Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Nitpickery: Sword Art Online -- Alfheim Arc

Hey y'all.  So I've got that second half of the Sword Art Online first season to talk about.   Yep.  Uh-huh.  This is where it all goes downhill.

Oh, sure, the first time I watched it, I was pretty entertained.  But when I watched it again for reviewing purposes, the story seemed to drag.  Sure, the pacing is better than the beginning of the season, but several factors bring down the overall quality of the show.

But first, a summary.  Spoilers.

Kirito and the thousands of SAO survivors are finally in the real world again.  Minus, sadly, three hundred of them, including Asuna.  Kirito is home with his mopey, melodramatic sister (who is really his cousin), Suguha, who is somehow in love with him.  For some reason.  Kirito doesn't notice, and instead pines for Asuna.  He visits Asuna in her hospital room, where he meets Nobuyuki Sugou, the man who has arranged with Asuna's parents to marry her.  Sugou reveals that he's the one who trapped Asuna, and that he's going to marry her no matter what Kirito says.  However, Andrew Mills, the real world Agil, discovers a picture of an Asuna-like person in the new game Alfheim.  So Kirito has to enter this game and rescue her from the inside so that she can log-out.  He does this with the help of the reincarnated Yui, and fellow player Leafa....who is really Suguha, but he doesn't know it.

Okay.  This is going to be far more easy to summarize than the first part of Sword Art Online. Hm...y'know, I kind of like how I formatted my Star Trek movie reviews.  I'll go ahead and keep going with that.

---- Top Ten Things to Say about Sword Art Online, Alfheim Arc ----

10.  There isn't enough plot in this arc.

The SAO game was a world filled with thousands of people, each with goals, hopes, and fears of their own.  At any time the story could have left Kirito and told a story about any random player.  As for Kirito himself, he had a clear goal, a clear enemy, and a purpose that more people besides himself were invested in.  Death was a constant companion.

In Alfheim, however, there's nothing really to fear.  If you die, all you have to do is respawn.  Kirito can log out at any time.  While this downfall in tension turned off some viewers, it wasn't too bad, I think.  After the high intensity of the first half, it's nice to have a break.  Think of it in terms of the show LOST -- that show kept tension so high at all times that watching it was pretty wearisome, especially if you watch a full season over a week, as many viewers are tempted to do.

However, the thing about lower tension is that you still have to get the audience to care about your work by adding interesting elements.  Rescuing Asuna was a good element, but since rescuing her is something only Kirito seems interested in (why only him?), there's a limit to how useful this is. Other characters need motivations.  Suguha's "romance" plot is dreadful, Sugu's friend Recon isn't featured enough (not to mention being one-note when he does appear), the political issues between the faery races is convoluted and nonsensical, and, once again, the most interesting side characters are shoved to the side.

Now, the materials to make this arc good were all there.  Alfheim is a pretty good world, and would have been more so if the different races were featured.  Recon, while annoying, had real motivations (his crush on Sugu, wanting to figure out a traitor's schemes) and had the plot just left Kirito and Leafa's side for a while and let Recon do stuff on screen, he could have been a successful character. As is, he's a character that exists for plot convenience.  Agil was barely there, and Klein had a cameo at the end.  Come on, now.

The best unused plot element was Sugou's scheme for manipulating minds.  The three hundred people who weren't able to disconnect from SAO were his test subjects so Sugou could learn to delete memories and control minds.  This is really huge, especially in a world where virtual reality video games are a thing.  If Sugou's plan turned out successfully, he could control the entire gaming population simply by creating a game.  But no, this element is mentioned, but almost entirely abandoned.  It never matters; we never see anyone affected by these mind control tests.  At best, we see digital cylinders with projections of brains above them, with two tentacled slugs talking about painful memories.

Um.  Well, at least we get a still shot of some people recovering from this at the last episode.  And they're all magically alright!  Because having bad memories pumped into your brain 24/7 for several months isn't scarring at all.

So instead of expanding these potentially interesting plotlines, the plot slows to a crawl.  Or it just feels like a crawl because Sugu having a crush on her brother is painfully bad and awkward, and it's become boring to see Kirito battling because his power level from SAO was carried over.  Once again, he beats everything just because he's the all powerful emo kid in black.


