him. Praise be to our God, Kirito. May he forever bless us.
Thankfully, the addition of Sinon creates a bit of a distraction from the Kirito bollocks, but her being a female character, she still inevitably becomes a part of Kirito's harem. And he manages to swoon her by spouting some of the most embarrassingly cliché lines I've perhaps ever seen in an anime. Let me quote one of his brilliant lines: "No one dies alone. When that person dies, the part of them that lives within someone else dies too. You already live within me!" And yes, this is actually something he says within the show. Now excuse me while I go and vomit.
There is also one particularly obnoxious scene in the second episode where Sinon, falling from the top of a skyscraper, somehow dodges all but one of the hundreds of bullets hurling at her from the gattling gun below. All of them land just a few feet below her, which one would assume is because the shooter is trying to match his aim with her falling speed, except if he wasn't completely lacking in brain cells, he would realise that all he needs to do is stop moving his aim for a fraction of a second and Sinon would be annihilated. No such thing happens, and Sinon sends a sniper bullet through his head as she approaches the ground (because that is how sniper rifles work), spouts a cheesy catchphrase ("The end!") and lands with one of those cliché shots where where her back faces her dying enemy. I'm not sure if this was scene was supposed to be 'cool' or something, because the only emotions it conveyed to me were frustration and embarrassment-- embarrassment over the fact that I just finished watching something that even 10-year-olds would think dumb.
Sinon's trauma is somewhat interesting, for it at least creates a character in the show who is actually flawed as a person. But the manner in which this trauma is developed is far from great. She's portrayed as being emotionally strong, even more so than Asuna or Our God Kirito, and then as soon as she sees the same pistol that was used in the incident from her trauma, she immediately turns into a suicidal mess, saying how she doesn't care about dying while actively making an attempt to survive. Whatever. The trauma is not there to develop Sinon's character in any meaningful way or to carry any message about the struggles of post-traumatic stress disorder, but simply exists to establish her as a tragic heroine so that the audience can pity her and empathise with Kirito's desire to protect her. How exciting.
The show also tries to create a trauma for Kirito too, although it only ever comes across as a lame, cloying attempt to make him a darker character. He is apparently haunted by his SAO days where he was forced, in self-defense, to kill two player characters who were murderers themselves. He is so damaged by the incident that in one scene, a nurse actually hugs and comforts him, but his supposed trauma is never explored in any depth and is forgotten about as quickly as it is mentioned. The fact that he can laugh, smile and engage in PvP only moments later is a testament to the fact that it never really mattered in the first place. It also shows that the author has no idea what kind of character he even wants Kirito to be: is he a dark anti-hero or a light-hearted goof who just happens to be good at MMORPGs? The show has no idea. It throws Kirito from personality to personality, to the point where you have no idea who the hell he even is any more.
The story surrounding the antagonist of GGO (cheesily named "Death Gun") deserves a small amount of praise for its willingness to change the show's formula a little bit by creating a meaningful connection between the virtual world and the real world. The way in which Death Gun carries out his crimes is actually quite neat, but the identity of the killer is perhaps less so. The killer immediately transforms into a raging lunatic the second their identity is revealed, committing their crimes for reasons as dumb as "I hate my parents". Is it so difficult to write an antagonist that actually has personality and a legitimate (though disagreeable) reason for their actions? It's not as though every person who ever commits a bad deed is a psychopath. Normal people do bad things, too.
Most of the suspense of Death Gun's murder spree is created through dumb contrivances, though. The characters cannot log out in the middle of the tournament, meaning it is impossible to avoid being killed by Death Gun unless they defeat him in the game themselves. I am pretty sure it would be against every sort of law imaginable, especially after the SAO incident, for players to not be able to leave the game whenever they please. What if there's something urgent going on in the real world and they can't get to it because the tournament is taking longer than expected? What if their bloody house is on fire? This restriction is utterly asinine and would never actually exist, but I suppose there wouldn't be much story if it didn't. Sword Art Online is less interested in creating a believable world and more in twisting and changing everything about it to fit with the author's whims.
The story of GGO is over before it ever really starts. It's a shame, because the setting actually carried a surprising amount of potential. The post-apocalyptic, mercenary-led and cyberpunk wasteland of GGO is far more exciting than the tired 'fairies and elves and swords' fantasy of SAO and ALO. Once the fight with Death Gun is wrapped up, Kirito and his harem simply move on to the next game without much care.
Except the 'next game' is just ALO all over again. The second arc of the story is a forgettable haze of nothing. All that happens during these three episodes is that Kirito obtains the most powerful sword in the game, because he wasn't already powerful enough, or something? There's also more utter stupidity like Kirito and his party being pulled into a questline that can actually delete the entire game's data. I am absolutely sure the developers would program something that allows years of hard work and their entire source of revenue to be brought to nothing. Right.
And the next game is more ALO, too, although the story does attempt to take a different turn in the third (and final) arc by temporarily passing the protagonist baton to Asuna. But even a lack of Kirito seemingly cannot do much to improve the series. Even with the incredible amount of detail given to Asuna's character-- her troubled relationship with her mother who wants her to lead a normal life, her feelings about the future and her struggle to save a newfound friend-- somehow, after all those episodes and all those awful things she had to deal with, Asuna was still the exact same person she was during her first appearance. She does nothing but fill the shoes of what many would consider the 'perfect girlfriend'. She is lacking in flaws and devoid of personality. She's just a pretty face who goes through some bad things. I suppose the aim shouldn't even have been to develop her character, but to give her a character in the first place. If you throw a rock into a tornado, it will still remain a rock once it reaches the ground.
