It is time to review a story that never should have taken place. By any measure of realism and sensible writing, the show would have ended after their escape from SAO, the technology would have been banned in the wake of the public outrage, and there would be no need for further walls of snarky reviews at MAL.
But there was more money to be made, and what are realism and sensible writing compared to that? So here we are then.
When reviewing season 1, I implied that the second arc was a cashcow, and I feel the same applies here. It is a thinly veiled attempt to stretch out the SAO franchise for quick cash, a calculated money-grabbing venture. A part of what makes it that way is that these new arcs don't contribute much to the overall narrative. It's just adventuring for the sake of adventuring. It doesn't help that each arc is fairly self-contained, with a jarring transition from one arc to another. Now, I'm not against multiple plotlines but here's an idea: try developing them simultaneously, side by side. It would also improve the show from a world-building perspective, creating a stronger illusion of an actual world instead of this clip show of the protagonist's adventures.
This season is divided into no fewer than three arcs, so I'll have to go through them one by one.
Gun Gale Online arc: 3
This is the longest of the three arcs, taking up 14 of 24 episodes, so it stands to reason that the most effort should have gone into this. Predictably enough, this is not the case and it drops the ball right at the starting line.
The premise is that players of a virtual reality MMO, Gun Gale Online, are dying in real life after being shot by a magic gun called the Death Gun. This gun is wielded by the creatively named character, Death Gun, who is subtly dressed in robes and a steel mask so that nobody could figure out he's the bad guy. How are the authorities going to investigate this? Track Death Gun's IP address? No, of course not. That would be stupid. Obviously the only way to solve this problem is to call Kirito.
For the record, there is an in-universe reason why they can't track Death Gun down: the people running the game are apparently refusing to hand over his player info. Furthermore, they are in the United States, and obviously the American authorities won't ask them or simply place them under surveillance because... shut up. Seriously, if you're going to use that as an excuse, at least place them into a third-world country or something. After the SAO and ALO incidents, I can't believe for a second that there'd be such a lack of government oversight. If all else failed, they could simply threaten to launch a negative media campaign over the deaths to force the GGO staff to hand over the data or go bankrupt.
This is something I mentioned in my SAO review, but I cannot emphasize it enough. After the SAO disaster and the consequential mass hysteria, it would have only been realistic to ban the technology. It doesn't matter if the new hardware is safer. People just wouldn't trust it. After all, the old death trap passed safety inspections with flying colors too. (I'm being generous here and assuming they actually have safety inspections in the SAO-verse. I could be wrong.) Add to that the ALO incident where government safeguards failed again, and this lack of regulation and oversight becomes all the more ridiculous.
Anyway, Kirito is asked to put his life on the line in an MMO again. You'd think he would refuse after spending two years trapped in a life-and-death struggle, but we wouldn't have a new story otherwise, so after brief hesitation he jumps right in. He logs into GGO without any kind of prior experience of the game or any weapons or a pool of funding. He also converted his old account, so he is going with his famous standard username. These government-funded covert operations sure are overrated.
So why did they ask Kirito who has no experience in this game, especially given how it's played by professionals for cash prizes? The reason is simply that he can be trusted because of his earlier involvement. ...Okay, I might buy that if Kirito was just going to play casually, but instead he joins the tournament where all the top players gather. Realistically he'd be eliminated right away, but this is Kirito we're talking about, so he's immediately better at it than the people who make their living out of it. This is because he has the good sense to bring a sword into a gun fight, and by sword I mean lightsaber, complete with Star Wars sound effects. It's only fitting that he has godlike reflexes and can deflect bullets with his sword, up to slicing them in half in midair. In a word, he is a Jedi.
I mentioned gun fights because GGO resembles a first-person shooter. The strange part is that you can see bullet lines to predict enemy shots, with the exception of a sniper's first shot, which is an odd design choice to say the least, or rather it ruins the whole thing. But Kirito has figured out it can be faster to just look where the gun is pointing or follow their eyes. Why nobody else has realized this simple fact is beyond me, but that's apparently how it is. It is this insight, along with his overpowered reflexes, that allows him to easily beat an allegedly impossible minigame no one else could.