9.  Sing a song of helpless princesses.

Asuna's not a princess, but whatever.  In any case, she's been suspended in the middle of Alfheim, where Sugou has her mind trapped in a digital birdcage.  He claims that he's the fairy king Oberon, and she's his queen Titania.  Asuna, of course, will have nothing to do with him.  That doesn't stop him from forcing her to wear a dress made of lacy napkins while he feels her up.

Ngggh...does anyone actually want to watch that?

Okay, before I go on, let me mention something about the damsel in distress concept.  I don't hate it. As mentioned before, feminism is not something I subscribe to, primarily because it's very manipulative.  I don't feel that the damsel in distress trope is offensive, or that a woman is weak because she accepts help from or is saved by a man.  The damsel in distress is a legitimate storytelling technique.

But, you protest, the damsel in distress is boring!  All she does is pine for her man, and then kiss him in the end.  Yes.  No arguments there.  But the simplicity is the entire point of the damsel in distress archetype.  Why?  Because any story with a damsel in distress is not about the damsel, but about the hero(es) coming after her and the villain in the way.

Look at the Disney film Mulan for an example.  Shan Yu, the villain, is pretty irrelevant.  He's some big, tough guy that kills people for the fun of it.  He has no depth or background.  And you know what?  It's alright. We don't need to know more.  The story isn't about him.  It's about Mulan and the soldiers that fight with her. The damsel trope is exactly the same as Shan Yu -- it's a small part that has to be there to ensure that someone else's story makes sense.  The only difference is that evil, beefy Huns don't have any special interest groups on their side.

I say all this to say that while I don't mind the damsel in distress archetype, I mind that Asuna is the damsel in distress.  Look at Asuna in the Aincrad arc: before she fell for Kirito, she was forever yelling at him and hitting him.  She even shoved a knife in his face.  So why isn't she showing Sugou any of this sass?  Kicking him?  Biting him in the neck?  Making up insults?  Asuna isn't some character whose existence is only a necessary motivation to get things rolling.  She's someone we've known over lots of episodes.

...The logical bit in my brain is telling me that Asuna's stats from Aincrad were probably deleted, and that she technically can't fight Sugou.  Still, that doesn't mean she wouldn't try, or at least attempt to make herself less appealing by feigning insanity.

All the same, even if it were just a simple damsel in distress situation where Sugou would, I don't know, feed her to a dragon or something, that would be one thing.  Pretty boring, but not offensive. But then to make her the helpless victim of a pervert?  No one wants to see that.  Maybe the writers realized that it would be boring if Sugou weren't a pervert, and somehow thought that disgusting was more entertaining.

This all could have been solved if Asuna was just playing the part of the damsel for a while.  It would be okay if it was fake (and Sugou didn't touch her), but then during her attempted escape she actually succeeds in getting out.  Yes, there's a part where she uses a mirror to see the code for her birdcage, and escapes her cage that way. That's how she discovers the minds of the test subjects Sugou is using. Then she is caught by the tentacle slugs, which feel her up like perverts and then dump her back in her cage before she can log out.  Sure, she manages to get a card that helps Kirito later, but her scene is so short and perverse that it's not entertaining.

Not to mention that, regardless of the disgusting events and DID status, it's just plain wearisome to the viewer for Asuna and Kirito to work so hard to be free, and then suddenly be separated again for several more episodes.  Instead of being engaged by the plot, the viewer is just impatient for Asuna to get back.  It would have helped if the plot was engaging until her rescue, but since's it's not, the viewer doesn't care.

The worst element of Asuna's plot is the assault scene during the final "battle."  No, it is not exciting to watch as an impaled man is forced to witness his true love being felt up by a perv.  It's not dramatic, interesting, or entertaining in any way to a person of sound mind.  And it goes on way too long.  The person who put this part this long on the screen is a monster.

8. Sugou is a sucky enemy.

There's a principle in writing that says a hero is only as impressive as his enemy.  Well, Sugou is a stupid pervert who tells his plans to his victims and turns into a complete baby when he doesn't get his way.  Nobody's impressed by defeating such a person.  Not only that, but it makes Asuna look even more weak that she can't just defeat the moron herself (well, again with the stat-deletion, but still.)

