Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online II
Blu-Ray 3 - Calibur [Limited Edition]
The sword Excalibur has turned up in ALO! Kirito badly wants it partly because it's a legendary item and partly because it has sentimental value (it's the sword that he used to defeat Oberon and rescue Asuna in the original ALO), so that's a good enough reason to get the whole gang together for a year-end quest. And this time Sinon, who has (predictably) become an archer in ALO, is participating, too. Kirito and crew have an advantage that others looking for Excalibur don't: they know where it probably is and how to get there due to a past excursion Kirito and Leafa had to Jotunheim, but it doesn't jive with a supposed quest to earn the sword by wiping out the same type of monster which Leafa befriended during that excursion. They soon learn the truth of the matter from an encounter with an AI-powered NPC: that the monster-killing quest is a fake set up by Thrym, the frost giant king, who aspires to wipe out the last remnants of now-frozen Jotunheim's old guard before ascending to destroy the surface world. Hence what started out as a simple “get the item” quest ends up being bigger in scope than the group ever could have anticipated.
At a mere three episodes the Calibur arc is by far the shortest of SAO's five TV series arcs. It is also the weakest in a narrative sense, as its stakes are the lowest and its motivations the most trivial of any of the story arcs. However, Calibur does have one critical factor going for it which at least partly balances that out: it is one of only two places in the animated side of the franchise (the movie Extra Edition being the other) where all of the major characters to date are in action together, and it is the only one of those two which also includes Sinon.
How crucial that is to this arc cannot be overestimated. After all, unlike the other TV series arcs, this one is 100% virtual in the consequences it carries. Though Urd's quest might threaten the roots of ALO (in a literal as well as figurative sense!), it has no actual real-world impact; no real person's life or well-being is at stake. As a result, the story lacks the sense of urgency that the other arcs either have or eventually develop. It also introduces no new ongoing characters, has no real emotional trauma, and does not explore any compelling themes. It does explore the interesting notion that the full version of the Cardinal system which operated SAO – which is what ALO uses – is capable of generating its own unique quests based on mythology and legend (in this case a mix of Arthurian and Norse myths) and populating with AI-driven NPCs which do not have set scripts but instead interact using a language bank. However, the writing just assumes that the potential pitfalls of such a system are self-evident and thus does not bother to explore them.
No, the Calibur arc is uninterested in anything emotive or intellectual. It instead just wants to have fun with its characters fighting alongside and interacting with each other, and that it does accomplish. Because the activity is split amongst eight characters (counting Yui), none of them get much focus. That's just fine in this scenario, though, as this is not anyone's individual story. Instead virtually every character has his or her moments, whether it be Silica lamenting why Kirito has never teasingly grabbed her tail like he did Sinon's, Suguha seeing through her brother's motivations at the beginning of the arc, Lisbeth sardonically debating with Klein about magic use but later coming to respect him (if I was inclined to shipping, these are the two that I would ship together), or Asuna being featured in the arc's one fan service scene. If anyone gets special attention then it is Klein, who cements his position as the party's goofball and finally gets his chance to show off in his interaction with an NPC whom everyone else says is part of a trap. No one comes up short on the light and friendly banter, though, and none of it is dull. The arc is also mostly devoid of a harem feel; the one time where Sinon makes comments which could be interpreted as flirting with Kirito, it comes off more as her teasing him, possibly in retribution for the tail-grab incident. (The characters involved in this volume's installment of Sword Art Offline 2 have the same opinion.)
The other big treat of the arc is, of course, multiple opportunities to see the whole group in action scenes during the arc's second and third episodes. (The first episode is entirely set-up.) Given Lisbeth's accurate observation that their party is heavy on “meatheads,” Sinon's ranged support makes a nice complement to the group, but everyone else also gets a chance to show off here and use their best tricks; even Asuna, who normally focuses on the healing, gets in the occasional strike, hence showing how she earned the title “Berserk Healer.” While Kirito does arguably get to show off the most – his demonstration of how he uses chained single-Sword Skills to essentially replicate Dual-Wielding has amusing parallels to a certain scene in SAO, which is not lost on Asuna – he does not dominate, which is crucial to the successful ensemble feel of the arc. On the downside, the animation is not really up to the task of making any of these battles look special. It uses too many shortcuts and stills, which leaves even the best of the battles paling in comparison with the Skull Reaper battle in episodes 13 and 14 of the first series or even the better battle scenes from the GGO arc. (And they certainly are far from being in a league with the climactic boss battle in DanMachi.)
The visuals are otherwise up to normal series standards. Jotunheim, whether in its frost-bound current state or more idyllic original version, is a beautifully-portrayed environment and the return to a brighter, more inviting overall color scheme is a welcome change from the drab grittiness of the GGO setting. The elephant/jellyfish creature is certainly a unique design, though other monsters and NPCs have more typical looks. Sinon, who apparently went the Cait Sith route as her fairy choice, does not stand out as much with this avatar as she did in GGO, although that could be both because her base look is more congruous with a fairy theme and because she is surrounded by a much higher concentration of female characters. Beyond the aforementioned early fan service scene featuring Asuna, fan service and graphic content are virtually nonexistent.
The musical score is also up to its normal standards here but does not do anything in particular to stand out (at least any more than it normally does). The beginning of the arc debuts new opener “courage” by Haruka Tomatsu (the Japanese voice of Asuna); that she is a veteran of opening and/or ending themes for roughly three dozen anime titles as well as being a prolific voice actress really shows here, and it is a wonderful song nicely-linked to arc-themed visuals. New closer “No More Time Machine” by LiSA is a nicely mellow song which is well-done but not as memorable.
With no new regular cast members, the English dub remains entirely consistent with previously-established standards. Amongst more limited appearances, Karen Strassman and Mela Lee work well as Urd and Freyja, respectively, while other bit parts impress less but aren't problems, either. The English script is fairly liberal but changes no important meanings.
The Limited Edition release from Aniplex has everything that we have come to expect from series releases: a sturdy artbox, physical Extras which include arc-themed postcards, an exclusive Silica card for the Weis Schwartz card game, and a thin booklet which includes story summary and character and setting profiles. On-disk Extras include the web-based Next Episode previews, clean versions of the new opener and closer, installment #6 of Sword Art Offline 2 (fun as always), and a Japanese audio commentary for episode 17 which includes the voices of Kirito, Asuna, Suguha/Leafa, and Yui. Unless you are interested in behind-the-scenes details of the shooting of the music video for the opener, there is little of substance to this one. The extra disk this time is part 2 of the series' soundtrack, a definite treat for Yuki Kajiura fans. Aniplex does drop the price significantly to account for there being fewer episodes in this set; the prices on both their LE and regular Blu-Ray versions are more than a third lower than for the previous two sets. However, even by the pricing standards for this series, they are still disproportionately high when considered on a per-episode basis.
Although Calibur is the most lightweight of the TV series arcs, does that necessarily make it the least? Regardless, it is a fun bit of escapist entertainment which makes for a nice diversion from the weightier stories seen elsewhere in the franchise.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Character interactions and seeing everyone fighting together are quite fun.
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