Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sword Art Online
Blu-Ray 3 & 4 - Fairy Dance Part 1 & 2 [Limited Edition w/card]
Kirito, AKA Kazuto Kirigaya, has awoken from the two year nightmare that was SAO, but Asuna remains trapped in a virtual world, along with three hundred other players. The solution to getting them all back appears to be a new virtual MMO – Alfeim Online, or ALO. Players trying to clear the game snapped a picture of a girl in a cage who looks just like Asuna, and Kirito quickly learns that her fiance is the unscrupulous man behind it all. Once again Kirito dons the NerveGear and ventures into an online world – with a little help from some new friends.
Sword Art Online's second arc, comprised of episodes 15 – 25 across two blu-ray boxed sets, is weaker than its predecessor. Perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of the so-called Fairy Dance arc is that Kirito, having just survived a hellish death game, would even consider strapping on his NerveGear again. To a degree, we can buy that he desperately wants to save his love, Asuna, who remains comatose...but maybe buy the new and improved hardware first?
This particular attack on the viewer's ability to believe what's going on aside, there are certainly aspects of this second season that are fun or just plain interesting to behold. Seeing Kirito's real-world life as Kazuto Kirigaya and how he is trying to readjust is a nice break in the plot, and the occasional returns to it as he works to beat ALO helps to keep things different from the first time – as well as showing us once again what SAO could have been without Kayaba's deranged interference. In Kirito's relationship with fellow player and new friend Leafa we see how his relationship with Asuna could have developed more naturally, and the new flying mechanic of ALO certainly seems like a dream come true. That Kirito masters everything a bit too quickly – as is mandated by the time constraint the villain places him under – does strain our credulity, but honestly at this point that's just something we ought to be used to in this series.
More interesting than the new world or Kirito's quest to rescue Asuna, however, are the two major new characters. The vile villain of the piece, Kayaba's former underling and creator of ALO Sugou, acts like a Batman bad guy from the Silver Age, but his voice is delivered with such slimy glee by both Todd Haberkorn and Takehito Koyasu that it is easy to overlook his crazed (or flat out crazy) plans. Both voice actors deliver lines that will make your skin crawl, making Sugou one of the more repulsive bad guys in recent years, and definitely upping the stakes as he preys upon Asuna in a way that will be all too familiar to anyone who has ever been faced with a sexual predator.
The other important new character is Leafa, Kirito's friend and companion in the world of Alfheim Online. Leafa, or Suguha as we quickly learn, is making an attempt to get over an unrequited love, a common enough plot device (even as done here), but what sets her apart is that she does, in fact, get over it. Even when she gets her heart broken a second time in quick succession – the entire arc takes place over the course of a week – she manages to pull herself back together and move ahead. This shows an emotional strength that Asuna never displays, a realization that she can depend on herself just as much as any Gary Stus who might come into her life. It is easy to overlook this in the continuing theme of “Kirito Helps the Ladies,” but if one can set that aside, Leafa begins to stand out as one of the more interesting, developed characters.
These two sets of episodes show more of a break from the Japanese voices in the English dub, with pseudo-villain Sigurd's voice feeling decidedly different from his Japanese counterpart. This isn't an issue as both performances are good, but English Recon is a bit more of an issue. He comes off as a little shrill and whinier in the English dub, although one could make the argument that that is, ultimately, truer to his character. The only other noticeable difference between the two is that the English version attempts the Gaelic pronunciation of the race “Cait Sith,” while the Japanese simply says it as it is written.
These episodes also dramatically up the fanservice content, making the most of Leafa's buxom character design and having a couple of other ladies shove their bosoms against Kirito at another point. Fortunately the show is well aware of what it is doing, and the four “Sword Art Offline” episodes included across the discs make plenty of fun of it, also hassling Kirito for always seeming to attract girls to help out when the show states that there aren't that many female players. On the whole, these Sword Art Offlines are much funnier than those that went with Aincrad and subsequently are worth the watch.
Visually, the world of ALO is as striking as that of Aincrad, with lush backgrounds, new and interesting designs for all of the elven races, and some inventive monsters. The younger look that the elves have may not be as appealing to some viewers, but there is enough variety that it works well. Perhaps one of the most striking visuals, however, is the boss chamber that Kirito and company have to get through in order to reach Asuna – the thickly clustered flying baddies look like nothing so much as a horrible infestation of moths, which is impressive even if you don't share my irrational fear of them.
As is the norm with the limited edition blu-rays, these two sets come with a variety of extras, such as a second soundtrack, illustrations, more trading cards, Japanese commentaries, and a special interview with the English voice actors and ADR director. The latter two are both fairly interesting, and viewers may find themselves sort of marveling at some of the comments made by the English cast. Yes, these sets are prohibitively expensive, but there has been an effort made to give you bang for your buck.
Sword Art Online's Fairy Dance arc does a lot of things wrong – Asuna's been turned into Rapunzel in her tower, Kirito and SAO pals really should be more hesitant to play another VMMORPG, and the whole Salamander war just distracts from the main plot. On the other hand, Asuna does make some attempts to free herself – and you could argue that without her help, he never would have been able to free her – Leafa proves a much stronger heroine, and Sugou is a truly disgusting villain. It is easy to ignore the good in this set of episodes simply because the less good is so very overwhelming. That said, these episodes are distinctly less enjoyable than the previous ones, and all of the beautiful flying elves in the world cannot sprinkle enough sparkles to change that.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Leafa shows more emotional strength as a heroine than Asuna ever did, great bad guy performances in both sub and dub. Beautiful world, funny extras, and Asuna isn't quite as useless as she seems.
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