The key to a good villain is making him seem hard to defeat.  While Kirito is super powerful and that's part of the problem too, Sugou himself isn't strong enough on his own.  The only people he terrorizes are a girl in a cage and several trapped minds, none of whom can apparently do anything to him.  Sugou isn't powerful enough to threaten anyone who can actually fight back.

Not only that, but Sugou is also not interesting.  Wimps can actually be written well.  For example, Prince Edward II in Braveheart was an interesting wimp.  Sure, he was a total fop, but that was just an aspect of his rich character.  He has a background, motives, conflict, and even a puzzle: why does the prince suddenly seem more serious about following in his father's footsteps after his (presumed) lover is killed?  How does that suddenly change his mind?  Edward II goes from doing things his own way to caring about his father's dying requests at the end.  Granted, he didn't actually care about his father, but again, that's another interesting aspect to who he is, especially when you compare it to the other father-son relationships in Braveheart.

Also, despite being a wimp, Edward II is a threat in the sense that he has powerful relatives, is the son of a king, and has a somewhat sinister edge.  It also helps that Ed II is not the primary villain of the story.

But nobody's asking any questions about Sugou.  Nobody cares.  He feels like a random, tacked-on addition to the plot just to keep Asuna and Kirito from living happily ever after. Given that the characters just spent two years under the watchful eye of the evil Kayaba Akihiko, a man who used a clever scheme to trap thousands of people, there's no way a simple, cheap pervert is going to compare.

7. Suguha's plotline was painfully bad.

Speaking of people nobody cares about, Sugu is meh.  There's nothing much to talk about when it comes to her character.  There's only one and a half aspects to her personality: she's in love with her brother, and she's not in love with Recon.

I say one and a half because the whole deal with Recon isn't developed.  He's a real life friend of Sugu, but also plays Alfheim with her on the internet.  He's a little dude who is in love with her, but doesn't understand that Sugu isn't into him.  Maybe it's supposed to be funny when she kicks Recon and constantly belittles him, but it's not.  Especially when he pledges his sword to Sugu, and only has a tiny dagger.  That's just painful.  To make it even worse for the poor guy, he's the one that discovers the Sylphs have a traitor in their midst, and ends up paralyzed in the sewers.  Give the guy a dang break already.

So Recon's plot is there just to move the political side of Alfheim along (more on that later), and to make Sugu more unlikable.  Besides, we have to watch Sugu pine for her brother, so watching another person pining just adds to the torment.  Wasn't this supposed to be an action anime, or something?

When Sugu isn't online, she's always pining for her brother.  Every single moment with her on screen is filled with stale melodrama because she doesn't understand that not only is he in love with someone else, he's related to her.  Sure, they're not technically brother and sister.  He's the son of her mom's sister.  So they're first cousins.  Yeah, that makes it so much better.

All the same, if you had a guy in your house that you always considered your brother, wouldn't you go on to think of him that way even if he turned out to be not related?  Would you really say to yourself, "hey, he's available now!  Whoo-hoo!"?

Thing is, when did Sugu fall for him?  If she did indeed wait until she found out they weren't siblings, then that makes no sense.  She only found out when he was in the hospital and his mind was in Aincrad.  So being with him in a comatose state made her fall for him?  Or did she start liking him sooner, before the whole SAO thing?  Kirito in the first half of the season mentions that Sugu worked hard at her kendo so that their grandfather wouldn't punish Kirito for not keeping up with his lessons. If that has something to do with it, that's even worse, as it means she loved him while thinking of him as her brother.  Hurl.

Incest aside, what plot potential did the writers really think they had with this?  Clearly it's something from the light novels that the anime is based from (so it's a flaw in the novels too), but they really should have gone in a different direction somehow.  Why?  Because the viewers already know that Kirito loves Asuna, there's no chance for Sugu.  Since Sugu's unlikable and them being together is disgusting, that makes every single scene with her in it pointless.

To be fair, Sugu's avatar Leafa is slightly more interesting than her.  I was so disappointed when it was revealed that Leafa was really Sugu.  Leafa as a character is blunt, sincere, and ready to take action.  Sugu, on the other hand, is uncommunicative and ponders over stupid things. they're not that different, and it's natural that a game character would be different in certain ways from the player, but if Leafa had turned out to be a different person, that would be nice.

