Sword Art Online's Second Half Isn't Quite As Brilliant As Its First

Earlier this year when Sword Art Online hit its halfway point, I called it the smartest anime I had seen in years because of its in-depth look at the long-term effects of being trapped in a virtual reality world.

This last week Sword Art Online finished its run on Japanese TV. And while the second half of the series was still entertaining, it didn't quite manage to live up to the thematic highpoints of the first half. [*Note: This review contains major spoilers for Sword Art Online; check out the review of the first half for a more spoiler-free review.]

Good -- The Greatest Plot Twist Ever

When I wrote my review of the first half of SAO, I had seen up to episode 12. The main characters were off on a series of side-stories as part of their honeymoon, and there were still 25 floors left to clear till the end of the game. Little did I know that two episodes later, the series would change completely due to the greatest plot twist ever: the hero wins early.

After discovering the creator of the game is actually one of the players -- and the final boss of the game to boot -- the creator gives Kirito the chance to fight a one-on-one duel. In any other anime, the hero would have lost and the villain would have escaped to await the main characters at the final dungeon. But in SAO, Kirito wins, and the villain, true to his word, sets everyone free from the online world. What's more impressive is that this doesn't happen at the halfway point of the series where you might have expected it; rather it happens two episodes after that. Moreover, it happens right after a seemingly irrelevant side-story about fishing, making it one of the most unexpected plot twists I have ever seen.

Good -- A New World

Of course, with 11 episodes left in the series, some sort of conflict has to remain after everyone escapes Sword Art Online. And the conflict is this: 300 people -- including Kirito's love interest, Asuna -- have still not awakened. However, Kirito finds a picture from another VR MMORPG, ALfheim Online, that shows Asuna being held prisoner. Thus, it is up to Kirito to enter the new world and fight to save the girl he loves.

By heading into ALfheim Online, we, the viewers, get to learn about an entirely different VR world. While Sword Art Online was a world without magic, ALfheim Online is a game built around magic and one other gamplay mechanic: flight. So while Kirito may have been the best at Sword Art Online, he is a complete newbie when it comes to ALO. It's fun learning about this new world alongside him.

Good -- An Excellent Villain

Starting up the ALfheim Online arch of the story, I had one question: How do you make a better villain than a man who trapped 10,000 people in a death game for no adequately explained reason? Easy. You just show how good that guy was by comparison to the new villain.

The villain of the second half is almost the polar opposite of the first villain. The first villain was honorable (in his own way), played alongside the players, and had some sort of higher (though unexplained) goal for trapping the people in the game. The second villain, on the other hand, is cowardly, fancies himself a god, and is torturing people just to make money. More than that, he is also constantly threatening to rape Asuna -- both in the game and in the real world. Simply put, he has the greatest hallmark of a good villain: He is a guy you love to hate.

Mixed -- A Classic Quest

While the Sword Art Online arc dealt with the thematic issues of living in a virtual world for long periods of time, the ALfheim Online arc has no such deep thought put into it. Rather it is just a simple classic story: the princess was captured and locked away, so the hero must go on a quest to rescue her. Along the way, the hero makes friends and learns that alone, he is weak; but with companions, he can save the woman he loves. It is not a bad story, but it is a common one that you have no doubt already heard many times before.

Bad -- Nerf Asuna, Lock Her In A Cage

In Sword Art Online, Asuna was a great leader and strong fighter. In ALfheim Online, she is a damsel in distress and spends the entire arc locked in a cage moping. The one time she tries to escape, she proves herself totally helpless in a fight. It is sad to see such a strong female character reduced to nothing but the quest item the male lead is hunting for.

Bad -- The Love Triangle That Never Was

A lot of the Alfheim Online arc is spent dealing with Kiroto's adopted sister, Sugu, falling in love with him both in and out of ALfheim Online (though having no idea that the in-game him is her brother). The problem with this is that it is presented as a love triangle between Kirito, Sugu, and Asuna when that is clearly not the case. Kirito's devotion to Asuna in the SAO arc was such that even implying he might consider giving up on her for another woman -- especially while she is in mortal danger -- is ludicrous, to say the least. Moreover, in anime in general, when the "not-really-his-sister-I-promise" character is involved in a love triangle, she never wins. Simply put, when the outcome of a love triangle is obvious from the start, it adds no tension to the story and is instead just filler.

