Sword Art Online – 15

Kazuto has been back in the world for two months, during which he’s been regaining his strength and visiting Asuna, who is still in a coma at the hospital. One day he meets Sugou Nobuyuki, a research chief of the company that now maintains the SAO servers, of which Asuna’s father is the president. Sugou wants to marry Yuuki Asuna, and warns Kazuto to stop visiting. Kazuto’s little sister Suguha, who is keeping from him the secret that they’re actually first cousins, walks in on him crying and tells him not to give up. Kazuto receives and e-mail from Egil of a photo of Asuna.

This episode had some considerable shoes to fill – after the series totally blew itself up, the question “What’s the heck is next?” hung like a blue moon in the night sky. And we want to be categorical about our thoughts: the episode pulled it off. We had no idea what to expect, but it filled in the blanks nicely, as the teenage gamer formerly known as Kirito – now Kazuto – tries to get on with his life after two years stuck in a virtual MMORPG.

First of all, all those hundreds of hours have made him pretty dang good at fighting, although is style isn’t anything like the Kendo he used to practice. Even in a weakened state, he can use his SAO fighting style to keep up with his quarterfinalist sister in an impromptu sparring session. One really awesome detail is when he makes the motion to sheathe his sword on his back – something that had become a reflex in SAO is still with him in the real world. He also has nightmares, but they’re not about the horrors of the game, they’re about his lost love – who isn’t dead, but trapped between worlds…which is worse, in our opinion.

Then there’s his sister, who looks to play a prominent role in the episodes to come. Yes, another girl in love with him. And because she’s not really his sister, part of her thinks she has a chance (Sugu is appropriately voiced by Lil’ Sis Expert Ayana Taketatsu). But Kiri–er…Kazuto’s heart is still firmly in the hands of Asuna. And seriously, that Sugou guy is a grimy, NASTY little shit, taking advantage of his clout with her father’s company to wrangle a marriage out of it, even though Asuna is in a coma and hates him. Something tells us Kazuto isn’t just going to settle for his little sister…he’s not going to let Sugou have his way.

Rating: 7 (Very Good)

P.S. New OP and ED! The OP previews another game in which everyone has fairy ears and Kirito has a new girl with green eyes, while the ED focuses on Sugu with her unrequited cousin-love. Both are okay.

Sword Art Online – 14 (Fin???)

The coalition led by Heathcliff, Kirito, and Asuna defeats the boss, at the cost of fourteen lives. With 25 floors left, players wonder if they’ll really be able to clear the game. Then Kirito figures out that Heathcliff is really SAO’s creator, Kayaba Akihito, who confirms it, telling him he’d be the final boss. As a reward, he gives Kirito the chance to duel him right there, and Kirito accepts. When he’s about to get skewered, Asuna breaks her paralysis and takes the blow for him, and dies.

Kayaba then kills Kirito, who is able to bend the game laws to stick around long enough to kill Kayaba. Kirito is reunited with Asuna in the sky above Kayaba’s Ruby Castle as the game deletes itself. All players are logged out. A malnurished Kirigaya Kazuto wakes up in a hospital bed, removes his NerveGear, and gets up in search of his love, Yuuki Asuna.

Holy Flerking Schnit! We picked the wrong week to go on vacation…it should have been after this episode, which ends everything we knew only halfway through the series! The final boss is revealed. Asuna dies protecting Kirito. Kirito dies killing Kayaba. The game is over. The remaining episodes will be called Sword Art Offline, amirite? (Rimshot!) Seriously, we’re bowled over by what just happened, and haven’t a clue what’s to come. This was no cheap plot twist – to us it was a bold and risky move that changes everything –  as long as it holds up.

As soon as Asuna died, we knew something fishy was going on. When Kirito died, well, duh, he was going to show up somewhere, not just end up in a void. But we weren’t prepared for the awesome beauty of the last scenes: SAO’s always excelled at backgrounds, but the vistas here take the cake. But perhaps most powerful is the feeling of enormous loss we felt right along with him both when Asuna died in SAO and when he wakes up, unsure of where the real Yuuki is. Such is the strength of his love, he’s able to stand up and walk looking for her. We’ll have what he’s having in his I.V.!

Rating: 9 (Superior)

Sword Art Online – 06

Kirito spots Yoruko’s killer on a rooftop and pursues him, but he escapes via teleport crystal. When food Asuna made expires, Kirito gets the idea that the deaths of Kains and Yoruko were faked through use of simultaneous armor expiration and teleportation. He tests the theory by visiting Griselda’s grave, where Yoruko and Kains are questioning Schmitt, then ambused by a PK guild that Kirito scares off. Meanwhile, Asuna apprehends Grimlock, who had his wife Griselda killed because she changed from his wife in the real world. After discussing the perks of marriage, Kirito and Asuna add each other to their friends lists.

