Sword Art Online II.
Ah, the series that inspired a thousand editorials. Or about three. Whatever.
The sequel to Sword Art Online, a series in which a young man becomes one of a group of MMORPG players stuck in a virtual reality fantasy game, with their only hope of escape being to complete all hundred levels of the cursed game, Sword Art Online II takes us to the science fiction game of Gun Gale Online, where our main character Kirito, with the help of a PTSD-afflicted sniper called Sinon, is on the trail of a killer whose victims in-game die in the real world.
As I have noted before with some vexation, Kirito is the biggest problem with Sword Art Online, and he fogs up everything around him in a way that makes it difficult to actually strain out any of the series' merits. Part of that is that Kirito isn't all that interesting - it's a struggle to pick out what his actual personality is except 'sometimes kind of flirty.' We're consistently told by other characters that he has a personality, but it never actually puts in an appearance. Most of it, though, is that Kirito is annoyingly perfect, and nowhere is that more aptly demonstrated than in Sword Art Online II.
In Sword Art Online, he was an ace player who literally never failed or even struggled unless the odds were stacked in such a way as to make it impossible to win: He might lose a duel, but only because his opponent has admin powers and is cheating with them. He might lose a battle against hundreds of powerful monsters, but only because it's deliberately set up to be impossible to win.
|Also, here's Death Gun.|
But, you know, for the first half of Sword Art Online, that was fine. The story wasn't really about beating up monsters and enemies, so much as it was about life in a bizarre and impossible situation. Kirito's invincibility was less important than his attempts to carve out something resembling a life in a world that was both cruel and fantastical.
It's in Sword Art Online II that it becomes really grating, because in Sword Art Online II it definitely is about beating bad guys, and because Kirito being totally amazing at everything not only saps all the tension out of everything, but it also feels forced and unrealistic. I started calling bull right around the time where Sinon, our much more interesting deuteragonist, is unable to shoot Kirito because she's just too emotional ('Women, amirite?' I imagine Kawahara Reki saying as he wrote that particular page), before they face off in a battle explicitly noted to be unwinnable for Kirito - which he wins anyway, causing Sinon to break down and start talking about how strong and amazing he is, before just surrendering.
|Pictured: A better protagonist.|
(The last time I mentioned this, I had about twelve teenage boys yelling at me about how it's totally realistic, although they couldn't seem to quite agree on why it was. Never let it be said that the target audience hasn't appreciated Kawahara's efforts to create the most boring Mary Sue in anime.)
Luckily, the rest of the plot is, by and large, interesting enough to sustain the heaving bulk of Kirito's forced perfection. Gun Gale Online is an interesting world, and made moreso by its obvious contrast with both of the games Kirito has passed through previously, and the idea of a player who can shoot people in-game and cause them to perish in real life is definitely one with potential. I also quite liked how that plot was resolved, tying the events of the story back to the first series while also avoiding the more boring route of some kind of computerised magical gun that was exactly as it appeared.
Sinon is a nicely written character, too, and her character arc - revolving around her PTSD over shooting someone years earlier - is pretty engaging. To be honest, she should have been the main character, and if Kirito was in the story at all, he should have been the deuteragonist.
As is always the case with Sword Art Online, the music and animation were all very good. Pacing was sometimes off, especially towards the end, but mostly fine. On a mechanical level, there's clearly been a lot of thought and effort put into this series, and that's great, even if the source material is - certainly lacking a little.
The second course of this series starts this coming Saturday, and it looks like we're meandering back into fairy-themed game ALO for it, which probably means more Klein (huzzah, Klein!) but also probably means less Sinon (hazzuh, Sinon). Unfortunately, it definitely means more Kirito (bleck) and probably a character I like even less than him, his incest-y sister/cousin.
Seriously, one great thing I can say about Sword Art Online II: No incest subplots so far. They didn't do that thing in the first course. They didn't.