Sword Art Online Part 4 (Episodes 20-25) (Cert 15)
2 Discs DVD/BD Combo (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 144 minutes approx.
Heading into this concluding volume of this game based fantasy series, lead protagonist Kazuto Kirigaya is forced to return to the virtual reality world to rescue his virtual reality wife Asuna Yuuki, who remains in a coma from the previous game. However the threat to her safety is in fact in the real world as creepy businessman Nobuyuki Sugou, whose company RECTO Progress Inc. created this new game Alfheim Online (ALO), plans to marry the teenage Asuna to gain control of her father’s company. Kazuto – once again donning his game persona of Kirito – has to rescue Asuna in the game to save her in real life.
Sound confusing? Actually it isn’t but it is ridiculously far fetched and arguably a dumber twist on the original trapped in a virtual world concept that was the initial appeal of the series for many fans. Or perhaps this was deliberate ploy by creator Reki Kawahara, who was satirising the rise of the “Keyboard Warrior”, those people who act and talk tough from behind the computer screen but are the opposite in reality. For example Sugou is clearly a nasty piece of work but with Asuna in a coma he can’t manipulate her as he would like so he creates a virtual world where she is his prisoner and, when his whim dictates, his plaything. It’s up to nice guy Kazuto to play the online hero to be the real life hero.
One further and somewhat needless development that was revealed to the viewer in the last volume which is finally exposed to the cast in these episodes, involves the Sylph named Leafa, who, in the game, befriends Kirito and accompanies him on his journey to the World Tree where Asuna is being held captive. We know that Leafa’s real life controller is Suguha, Kazuto’s sister who appears to have developed a rather disturbing fondness for her sibling which he fails to notice and reciprocate. Of course this ignorance drove Suguha to the online gaming world to escape the pain, unaware that the brave hero Kirito she has also become smitten with is her brother!
This rather strained plot line sadly is the one to provide the main emotional core of these final episodes while the bulk of the content deals with the online battles Kirito and Leafa, along with Kirito and Asuna’s adopted “daughter” Yui most overcome to save Asuna. Again the lines a between reality and the online world are blurred when Asuna manages to escape her cage, discovering a secret lab where the virtual brains of former SAO players still in comas who have been trapped in the new game are being experimented on. What for isn’t disclosed but Sugou is a creepy swine so anything is possible.
Action fans are suitably rewarded with some almighty punch ups that take place along the journey including a gargantuan battle royale when the various allies Kirito has made or won over during the course of the game, storm the World Tree to take down Sugou/Oberon once and for all. It is quite the spectacular finale with a Star Wars kind of vibe as the warriors can all fly, creating an effect similar to the rebel attack on the Death Star. This provides the visual highlight of this volume, exploiting the superb animation of A-1 Pictures who employ a well executed blend of CG and 2D images smoothly animated and rendered for our delectation.
This may or may not be relevant but in this game the majority of the people Kirito meets just happen to be female. If a harem set-up was teased in the earlier episodes of this series in the SAO game a more blatant attempt at being established this time around. A powerful group called Salamanders is planning on attacking the Sylphs and the Cait Siths, fronted by Sakuya and Alicia respectively. Kirito gets wind of this and tries to play peacemaker and prevent the attack from taking place. His efforts are rewarded by the two busty maidens hoping to show their appreciation as only busty maidens can in anime, which naturally upsets Leafa (herself a busty maiden). Close-up cleavage shots are the order of the day here so non-gaming otaku who may have felt left out in the early going are catered for at least.
Depending on how you feel the denouement of this series is either pitch perfect or just too eked out for its own good. The final episode opens with what should have been the prelude to a dramatic climax but instead is quickly dealt with before moving on to depicting life post-SAO/ALO for our cast of intrepid gamers. There is some validity to showing how they cope with life in a special catch up school set up especially for kids trapped in the original game but coming off such a strong opening scene, the preference, at least for this writer, would have been for this to have been a separate OVA rather than the actual series finale. Opinions will differ but the tacked on feeling of this material creates an anti-climactic sensation rather than the jubilant one which they were clearly striving for.
A second series of Sword Art Online is due to start very soon in Japan and to be honest, I can’t see where else they can go with the concept. They’ve already been inside two virtual reality games and the novelty of this gimmick has surely run its course, suggesting this is a case of “lather, rinse, repeat”. However the show has a strong cult following so a positive reaction almost assuredly awaits its return.
As for this first series, it has its flaws and, while it fails to reach the potential hinted at in the early going, provides solid enough entertainment to keep gaming fans and the easily pleased happy and satiated.
English Language 2.0
Japanese Language 2.0
Episode 21-24 Web Clips
Ratings – ***
Man In Black