Considering it’s popularity, it’s not surprising that Sword Art Online got a second season. The first season was easily the most popular anime of 2012 and given the number of novels that hadn’t yet been adapted, it was obvious that a second season would happen eventually. What’s more surprising is how different SAO II is compared to season 1. Season 1 was mainly action driven, while season 2 balances that with more plot and character development. This method doesn’t always work, but it clearly shows how Kawahara began to improve as a writer after the Fairy Dance arc of season 1.
SAO II is divided into three relatively standalone arcs which each have distinct strengths and weaknesses, so instead of approaching the season as a whole and then going into details, I’ll start by going over each arc individually. The first and longest arc is called Phantom Bullet and involves Kirito going into Gun Gale Online, a sci-fi themed VRMMO, to track down a mysterious player who seems to be able to kill people by shooting them in the game. While there, he meets and teams up with a female sniper named Sinon who teaches him the basics of the game and ends up helping him find the unknown player who goes by the name “Death Gun.” The first thing that stands out about Phantom Bullet is how different the setting is from the two previous arcs. Aincrad and ALO both had distinct characteristics, but they were still both fantasy themed. GGO, on the other hand, is a post apocalyptic shooter, which allows for some radically different battles (although Kirito still uses a sword). The fights there tend to be more tactical and involve more preparation than previous battles, especially since Sinon uses a sniper rifle and isn’t a front line fighter like Kirito. None of the fights reach the same heights as the boss battles from season 1, but they’re still plenty entertaining. The plot is paced a bit slower in GGO, although it’s not too bad. It just feels like it could have been a couple of episodes shorter since a fair amount is devoted to setup with less time for the fight scenes. It would have worked better as a 10-12 arc instead of having 14 episodes. That way, there wouldn’t have been quite as much downtime.
The GGO arc also shows far more emphasis on character than anything in season 1. Sinon initially seems like just another girl for Kirito’s pseudo-harem, and she does occasionally come close to being one, but she ends up being a strong enough character to avoid that. [minor spoilers ahead] Sinon is driven by a traumatic experience from her childhood where she was forced to shoot a bank robber to protect herself. After that, she developed PTSD and freezes up whenever she sees or hears a gun, with the only exception being in GGO. In the real world, she’s shy and nervous, but in GGO she’s always confident and strong. Her main reason for playing is to try and overcome her PTSD through experience in the game, since she isn’t afraid of guns there. Her entire arc is defined by this trauma and her guilt over having killed someone and is very well done. Her PTSD and the way she uses the game to try and cope with it makes her one of the most interesting characters in SAO and also ties in the theme of how virtual reality can be just as important as real life. Even if what happens in the game isn’t “real” it’s effects on her are, something that the anime sells quite well. What isn’t as well done is the anime’s attempts to develop Kirito. One of the main subplots in the GGO arc is Kirito dealing with the guilt of having killed someone in self defense back in Aincrad. The idea is solid, but it’s introduced too late to really be believable or compelling. The scene where he actually does it isn’t shown or even mentioned until GGO, where it’s revealed in a flashback. There’s also no indication of Kirito having any guilt over that until GGO, even though it happened back during Aincrad. It’s good that Kawahara tried to make Kirito less bland, but it ultimately doesn’t really work. It doesn’t drag the arc down too much, though. Sinon is still a good character and is strong enough that she could have carried the arc herself. [end of spoilers]
I don’t have much to say about the second arc, Calibur, since it was only three episodes and wasn’t particularly memorable. It follows Kirito and his friend in ALO on a quest to find Excalibur. It’s only three episodes long and nothing major happens, good or bad. There are a few good fight scenes, but that’s about it. It’s fine for what it is, just nothing special either way.
The third arc, Mother’s Rosario, is far more interesting and is easily the best arc in all of SAO. Unlike the rest of the show, Mother’s Rosario has Asuna as the main character and Kirito as a secondary character. The main plotline focuses on Asuna’s relationship with Yuuki, another ALO player she meets and ends up helping with a boss fight. As they work together, they become close friends, which makes later developments far more impactful than anything the series has done previously. Yuuki herself is upbeat and seems to really enjoy everything she does, although the reasons behind that aren’t so happy. She’s not hugely complex, but she’s very easy to like and her relationship with Asuna is well executed. I can’t go into specifics without mentioning some major spoilers, but Mother’s Rosario ends up being more of a character drama/tragedy than an action show like the rest of SAO.
The second plotline is smaller in scope and is about Asuna’s relationship with her mother. Asuna’s mother constantly pressures her to spend less time playing and wants her to focus on getting into a good school, even though Kirito goes to a different one. It gets to the point where she even unplugs Asuna’s Amusphere while she’s in the game. Her mother isn’t a bad person and clearly just wants what’s best for Asuna, but she doesn’t understand that Asuna’s experiences in the game and the friends she made there are just as real to her as her life outside of the game, which ties into the theme of virtual reality being just as real as actual reality. This subplot is far more nuanced than the more black and white conflicts of previous arcs and is resolved in a suitably mature way. Mother’s Rosario isn’t not perfect and occasionally oversells it’s emotional moments, but both stories are still very well done and are worth watching even if you don’t like the rest of SAO.
The animation in SAO II is about the same as season 1-polished, generally good quality, with plenty of good action scenes. The background art is also well done, and GGO especially has a unique post apocalyptic look that makes it stand out compared to the usual fantasy settings that SAO has done. The art in the real world is also noteworthy. The darker and more toned down color scheme provides a good contrast with the brighter colors and detailed landscapes in the games. The music is generally the same as season 1 with a few new tracks that work well enough. It’s still not Yuki Kajiura’s best soundtrack, but it’s still better than most other soundtracks.
Sword Art Online II is an interesting combination of elements. On one hand, Kirito hasn’t improved much since season 1 and the fight scenes aren’t as impressive. On the other, Sinon’s character and Mother’s Rosario are both huge improvements over anything SAO has done before. Kawahara is clearly improving as a writer, and I hope he can keep up the same quality as Mother’s Rosario for the upcoming movie and the inevitable season 3.
Sword Art Online II is available from Aniplex of America and is available for streaming on Crunchyroll and Netflix.
Final Score (0verall): 8/10
Final Score (Mother’s Rosario*): 8.9/10
*I’m giving Mother’s Rosario its own score because it really is that different from the rest.