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As the years wear on, Kirito begins to burn out. He's still fighting, but each time a player dies, he is haunted by both their deaths and the fact that he is still trapped in the game. When he meets up with Asuna, now the second in command of SAO's largest guild, the two bond over a variety of things and end up taking a break together. But their in-game idyll is still fraught with strangeness and all too soon it's time to get back in the fight – and maybe, this time, to end it.
It is no stretch to say that the second seven episodes – once again spread out over two discs – try to get the plot moving in a more linear fashion than their predecessors. Whereas the first quarter of Sword Art Online allowed Kirito to muck about helping seemingly random girls, the second reminds us that there are high stakes to this game, and that very few people are as capable of beating them as Kirito. But Kirito, along with Asuna, who has a bigger role this time around, is tired. It's been two years of hard work, and a bit of burnout seems like a natural occurrence. He and Asuna decide (after a very awkward implied consummation of their relationship) to take a vacation, which leads to the semi-infamous “Kirito and Asuna Do Nothing” episodes.
In all fairness, these are not as pointless as they at first appear. While their interaction with the old businessman turned fisherman arguably doesn't do a whole lot to move things forward, these episodes do introduce Yui, a character who gives us insight into the game SAO could have been before Kayaba hijacked it. Yui also serves to show just how emotionally fragile Asuna is, with her immediate dependence upon the little girl indicating her desperate need for a family unit to support and be supported by. While there is a definite air of the corny around parts of this sequence, it also holds keys for Kirito to ultimately figure out what is going on in the climax of the Aincrad arc. Kirito continues to tread Gary Stu ground as we approach that denouement, with his health bar depleting to dangerous levels a ludicrous number of times, but in some ways, the character who really gets the most attention here is Asuna.
There is a difference between a strong female character and a well-developed one. Naturally this goes for male characters as well, but as Sword Art Online launches into its second quarter, Asuna gains an increased role, one that strives to achieve both strength and development and ends up forming one of the more notable (and perhaps controversial) figures. Asuna, as it turns out, is one of the few players to max out the cooking skill, and it is made clear that her ability to make delicious food is one of her key attractions for Kirito. However, for some of her recipes she also had to figure out complex food algorithms, so there's obviously more to what she's doing than playing housewife. On the other hand, she clearly relishes being The Wife and playing mother when she has the chance, although that perhaps says more about her emotional dependency than anything else. For despite her amazing sword skills – and it should be noted that Kirito is happy to let her do the fighting or to take charge, which she does with panache – she really is very needy. It is she who pursues the romantic relationship, she who continually voices her feelings, even when Kirito never responds in kind, and she who makes the most drastic moves in order to maintain the relationships she forms. In some ways, Asuna is a very sad character, a lost girl who only became moreso when she attempted to get away from her real life, only to form attachments that might not even count as real when the game is done.
Characters aside, the finale of the Aincrad arc is a bit of a letdown. The somewhat awkward pacing that plagued the first half of the series continues here, with the grand climax barely taking two episodes. The villain does not satisfactorily come clean, and there's a feeling that things were being rushed so that we could just get where we're going already. It is possible to deduce who the bad guy is from an event in this set of episodes, and the final scenes of episode fourteen are quite powerful – particularly the very end – but getting there feels like a cop-out in some ways. With so much time spent reminding us of how haunted Kirito is by Sachi's death, it would have been nice to have more closure.
As with the previous set, backgrounds are the artistic highpoint of these episodes, although the boss fought in episode thirteen is pretty impressive. Hands can get stubby at times, but otherwise the art and animation both continue to look good. For extras, two more mini-episodes of Sword Art Offline are included, one per disc, which remain both entertaining and informative. (What does it say about attitudes towards sex that in order to engage in it players have to turn off “ethics mode?”) By far the most impressive extra, however, is the just-for-the-American-edition interview disc with the original author, director, and producer of SAO. This is 45 minutes of them discussing both the show and fan reactions, and if you can stand seeing Reki Kawahara look horribly uncomfortable it really is very interesting. Among other things, everyone appeared fond of the English dub track and impressed by both American cosplayers and the popularity of Silica overseas. Humorously, you can see people continually walking back and forth in the room behind the interviewees.
Despite an anti-climactic feel to episodes thirteen and fourteen, there is still plenty to enjoy about the conclusion of Sword Art Online's first half. As the emotional tolls of being trapped in a game for two years come to light, the plot slows, but it is more linear than the first quarter, which is nice. It certainly isn't a perfect wrap up, but it does show us why Sword Art Online was one of the most talked about programs of its season.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Once again, lots of physical and digital extras (love the postcards!). Plot continually moves forward, Asuna is more complex than she at first seems, good use of Sachi's death haunting Kirito.
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