Final Thoughts

Much like its sister series Accel World, Sword Art Online is a series where the first half is far stronger than the second. The first half is interested in the psychological and sociological issues of living in an online world, while the second half decides to instead take the simpler route of retelling a classic myth in a modern setting. Both, however, are enjoyable for what they are.

In the end, if you wonder about the quality of Sword Art Online overall, know this. The moment the credits began to roll after the last episode, I immediately cracked the spine of the fifth novel to continue on from where the anime left off. I think that action speaks for itself.

Sword Art Online aired every Sunday at midnight on Tokyo MX in Japan.


    I stopped watching at end the the first arc, to stockpile till it was done and i have to agree i was heartily disappointed with the second half.

    The whole Asuna in a cage thing annoyed me to no end, the love triangle with his sister was equally stupid because it just seemed cruel since there was never any doubt he was with Asuna. I disliked the 2nd half so much i thought it brought the whole show down a few notches.

    The first was amazing, in pretty much every way and ungh so much disappointment for the 2nd half =/

      I agree, second half was crap that fell back on anime cliches. Also elves? No one thinks.elves are cool.

        Screw that. the second half was still good. Suguha was an awesome character, easily my favorite over Kirito. Elves ARE cool, but i believe they were in fact FAIRYS in ALFheim not elves as elves do not have wings. Asuna in a cage ok, that was crap but what were they supposed to do with her? Give her a shit ton of power in a new game? She was locked there as someones attempt at a power grab, the dumb ass didn't even care about her, and in the end he got what was coming to him. The thing that annoyed me most was the obvious pairing of Kirito and Asuna, not saying it was bad, but i think that even Sachi would have been a good choice. I watched the entire show as it came out, and i would love to see more of it.

          Hoo, I totally regret watching this show within 10 episodes.
          - Minim action
          - Episode 10's action ruined by dumb bed scene-Is that wench really that easy to get? What a main heroine.
          - Plot holes - holes everywhere; 1. Terrorist take quite a number of hostage, now what have been done by authorities in more than 1 year? Nothing. 2. Can human body survive more than 1 year without nutrition? Fuck Logic. 3. Abysmal strength difference between foodie & protagonist- Dafuq with those amazing HP recovery vs gang of quite success PK-ers. "17-18k" HP is that godly, really? Wow protagonist is now can recover HP really fast. How many online games have that crappy status growth, no wonder the developer has to hold thousand of user as hostage, or else they'll have no online user in 2-3 month. etc etc

          + despite that, Suguha's still a great FAP material.

            Remember they were in the hospital while asleep

      Agreed, the first half had me watching episodes as soon as i could, it was really good, until the second half started... is it just me, or shout the season have ended and just skipped the whole drawn out AOL part and just have Asuna wake up with Kirito?

        Actually, I preferred Mirai Nikkii... I may just go and re-watch that right now...

    The entire anime was bad, and anyone that is a veteran to anime realises this.
    It's more or less the equivalent to Katawa Shoujen, but in anime form. The only reason people like it is because they don't watch much anime.
    Reas through http://myanimelist.net/anime/11757/Sword_Art_Online/reviews and you might come to understand why it's shite.

      "that is a veteran to anime realises this"

      What quantifies one as a veteran. Being 26 myself and watching dragon ball, Guyver and many other anime from the time I was about 4-5 would I be considered a veteran. If I were to be then I would say you're making sweeping generalisation about this anime. I enjoyed the anime, particularly the first half. Second could have been stronger but was still enjoyable and made me want to finish watching it.

