With only six episodes left until the conclusion of the first series of Sword Art Online, Leafa and Kirito are travelling the quick way (which inevitably means the dangerous way) to Arun in order to rescue Titania who is being held captive on top of the World tree by Oberon. No, the plotline doesn't sound original by any means, nor does the method of picking up the pace towards the conclusion come as any surprise, but for anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept of Sword Art Online, there's a twist here. The quest undertaken here is does indeed take place inside a virtual role-playing computer game, albeit one that has real-world significance and consequences.
The real-world significance of ALfheim Online is that it holds within it 300 players who still remain in a coma following their experience with another VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game) called 'Sword Art Online'. One of those players hospitalised and unable to remove the NerveGear headset is Asuna, a girl that Kirito met, fought alongside and eventually "married" in the virtual world. Having defeated the challenges of the original Sword Art Online game after living two years within it, Kirito has tracked down Asuna in the real-world only to discover that, even in her comatose state, she is engaged to be married to Sugou, the laboratory chief of an important technology and research company connected with SAO. Unknown to Kirito, Sugou's activities however extend to exploiting the use of the players held within the system for, well, let's just call them dark, evil intentions...
Unfortunately, that is really the only way of summarising Sugou's intentions and motivations. That means then that the standard plotting of the quest in the land of fairy tales only really masks an even bigger cliché, that of an evil scientist with plans of using people as experiments to fulfil his evil ambitions for power. What is also revealed about Sword Art Online here is the debt that it owes to The Matrix films as well. Perhaps this should have already been obvious in any futuristic science-fiction story that involves a virtual world that has supplanted the real-world, but if the similarities weren't picked-up sooner, they can't be missed when you see all the brains of the captive players lined up in a laboratory in jars, or indeed when you see Kirito dressed in long black coat, looking every inch like Keanu Reeves, mowing his way through the masses of agents that are sent out by the system to prevent him from destroying this virtual world.
The comparisons and the lack of originality don't do Sword Art Online any favours, but neither do they take away from the fact that the series is nonetheless superbly paced and plotted and that it delivers its own twist on the proceedings in a way that is highly enjoyable and satisfying at the same time. Unlike The Matrix, and despite the evil scientist plotting, the purpose of Sword Art Online is not just some major SF alien conspiracy plot, but rather a means of exploring the deeper nature of people that is revealed by placing them in a virtual world. Does behaviour in the virtual world tell us something about how people behave in the real world, or vice-versa? Those distinctions are somewhat blurred by the fact that the game characters here (with one or two exceptions) don't realise that they know each other in the real-world. It's a bit of a coincidence, but when you consider that their fates are tied together to an extent, it seems natural that they would be drawn together in ALfheim and perhaps behave the way they do.
Whether the correlation between the real-world and the virtual world is explored in any meaningful way in what is primarily an adventure series is doubtful, but there are other positive aspects here. The animation is just superb, particularly in these six final climatic episodes as the battles escalate in scale and intensity. The outcome is probably never in any doubt (although having watched the first half of the series, you can be sure that there is always the possibility of surprises), but what makes Kirito's ascension through the different levels of this role-playing fantasy quest worthwhile and meaningful is the depth of feeling that lies behind it. The romantic connection between Kirito and Asuna has been so well established by their experiences in the first 'Sword Art Online' world that you can believe Kirito when he says that "until she wakes up, I'm not really back in the real world", and you can see that it's this and not just some acquired computer game powers that drive his determination to defeat the huge challenges that ALfheim throws at him. That's where the real virtual world/real-world connection lies, and that is why he will succeed.
Kirito however can't and doesn't do it on his own of course, and it's his relationship with his "sister" Sugu, and - surprisingly - with another figure who shall remain nameless that add to the complications of there being any purity of individual purpose here. So the ideas behind the series are indeed rather more complicated than you might think, just perhaps not quite as deep as the creators would like to think it is. There's another level however, mentioned earlier in passing, on which Sword Art Online can't be faulted. The artwork and the animation is just amazing. The A-1 Pictures animation studio are producing some of the best mainstream genre anime series out there at the moment. Character designs and voicing create figures of real personality, while the visual building and exploration of the virtual worlds is imaginative and detailed.
All of this is vital for a series like Sword Art Online to succeed and raise it above standard genre material. The pacing is also critical and again the creators and animators get it just about perfect, striking the necessary balance between character development in the real world and the virtual world, and enlivening the quest with spectacularly storyboarded and animated fight sequences. More than just being standard action sequences however, they have a real sense of purpose behind them that is driven by how well the characters and their relationships have been developed. Having treated its characters realistically, having set them real-world challenges in an imaginative virutal context, the series doesn't let the characters or the viewer down with unresolved issues, but manages to bring the sereis to a highly satisfactory close, with a real sense of achievement.
Sword Art Online - Part 4 is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and as a Blu-ray/DVD Double Play Combi. This fourth set contains the final six episodes (Episodes 20-25) that close the first series. On Blu-ray, all six 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 4 was seen for review however, but the set will presumably be region-locked to BD Region B/ DVD Region 2.
Comments on the nature of the image are unchanged from the previous reviews. 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 a few more episodes in the English dub this release and found them to be reasonably good. American voices for girls tend to be a little more 'squeally' though I find. The quality of the both Japanese and English LPCM stereo audio tracks on the BD sound a little bright to me without the LFE channel, but it's strong and clear and really packs a punch with a noticeable increase of volume during the action/battle sequences. It can get very loud very suddenly.
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.
There's not a great deal of interest in the Extra features. In addition to the expected Textless Opening and Textless Closing there are four web clips which are just the 'next episode' segments cut from the end of episodes 20-23.
Wrapping up its storyline well at the end of 25 episodes, the first season of Sword Art Online doesn't prove to be particularly original or as deep as it might like to think it is, but the strong development of character and the high quality of the animation makes it a solid and satisfying series nonetheless. Without leaving any issues unresolved, it also manages to set the ground well for a follow-up series to take things in other new directions. It will be interesting to see where Sword Art Online goes from here.