Sword Art Online returns, this time without swords. Actually, come to think of it, without Sword Art Online, for that matter. Spoilers ahead.
So, Sword Art Online is back in the form of Sword Art Online II. I'm a little bit scared. I didn't actually watchSword Art Online when it was on, I marathoned through the entire 25-episode run over like a week or two last December, when people were pretty sure this thing was going to be announced, but it hadn't technically happened yet. I suppose I should probably give some thoughts on the first series.
My feelings on Sword Art Online are a bit, shall we say, complicated. I really liked a lot about the first arc, the Aincrad stuff. I thought it was ultimately flawed, the harem-anime tropes being a particularly glaring problem with it, and the "Kirito is now going to use willpower to keep a machine from microwaving his brain" ending being another. Ultimately though, I loved a lot of the things that series did. I really liked Asuna. I loved the choice to resolve the "will-they-or-won't-they-of-course-they-will" trope early, and actually show several episodes of the two of them married, living their lives (an unpopular opinion, from what I can gather). I thought the ending to that first arc, while abrupt, was about as perfect as anyone could ask. It's not perfect, but in the end, I liked it.
...And then the show kept going. Oh. My. God. I hate the ALfheim Online arc. I can't think of a single good thing to say about it. The Sugu subplot was gross (I'm not even saying they couldn't have done that incestuous subplot well, or that it was inherently bad because of that, just that even for an incest subplot, it was poorly written). Alfheim was an incredibly generic world which I absolutely could not care about, even for the short eleven episode run. The supporting characters were forgettable. Even those elements though, I could forgive. The thing that truly made the ALO arc stand out, in my opinion, is the boneheaded decision to lock the best character in a literal birdcage for eleven episodes, and only cut back to her in order to show her getting almost-raped! "Oops! We accidentally made a strong female character! Better turn her into a damsel and have her get sexually abused for a while! That'll teach her!"
I didn't like it very much. I honestly struggled through that second arc, essentially hate-watching a show I once found enjoyable. It got so bad, I legitimately debated whether I would even watch Sword Art Online IIwhen it came out. I still haven't watched that Sword Art Online: Swimsuit Edition thing they did (yes, I'm aware that's not what it's called).
But, obviously, I'm here talking about the first episode. So, with that information about my feelings on the show out of the way, let's dive into "World of Guns"!
We open on a dark city landscape. Unlike the vistas of Aincrad or Alfheim, it's clearly a sci-fi inspired city, with flying television screens everywhere. This is the world of Gun Gale Online, and on some of these TV screens, a player named XeXeeD, is discussing stat distribution, and how AGI used to be the hot stat for a while, but that's all about to change in favor of, uh, Armor Pen, I guess, he doesn't specify.
A bar we've settled in on loudly boos XeXeeD in unison as he taunts anyone who's spent months boosting their own AGI stat. One guy in the bar says "Huh! Years ago, XeXeeD was the one who wouldn't shut up about the AGI type being the strongest." Hold onto that for a minute, I'm going to nitpick it later.
The commentator asks XeXeeD whether he has his eyes set on an upcoming "Bullet of Bullets" competition, which he quickly confirms. The other guest on this "Mainstream" points out that BoB is a solo-focused game type, and so the same results can't be guaranteed twice, so he's not sure why XeXeeD is focused on stat distribution. Uh... Look man, stats are stats, solo or group. Stat output will actually— Oh crap, am I discussing theorycraft about a fictional game with a fictional character? Let's move on.
I will say this, one of the things I really like about SAO, even the ALO arc, is that it seems to actually understand what video games are. Most television series, American and otherwise, show two characters talking about a video game they're supposed to be really into, and the conversation will break down into "I like the part where I kill the dragon, so I'm going to kill the dragon good!" Sword Art Online drops you into a conversation about stat distribution five seconds into the premiere. We're like one step away from the episode just turning into a YouTube video where Ciderhelm tells me about raid strategies.
Anyway, as XeXeeD continues smugly talking about how STR is the new AGI, another player sitting the bar walks to the screen displaying XeXeeD, and draws his gun on it. Speaking with what sounds like a voice scrambler, he calls XeXeeD a "Spurious Victor," and tells him that he faces justice now.
He shoots the screen, right between XeXeeD's eyes (something about the multiple capital Xs really makes this guy's name sound like an MMO player, by the way). The people in the bar begin laughing at the man's outburst, but they quickly stop, when XeXeeD grips his heart on the remaining screens.
XeXeeD gasps for breath, before collapsing and disconnecting on live TV. As the host of the show tries to cover for him, all eyes in the bar frightfully turn toward the man who shot the screen.