Or, y'know, Suguha could be a person who doesn't have a sick obsession with a family member.

6. Only in one aspect does Alfheim improve on the Aincrad arc.

It's Yui, of course.  In the Aincrad arc, Yui was a random AI girl that Kirito and Asuna adopt after knowing her for all of an hour or two, during most of which Yui was asleep.  That's not horrible writing, but it is pretty random and out of place.  The viewer simply does not have enough attachment to Yui to care too much when she is destroyed by Aincrad's programming.  She's only there for two episodes, but the writing expects us to feel for her as though she's been there longer.

In the Alfheim arc, Yui appears again.  She had been turned into a game item, and since all of Kirito's data transferred over to the new game, he is able to activate this item and turn her into an assist pixie. This is a much better role for Yui.  Not only is she compatible with the computer world around her, but she's actually useful.  She can search through Alfheim's game data, as well as detect when other players are around.  In a plot sense, she serves as a cute character who can relate to other people better than Kirito can.

Yui still calls Kirito her daddy, but it has a much cuter affect now that the two of them are going after "Mommy."  Not to mention that Yui makes herself small enough to stand on Kirito's shoulder.  Very adorable.  Actually, it would have been nice if she were on screen more, but for what she is, she works. It seems like her entire hasty introduction was just to make her true appearance here.

Granted, it's not as if Yui was annoying before.  Well, I found it mildly annoying that a seemingly useless little girl was tagging along with Kirito and Asuna in the first half, but that probably doesn't annoy everyone.  All the same, Yui is cute, and she gets even cuter in the second half.

Though seriously, that skirt they put on her pixie form was inappropriate for someone who looks six years old.

5. While we're talking about good things, Alfheim itself doesn't seem bad.  Well, not that bad.  It's just that the political stuff going on makes it feel more boring than it is.

Alfheim never feels as deep as Aincrad, that's primarily because we don't get to see too much of it (or follow along a character who gains levels naturally).  The game is based on nine different races: sylphs, cait sith, gnomes, imps, leprechauns, pookas, salamanders, spriggans, and undines. All of these are real mythological creatures (I especially like the addition of the pookas).  The player chooses the race they want based on both looks and magical abilities.  All of the races, however, can fly for limited periods of time through their fairy world and battle it out.

This doesn't sound bad.  It's a good basis for a game.  The only trouble is, there doesn't seem to be any in-world story.  Sure, there's this whole thing where the race that defeats the main quest in the World Tree in the center of Alfheim gets to become powerful alfs that can fly all the time, but that's inadequate.  There's no story at all, no reason for people to join Alfheim other than to wander around and battle each other.  Granted, there isn't a lot of time to go on about Alfheim when the point is to rescue Asuna, but other plotlines should have at least been mentioned.  Given that the players we know hang out in Alfheim at the end of this arc, as well as at the beginning of the Gun Gale arc (which I don't plan on reviewing), then this world could use a lot more developing.

If you think about it, why would one of the races want to become alfs?  Flying all the time is nice, but unless other powers come with it, that's not a huge lot of incentive to battle through an extremely difficult dungeon, one that reportedly can't be defeated by one race alone.  Also, the original races are themselves pretty cute.  It'd be sad if one of them went away permanently.  Maybe there could be some sort of "alf mode" that gives the winning race powers that can be switched on and off.  Though it seems weird that a member of a race would be rewarded, when it might have been only a small group that actually fought for the prize.

While we're talking about races, they seem to be taken way too seriously in the anime.  It feels like the players need to be told that the races aren't real.  Everyone is expected to be loyal to their race, and defend their king or queen as though they are more than just your average player.  Leafa, a sylph, gets yelled at for abandoning her party and accused of being an anti-sylph renegade.  Kirito, a spriggan, gets referred to as inferior (great, more emo-boy complex fodder) and treated as though spriggans are dirty.  Salamanders are all "bloodthirsty" conquerors.  Apparently the royalty of each race can exile anyone they want out of their race's territory.