        I'm 24 and I watch Doraemon, Dragon Ball, Yaiba, Yoroiden Samurai Tropper, Shurato, Zenki, etc etc; and I still agree SAO is NOT an enjoyable anime. Well it really have this kind of feeling when I watch SAO: It's an anime targeting newbies - use attractive animation & art, but with storyline bad as crap with many plot holes (really, I can only survive watching 10 episodes suggesting myself there's none but in the end it's too big of some holes to be ignored).

      I've just started watching this all in one swoop and it's not as bad as you or the reviews you linked are making it out to be. The negativity seems to come from it not sticking to its source faithfully and being a bit ecchi. If you don't take it seriously though, and embrace with the series' predictable elements, it's just like Code Geass where you just watch it for fun.

    When will people learn that SAO was mediocre at best, from start to finish. Truly nothing special in it and overhyped.

      Nowhere near as overhyped as hacksign. At least this did a far better job of hacks plot.

        You clearly didn't understand .Hack at all. Sword Art Online was a pale reflection of what the .Hack series accomplished. Sure, if you only watched .Hack//Sign, and didn't play the games then it could have been a little underwhelming, but it was never meant to be watched that way. The entire .Hack series was a multimedia experiment that showed how interactive and non-interactive narratives can combine in a way that enhances each other.

        But you would just rather dish out crap on an older series to protect your overrated flavour of the month show...

    The second arc is really weak, it was that way in the manga too from what I've been told. However the third arc makes up for it in spades... If it makes it to animation

    If you liked the series, continue with the light novels. There's unofficial translations out there of the first 10 books (the anime series cover the first 4).

    Agree that the first half of the series is much better than the 2nd half. Unfortunately, the anime was pretty faithful to the light novels so the ALO arc isn't as good.

    personally i couldn't care less how generic, clichéd and over-hyped other people thought it was. It was enjoyable to watch, it was fun.
    As a whole the characters worked well and the story was one that kept me eagerly awaiting each episode.
    I have read all the novels and so was expecting the ALO arc to not be as good as the SAO arc but together it is still a very solid anime that i would recommend to anyone who's interested.
    Also trust me based on the novels it can only get better from here on out.

    Now the long wait for Gun Gale has begun

    agreed. when i recommend this anime i've been telling people only to watch the first season and leave it as a open ending for themselves. "if you see a new intro, you have gone too far"

    I haven't seen the SAO series yet, but the plot twist described isn't really as uncommon in anime as the writer seems to think it is. Gurrenn Lagann comes to mind as another example of this type of twist, as well as the first few arcs of Bleach.

    It's a shame the series sounds like it's a bit of a dud as I was hoping for something new in the way of .hack or Summer Wars style anime. I guess I'll just have to wait for the second half of Steins;Gate as it left off on a huge cliffhanger and a rather surprising twist.

    I agree with everything that was said in this review and would like to add one thing that wasn't covered in it. The fights from the SAO half seemed much better than the fights from ALO. In SAO we saw many, sometimes hundreds, of other characters fighting out against the monsters or bosses with our heros in the thick of it. It gave each fight a feeling of epic life or death combat that left me on the edge of my seat every time. However the fight's in ALO were, by comparison, boring. It was always just Kirito going all "Protagonist Power, Activate!". Also the fact that death was no longer a serious consequence and more of a mild annoyance took a lot of the fights, for me at least.

      Still boring in the first arc. Bunches of PK-ers with only natural regen? Sounds legit, PK's so weak that can't even scratch protagonist, or protagonist that so strong even with only 17-18k HP; 800hp per second recovery, that means each PK deals around 150 dps to main char? Well, here comes Kira "Jesus" Yamato.

    Adding onto my previous comment. I believe that they could have put a bit more time into the other characters. Some of them actually seemed quite interesting. There were three girl's who even appeared in the first OP but only got a single episode each. It was just something that bothered me.

    Hey, that 2 years of coma we were in was fun, let's do it again! Did they learn nothing from being trapped and experimented within the VRMMORPG! Worst yet, they've decided that the "seed" given to them by the person that trapped them in the virtual world in the first place and whom now resides there was a good thing to deploy?! The anime should've ended when Asuna woke up.

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