‘Right here, I can’t tell you what I’m thinking and what I feel. I want you to see my world!’
SAO was a one trick pony. Its death game premise burdened the already heavy task of climbing Castle Aincrad’s 100 floors. But the illusion of the unconquerable castle would often break, as the anime proper would skip floors at the story’s convenience. Halfway through, the show lost the sense of scale it needed to cover for what the characters lacked. In many ways, we saw their world, but not their feelings. SAO was a lukewarm experience.
Which makes me proud to say SAO II is actually quite good.
A year after the SAO incident, Kirito is assigned to investigate a series of real life deaths linked to the videogame Gun Gale Online, or GGO. By playing GGO, Kirito hopes to directly contact the prime suspect, Death Gun, and discover the truth behind these deaths. Let it be said now that, much like SAO, SAO II is more of an alternate world fantasy than a reflection of videogames. There are inconsistencies in the game mechanics abound that would make videogame purists cringe. Then again, if you’ve seen the first season, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
Except for the things we haven’t seen before. It’s a lot, and it’s mostly for the better. The pacing is now steady and believable, instead of skipping multiple events at a time or spending a lot of time on one event. In turn, Death Gun’s dominating presence in the GGO storyline is unmitigated, while the Mother’s Rosario story arc is steeped in nostalgia. Unfortunately, the three episode mini saga of Excalibur is little more than SAO II’s last love letter to its harem fans without care for telling a good story. But the crack left by the Sword in the Stone is barely a dent to its characters.
And it’s a good thing too, because what SAO II lacks in scale more than makes up for in its characters. Kirito especially has improved a lot. Gone are the days where his only real challenges were ones where strength alone wasn’t enough. Now he’s both ‘mentally’ examined and physically tested, especially during GGO. He is a much more rounded character for it, but unfortunately this character arc doesn’t go the extra mile. The source of his inner anguish also feels like a rewrite of SAO.
Co starring with Kirito in GGO is Sinon. Her quiet casualness in real life masks a silent strength in the game, but there’s no moment where her real self and game self clash to make her feel like a different character. It’s two identities created by a single incident in her past, with the events of GGO bleeding them together and forcing her to confront her fears. It is a slow burning, punishing journey that thankfully does not fully solve her problems even at the end. The story recognizes how weakness needs to be overcome one small step at a time, and the time with Sinon is time well spent.
Unfortunately, Sinon’s development isn’t the only thing SAO II likes to show off. To be sure, the fight scenes and music are still as slick as they ever were (I freaking love Tomatsu Haruka’s ‘Courage’), while the GGO setting is lively and distinct despite the brown and grey everywhere. From the shrub forest encroaching the river to the mesh of an abandoned metropolis and old west town, SAO II is the envy of first person shooter games everywhere. It’s just too bad the visuals also show off Sinon’s backside a bit too much. Which is odd, because the last story arc, Mother’s Rosario, doesn’t have anything like this.
If the Alfheim story is what took away Asuna’s integrity from the Aincrad arc, Mother’s Rosario puts this woman back in form with a vengeance. She’s faced with the reality of what two years lost means in real life, while forging the friendship of a lifetime with someone in the game world. Asuna doesn’t develop in this story in the traditional sense, but she doesn’t need to. She’s smart enough to know why some people are acting the way they do with her, while her congeniality was always a part of her. What Asuna needed were characters to bounce off of, and the Mother’s Rosario provides just that.
In particular are the two characters this story introduces. One is estranged to Asuna to play the role of antagonist but never a villain. She is frighteningly believable in what she says, and could definitely hit close to home for a lot of viewers. The other character is one half of the most believable relationship in the entire series. The development between them is silly, sweet, smooth, and not once does the feeling between Asuna and this new character ever feel romantic. Their relationship flawlessly glides across the tightrope called ‘intimately platonic’ that’s so easy to fall off from.
Talk about refreshing.
On top of all the surface improvements from SAO, SAO II is thematically unified without being heavy handed. From Sinon’s reason for playing GGO, to Death Gun’s motive for terrorizing others, to another’s gung-ho liveliness in the game, SAO II is more about the power of online identity than an alternate world fantasy adventure. For better or worse, people change who they are or show their true colors online. And SAO II builds this naturally to the point where the show never loses its narrative breath.
The mark of a good story is it won’t build itself around a theme, but that the theme builds itself around the story. For SAO II to understand this despite having blundered so much in its first season on top of its own improvements, honestly makes me wonder: is this seriously the same series that left me so conflicted? THIS is SAO?
And then I looked again.
This is SAO II.