Thing is, if this is a game, why would anyone want to seclude themselves by race, particularly when each race has different abilities to bring to the table?  It's like having classes in RPGs: the clerics, warriors, thieves, wizards, etc.  You'll want to bring each one along, because you never know what you might face.  It's silly to have such strong variances between races and then expect them all to stay separate.

Also, why would each race have a player as their royalty?  They're not NPCs -- Leafa refers repeatedly to the leaders of the sylphs and cait sith by their real world names.  It seems like a lot of the game would become consumed in becoming the kings of their races.  Players are independent folk, and play games to escape being told what to do by others.  Of course, if the kings and queens were moderators of some kind, that would work....except attacking other races is apparently part of the game, and the winning race gets massive loot.  Being a mod and attacking other people probably aren't compatible purposes.  Royalty really should be NPCs, ones that constantly give quests to players.

Alfheim is like a really nice table setting.  It's a beautiful setting that creates high expectations, but has nothing on the plates.  The potential was there to turn it into something interesting, but it's just a pretty world where people can fight.

I suppose I might as well talk about the political bunk going on in the game.  It's sort of hard to get straight, as there isn't enough time in half a season to have both a "rescue Asuna" plot and a complex political sabotage plot.  As mentioned before, the viewer only cares about Asuna at this point, not random players in a game with no story-depth.

It goes like this: Sugu's friend Recon noticed that Sigurd, a sylph player in their party, is acting strangely.  He opts to go after Sigurd when Leafa leaves with Kirito to go to the World Tree to go after Asuna.

(I can't believe I'm only thinking of this now, but why does this game not allow teleporting between cities?  Why do Kirito and Leafa have to walk all the way to the town with the World Tree?  If the players have to travel by walking a lot, people would get bored of the game pretty soon.)

Anyway, Sigurd sees Kirito and Leafa leaving, and throws a fit that Leafa is going off with a "dirty spriggan" instead of remaining with the party.  Leafa is put off, not understanding why he suddenly cares so much that she's leaving the party.  The viewer doesn't get it either, except to note that Sigurd is acting suspicious.  Yep, he's definitely a baddie, and Recon discovers that Sigurd is giving information to the salamanders so that they can attack the queens of the sylphs and cait sith while the two parties are having a conference -- because conferences in games are so much fun.

(Now that I'm thinking about it, Recon was distracted by Sigurd's schemes.  How did he make it to the World Tree so quick if there isn't teleporting between cities?  If he had to walk like Kirito and Leafa did, it would have taken him a lot longer.)

Sigurd finds out about Recon, and must know that Recon and Leafa are friends, because he sends twelve players to kill the two of them -- despite the fact that this is a game and sending a message to more or less everyone in the game is easy and fast enough.  Especially since Leafa appears to know the sylph leader.  The battle between Kirito and the salamanders is probably the most boring battle of the series, as it's just magic and Kirito turning into a beast, despite the dubious foreshadowing beforehand, where Leafa says illusion magic is no good for battles.  Only it turns out that illusion magic is good for battles, as the almighty Kirito proves.  Yawn.

The only part I like about this bit is where the two find out about the scheme and Leafa suggests that Kirito should help the salamanders, because that would help him succeed in his goal of storming the World Tree.  I don't know why I like it, but it's a nice moment, one you don't quite expect.  But of course Kirito doesn't betray the sylphs and cait sith -- though now that I think about it, it would have been an interesting use of themes if Kirito did turn against those two races, saying that his real world problem is more important than their in-game one.  Makes sense too, given how obsessed Kirito can get.

But of course he makes it to the conference in time to defeat the salamander general, who honorably decides not to send in his other fighters.  Not sure that's a realistic gamer choice, or if the other players would resist fighting, but whatever.  My real beef with this scene is that Kirito, when he saves the day by himself (again), he gives the queens of the sylphs and cait sith a vast amount of money. So he's been playing the game for about two or three real world days and he's got enough cash to amaze two queens?  Where did that come from?  I know this is based on novels, but come on, novels have time to muck around and explain things.  They don't have to last a specific amount of time.  No anime or movie should include things that they can't explain on screen, even if it was in the book the film is based on.  It'd be easy enough to say that these two races need time to organize armies.

