What They Say:
It’s been 2 years since the players of Sword Art Online have been trapped in this life-or-death adventure. As Kirito and Asuna get closer, Asuna starts to want distance from the Knights of the Blood, but her wish does not come easy. Kirito challenges Heathcliff to a duel to win Asuna’s freedom but is no match for him and Kirito ends up joining the Knights of the Blood himself. The Assault Team launches an attack on the 75th floor boss, but they find the Skull Reaper to be an extremely tough foe! Meanwhile, Kirito begins to feel suspicious of Heathcliff’s actions…
The audio presentation here is one that has both language tracks but they’re not created equal unfortunately. The original Japanese language track is done in the uncompressed PCM format so we get the stereo mix in a very strong and clear manner here that sounds great and definitely conveys some solid warmth and overall forward soundstage directionality and depth. The English mix is stereo as well, but it’s encoded with the lossy Dolby Digital codec at 640kbps, which is certainly above the max that DVD can do, but it’s not what you expect from a Blu-ray release. It’s certainly a serviceable mix and it gets the job done and a lot of people will be hard pressed to find a difference, but it’s the kind of choice that for marketing reasons alone seems like a bad one to make. The mix does the same work as the Japanese mix and the dub is solid itself and both tracks come across clean and clear and we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally airing in 2012, the transfer for this series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The seven episodes in this collection are spread across two discs with four on the first and three on the second and extras mixed across both of them. Animated by A1 Pictures, the show has a gorgeous look that wowed me during the simulcast and it only looks ever so much better here. Colors are rich throughout with a solid and deep palette that’s used whether it’s the dark night scenes or interiors as well as the lush exteriors. Detail is well handled with crisp lines where appropriate and no problems such as line noise or breakup along it. The transfer here captures the source material in a way where there’s nothing to really find fault with during regular playback and it just allowed me to be sucked into this fully realized world in an engaging way.
The packaging for this limited edition release is really very good and definitely has a particular feel about it. The heavy chipboard box uses a different kind of soft wrap paper around it that gives it a great texture that shows through with the artwork. The front of the box has a great image of most of the lead characters, excluding Kirito which is a nice change of pace, and with the black and blues of the background and the detail character artwork, it just looks striking. The back of the box under the glued on insert is kept simple with some nice edging to it and Kirito’s sword through the center in the same gold line work. Inside the box we get a number of things, including two clear Blu-ray cases. The set includes a sealed one-sheet from Bushiroad that has a special edition Sword Art card (which will never be used by me!) as well as a great seven card postcard set made from a solid glossy stock that’s really appealing. We also get an illustration booklet that’s fairly short overall but has some great full color images from the limited edition Japanese releases as well as magazine spreads.
The two clear Blu-ray cases are nicely laid out where each case has a good cover showing off the The Blu-ray disc case has a full cast image here that’s done really well with its white borders and detailed artwork while the second case, which holds the bonus DVD, gives us a very cute image of Yui. The main case has artwork on the reverse side with a full color spread of the proto-family that develops here which is pretty cute. Both cases use artwork on the reverse side with a two panel spread showing off the locales, with the main case giving us a piece showing Aincrad from afar while the bonus disc case has a very soft and nicely done image of the forest house that the main couple reside in.
The menu design for this release is quite nicely done as it has the logo moving through the background with a dark look to it that works nicely in blending it in. The foreground brings in different character combinations for each volume with the first one giving us the expected and welcome Kirito and Asuna combination. The logo is kept simple along the top with the Japanese and English versions of it and the movement throughout the menu sets the tone right. Navigation along the bottom feels “Japanese traditional” in a way where it’s just straight linework boxes with black and blue with white text that makes it easy to read and navigate. Submenus load quickly and easily and languages can be configured how you want with subtitles and subtitles+text available.
The extras for this release are really good and have a lot of fun associated with them. The standards are certainly here as we get the clean ending for the first season and the web previews for the upcoming episodes. The Sword Art Offline specials are here and they run about eleven minutes each and provide comical recaps of events in the series itself as a news program of sorts. There are also commentary tracks by the original Japanese team, both cast and creators, which are fun to listen/read as they talk about their time on the show, the relationships of the characters and the settings. They are similar to most other commentaries of course in that there’s a lot of fluff, but having the leads for some of it really helps to make it fun.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The Aincrad season of Sword Art Online was something that I had initially marathoned back after it had just aired and I completely fell in love with it. Revisiting the first seven episodes in the previous collection worked to establish the foundations of the series and to reconnect with it in a new light, though I can’t say the split was one that I really wanted to have. With the second set here, what we get is the half of the first season that’s far more focused on character building and relationship building, all while hurtling quickly towards a significant boss fight that changes the course of the series. As much as I enjoyed the first half, the second half of this part of the season is just as important with what it does because in the end, it really made me character about the characters. Which certainly isn’t easy at times since we get such a fractured view of their lives as time passes in the real world and in the game here.