The man, wearing a metal skull mask which hisses with steam, shouts for everyone in the bar to remember his name with fear. His name, and the name of his gun is... Death Gun!
Wow. I'm just, I'm not going to be able to take that name seriously at all, am I?
We then go to the real world, where Asuna is waiting on a street corner. She checks her phone, establishing for the viewer when we are— December 2025. "Soon, a year will have passed." Asuna says.
All right, remember how I said to hold onto that line by the guy in the bar? Ok, so I'm assuming Asuna is referring to a year after the SAO incident ended, right? And ALfheim Online was set, what, two months after that? The Alfheim arc ended with the seed being made available so a ton of new VRMMOs started popping up (it's later confirmed in this episode that Gun Gale Online is one of these). If it's only been ~10 months since GGO started at all, and XeXeeD was talking up AGI "year ago"... Subtitle translation error, I guess? Whatever. I said it was a nitpick.
She sees a leaf blow by on the wind, and idly wonders aloud what the difference between the real world and a virtual one is.
"The quantity of data, that's all."
Kirito startles Asuna as he walks up. He awkwardly tells her she looks great in her outfit, and that it reminds him of what she wore in the game. She says his all-black outfit reminds him too (apparently Sugu threw everything else in the wash), and they observe that, quite by accident, they're both wearing "old colors."
As the two of them go on their "walking through the park" date, Kirito starts talking about the Imperial Palace.
Taking up a huge amount of space, 20% of the Chiyoda Ward, it also has no subways running under it, and a no-fly zone above. He says this makes it essentially a huge restricted zone.
He points out a security camera to Asuna, and mentions that it's even on a proprietary closed-network, so there's no way to connect from the outside. He reflects that the whole place is like an isolated "otherworld" in the middle of Tokyo, before admitting that's a bit of an exaggeration.
The camera stares at them HAL-style as they walk away.
This is all either going to be important later on, or the most random Tokyo trivia interlude I've ever seen.
The two of them continue on their date, eventually ending on a bench, talking about their futures. Asuna asks him what he wants to do in the future, and he says he wants to create a replacement for the Full-Dive interface. He expands on what he was saying earlier, that he want to create a replacement which actually transfers so much data to a user that it feels indistinguishable from reality. Asuna says that when that happens, the two of them will finally be able to be with Yui forever.
With that, we cut to four hours earlier. Kirito is in an upscale restaurant, meeting a man who waves to him as soon as he's seen.
A flashback-within-a-flashback explains that this man is Seijiro Kikuoka, part of a task force in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications "Virtual Division." It seems that Kirito's had to work with this Seijiro before, due to his involvement with the end of Sword Art Online. Seijiro asked him to come all the way across town to meet with him, though, and Kirito asks why, clearly exhausted of talking about SAO.
This time isn't about SAO, however, it's about Gun Gale Online.
Seijiro shows him a file about a man, Tamotsu Shigemura, who was discovered dead in his apartment. It seems that the man, who went by the username XeXeeD, was playing GGO, when his heart simply stopped.
Seijiro asks Kirito if he's heard of GGO, and Kirito expositions that it's the only game which has professionals playing.
It seemed like a simple enough case at first, but the strangeness comes from unconfirmed reports that, as XeXeeD died on live television, a player in a certain bar started acting strangely, shouting at XeXeeD's image on the screen, and shooting it.
A recording of the audio from the event, and the audio has been parsed by Seijiro's division, and they know that the gun shot and XeXeeD's heart attack happened at precisely the same time.
Kirito brushes it off, saying it must be a coincidence. Seijiro replies that there was another incident. This time in Saitama City, a man was found dead of heart failure, still hooked up to the game. (Man, suddenly this has me thinking about how often this must actually happen. I mean, not the cyber-murder part, but people must die while doing WoW raids all the time, right? ...I knew a guy whose wife went into labor while we were doing Ulduar, once. So I guess it works both ways? I don't know where I'm going with this.)
It turns out this guy was another powerful GGO player named "Usushi Tarako" which the subtitles translate in parenthesis to "Low-Sodium Cod Roe," which I'm going to assume is some sort of Japanese language thing I don't get based on Seijiro's reaction.
While Usushi was attending a Squadron (Guild) meeting, a player stormed in on the group, and just shot him. The one who attacked Usushi tossed around words about judgement and power, before identifying himself by username: Death Gun (*snicker*).