That's right, the sylphs and cait sith were planning on storming the World Tree together, and that's what the conference was all about.  Now they can show up at the exact right time to help Kirito storm a door guarded by a massive amount of baddies.  How convenient.  How boring.  Who cares about any of this?

4. I suppose we have to talk about the sluttery.

The fanservice was pretty subdued in the first half of the series.  Besides two extremely unnecessary butt shots and two girls in underwear, the plot didn't go out of its way to show off too much. Apparently they decided to make up for lost time.  There are very few angles of Leafa where she isn't either showing off her massive rack or her super-tight, white yoga pants.  They're not technically yoga pants, but they have the same effect.

Leafa's real world counterpart keeps up her end too.  She's always wearing short shorts, when she's wearing shorts at all.  Then there's her underwear scene, her shower scene, and her unbuttoned-pajamas-in-front-of-her-brother scene.  Hurl.

Of course the queen of the sylph has a huge rack, and the queen of the cait sith favors the same fabric as Leafa, except only less of it.  And they both want Kirito.  Unnnngh...

And then there's Asuna's repeatedly being felt up by a pervert and his demented tentacle slug characters, all while wearing her napkin dress.  Do I really have to bring up Sugou assaulting her?

Fanservice and nudity are signs that the writers are not only untalented, but lazy.  Well written stories don't have to expose women (or men, while we're at it) just to generate interest in what is going on. Given that this half of the series is a boring mess, it makes sense that they'd go lowest common denominator on this one.

3. Kirito's kinda stupid.

Early on, I had a few "yell at the screen" moments.  For example, Sugou and Asuna's dad walk into Asuna's hospital room while Kirito is visiting.  Sugou talks about wanting to marry Asuna, and yet Kirito doesn't mention that he married Asuna in the game.  While in-game marriage probably isn't legally binding, it's still a choice with emotional consequences for both parties involved.  Don't you think that Asuna's dad would want to know if Asuna considered herself married to someone?

Unfortunately, Kirito's an idiot, so he decides not to tell the dad and maybe stop him from allowing Sugou to have a fake wedding with his comatose daughter.  Um, I know you're an emo kid, Kiri buddy, but it's generally better to have people on your side than otherwise.  Especially when a mofo is messing with your true love.  And by you telling the truth, Sugou might accidentally show his darker side in front of Asuna's dad.

To make it even worse, Sugou mentions that he knows Kirito's user name (I don't use Kirito's real world name in this review because it's almost never said in the anime anyway) in these scene.  Later on, when Kirito enters Alfheim, he keeps the same user name.  This is despite the fact that Sugou has control of the server, and all he has to do is search for someone named "Kirito" and then delete his stats or give players money rewards for repeatedly killing him.  Or maybe Sugou could track the address of Kirito's Netgear and find out where Kirito lives.

In any case, advertising who you are when the guy clearly knows your name is just about as dumb as Frodo telling Sauron that he's going to Mordor to throw the ring in the volcano.  Unless Sugou is even dumber than Kirito, and doesn't think to search the Alfheim server for suspicious activity.

When you think about it, why does Sugou even keep Asuna on a server where she might be spotted by thousands of people?  The entire game of Alfheim seems focused on the World Tree, so wouldn't it be smarter to keep her in a place that nobody's interested in or can attempt to access?  Not just Asuna, for that matter.  By making the World Tree both the focus of the game and the place where he keeps the brains of the 300 mind-controlled players, Sugou ensures that people want to know what secrets the world tree holds, and the likelihood they'll find out about his secret experiments.  It didn't look too hard for Kirito and two races to defeat the quest and find out that the doors on the other side weren't supposed to be opened.  They got it done in one day.  Surely players would have found this out sooner.

It's the story of the dumb leading the stupid, I guess.

And while we're pointing fingers at people, I'm sort of ashamed of Asuna's dad.  Sugou can barely contain his perverted tendencies, so it's pretty stupid of Otou-san not to notice something's messed up with this guy.  Sugou's telling his plans to Asuna, baiting Kirito, and is even willing to stab someone in a parking lot to satisfy his own rage, despite it not doing him any real good.  Surely anyone around this guy can sense the bad vibe coming off him.  The viewer certainly can.  Within the first three lines of Sugou's first appearance, most viewers are likely to think to themselves, "yeah, I bet that's the bad guy."

