Fourteen episodes in, Sword Art Online II has finished its first arc; and if you were let down after the first anime's second half, let me assure you, Sword Art Online is back and in grand style.
Good -- Reinventing the Wheel
The strongest aspect of Sword Art Online as a franchise is the freedom it has to reinvent itself with each iteration. The Sword Art Online arc is a death game story and the Alfheim Online arc is your typical "rescue the princess" affair -- while the upcoming Mother's Rossario arc totally switches gears and presents a coming of age story. The recent Gun Gale Online arc, dives into yet another genre -- that of a cyberpunk murder mystery.
In the FPS MMORPG Gun Gale Online, a mysterious player known only as "Death Gun" has apparently been killing people in the real world by shooting them in the game. In order to repay a favour, series hero Kirito agrees to go into Gun Gale Online and attempt to discover the identity of Death Gun as well as the modus operandi of his killings.
All in all, it's a well-thought-out mystery where seemingly innocuous details become key in solving the crime. And when it all comes together in the end, it creates a sense of tension and suspense not seen since the original Sword Art Online arc.
Good -- A New VRMMO World
Along with the exploration of a new genre comes the exploration of a new world. While Sword Art Online and Alfheim Online were both fantasy games, Gun Gale Online is set in a sci-fi post apocalypse. Thus, it is a world of ruins. Far more important than that, though, is that unlike the other two MMOs, Gun Gale Online is a game where everyone uses a gun.
While Kirito may be a sword master, in a world of guns he is decidedly out of place. Moreover, upon first entering Gun Gale Online, he has very little knowledge of the game -- making him a great audience proxy for exploring the world. Adding in Sinon as the veteran player who shows Kirito around allows all the important world-building questions to be asked in a natural manner. At the same time, we witness excellent character development of both Kirito and Sinon as we watch their relationship grow.
Good -- Specter of the Past
When it comes down to it, the Gun Gale Online arc is the story of two teens attempting to come to terms with the fact that they have both killed people. Both killed to protect others -- including those they love -- but they have respectively dealt with the guilt in very different ways.
Sinon has been left with a severe case of PTSD in addition to being emotionally devastated by an attack she suffered in her real life. For years it has haunted her every action -- even someone making a gun with their finger and thumb is enough to set off a panic attack. And in a society where she faces constant bullying as a "murderer," it has proved nearly impossible for her to move on. Yet in Gale Gun Online, she is able to face her fears and take control of them. She has even convinced herself that once she is the top player in Gale Gun Online, she'll finally be able to take the same control over her real life.
Kirito, on the other hand, has dealt with his guilt and emotional trauma by putting them out of his head and fixating on immediate problems -- first in Sword Art Online and then in Alfheim Online. Yet, when his past catches up with him in Gale Gun Online, he is rocked to his core -- not only because he killed people but also because he then was able to make himself forget.
Alone, neither Kirito nor Sinon are particularly good at handling their respective trauma. However, in each other, they find a kindred spirit -- someone who can truly understand how the other feels. Watching their friendship grow and their wounds begin to heal is the emotional heart of the story.
Mixed -- Overpowered Hero
As clueless as Kirito is upon entering into Gun Gale Online, you'd think he would be at a disadvantage as the sole swordsman in a world of gunners. However, this is never the case. He walks in, beats an unbeatable challenge, buys a lightsaber, and proceeds to absolutely thrash every opponent he comes across -- including Sinon who is one of the best 16 players in the game. It makes both Kirito seem absurdly strong and the best players (at the most competitive PVP game in the world) seem pitifully weak -- though in their defence, I doubt they ever expected to run into someone who could block bullets with a lightsaber.
On the other hand, this makes the climax all the more satisfying -- not to mention surprising -- with Death Gun being more than a match for Kirito due to his own special circumstances.
The Gun Gale Online arc of Sword Art Online II is an entertaining cyberpunk mystery in a future not too far removed from today. But more than just being straight mystery and action, it is also an emotional exploration of two teens who are suffering with the knowledge of what it means to take a life. In the end, it is simply a great watch as both a standalone story and as a part of Sword Art Online overall.