SAO will run for 25 episodes, so it can afford to take the odd sidequest, but we’re relieved this particular one didn’t extend past two episodes. While it was a competantly wrapped-up mystery with a twist ending, neither the mystery nor its participants were particularly novel or interesting. It as just kind of there. To be candid, we just couldn’t connect with this guild and its ring pacts and death-fakers as much as we did with Sachi, Silica, or even Klein. In fact, the best parts of this episode were those with Kirito and Asuna, as their mutual trust and friendship grows.

Sure, Asuna can be a tsundere at times, and Kirito can be too quick to play the weary victim, but as we said last week, they make a good team, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they became one on a more permanent basis. Asuna wouldn’t be sharing her homemade food or taking “hypothetically” about marriage if she didn’t like Kirito, even if he is a somewhat innocuous lone wolf. Both are pragmatists and mindful of the future. While their encounter with Grimlock (or -rock, whatever) showed that “storage sharing” isn’t for everyone (especially if the couple was involved in the real world), it definitely has its advantages.

Rating: 6 (Good)

Sword Art Online – 05

While having dinner in a town and safe zone, Kirito and Asuna come across a crime scene when a player is killed by a spear while being hanged. Asuna insists they investigate the matter. One of the witnesses, Yoruko, knew the vicitim – Kains – from her guild. Kirito has the weapon appraised by Egil, who determines it’s a custom job made by one Grimrock. They return to Yoruko with this info, and she tells them he’s the husband of their guild leader, who was killed while on a mission to sell a rare ring won in a battle. Three of the eight voted against selling: Kains, Yoruko, and Schmidt. While sitting next to a window dreading her fate, Yoruko too is stabbed by a dagger that comes out of nowhere. She falls out the window and dies.

Though we’re not sure about MMORPGs (we’ve never played one) the side quest is an integral part of all the RPGs we’ve played. While not necessary to the main storyline, side quests can take up most of a game. This week, Kirito and Asuna go on a side quest: a detective story. Sure, they could forget about the strange murder mystery and return to the front lines, but they want to find out how someone managed to kill somone else in a “safe zone”. Kirito notes that the rules of SAO are relatively fair, so it must’ve taken some doing to make it happen not once, but twice – and potentially thrice.

The OP is quickly filling up with faces of characters who only last an episode, and the ill-fated Yoruko is one of them. She waited a day to reveal the whole story to Kirito and Asuna, and in doing so prevented them from potentially solving the case in time to save her. We don’t have high hopes for Schmidt surviving the next episode either. But if someone can kill with impugnity in safe zones, they have to be stopped. Both Kirito and Asuna are on the same page when it comes to justice. We liked how Kirito made Asuna stop and smell the roses. If nothing else, this side quest has brought the two back together, and they seem to make a good team.

Rating: 6 (Good)

Sword Art Online – 02

After a month, over a fifth of SAO players are dead, many of them beginners. Diabel, a self-proclaimed knight, calls for a meeting to deal with Illfang, the boss of the first level. The players form teams, with Kirito pairing up with a mysterious hooded girl named Asuna. A beginner named Kibaou demands all Beta testers apologize and offer reparations for allowing the 2,000 newbies to die, but another player, Egil, tells him the Betas provided help in the form of a guidebook, which includes info on Illfang.

The next day, Diabel leads the force to the boss room and they battle Illfang and his sentinals. Diabel is killed trying to take out the boss on his own, and Asuna and Kirito finish what he starts. Kirito gets a rare item – a cloak, and other players accuse him of being a cheating Beta, or ‘Beater’. He releases Asuna from his party and moves on to the second level.

With players dropping left and right and no progress being made, they decide to join forces and coordinate their efforts, and it nets them results. Kirito seems content to stay on the periphery – both of the original meeting held by Diabel and the battle – but in the heat of said battle, he becomes the focal point, and ultimately the slayer of the first boss. He had help from his new…well, not quite friend, yet, but his temporary partner Asuna, who walks quietly and carries a quick sword.

We liked Kirito and Asuna’s very subtle interacitons, starting with his sidling up to her at the meeting and ending with her unexpected airheaded comment about Kirito’s name being right in front of her nose the whole time. We also didn’t mind Diabel, someone who tried to be a real hero and ended up inspiring Kirito to rise to the occasion; or Egil, who tells the hot-headed Kibaou to cool his jets when it comes to dividing the players. Finally, Kirito makes a conscious choice to embrace the reputation he’s earned, and to stop hiding in the background. Now it’s not just about surviving, but winning…and getting butter for his dry bread.

Rating: 7 (Very Good)