Among the dozens of other things in the third arc to find issue with, there is one particular scene that comes to mind. As Asuna and her new friends are fighting to reach the boss room before another group of people, Kirito somehow, conveniently, shows up as a part of their reinforcements. He decides to betray them all for Asuna and her friends' sake, and holds off the twenty or so people completely on his own. The initial half of the enemy party decides to use healers, and one of Asuna's allies then complains that they're "not being fair", as if using healing magic in an MMORPG is somehow a new concept. They manage to win despite being vastly outnumbered, and as Asuna and her party enter the boss room, Kirito, surrounded by flames, makes a peace sign while holding off the horde of enemy players. Somehow I think this scene might feel more appropriate in a teenager's fanfiction.
It should also be mentioned how cringe-worthy any scene with Yui is, such as when Kirito writes a program so that she can 'see' through the cafe's camera and then hang out with them in reality. Please. She's an annoying NPC, not the daughter of a bloody teenager. If she were to be erased from the entire story I doubt anyone would complain.
And why are Kirito and Asuna so incapable of showing physical affection? They've been dating for three years now and even made virtual babies with each other in SAO, but in the real world they do not dare kiss or engage in sexual activities. It makes their relationship feel very weak, superficial-- almost like the author is afraid of fully committing them to one another because it would make Kirito unable to have his harem. The show eliminates any sense of a realistic romantic relationship by attempting to appease both harem and Asuna fans, except in reality, it has quite the opposite effect. Those who want to see the relationship between Kirito and Asuna developed will only find themselves disappointed, and those who want more of the harem will find themselves even more disappointed.
The problem with Kirito's harem is that all its members are there only as eye candy. Even Kirito's bouncy sister is pushed to the side and made irrelevant, despite her receiving so much screentime in the previous season that it seemed things were about to develop into a love triangle. Nope. All that was for nothing. She and the others all still follow Kirito along, finding themselves jealous whenever he and Asuna share a tender moment, and really, what is the point in them even being there at this point? To remind us they exist so that they can used in ero-doujins? Great.
Furthering this issue is the show's reluctance to write in male characters that are not raging lunatics or utterly irrelevant. Kirito is the only male in the entire story who ever matters. None of the girls have any interest in Klein or any of the other males; they just fight over Kirito despite the fact that he is already (supposedly) in a relationship. It's not that there needed to be another male character with his own love interests, given that Sword Art Online is absolutely terrible at writing romance, but the least the show could do is give Klein and the others a bit more attention. Klein exists only as some random dude that tags along with Kirito, and it's a shame, because he's a hell of a lot more interesting than Kirito ever was.
The last few episodes carry a fair share of emotional weight, but it's quite difficult to care much about what's going on when the entire arc moves at lightning speed. Asuna and Yuuki act like they're best friends after only knowing each other for about two days, and it's not much longer until Asuna starts rushing to her side in the real-world and crying for her sake. Sure, it's pretty hard not to feel sorry for Yuuki given how crappy her situation is, but the audience is just thrown into the drama without being given any time to think about what's going on. I'm not the kind of person who believes there is something inherently wrong with shock value, but I mean, for god's sake, the least you could do is give me some reason to be invested in the characters first. It's just melodrama without purpose.
The actual fight scenes are also thoroughly disappointing. There are no longer any situations where the characters' lives feel at stake. It's a video game and Kirito is incapable of defeat. Most of these are barely longer than two minutes, anyway, so if you were looking forward to massive boss battles and crazy nonsense from the first season like Kirito's dual-wielding skill, there is none of that here. The show instead spends most of its budget on Sinon's ass.
Does Sword Art Online look nice? Sure. And it sounds nice, too. But no matter how pretty the scenery and how intense the main battle theme is, it cannot make the unexciting exciting. Unless the music is married with an appropriate scene, it will achieve nothing if not being awkward, and often the scenes in Sword Art Online feel awkward. All Sword Art Online does is look and sound nice-- in this case, the wrapping paper is more exciting than the contents.
The show has some issues.
I still feel there's so much I've missed and so much more that needs to be said about the series. I've tried my best to assort all my angry groans and rolled eyes into something that actually resembles a proper piece of writing, so if it feels like a massive wall of whining, I apologise. There was a lot to whine about.
And no, I don't believe that my standards being "too high" is a valid rebuttal. Standards are not something that anyone should ever apologise for. It does not matter if a show strives to be some intellectual commentary or if it's content just being simple-ass entertainment (and Sword Art Online definitely falls on the "simple-ass entertainment" side of the spectrum). If a show is dumb enough that you can enjoy it only by turning your brain off, then it is not something that is worth your time. There is plenty of entertainment out there that can be enjoyed while the brain cells are in use. Some of them are even aimed at children (see: Aikatsu, Cardcaptor Sakura or My Neighbour Totoro), so I don't see much reason to force yourself to enjoy mediocrity when quality is easily available.
But if you enjoy Sword Art Online, that's OK too. You're free to watch and enjoy whatever the hell you damn well please, and the people who say you are a lesser person for enjoying mindless entertainment are just as mindless themselves. Sword Art Online definitely has a great deal of appeal among younger folk and MMORPG fans, but please, if you enjoyed the series in any capacity, do yourself a favour and do not conflate your personal enjoyment with critical quality. Fun does not necessarily mean good. It often does-- how can we appreciate something we hate watching, after all?-- but in this case, the enjoyability of Sword Art Online has nothing to do with its merit as a story. Because it doesn't have any.
Sword Art Online is a mess and it needs some shovelling.