Sword Art Online: Episode 17

Recap: Leafa/Rifa/Lyfa explains how Alfheim Online works to Kirito, and promises to help him in his quest.

Iro’s Thoughts:
After the frankly garbage last episode, this episode gets back to about the only thing SAO is actually decent at: building the setting. That said,  it does this by literally having Leafa sit Kirito down and spend ten minutes explaining things to him, making for a very boring, tiresome episode. In short, there are seven different fairy factions (so, character classes) in ALO competing to reach the top of Yggdrasil, at which point the winning group gets the ability to fly indefinitely as opposed to on a cooldown. Of course, it’s not like any of it matters, since Kirito’s only there to reach the top to save Asuna.

Speaking of Asuna, where before she was supposedly one of the top players in SAO, she is now reduced to a damsel in distress, sitting in a cage waiting to be rescued by her TWU WUV and being repeatedly harassed by Sugou. Not to say that she isn’t trying to escape on her own, as she clearly is spending time memorizing the keycode to her cage, but she won’t end up doing anything meaningful other than opening doors – Kirito will be doing most of the legwork. As for Sugou, no effort is put into making him more than a Saturday morning cartoon villain – he gleefully explains his eeeevil plot right down to the methods he used.

Lastly, we also have the reveal-that-was-obvious-two-episodes-ago that Leafa/Lyfa/Imouto is, in fact, Suguha! And what a surprise, she wants to bang Kirito in both the real and virtual worlds, because there just aren’t enough little sister animes out there for Reki Kawahara.

Dragonzigg’s Thoughts:
This is a solid episode, and a much better one than the last one because it concentrates on the greatest strength SAO possesses, namely the detail and texture of the world the story is set in.  Granted, there’s probably a little too much sit-down-and-spew exposition but it’s mostly interesting stuff that does a good job in distinguishing the differences between SAO and ALO. It’s helped along by some lovely art and animation in the first half of this episode. I’m a big fan of the slightly more organic design of ALO as opposed to the traditional high fantasy of SAO and A1 do a very nice job of sketching out the leafy vales and floating islands (and the big, BIG moon!) that give the world it’s unique flavour. I’m also a big fan of the unique design of the city of Sylvian, which was very striking. Though it may seem like a small addition, the flying really does open up the movement of the characters a lot more and that combined with the removal of the omnipresent permadeath threat makes this feel like a lighter, slightly more whimsical version of the premise, though there is definitely a potential loss of drama associated with that.

I’m a little less enamoured of the final part of this episode, which catches up with Asuna and her erstwhile captor, languishing as she is in a literal gilded cage hanging from the World Tree.  It’s visually a very powerful and clever bit of imagery, but it’s  disappointing to see Asuna, who was not perfect but at her best was a strong, proactive female character, be reduced to passivity like this. There’s a worrying lack of spirit or fight in her – where’s the angry slap or the barbed words towards Sugou, who has become the game equivalent of the guy who tries to sex teenagers on Chatroulette? I get that making your villain a creepy borderline rapist is an easy way to make him hateable, but it’s also a lazy way and I’d prefer a little more nuance. Likewise, his motivation being revealed as money is sort of anticlimactic, especially after the actually quite exciting reveal that he has the ability to brainwash people with the game. Kayaba’s aim was less easily definable, but had the added advantage of poignancy, whereas this just seems a little run-of-the-mill. I do like that Asuna has clearly not given up entirely, eyeing up the combination for a possible escape (Why bother with a combination lock if you’re basically an in-game god and can presumably will doors in and out of existence?). But her anguished squeak for Kirito as she’s left alone does not leave me with much hope that she’ll be treated with much dignity in this arc, although I do hope I’m wrong.

There’s also one of my lingering nitpicky concerns with the fabric of the fiction to address – Leafa mentions that ALO is a year old, which means that people were playing this game at the same time SAO still players permanently trapped in a coma. Even if you take into account the possibility that nobody knew the servers were cloned from SAO, this still seems a remarkably stupid thing to do, submitting yourself to technology which was actively proved to be potentially lethal. Yes, I know the AmuSphere is meant to be more secure than the NerveGear, but it’s still a game which takes over your higher brain functions. I’d like to meet the marketing guy who though ‘Hey, all those people in comas will be the perfect promotion for our new game based on basically the same idea!’ (Iro’s Note: literally the same code) Hardly a shattering blow to the show’s credibility but still one that eats away at the already strained premise.

Sword Art Online continues to be a fascinating experiment, one which delights and confounds with wild swings in quality and content. This was a stronger episodes, but also one which failed to assuage my continuing worries about certain parts of the show. As our quest for Yggdrasil begins in earnest next week, I’ll be watching with interest.

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