Sword Art Online - Part 3 Review

Considering how the first half of the series ended in the last collection, it's kind of hard to write anything at all about Part 3 of Sword Art Online without giving away some major spoilers. Whether you've watched the first two parts or not, the only thing you'll really want to know however is whether the series continues to be worth collecting or not, whether it improves or whether it has just run out of ideas. The short, spoiler-free answer is that it continues very much in the same vein as the first half of the series. That, for me, is a good enough reason to continue with Sword Art Online - Part 3. If however you're expecting the series to build on what has happened before, or maybe even provide some answers, well then you're likely to be disappointed. But it's a little more complicated than that, so please note that the rest of the review below MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS for previous episodes...

It's fairly certain however that if, like me, you were intrigued at the unexpected conclusion to the previous story arc that was reached in episode 14, you'll definitely be watching to see where the series takes the concept next. The concept, for anyone who needs reminding or who isn't particularly bothered about reading potential spoilers (I'll keep it as vague as possible), is that of a fully immersive virtual role-playing game world called 'Sword Art Online'. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the creator of the game, Kabaya Akihiko, ensured that all 14,000 players were locked into the NerveGear headsets and unable to log out. The only way to leave the game was to reach and complete the highest level, but if you happened to die in the process, well, you died in the real world as well.

By episode 14 however, two years down the line with less than 6,000 players left alive (in the real-world presumably as well as the virtual game world), one young player, Kirigaya Kazuto (who plays under the name of Kirito), unexpectedly found a way to end the game and return to the real-world, albeit somewhat battered and profoundly affected by the experience. That's because seemingly the victory also came with the cost of the loss of his closest fighting companion and romantic interest Asuna. With Aincrad, the fantasy virtual world of 'Sword Art Online', now destroyed and with the remaining players rescued from their captivity, one would wonder where the series could possibly go from here.

Well, if you're looking for any kind of explanations or a wider sense of the impact that the game has had on the world, the five episodes in Part 3 of the series provide scant information. What is apparent however is that while most of those, like Kirito, who were locked into 'Sword Art Online' have started to adjust to the real-world after their experience, 300 players still remain in a coma. One of those people, Kirito discovers after extensive tracking down in the real-world, is Asuna, the girl he "married" in the virtual world. In a coma in her hospital bed, Kirito is horrified to find that Asuna, the daughter of the Chief Executive of an important technology and research company connected with SAO and that she is engaged to be married to Sugou, the laboratory chief of the company's research division. Even more shocking, Sugou intends to consolidate his position in the company by marrying Asuna within the week, even in her current condition.

That's the starting point of the new story arc, covered in the first episode here, episode 15. What follows after this however doesn't need going into in any further detail, other than for one important point. Kirito, believing that he has an opportunity of rescuing Asuna from her coma and from her fate to be married to an outright villain, uses his NerveGear to enter another virtual game called ALfheim Online - the Land of the Fairies. Kirito becomes a Spriggan, and enlists the help of a young female Sylph player called Leafa to defeat dragons and evil warriors in enchanted ancient forests, hoping to rescue the maiden who is trapped in the inaccessible heights of the World Tree.

If you weren't convinced by how the first half of the series indulged in standard fantasy role-play gaming for a large part of the storyline, you're not going to be impressed with characters with pointy elf-ears playing through another standard game-play scenario. The fact that there isn't the same risk of real-world death, and that players can log-out at any time, also undoubtedly takes away the edge that was there in the earlier episodes. By the same token however there is clearly more of an effort to link the fantasy world with the experiences of the young players in the real-world. There are still consequences even if it's not death, Kirito observing that "who you are in the Alfheim, you are in the real world". If you're capable of lying, cheating and killing here, it inevitably says something about your true personality. Possibly.

Whether this really has anything important to say about the correlation between real-world and game-world personalities is however slight and debatable. Thankfully, the artwork and animation remains strong and the series can be enjoyed purely on the level of the romantic quest, even if there are a lot of fairytale clichés involved. As if aware that this might not be enough to keep viewers on-board, there are however hints that there is a hidden aim or technological project underlying the ALfheim game (now who do you think might be involved in that...?). Based on the lack of answers provided for the first story arc, I wouldn't hold out hopes of this being explained anytime soon, but then again, if it gave all it answers away this early in the day, you wouldn't keep watching. As it is, I'll be back for Sword Art Online - Part 4.

Sword Art Online - Part 3 is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and as a Blu-ray/DVD Double Play Combi. Whether it was for contractual or commercial reasons (or both), the series has been divided into four parts with no Complete Collection in the near future, making the entire series very expensive to collect on Blu-ray. This third set contains only five episodes (Episodes 15-19) that open the second part of the of the series. On Blu-ray, all five episodes are contained on a single dual-layer BD-50, 1080/24p with an AVC encode. On DVD, the same episodes should also be contained on a single dual-layer DVD-9 (not seen). Only a BD checkdisc of Part 2 was seen for review however, but the set will presumably be region-locked to BD Region B/ DVD Region 2.

Comments on the nature of the image are unchanged from the previous reviews. The quality of the transfer of this 2012 series is, unsurprisingly, fairly impressive in High Definition. Colours are bold and well-defined, brightness and contrast are well-balanced, motion is fluid, with CG effects seamlessly integrated into the animation. There are no evident issues with colour-banding or interlacing, just a clean, sharp, clear and pretty much flawless transfer. It looks great. The DVD wasn't seen this time, but judging from the presentation on the DVD seen for the review of Part 1, the transfer is properly standards converted, 16:9 enhanced and scarcely any less impressive than the Blu-ray transfer really.

The original Japanese audio and the English dub are presented on the Blu-ray disc as LPCM 2.0 (48kHz, 24-bit). On DVD, both are Dolby Digital 2.0. There are no surround tracks on either the BD or DVD. I watched all the episodes in Japanese, as this was my preference with the previous release, but I sampled a few more episodes in the English dub this release and found them to be reasonably good. American voices for girls tend to be a little more 'squeally' though I find. The quality of the both Japanese and English LPCM stereo audio tracks on the BD sound a little bright to me without the LFE channel, but it's strong and clear and really packs a punch with a noticeable increase of volume during the action/battle sequences. It can get very loud very suddenly.

The English subtitles are optional and are in a white font of a good size and readability. As usual, the translation can be a bit stiff and literal in places whereas the English dub adapts it well to make the spoken dialogue a bit more natural, if a little too 'hip' and American.

There's not a great deal of interest in the Extra features. In addition to the expected Textless Opening and Textless Closing there are five web trailers and web clips (cut from the end of episodes 15-19) of forthcoming episodes.

Following on from the completion of the first story arc, one or two threads make their way over into the second half of the Sword Art Online series that opens here in the five episodes that make up Part 3 of the collection. Entering almost without pause into another virtual fantasy world, the series could not only be accused of rehashing the situations of the first half of the series, but also of running through standard game-play scenarios that were never particularly original in the first place. That however would be a matter of opinion, and at the moment, Sword Art Online at least maintains a consistent pace with quality animation, and just enough suggestion and a history of previous episodes that shows that it could still surprise you yet.

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