The first seven anime episodes of the hugely popular Sword Art Online franchise set out the premise of the series pretty well, showing it to have a lot of promise. Capably directed by Tomohiko Ito, with the usual classy animation by the A1-Pictures animation studio, the series introduced the viewer to the concept of the completely immersive virtual video game playing world of 'Sword Art Online'. The twist however is that the game's creator, Kabaya Akihiko, has locked all the players into the virtual reality of the game and the only way out is to finish it by reaching level 100. And if you die along the way, you die in real-life as well.
It's not exactly an original concept and in practice Sword Art Online plays out much in the same way as any other fantasy series, with players rising to prominence to defeat the increasingly greater challenges they face of bad-ass monsters, ruthless villains and competitive rivals. In the opening episodes the focus was clearly on Kirito, a young expert player with experience of the beta version of the game. There were a number of romantic situations involved as well, but the series also successfully played around with a number of genres. In order to progress the story further however, it was clear that Sword Art Online needed to move beyond the VRMMORPG game-play scenario and either look at the metaphysical questions posed by actions taken in a virtual situation or apply them in some meaningful way to the real world.
At the start of Sword Art Online - Part 2 (Episodes 8-14), it doesn't initially seem like the series is going to make the necessary leap. Episodes 1-7 covered quite a bit of ground between the launch of the game in the year 2022 and the state of play two years later in 2024 where Kirito has made it as far as Level 78 at the cost of the initial batch of 14,000 players being reduced to 6,000. That's a lot of real-world deaths, if indeed Kabaya Akihiko's threats are true. By way of contrast, the second seven episodes cover a period of less than a month. Whether that's virtual or real-world time isn't clear, since the series remains firmly enclosed within the SAO world of Aincrad with almost no context as to what is happening in the real-world or how much real time has passed.
Episodes 8 and 9 then don't manage to progress on matters greatly, but they remain entertaining in how they visualise other aspects of how this unique virtual world operates. Not unexpectedly this involves the challenges to defeat the monsters in the Boss rooms to clear each level becoming greater the further a front-line player progresses. Perhaps not unexpectedly either, Kirito's romantic life is still very much in focus and his relationship with Asuna forms a major part of the remainder of this section of the storyline. As with any good game-play, there are also unsuspected new elements and powers that can be made use of that keep things interesting - including how this conflicts with the aims of Heathcliffe and the Knights of the Blood Oath - but you'd be forgiven for thinking that the series has perhaps taken its eye off the ball.
Instead of asking further questions about the relationship between the virtual and the real-world, Sword Art Online unexpectedly follows another angle. What if people don't play the game at all? Of the 6,000 players that remain alive, there are only about 500 fighting on the "front-line", attempting to clear the levels and complete Level 100. The remainder seem to be content to just live their lives, fishing, buying and selling, learning how to cook with the various skills they have been given. So, indeed, the focus does move away from the RPG-play and realistically consider how players might respond to a situation where their real-lives are at risk and how society - and the Aincrad Liberation Army - might respond to that, but it's hardly the most promising direction for the series to follow as Kirito and Asuna take some honeymoon time-out and explore the forgotten lower-levels of Aincrad.
The series is however still very well paced and animated and, since time is taken to develop the characters, you might find yourself still very much caught-up in it all. But there is a method being employed here (you might have noticed it earlier in the fates of Kirito's other brief romantic interests), and that's enough to make you concerned for the outcome of Kirito and Asuna's relationship. There are however one or two surprising revelations and an unexpected resolution of sorts that comes in the jaw-dropping Episode 14 finale to this part of the series. That is well worth the wait and it's immensely satisfying even if it doesn't answer all the questions or really give the series any new depths. It does however leave the viewer very much looking forward but completely at a loss as to where the series can possibly go from here.
Sword Art Online - Part 2 is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and as a Blu-ray/DVD Double Play Combi. Whether it was for contractual or commercial reasons (or both), the series has been divided into four parts with no Complete Collection in the near future, making the entire series very expensive to collect on Blu-ray. This second set contains Episodes 8-14 that wrap-up the first part of the series. On Blu-ray, all seven episodes are contained on a single dual-layer BD-50, 1080/24p with an AVC encode. On DVD, the same episodes should also be contained on a single dual-layer DVD-9 (not seen). Only a BD checkdisc of Part 2 was seen for review however, but the set will presumably be region-locked to BD Region B/ DVD Region 2.
The quality of the transfer of this 2012 series is, unsurprisingly, fairly impressive in High Definition. Colours are bold and well-defined, brightness and contrast are well-balanced, motion is fluid, with CG effects seamlessly integrated into the animation. There are no evident issues with colour-banding or interlacing, just a clean, sharp, clear and pretty much flawless transfer. It looks great. The DVD wasn't seen this time, but judging from the presentation on the DVD seen for the review of Part 1, the transfer is properly standards converted, 16:9 enhanced and scarcely any less impressive than the Blu-ray transfer really.
The original Japanese audio and the English dub are presented on the Blu-ray disc as LPCM 2.0 (48kHz, 24-bit). On DVD, both are Dolby Digital 2.0. There are no surround tracks on either the BD or DVD. I watched all the episodes in Japanese, as this was my preference with the previous release, but I sampled the English dub on the earlier release and the series seems to work reasonably well in English. The quality of the Japanese LPCM stereo audio track on the BD sounds a little bright to me without the LFE channel, but it's strong and clear and really packs a punch with some increase of volume during the action/battle sequences.
The English subtitles are optional and are in a white font of a good size and readability. As usual, the translation can be a bit stiff and literal in places whereas the English dub adapts it well to make the spoken dialogue a bit more natural, if a little too 'hip' and American.
Extra features include Episode 9-14 of the Web Clips. Presumably 1-8 are on the firs set, but I don't recall coming across them when I reviewed the DVD copy. Perhaps they are on the Blu-ray disc only. In any case, they really aren't worth the time. Totalling 30 minutes, they are comedy news and trivia items hosted by cartoon versions of Kirito and Asuna. They are agonisingly slowly-paced and desperately unfunny. Also included is the usual Textless Opening and Textless Closing.
The first story arc of Sword Art Online comes to a surprising but largely satisfying conclusion by Episode 14 at the end of Part 2 of the series. Not all the questions have been answered by any means, and the series never really explores in any depth the intriguing issues posed by its virtual world MMORPG setting, but it at least follows through on the direction that was taken in the opening episodes. If you enjoyed those the second part is a must, but if you were less than impressed with Part 1 you'll not find anything to change your mind in Part 2. With two further collections due in the next couple of months however, there's plenty of reason I would think - particularly with this conclusion - to keep going and see where it takes us next.