2. How to fix SAO's Alfheim arc:

Oh, before I mention that, let me say how it all ends: after Kirito gets past the "unopenable" doors, he finds Asuna, but is immediately taken away by Sugou.  Sugou cheats his way into impaling Kirito by means of a super gravity floor, then assaults Asuna while Kirito watches. Unnnngh.  Then Kirito is visited by the ghost of Kayaba Akihiko, who gives our hero the inspiration to win.  Kirito then overcomes the gravity floor (because mind over computers or whatever) and accesses Akihiko's user log-in to obtain ultimate power over Alfheim.  He uses it to eliminate Sugou's pain inhibitors, then brutally slices and beheads Sugou's digital avatar.  He logs Asuna out, then logs out himself and runs to the hospital, where Sugou is waiting in the parking lot with a knife.  Like I said before, this won't help Sugou do anything but make things worse for himself when the cops come a'calling.  It's also a tedious delay until Kirito gets to Asuna, because we all know Mr. Super Fighter is going to win every single time.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that digital ghost Akihiko gives Kirito the world seed, which enables Kirito to not only bring back Aincrad, but have the coding to create any digital world he likes.  Kirito shares this information on the internet, and many vast worlds are created from it.  Then Kirito and friends fly off together to New Aincrad, where they decide they're finally going to go to floor 100 and beat the thing for real this time.

Okay, there we go.  There are things to like and dislike about this ending.  I for one am pretty okay with most of the Kayaba Akihiko parts.  While many people might find it weird that Kirito would want to go back to a place he was trapped in for years and resulted in the deaths of many, this makes perfect sense.  Thing is, we're all just people watching this anime.  We didn't live through what they did, so we don't have a bizarre sense of attachment.  I can't help but compare it to the Gulag Archipelago (because I compare everything to the Gulag Archipelago) and how Solzhenitsyn was not afraid to revisit old prison campsites after his release, and came to accept his time there.

It's much the same with the SAO crowd, presumably.  The philosophy of SAO (as little as there is) says that there's not much difference between the real world and digital ones, because the people within them are the same and have the same emotions.  Whether or not you agree, it's the sort of belief that means anyone following it will have accepted that the years spent in SAO were not lost, because they were spent growing up, making friends, and finding love.  Those same events, more or less, would have happened whether the person was stuck in SAO or not.  Therefore, there's no anger towards SAO despite all that happened there, and also despite the illogic of accepting a place where people died.

Granted, the one problem I find with this is that while Kirito might have come to accept his time there, I don't buy that he would want more people to be sucked into a digital world.  That is, I'm not sure I'm willing to believe he would put the world code on the internet.  Not a major issue, though.

Of course, the bigger trouble with the end is Sugou's assault on Asuna, which should have been cut entirely.  Despite Sugou deserving the brutal digital death his character got, I didn't find that entertaining either.  A man might deserve to be executed, but that doesn't mean I want to watch.

The single biggest flaw in the ending is that it's not worth all the drawn out, boring political stuff and the painfully bad Suguha crush.  Alfheim isn't deep enough, the stakes aren't high enough, Asuna isn't doing enough, and Kirito is too darn powerful.

How do we fix all of this?  Easy, we cut down the focus on Kirito.  First, we make the biggest, most significant change: make Asuna actually escape.  This right there will change the whole arc, and force Kirito to care about more people.

So we have Asuna go through more or less the same as she did originally, except that Sugou doesn't tell her about the mind-controlling.  Seriously, Sugou's worse than a James Bond villain. Instead, Asuna should discover the 300 mind-control subjects during her escape attempt.  That way, when she wakes and is reunited with Kirito, she can tell him what Sugou is up to.  The focus then switches from Kirito finding Asuna to everyone rescuing the subjects.

Sugou, when arrested, engages the protocol that Akihiko had on the servers (because Alfheim is more or less a copy of SAO), which prevents the subjects from logging out and have them die when they die.  The players themselves can still log out, and do, but the test subjects are in too deep to leave. Thus, Kirito and friends (Agil, Klein, Silica, Lizbeth, maybe others) must go in and find the victims, because as experienced gamers with old accounts and good stats, they can make more progress. There can be a couple of episodes where Kirito has to convince others to join him, and while some are eager (Klein, Lizbeth), others are afraid or reluctant.