With it now having been two years since the game started and the ten thousand players got stuck in it, several thousand have died both here and in the real world. Progress is definitely helping to further the goals of the players as they’re moving further and further up in the floors and clearing more of them. The number of people participating is dwindling a bit, though more from attrition due to simply being tired of the fight rather than losses through the bosses. In fact, we learn along the way, that it’s been several floors of boss fights that have gone on without any losses. But there are people that aren’t good at fighting that have done well to integrate themselves into the NPC society and do things and to help others progress, providing funds and other necessary items. It’s not a fully fleshed out PC world in many ways, but it tries to hit some of those things.
While these events fill in the background as the arc works along, the majority of the focus is on that of Kirito and Asuna. Kirito has come a long way as a beater to be sure, and his drive to fight alone is still there after what he lost before with a previous party. But he also has a bit of luck in catching a critter in the woods that’s very rare and very tasty, and this leads him back into Asuna’s life for a bit since she’s maxed out that skill and really wants to sample it. The two have had a relationship since very early on in the virtual world here, but with this part of it, they start to get closer. She’s ended up high in the Knights of the Blood Oath and that causes some friction since she’s very friendly with Kirito, but it works well in the end because the two of them grow closer. Events turn particularly dangerous at one point which leads to the two of them actually leaving the guild for awhile to shack up together. And not just because, but because there are real feelings here that developed over time. The downside is that we don’t get to see the natural progression, but it hits the right notes for me to allow them to spend a few weeks living in a wedded bliss together that’s very, very heartwarming to see.
For me, the whole experience of the two here is something that works in a way that fits into the show just right. I can certainly understand those who just wanted the MMORPG elements dealt with here as they all work to clear floors, but with it progressing in real-time in the game, it’s only natural that relationships would develop and that there would be some real emotions involved. I used to be one of several DM’s in a text based game like this back in the mid 90’s and the number of relationships, characters and real emotions from there that developed was amazing to see. So many of these people had relationships that extended into the real world and reinforced the game that even twenty years later, it’s great to see how it impacted them and drew them together. So having that element here, which is so often plainly ignored in series that work along this line really resonates for me. And that it doesn’t dwell on the chase for the whole thing but rather makes the commitment that they make a central part of it, which will dominate the second half of the series as a whole, is critical.
The controversial part of this set, which I again fully understand, involves how the final episode or so plays out as the guild grabs as many people as possible to go against a new boss that is hugely powerful. It’s a good moment that can certainly set up the second half of the series to go in a particular way with more floor clearing and more character time, but it pivots in a very unexpected way and cuts the storyline short compared to what you expect it to be. And that was a great thing for me to see, but also goes back again to my own time in running adventures where the unexpected brings a great deal of life to it. The twists in the final episode of this set, the revelations and the way the cast reacts to it is wonderful and really does leave you desperately wanting to see what’s next.
While I watch a whole lot of anime, I do find over the seasons and years that there are very few shows that I really get all fanboyish about. And even that is very tame compared to what I see elsewhere. Sword Art Online did so much right that I enjoy that it really is a series that I felt was simply a joy to watch. With beautiful animation, great characters in personality and design and story elements that clicked perfectly for me with the progression of time, relationships and identities that it simply engrossed me more and more as it progressed. You can feel as a part of this world as the characters do, and that’s one of the central themes that emerges as it moves on here. For Kirito and then Asuna, they have the end goal, but they also know that the time here is precious and must be lived. It may not be the “real” world, but it is real time for them and that slight tweak to how they perceive the world makes all the difference in how they live and survive. I love just about every aspect of this set and am already getting the urge to rewatch it all once again.
Japanese PCM 2.0 Language, English Dolby Digital 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Trailer, First Season Textless Closing, Audio Commentary by Creators and Japanese Cast, Special Animation “Sword Art Offline,” Original Web Previews
Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A- (Japanese) B- (English)
Video Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: A-
Released By: Aniplex USA
Release Date: September 17th, 2013
Running Time: 175 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation 3 via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.