He also encounters a female sniper called Sinon who suffers from PTSD and is morbidly afraid of guns in real life. Which is naturally why she's playing a gun-themed MMO as a form of therapy and is completely fine with guns within the game. Probably not the first line of therapy I'd recommend. She is also frequently used for fanservice, which shouldn't really surprise anyone.
If that wasn't bad enough, Kirito is pretending to be a girl to gain Sinon's trust and apparently to troll random male players. This gives an opportunity for additional fanservice in case Sinon isn't enough. I wonder if he even takes his girlfriend and adopted daughter seriously if he's fine flirting with not only women but also men. I'm also going to be generous here and assume nobody can use an avatar of the opposite gender in these MMOs because otherwise people assuming that he is female in real life is just ridiculous.
The lack of continuity becomes apparent when a raid against player-killers in SAO (by which I mean the original Aincrad arc) is retconned into the story instead of presenting it during season one. Kirito also suddenly gets PTSD over the events of SAO, despite never having problems before. Thankfully he can trivially overcome these problems, and his heroic bravery also inspires Sinon. Yes, even Kirito's flaws are portrayed as strengths.
Eventually Kirito figures out the culprit's MO by some guesswork and proceeds with a plan to obtain his name that shouldn't really work. But it does. I also think it might have been a good idea to contact the authorities beforehand and send surveillance teams and security to the relevant locations, but we've seen how well-prepared this covert operation has been, so maybe it wouldn't have made a difference. GGO also displays its high safety standards with the lack of manual logout during tournaments, which sounds damn ominous after the SAO massacre.
This is followed by infodumping the villain's backstory at the last minute. Without going into spoilers, the ultimate reveals are not worth it. Death Gun's identity is extremely anticlimactic, his method of killing is very situational, and his motivation can barely be called one. There is also the obligatory attempted rape scene to establish that the villain is in fact evil. You can't trust the audience to figure that one out on their own.
One more thing. In his spare time Kirito is developing revolutionary virtual reality applications. Sounds like a bit of a stretch for him alone compared to, say, a massive research team, but this is Kirito after all.
Excaliber arc: 3
Kirito and co. must take on a new quest to save the world of Alheim Online from a dreadful menace: their save files getting erased!
So, yeah, they are questing in ALO for three episodes, and if they lose, nobody will die, but game data will be erased. How is this a problem, you ask? Well... there are no backups. It uses a core program derived from SAO whose functionality isn't fully known. Of course the staff is also unavailable because they are all on holiday.
So let me get this straight. This is an MMO where
- the game may arbitrarily decide to have its map implode,
- there are no real backups of the game world,
- the staff hasn't bothered to check the system thoroughly enough to realize this possibility, or simply doesn't care, and
- the GMs aren't always on call, even though this game uses the same software as the infamous SAO.
I can picture it now.
"Hey, something strange is going on. I'm trapped inside the game and can't log out."
"It is currently outside support hours. Please send your query during regular support hours."
And, yes, I know that they don't understand how it works because they didn't build it from a scratch. But here's the thing: if you don't understand how it works, don't use it! Especially if it's software from an infamous death trap known to be full of surprises. I mentioned earlier that the technology would have probably been banned, but if it isn't even fully understood, I'd say banning it might have been a good idea.
The actual questing is pretty much just beating up some bosses and other enemies in a dungeon and short interaction with NPCs. Actually, there are some newly introduced AI characters (I suppose the threat is legit to them), but they don't get much screentime, so it's hard to develop any connection. I don't dislike the idea of having people do normal MMOing, but it would work better if the show was about that from the start. If you have death games, murder investigations and so on, a few random episodes of normal MMOing won't fit in. It is little more than a filler arc. And while you're at it, flesh out the game mechanics more. Watching a Let's Play usually works better if you understand more firmly what's going on.