Asuna, on the other hand, should be someone that Kirito doesn't want to go.  He should tell her that she needs to work on getting her real body to work again, then assign Sugu to watch out for her.  We eliminate Sugu's crush on her brother.  She can be jealous of Asuna, but only in a sisterly way where she's just mad that her brother is still being distracted by the digital world, despite being awake. Sugu doesn't stop Asuna from joining Kirito, and in fact joins the game herself.  Given that Sugu has no stats, it'd be funny if she died. Yeah, I really don't like her.  But I guess she doesn't have to die, if the story can be served with her living.

What should become more apparent in this arc is that the victims of the mind control experiments aren't only being held in capsules, but are being forced into the role of "NPCs" within Alfheim itself. Some of them should even be quest bosses, and Kirito has to realize this before they all kill the boss. There also needs to be a real-world aspect to this arc, where someone, Asuna and Sugu, perhaps, have to find the mind control equipment and destroy it before corrupt government agents (or whoever) attempt to keep it for themselves.

That, however, forces us to have another climax.  Because Sugou is arrested, he can't do anything to Asuna (thank God), and he can't be the final boss.  The final boss should be...three or four of the mind controlled subjects, who have been made to believe they are improved by the mind control, and are willing to fight and die to protect the digital world Sugou has made.  This should prove a direct confrontation with how Kirito feels about digital worlds in general, and can provide some good philosophy.  In the end, it should be not only Kirito, but Asuna, Yui, and all their friends that convince the mind controlled subjects that individual creativity and relationships are what makes any world, digital or real, worth living in.

Eh, maybe that needs some work.  It's just that, this arc was so focused on Kirito, Sugu, and Asuna (which not much on Asuna, admittedly) that I missed seeing characters like Klein and Agil.  If Asuna is in danger, why doesn't Agil step up and help?  Why does he send Kirito alone?  Surely Klein would be willing to help.  I want to see the group dynamic that the Aincrad arc lacked.

Some might argue that reviews shouldn't rewrite the work they're reviewing, but quite frankly, sometimes that's half the fun.  Especially when the story is as bad as this arc.  But if you don't like what I have above, here are just some short points that should have been addressed:

- Increase the number of Aincrad characters participating in Alfheim
- Make it harder for Kirito to win
- Eliminate as much of the in-world Alfheim politics as possible
- Emphasize the story aspects of Alfheim
- Let Asuna actually do something beside being victimized
- Make a better villain than Sugou.
- Cut out the Sugu romance
- Emphasize the mind control plot.

1. This is a slice of the overall anime culture, like it or not.

This is where I have to address the fans and haters of this series alike.  Apparently this show has polarized the anime audience, citing that it is either magnificent or pure crap, depending on what side you're on.

Well, there's some trouble with that.

I'm no anime expert, but I constantly try to find more Japanese cartoons so that I know what to recommend to others.  And you know what? My overall impression with Sword Art Online is not good or bad -- it's typical.  Every single aspect of this show is something that is consistent in Japanese cartoons.  There's the lolis, sexual perversion, violence, bizarre philosophy, meandering plotlines, the blending of cultural mythologies, etc.  All of these are exactly what you get by reading any given manga, or watching any given anime.  It's like Sword Art Online is dehydrated anime, and by adding water, you get other shows. I see in this the quiet nature of Azumanga Daioh, the violence of Rurouni Kenshin, the perversion and mythology of Fushigi Yuugi, and the romance and technological bent of countless other mangas.

Thus, I don't understand how anyone can hate this show and not realize that it's basically a signpost on the edge of anime, declaring "this is exactly what you will get if you watch more Japanese cartoons."  Feel how you want to about this show, but all the elements are there.

In any case, there's a season II of Sword Art Online out there, but I won't be watching it.  I'm just done with this series now.  It's not deep enough to be something worth thinking about, and it's not fun enough to be a simple romp into another world.  As much as I liked the Aincrad stuff,

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go rewatch Season 2 of Project Runway.  I want to have some fun now.

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