Review for Sword Art Online Part 4
If you’ve managed to bear with my reviews for Sword Art Online so far, then more power to you. I’ve made no secret of my dislike for this show, I wasn’t impressed with the Aincrad Arc, and the current Fairy Dance arc sinks even lower in my estimation. Let me put it this way. I’m not going to be burning trails through the interwebs in my haste to watch the OVA on Daisuki or Crunchyroll. You never know though, these last six episodes of the show might just trigger the equivalent of a deathbed conversion.
In the year 2022, Kayaba Akihiko revolutionised the world of gaming by creating the Nerve Gear interface and a genuine virtual environment, the most realistic virtual reality system ever created. The first few attempts to take advantage of the system weren’t great, but that was before Kayaba Akihiko released his own game, Sword Art Online. After a period of beta testing, the first 10,000 copies of the game sold out immediately. Kirito was one of the lucky few. He got comfortable, put on the headset, and entered the world of Aincrad to play Sword Art Online. But when the real world called in the form of hunger, there was an unexpected problem. The log-out button was missing! The game had suddenly turned dangerously real. The only way to escape the game was to beat all 100 levels. If anyone from the outside tried to remove the Nerve Gear interface, the player would die. Kirito had to play his way out of the game, a full on survival game, but the last thing that Kirito expected was to fall in love as well.
That was Sword Art Online: The Aincrad arc, which concluded when Kirito and his online girlfriend Asuna managed to beat the game, and escape back to the real world, or so they thought. At the start of this second, Fairy Dance arc, two months have passed since then, and it turns out that only Kirito managed to come back to the real world. Asuna is still lost in the digital realm, despite Sword Art Online having ended, and is trapped in a coma in hospital, still wearing her Nerve Gear interface. Then the worst happens, one of her father’s employees, Noboyuki Sugou, announces his intention to marry Asuna, comatose or not, and with her father’s blessing. That’s one way to climb up the career ladder! With just a week to go, a lifeline is thrown to Kirito when a friend from SAO shows him an image of Asuna, grabbed from another MMO. She’s apparently trapped in the ALfheim Online game. It’s time to put the Nerve Gear interface back on and venture into the digital realm once more, and save his one true love. Only this time it looks as if the game has been rigged against Kirito. But he gets some unexpected help as well...
Six episodes are presented on this dual layer Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.
20. General of the Blazing Flame
21. The Truth of ALfheim
22. Grand Quest
24. Gilded Hero
25. The World Seed
Manga Entertainment’s release looks pretty fine at 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p. The image is clear and sharp throughout, with the minimum of digital banding and no compression visible to these eyes at any rate. Sword Art Online has had some serious effort put into its animation. The character designs may be pretty generic for anime, but they are consistent throughout and animated exceptionally well, particularly in the action sequences. There is a lot of detail to the characters and especially the costumes, but the real value comes in this anime’s world design, which given the RPG connection, is rich, lush, and vivid. There is a lot of colour and depth to the backgrounds, and the animation makes strong use of light and shadow detail to establish mood.
The images in this review are sourced from the PR and aren’t necessarily representative of the final retail release.
You have the choice between PCM 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese with optional translated subtitles, and a player forced signs track. You’ll only see the single subtitle track if you use your player’s remote to access the options, but turn it off, and the signs only track appears as default. This boils down to it being impossible to watch the image without any captioning at all, which is a tad disappointing. This appears to be a Manga authored disc, and so you get the old problem of an inability to show more than one subtitle caption at a time. When you get a confluence of dialogue and on screen text to be translated, the captions flick by at an accelerated pace, and a fast finger on the pause button might be necessary to catch it all.
I went with the Japanese audio, and found it to be a decent enough experience, although the dialogue was a little low in the mix for my liking, especially in the earlier episodes. There was a tendency for speech to be drowned out by background music. Otherwise the actor performances were suited to the characters, and the action sequences were given fair treatment in stereo. I gave the dub a try and found it to be rather mediocre, unexceptional at best, clichéd at worst.
Sword Art Online’s UK Blu-ray release looks to be authored by Manga Entertainment in house. Certainly the subtitling issues are one tell-tale, the other being a lack of chaptering for the episodes; there’s no skipping credit sequences here. The disc boots up pretty quickly after a single Manga logo to an animated menu screen.
We do get extras again for this disc, this time they are the episodes 21-22 Web Clips, and episodes 23-24 Web Clips, next episode previews by any other name running to 1 minute per selection. You also get the Textless Opening and Textless Closing... for the Aincrad Arc. You’ll never get to see the textless credits for the second arc.
About that deathbed conversion... it didn’t happen.
There’s nothing really I can add about this collection of episodes that differs from my reviews of the first three parts. I still don’t like the way that it tries to tell its real world/online world stories, even though with the shorter spaced narrative, the Fairy Dance arc is nowhere near as implausible as the Aincrad arc, and you won’t be picking nits with its pacing. Kirito still has one goal to achieve, and that sees him through to the end of these episodes. And once more, I much prefer the online bits to the real world bits. I would much rather that they had made an anime about the ALfheim universe, without all that pesky virtual reality, game playing nonsense, as its, multi-clanned fairy-world, with rivalries and alliances, politics and gamesmanship was interesting enough in its own right.
I’m not too fond of this story, the whole taboo sibling one-sided romance is icky no matter how you look at it, while the character assassination inflicted on Asuna is despicable, strong, independent and powerful driver of narrative in the Aincrad arc becomes a helpless victim of abuse, whimpering and hoping for Kirito’s rescue in this arc. She does escape briefly in one of the episodes, but they needed to get her into position for the tentacle rape scene.
Then there is the villain, Sugou/Oberon. What an utter four-letter word! Never has a more vile, obscene and hideous characterisation ever been brought to anime. He’s so evil that all realism gets completely shot. How would such a bastard ever be allowed in a position of responsibility, let alone power? In the real world, his sociopathic tendencies would be noted at birth, and a lifetime of institutionalisation would ensue. He’s so vile that you want him dead. You want the hero to kill him. You don’t want the hero to get a sudden attack of conscience at the last minute, deciding that the real world isn’t the online world, and let him go. You want the hero to cut his bleeping head off and spit down his bleeping throat. Sword Art Online’s Fairy Dance Arc just leaves a sour taste in my mouth right the way through.
The thing is, the production values are there. The animation is excellent, it looks impressive on this Blu-ray, the voice actor performances are good, the structure of the story is sound, decently paced, and with never a dull moment. I just find the content offensive. Sword Art Online is my WTF! show. I can see myself watching it again, because I couldn’t believe how bad it was the first time around. I can see myself rolling my eyes at every subsequent bit of nonsense, throwing something at the screen each time it annoys me, it could very well be the epitome of the medium that I love to hate.