Realizing how serious this could be, Kirito asks Seijiro if he's sure that the two men died of heart failure. Flashing back to an image of the NerveGear, Kirito asks if the brain of either man was damaged. Seijiro says he thought about that too, and asked the man who performed the autopsy— Their brains were fine.
So Seijiro flat out asks Kirito whether he thinks it's possible. Could this Death Gun player have figured out a way to kill a player with an in-game bullet?
We get a brief, but slightly-silly section where Kirito pictures a bullet flying through the internet line. Kirito says he doesn't think it could be done, but he's clearly not certain.
After a moment, however, Kirito realizes this can't be what Seijiro is actually asking him. He's certainly asked many more qualified people than Kirito their opinion. Kirito realizes what Seijiro must actually want, and begins to storm off, saying there's no way to kill a player with in-game actions.
This is finally enough for Seijiro to drop the pretense. He asks Kirito to enter GGO, and make contact with Death Gun.
Kirito's not wild about the idea, saying that Seijiro just wants him to go get himself killed, but when he mentions that Death Gun seems to have very specific criteria for his targets, Kirito sits back down to listen.
It seems Death Gun (I'm sorry, I'm still having a hard time with that name) targets only the best of the best, so to find him, or make contact with him, they'd need someone on the inside who would be able to make a name for himself, and become a worthy target. Kirito was the best of the best in Aincrad, so they want him for this job.
Kirito says that there's still no guarantee he'd be able to keep up with professionals, ones who use the game's in-game-currency to real-world-money transfer system to make a living. Seijiro says that his agency would be willing to pay him in return for his cooperation.
Kirito nervously asks why Seijiro is even interested in what amounts to an urban legend, and is told that it's actually the higher ups who are concerned. Full-dive tech is still experimental in non-game applications, but is still set up to be huge. If someone is able to weaponize it, it could be very dangerous in the wrong hands. It could also be more heavily regulated if this incident turns out to be true. We also cut back to the HAL camera from the park, as if to remind us "this will probably be important later on."
Kirito asks why they aren't just talking directly to the developers of the game, and he says that the company who make GGO are extremely secretive, set up somewhere in America, but without any sort of contact information available.
Knowing what the stakes could potentially be, Kirito flashes back to his time in Aincrad, and about those who died there.
Before we see his answer (although I'm guessing he accepts or this is going to be a very boring season), we cut back to the present.
Asuna starts talking about the plane of time and space and how Aincrad is the axis point with the something something something she likes the sunset. I don't know. I'm sure it's beautiful and poetic or something, but I watched this part several times and I really don't get what she's getting at here.
Kirito starts to tell Asuna something, but decides against it, and the two of them head home.
We cut back to a really nice looking ruined desert cityscape, as a sniper watches a group of players traveling through the land below.
Oh, good, I was worried our introduction to this character wouldn't be a close-up of her *ahem* assets. Phew.
The sniper is quietly talking to someone over a headset, saying she's a distance of "1500" away from the target (meters, I guess). The man asks if she can make the shot. "No problem."
She quietly narrates to herself how the pressure of this shot is nothing "compared to that day." She lines up her shot, and fires.
The bullet hits. "Next." She says.
All right Sword Art Online II, in the words of DiCaprio's most racist character, "You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention." I enjoyed this. More than I expected to, honestly. I think it made a number of really good choices.
After how samey the whole ALO arc felt, it's nice to get a change of pace, in several ways. For one thing, the world of Gun Gale Online is clearly and immediately visually distinct from both Aincrad and Alfheim.
I also think it's very smart that the show is departing from the tone, and even genres it had established in the first two arcs. This first episode sets up the season to be, essentially, an investigation into a mystery, set in a sci-fi video game world. That's cool. That's something I haven't seen before. That's something compelling.
I've definitely been hooked enough to want to see more, and I'll be coming back for the next episode.
That said, there are still a few things which make me more than a little nervous about the direction the show seems to be going. The first (and I'll fully admit it's unfair to gauge a show based off of this) I've heard internet buzz that this season (and it's corresponding Light Novel) hardly has Asuna in it at all. If that's true, it feels like a grave mistake to me. Asuna was the best part of this show in the first season, and she has been criminally under and mis-used since then.
I also really, really hope this sniper girl isn't going to be another one who falls for Kirito, although I suspect she is. One of the things that genuinely bothers me about this show is the fact that every female character has some sort of contractual obligation to immediately fall head over heels for Kirito. It's basically a harem anime, right?
Not to mention being introduced to this sniper girl in the most fanservice-y way possible. Bluh.
Overall though, a very good premiere. You've piqued my interest, SAO2, now don't screw this up.
Originally posted to Whereinirant.com.