The first two parts of Sword Art Online were amongst my top anime releases of last year, so you'd think I'd be eagerly anticipating this third part. Instead though I'm approaching this with a degree of trepidation, simply because the second part rounded the story off quite neatly and I can't see where it can go without using cheap tactics to extend it.
With Sword Art Online cleared at the end of the last volume
the surviving trapped users were returned to the real world, and the ordeal
should be over. However, not everyone escaped. Around 300 users
remained trapped in the system when the game ended, and although Kirito returned
Asuna was amongst those still trapped. Kirito's user Kazuto Kirigaya has
tracked her down in the real world where she remains in a coma in hospital, and
continues to visit her in the hope she will regain consciousness. Her
father's company is maintaining the Sword Art Online servers after the collapse
of the company that ran it in order to keep the remaining users alive and find a
way to save them, but Kazuto feels powerless to help until a friend contacts him
with some urgent news. Users of another virtual reality MMORPG - Alfheim
Online - have screencapped a picture of someone who looks a lot like Asuna from
one of the game's as-yet unreached areas. It's the first lead that Kazuto
has had on Asuna since he left Sword Art Online, but in order to follow it up he
would need to go back into the virtual reality world - after being trapped for
so long before, can he build up the courage to use the NerveGear headset again?
Yes, they've gone down the Alien 3 route of basically dumping on the happy-ish ending to the second part! The continuation of the story does feel a bit cheap, there was a real sense of closure at the end of the last part, a feeling that the ordeal was over and that Kazuto would go and find Asuna in the real world. It was a nicely hopeful conclusion, but one that's negated this time round by leaving Asuna in the game and giving Kazuto a reason to resurrect his Kirito persona and go back to the fantasy world. This time there's a new setting,
the Nordic-themed Alfheim Online, which ditches the medieval fantasy styling of Sword Art Online in favour of a magical world populated by faeries and elves. Magic forms a more central role in Alfheim, with users selecting one of six elven races each with their own skills and magical specialties, but unlike the previous game player on player combat is encouraged, with each of the races technically at odds with one another. The aim of the game is to ascend to the top of Yggdrasil - the world tree at the centre of the land - and it's at the top of the tree that Asuna has been glimpsed. With player killing rife the world is pretty unforgiving to newcomers, and even though Kirito inexplicably retains many of his SAO abilities and levels he still needs help to get to grips with the game - in particular the ability of the characters to fly for limited periods. He finds this help from Leafa, a more experienced player who aids him even though her character is from a rival race, and is soon off on his quest to rescue Asuna.
There's a lot this new start for Sword Art Online does
well. As with the earlier parts the online world is stunning, with grand
vistas and beautiful sunsets made even more impressive by the characters'
ability to fly. As before the game world is intriguing, but unlike the
earlier parts of the series Kirito can log out when he wants and player avatars
can be completely different to their real world counterparts - meaning no-one
can be judged by appearances. The action is more focused on magic than
combat which is a nice contrast to the last two parts, and Leafa is an engaging
enough character, especially when her real-world identity becomes clear.
The new world changes the series dynamic quite considerably, with Kirito going
from seasoned player to novice and the introduction of a far more dangerous
environment where the players rather than the game are the threat. Unlike
the earlier parts of the story the focus of the story shifts considerably too.
Previously the series had little real mystery to it, everyone knew what had
happened and what they had to do to free themselves so the story could focus on
the characters and life within the SAO world. This time the plot is a much
more straightforward quest to rescue a damsel in distress, making it a far more basic fantasy storyline. There's even a main evil villain to defeat this
time, unlike before where the game itself was the challenge that had to be
Unfortunately these changes do detract from it all somewhat. The main villain - a high ranking employee from Asuna's father's company - is unfeasibly nasty, he's creepy as hell and inexplicably tells Kazuto his entire plan to take control of the company by marrying the comatose Asuna, something he somehow managed to get her father's blessing for. His over the top evilness isn't even the worst thing he brings to the series though, the worst thing is the fact that he completely destroys Asuna's strong, independent character. In the last
two volumes Asuna has been one of the series main draws, a strong and confident female character who is easily Kirito's equal, however, this time she's reduced to a powerless damsel, subjected to unsavoury molestations by her captor and just waiting for her knight in shining armour to save her. It ruins the character dynamic, her relationship with Kirito in the previous story arc was one built on mutual trust and respect, it was a meeting of equals from which love grew over time. This story arc completely undermines that, reasserting stereotypical gender roles and changing their relationship to that of saviour and saved. It's depressing. The rescue storyline is formulaic even beyond being a standard fantasy trope, with the main premise of a character trapped in a game by unknown means and needing to be freed similar to that of parts of the .hack:// franchise. There are other misfires too, Kazuto has a younger sister who fancies him, which is pretty unsettling despite the painfully crowbarred in scene where she learns she's adopted (apparently this makes the incestuous overtones a-ok). It's also disappointing that there are just five episodes in this part compared to seven in each of the last two, it still costs the same but you get nearly an hour less content.
It's a shame that the series has moved in this hackneyed direction and offers less value for money in this part. For me one of the main draws from the earlier parts of the series was the fact that the characters knew what had happened and what they had to do to escape. Yes, the motivation for why the game creator trapped them wasn't clear, but instead of having to work out the mystery of what happened to them the series instead focused on how they dealt with it. Some took up roles as shopkeepers or blacksmiths, others honed their skills and joined forces to beat higher levels of the game, some got married in the game, some went around player killing, believing it to all be a big hoax. All of that is gone in Sword Art Online Part 3, instead we are given a basic fantasy quest, complete with a villain to defeat and a fair maiden to rescue. Leafa isn't as interesting as Asuna was, even if her real identity has the potential to change that, and there's less peril knowing that players can log out and that death has no real world - and little in-game - consequence. The main villain is too cartoonishly evil and Asuna may as well be a different character now, whilst Kazuto's sister's affections are just plain unsettling. Despite all this I surprisingly did still enjoy watching it for the most part, largely because the new world and magical abilities are interesting to explore, the action is great and the visuals and music are good, but it doesn't come anywhere near the heights the first two parts did. There are some signs that things may change a little next time round, Asuna shows a bit more initiative towards the end of the volume and Kirito and Leafa get embroiled in a plot that could change the balance of power in-game, so there may be some hope for the series yet. Unfortunately though this part is just disappointing.
Clean opening and closing sequences and 'web clips' which are basically next episode previews for random episodes.