Anime Reporter hits refresh and once more loads up Sword Art Online for Part 3 (episodes 15 – 19) of the series. If, for some reason, you haven’t seen the first two parts (reviewed here: Part1 and Part 2) then you should A) watch them immediately and B) stop reading now. Seriously.
Still with us?
Excellent! When Part 2 finished up (as if you could forget that!) Kirito had vanquished the insane mind behind SAO and, along with thousands of other players, awoken to find himself rather the worse for wear after two years in a hospital bed. Now, just one episode later, he’s been awake for two months and is adapting with some difficulty to life in the real world. His adopted sister, Suguha, aids him somewhat, though Kirito remains distant to the world at large.
Making matters much, much worse is the fact that Asuna, along with hundreds of other players, remains trapped inside her Nerve Gear helmet, unable to wake. Even more disturbing is the fact that, even in her comatose state, Asuna is due to be effectively married to Nobuyuki Sugou (voiced by Shaman King’s Takehito Koyasu in Japanese and Fairy Tail’s and Blood-C’s Todd Haberkorn in English), a slimy individual who openly admits to Kirito that Asuna hated him while she was awake and would never agree to marry him. Worse still, Nobuyuki forbids Kirito from visiting Asuna in the hospital any further and cruelly invites him to their wedding ceremony, in just one week’s time.
Crushed, Kirito is set to give up until a familiar face informs him that Asuna may well be alive inside another game: Alfheim Online.
Unlike SAO, this game focuses more on magic than weaponry and players take the forms of different races of fairy, complete with functional wings and spell casting abilities. Kirito re-enters the world of Nerve Gear once more in the hope of rescuing Asuna. There, unlike in SAO, Kirito is faced with the challenges of being a newb in a world filled with more experienced players. As he’s been out of the loop for two years and AO has been running for one of those years, he’s well behind on the learning curve for being a fairy. Enter Leafa (voiced by Ayana Taketatsu in Japanese and Cassandra Morris in English, both from K-On!), an experienced young player, happy to show Kirito the ropes on everything from how to get around, info on the different types of fairies and, very importantly, how to fly.
Adjusting to life with wings isn’t Kirito’s only problem however. In SAO, all the players were trapped together and most worked for their common goal of escape. In Alfheim Online, Kirito is the only one playing for real-life stakes and to everyone else he’s just a competitive player and rival. This means that Kirito doesn’t just have to face down computerised monsters, but hordes of resentful gamers too. Although dying in this game won’t kill Kirito in real life, there is still a very strong element of tension as only days remain before Asuna’s life is tethered to Nobuyuki’s in the real world.
In terms of animation, not much has changed from previous episodes. Characters still look stunning and battle is, as always, a pleasure to watch. The biggest difference is the more frequent use of magic than in SAO and players’ wings, both of which are elegantly utilised and well crafted.
As Part 3 spends a lot of time setting the scene for Alfheim Online, the action is less immediate than in previous parts, with Kirito spending a fair amount of time learning the mechanics of his new game. Luckily, his experiences as a gamer have made him a quick learner and it’s soon time to see the black swordsman doing what he does best. The action and battle scenes, when they do arrive, are very satisfying, well worth the little bit of a wait.
Part 3 of SAO offers a little bit more characterisation and shows Kirito in a new light. His struggle with reality is obvious from the beginning and it’s easy to empathise with his loss of all his in-game skills and abilities. We’re also given a few glimpses of other characters in the world of Alfheim Online who will hopefully be given more depth and focus in Part 4. In earlier episodes, characters did what they had to in order to survive but now every choice that Kirito makes is made with the understanding that he could give up and go home any time he chooses to. While he is ultimately searching for Asuna, his first steps into AO seems a little caught up in the wonder and magic of the new game and removes some of the tension that would be expected in his rescue mission. Despite this, in his very first moments back in Nerve Gear, Kirito demonstrates that he’s no less the hero he was in earlier episodes, going out of his way to be a virtuous person.
It is not easy to remove life and death stakes and yet somehow make your character seem all the more heroic for it, but that is absolutely the case here. Truly great storytelling.
Sword Art Online is available on DVD from Manga Entertainment now!
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80% – Bring on Part 4!
Sword Art Online Part 3 is a well crafted intro to a new gaming world with plenty of the characters and action that made the first two parts such a great experience.