You’d be surprised to find that, for better or for worse, the overall tone, presentation, and even the characterization of some of the characters, have been changed entirely from episode 14. So different from the episodes that preceded it, the second act of Sword Art Online might as well be a separate anime altogether if not for the cast and some continuity; from the get-go the world of ALfheim differs from Aincrad, in more ways than just the game.
Necessarily, the focal point of the show also shifts focus, from the innocent (yet not so innocent) Kirito-Asuna relationship, to a more complicated one with Suguha in Asuna’s stead, leaving Asuna to assume the role of the damsel in distress. Suguha is completely different from the otherwise immaculate Asuna, and complications arise from the fact that Kirito is committed to Asuna instead of her. Tensions are created, allowing the second act to be driven by more emotionally mature character development, that consequently but not unfortunately, lacks the certain saccharin feel that the original had.
The lack of that sinister aspect of death also means that this second arc is free to adopt a more relaxed posture towards the game. Players that die, get a death penalty that isn’t the death penalty, and the flippant nature of the game certainly leaks into the anime. Other players are killed without the same attention to their implications that SAO had, mainly because there are none. The laid-back tone of the game creates some much needed comic relief, where the complications are softened by the facetious nature of some of the side-arcs. The converse can also be said for its predecessor, where the all too sugary relations are contrasted by the doom-and-gloom of the front lines.
The main conflict of the anime, simply lies in rescuing Asuna along with 300 other captives from the hands of Sugou the game master, or as he’s known inside the game, Oberon the Fairy King, God that sounds terrible. And his personality is just as creepy as his in-game moniker, coupled with the fact that he wants to marry Asuna, and his megalomania, and you get a recipe for a villain that sounds like he belongs to a Disney movie. Though saying that he’s a megalomaniac might not be doing him that much justice, he conducts “unethical” research on the minds of his captives, in order to better understand how to control the emotions of a human being, without having to be Derren Brown. However, the diminished scale of the conflict, loses a sense of the epic that it’s predecessor had in declaring the potential deaths of 10,000 players.
Yet, very little of the in-game world is actually expounded inside the anime, with only 4 of the 9 races inside the game given explicit appearances, or even introductions for that matter. The explanations left for the audience to decipher are vague at best, with talk about “ancient” gear, and elements inside the game that don’t get much more service than a mention. This is contrasted by it’s predecessor which placed much more emphasis on the explanation on how the game works. However, the side-story of resolving a conflict between a few races, does shed some light on how politics and gameplay would function.
There is also, very evidently, much more fanservice here than previously. In SAO, the largest dosage of ecchi you’d have gotten would’ve been that one scene where Asuna assumes too much, a respectably low amount, the same cannot be said about the second act of the series. Strategically placed hair and arms help maintain the PG-13 rating this anime is given, all the while new opportunities to take advantage of the male audience’s affinity to the female form are leveraged, and this is done to all the female characters that have a line in this thing, even the minor ones that appear for only one or two scenes.
It’s almost impossible to judge the two together since they’re so different. Character roles are rearranged, and it almost feels as if the protagonist of this act, is different from the one we witnessed earlier. In the end, the second act, is less flushed out in story and world as it’s precursor, but it’s focus on a character-driven storyline gives it a more mature feel, sometimes negated by the ever-recurring flippant fanservice scene.
Usually an anime parts with some depression; that the treasured universe and characters you’ve devoted yourself to for the last few hours, have all but come to an end. SAO signs off with on a much different note, not the usual march into the oblivion of a sunrise that so many are so guilty of, but instead, an “I’ll be back”, hinting of sorts to a second season. Given the popularity of the anime, and the LN, it seems only a matter of time, before Asuna’s dulcet tones find their way into the mouth of Tomatsu Haruka.