Few recent anime have reached Sword Art Online’s level of popularity. In a medium where second seasons are rare, SAO has gotten two seasons, a movie, and possible continuation. Given how popular and controversial SAO is, Ordinal Scale had a lot of expectations surrounding it, especially since it’s an original story instead of an adaptation of the novels. The last arc to be animated, Mother’s Rosario, was excellent but SAO has made mistakes before. Ordinal Scale falls somewhere between the franchise’s best and worst. On the whole, it’s not an amazing movie, but it’s still a worthy entry in the franchise and is able to emulate a lot of what drew people to SAO in the first place.
It’s been two weeks since the events of Mother’s Rosario and four years since the 6000 survivors were freed from Aincrad. Since then, an augmented reality device known as the Augma has been growing in popularity and is even eclipsing established VR games like ALO. People use the Augma for everything from fitness and singing to playing video games. One game, known as Ordinal Scale has become especially popular. Top players in Ordinal Scale can get all sorts of bonuses, such as store coupons and discounts at online retailers. Kirito isn’t particularly into it, but all of his friends are and they all go to events together. When boss monsters from Aincrad start appearing, along with a mysterious player named Eiji, Kirito starts investigating to find out the truth about Ordinal Scale and it’s connection to Sword Art Online.
A common criticism of the TV series is that it didn’t spend enough time establishing Kirito and Asuna’s relationship and rushed into it. Ordinal Scale actually improves on this by having several quiet scenes between Kirito and Asuna, letting them just be a couple together. The film even opens with a flashback to Aincrad with Kirito and Asuna talking about going to see a meteor shower together. Moments like this are sprinkled throughout the film and greatly help with fleshing out their relationship. Kirito and Asuna are both pretty simple characters on their own, but their relationship feels genuine and is easy to get invested in, which in turn helps build the drama later on. Ordinal Scale also gives the supporting cast far more screen time than previous arcs. Characters like Lizbeth, Silica and Sinon all appear from time to time, whether they’re just hanging out with Kirito and Asuna or participating in Ordinal Scale battles together. None of them get much development, but they all have at least a small role in the movie and even get a few cool moments near the end.
Oddly enough, the film is paced pretty slowly, especially in the middle. There are a lot of flashy action scenes near the beginning and the end, but the middle is primarily focused on building up the mystery of Ordinal Scale. It’s understandable, but makes the film surprisingly dull sometimes. The mystery isn’t anywhere near as compelling as the fights or Kirito and Asuna together. SAO is at it’s best when it’s focusing on action (Aincrad) or heavy melodrama (Mother’s Rosario). The mystery aspects are necessary for the plot, but should have been shortened. The film comes in at around two hours and would have been better paced if it was about fifteen minutes shorter.
Even though it’s set in the real world instead of a virtual world, Ordinal Scale is able to create a real sense of stakes for the characters. The enemies they fight in Ordinal Scale obviously can’t physically harm them, but the cast soon discovers that any SAO survivor who is killed by an Aincrad boss in Ordinal Scale loses all of their memories of SAO. This happens to Asuna part of the way through the film, and the focus on getting her memories back helps create a sense of urgency that the movie would otherwise have lacked for much of it’s runtime. Seeing the grief both Kirito and Asuna feel over this is legitimately moving without feeling forced.
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Interestingly, Ordinal Scale doesn’t start with Kirito as overpowered as he was in previous arcs. Since Ordinal Scale is an augmented reality game, the boss fights are all in the real world, Kirito isn’t able to fight as well as he can in VR. It’s fun seeing him actually struggle in battles and make mistakes, although he ends up at around the same level of strength as he was in Aincrad. This keeps him from seeming as invincible as he usually does and makes some of the battles more intense than they would normally be.
While he’s better than some villains SAO has had before, the final villain is a bit of a disappointment. He’s not as cartoonishly evil as Sugou was in Fairy Dance, but his plan doesn’t make much sense (especially if you remember that police actually do exist). His motivations are better fleshed out than some, but his plan is really easy to poke holes in if you think about it too much. A large part of it is based around a character who died in SAO, but this character barely gets any screen time or development, even during flashbacks. This prevents his motivations from being as meaningful as they should be.
SAO wouldn’t be SAO without plenty of battles and Ordinal Scale more than delivers on that front. There aren’t as many flashy moves in most of them since they’re set in the real world, but they’re still suitably intense and are just as cool as a lot of the fights in Aincrad. Virtually all of the fights are good, but the final battle is just amazing. It involves multiple characters fighting against a huge boss monster and is just as flashy as that implies. Everyone involved gets a chance to shine, with characters bouncing in and out of the battle using different abilities. There are even homages to every major arc SAO has done before. All in all, the final battle is the best anime fight I’ve seen in a long time and is easily the best fight SAO has ever done. It relies on a bit of plot convenience to get everything set up, but the payoff is more than worth it.
The animation was also impressive, improving on the series by a lot. The day to day scenes aren’t that noteworthy, but the battles all look excellent. There’s a lot of great character animation and occasionally some dynamic camera movement to spice things up. There’s a bit of CGI, but it’s decent quality and not excessive. The character designs are slightly different from the TV series, but not enough to be distracting. The music is also an improvement on the TV series and really enhances the battles. There are frequent insert songs as well, and sound just as good as you’d expect from Yuki Kajiura.
Overall, Ordinal Scale isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion of SAO. It has an okay plot, some good character moments, and a lot of flashy fight scenes. Fans will probably love it, but people who didn’t like the series probably won’t like this either. It never reaches the same heights of character drama as Mother’s Rosario, but is still well worth watching for anyone who likes SAO.
Ordinal Scale is has been licensed by Aniplex of America, but has not gotten a physical release yet and is not available for legal streaming.
Final Score: 8.5/10