Mother's Rosario arc: 5
The last seven episodes decide to go with "the feels" tactics and appeal to emotion. It's actually a familiar idea from the first season: the show introduces some new characters and, guess what, pretty soon some tragic things happen to them. Unfortunately, I found it hard to become emotionally invested in people who have only been introduced a moment earlier, especially if it's obvious they only exist for this purpose. You see, the tragedy is an incredibly unlikely stroke of bad luck, almost implausible, which makes it look very plot-convenient. The show tries to make them more meaningful by presenting deep friendship between the old and new characters in a short timeframe. It succeeds halfway, but it's still bordering on implausibly fast. At least the situation provides an application for virtual MMO technology, but it could have been handled in a way that looks less convenient.
Oh, and the main character for this arc is Asuna, which is a refreshing change from Kirito, I suppose. She is a bit less overpowered too, if only a bit, not that fighting is really the focus here. Still, we do get to see a moment where Kirito single-handedly overpowers several dozen players, but at least it's only once.
There is also another subplot in which Asuna and her mother talk about their relationship and her future career. And by future career I mean marriage prospects, for which Kirito is unsuitable simply because he isn't loaded with enough cash. In case anyone hasn't figured out by this description, or by season one's Alfheim arc for that matter, Asuna has absolutely terrible parents who care about her daughter's status and bank account more than her free will and emotional well-being. I don't get how Asuna can even be on speaking terms with them after the events of season one, but apparently this is the case, if only barely. Still, the interaction is believable enough and manages to produce some much needed character growth, making it one of the better parts of the season.
Story overall: 4
It may not be as off-the-rails as season one, and there aren't any ridiculous timeskips, but instead we get a fragmented season with little connection between the arcs. And the arcs themselves have their own problems.
Kirito: The man himself, as overpowered as ever. As far as his personality goes, it's hard to detect any notable growth. The PTSD aspect was easily overcome and it seemed artificial considering that he had never had these problems before. But the real problem is the same as before: he never has anything interesting to say. I mean, really: it's just dull heroic lines or generic exposition. No wit, no eloquence, no charisma. Kirito is an all-out action hero, but that's all he is. He is no strategist, and he isn't much use for conversation either.
Asuna: Finally gets out of Kirito's shadow and gets some development that makes her more of an actual human being. We learn more about her family, the problems in her personal life, and so on. By the way, there isn't any real development in her relationship with Kirito, but how could there be given how it's portrayed as nigh perfect from the start?
Asuna's mother: Not the kind of mother I'd like to have, but I can see people like this existing. She does get fleshed out a bit though.
Sinon: The PTSD aspect is handled so unrealistically it's hard to take it seriously, and its resolution is almost arbitrary. After the first arc she becomes irrelevant, much like most of the side characters in this show.
Death Gun: Could have been handled better, to say the least, and by that I mean both his virtual and real-world self. For starters, how about giving him some better motivation? They say that the villain makes the plot, but here there is almost neither.
Yuuki: She receives barely enough screentime. It's far more than most of the side characters, but that isn't saying much. Her backstory and role in the plot feel too convenient.
The rest of the old cast: Barely exist. They get to appear a few times, but they don't really do much. If there is anything worth mentioning, it's that Klein not getting a girlfriend has become a running gag.
Technically there are a few that I didn't mention, such as Sinon's friend who only exists to be inferior to Kirito in Sinon's eyes, and the government official guy who just stands there unable to get anything done while Kirito saves the day. But that is already being generous. You would think that a show about MMOs would do some world-building by introducing a greater number of characters and portraying their relationships, but nope. Only a few other characters are meaningful to the plot. Kirito himself hogs much of the screentime, though it isn't nearly as ridiculous as in season one.
Again, this must be where they spent the cash. The visuals look great. GGO in particular has very nice backgrounds, ranging from massive steampunk cities to postapocalyptic ruins and wastelands. ALO may feel like a repetition of season one, but the execution is good nonetheless. The fanservice is probably less impressive, but what else is new? The second and third openings have pretty great visual design and the last ending likewise.
Gets the job done pretty well. The voice acting, opening and ending songs, and the soundtrack are all good enough.
The slower pacing somewhat hurts the possible "so bad it's good" effect compared to last season. If we're talking about legit enjoyment, Mother's Rosario takes the lead by far.
Kirito continues his epic struggle to trivially beat everyone in his path, even if it doesn't take all season this time. It made some money though, so who am I to judge?