Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online
episodes 8-14 streaming
After temporarily falling in with several different girls over the course of a year and a half in the game, Kirito ultimately ends up back with Asuna, who convinces him to let her party with him for a while. Their discovery of the level 74 boss almost leads to complete catastrophe when a guild to whom Kirito gives the location unwisely decides to assault the demonic boss Gleaming Eyes on their own, which causes Kirito, Asuna, and Klein to come to the rescue and forces Kirito to reveal the ultimate, unique combat skill he had long kept hidden to wage a desperate duel with Gleaming Eyes. In the wake of that battle Asuna decides to temporarily leave the Knights of the Blood Oath to spend downtime with Kirito, and despite some deadly trouble with a fellow guild member they do, indeed, get their peaceful respite. A mystery involving a young girl who has seemingly lost her memories temporarily sidetracks them with another adventure that turns out to be unexpectedly dangerous, but ultimately an emergency call back to service by Knights commander Heathcliff, to help with a problem involving the level 75 boss, brings their respite to a more permanent end. The threat presented by that boss is almost unimaginable, but even more important is the revelation awaiting after it, one that could potentially bring the game to a premature end.
With episodes 8-14 Sword Art Online completes its adaptation of the first (main story) and second (side stories) light novels from the franchise written by Reki Kawahara. Somewhat surprisingly, this wraps up the part of the franchise which directly deals with the eponymous game; the second arc of the series actually takes place in a different setting, even though SAO will be retained as the name for the whole thing. Whereas the first seven episodes consisted of one initial episode based on the first novel and then six episodes' worth of short stories from the second novel, five of the second seven episodes cover the main story, with the remaining two being a two-episode side story sandwiched in amongst the main story. Thus the entirety of the story arc consists of six episodes based on the main story in the first novel and eight episodes taken from the second.
As unbalanced an approach as that may seem, it was also a necessary one. Strip out all of the side stories and the core story that's left is actually a thin exercise in world-building which jumps over a massive block of time to get straight to the meat at the end. Including the side stories in chronological order much more effectively connects the events at the beginning to the state of the game in the later stages and lays the foundation for some crucial character development, such as why Asuna might have cared about a loner like Kirito beyond him just being highly useful at clearing out top levels, what might have inspired her to be so interested in developing the flavors for cooking that she does, and what might motivate Kirito to care about anyone other than himself despite his long-established preference to work alone. World-building details and game mechanics explored in those episodes also provide crucial explanation and support for the way things work in the later stages, while the last side story arc, the one focusing on Yui, apparently also lays the foundation for a character that will be important in the next story arc. Ultimately the only side story which feels completely disposable is the one from episode 4 which focused on the beast tamer Silica, although spoilers for the second arc suggest that viewers may not have seen the last of her, either.
The main story content in this second half of the SAO arc primarily boils down to an extensive development of the relationship between Kirito and Asuna padded around, and threaded through, a pair of epic floor boss battles and some lesser but still intense conflicts. Of that, the boss battles are where the series shines brightest. Although the devastatingly powerful Gleaming Eyes takes some damage from others during the fight, the battle against him essentially comes down to a one-on-one duel between him and Kirito, with the lives of Kirito and almost everyone else at stake, as Kirito pulls out the trick which justifies what he was doing with Lizbeth in episode 7's side story. The combination of scale, wonderfully dramatic music, and powermongering action turns the battle into a breathtaking affair that even many series of greater caliber and production values wish they could match. The battle against Skull Reaper, which straddles the end of episode 13 and the beginning of 14, is contrarily more an example of MMO boss battle teamwork, and while its full impact is restrained by it being split across two episodes, it makes up for it with an intimidating design impressively-rendered in CG. A couple of duels and other, more minor battles also show off some nifty exchanges, too. The Kirito/Asuna relationship development, despite a weak start, also eventually gains enough traction to make the emotions that develop between the two credible; some of their late scenes together are even remarkably tender and heartfelt.
Although these seven episodes do some things very well, they are also fraught with problems, and that, as much as (or perhaps even more than) the series' merits, is what has kept series discussion threads buzzing in great volume. At the core of all of the problems is the writing, which depends much more on the quality of the setting and concept to carry the story than on demonstrable quality of execution. Some of that problem may be the adaptation, whose script is credited to six different people, a fact which may have contributed to the way that the content regularly loses some details apparently explained in the novels that could have better-justified some scenes and/or helped others to make more sense. The rest of the blame, though, lays on the source material, which is prone to trite plot twists and amateurish character and relationship developments. Together the two pepper the series with structural inconsistencies, irregular character behavior (Asuna seems to alternate between being fragile and a bad-ass, and a viewer should not have to jump through hoops to justify this), one incident of incongruous fan service, and some equally incongruous silliness filched from a typical shonen action or romantic comedy series. The irritating writing faults come to a peak in episode 14's climax, which requires actions that are improbable and unjustified by established world mechanics in order to create a suitable result, and even if one ignores the mechanical problem they still feel like cheap gimmicks. Fortunately the series handles the content which comes after that much better.
Except as noted previously, neither the animation nor the artistry in the second seven episodes achieves anything beyond the standard set by the first seven, although getting to see Asuna in more casual clothes (and later in much less than that in the most fitting of the series' few fan service shots) is a treat and the settings are still as sharp as ever; in fact, some of the prettiest scenery in the series to date actually comes in the final in-game scenes in episode 14, although other episodes also have their moments. Yuki Kajiura's score, which has been surprisingly restrained so far, finally goes full-bore in the boss battles, showing off the signature sounds that she's known for and in the process gloriously amping up events that were already pretty intense on their own.
Ultimately the series' first arc succeeds despite its writing rather than because of it. The details do flounder in many places, but the broad story themes and arcs – two youths finding supportive love in the midst of a life-or-death game, a young man growing to care about others rather than just look out for himself, people building lives for themselves in an artificial environment when they cannot access the real world – join the exhilarating key battles and exploration of game mechanics in carrying the series, and without having to depend on bloody violence or extensive fan service, too. It is not one of the year's most popular new series to date without reason.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Boss battles, scenery shots, musical score, eventually builds a credible love story.
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