The race to save Asuna is on, but the one who may be hurt the most is Suguha.
What They Say:
Kirito and Leafa have finally reached Central Arun, the largest city in Alfheim by the foot of the World Tree. Kirito is determined to face the dangers of the Grand Quest to rescue Asuna. With the support of the Sylphs and the Cat Sidhes, will Kirito save Asuna in time or will he be crushed by Oberon’s evil plans?!
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 six episodes in this collection are spread across two discs with three 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 very good image to it as we get a lot of the supporting cast of characters from within Alfheim against a minimal dark blue sky. There’s a lot of variety here from the different races and what they represent and the details are pretty good. 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 blue foil 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 six 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 booklet included has a lot of great artwork to it from various home video covers and magazine spreads and is a bit more about Kirito and Asuna which works really nicely, especially from the epilogue material.
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 good image of Asuna in her captured state with Kirito in the background and a sense of dread about it that sets the tone nicely. The back cover is definitely a lot more upbeat as we get a lot of the survivors of Aincrad and people from Alfheim as well with lots of smiles that shows how the relationships have grown and changed. The second case is for the second soundtrack which has a striking cover for just a background as it shows off Aincrad in a great way in front of the moon with it glowing strongly. The back cover is simple as it has a breakdown of the tracks by number and title for the soundtrack. Each case has some very welcome background pieces to it in full color showing off a couple of locales for Alfheim Online.
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 included 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)
Sword Art Online draws to a close with this set as we get the final six episodes of the Alfheim Online arc. The show is one that definitely has a different feeling to it compared to the Aincrad arc because of the way that death isn’t real here and the threats aren’t the same. It also had the problem of how other than Asuna, the main characters could move between the game world and the real world. That removed a lot of the tension and also removed the way that the bonds between characters could be grown since they aren’t really all in it together. The tasks of the cast also feel a bit truncated here in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish as some of the events unfold, but in the end it’s not really about the game here. And it’s not about the players either. It’s about the core trio of Kirito, Asuna and Suguha. And that has a lot of good value to it.
The game side of the show is dealt with here early on since we have the way Kirito and Leafa are making their way to the World Tree but getting caught up in a few other things along the way. Some of that was seeded early on with the Salamander group that Kirito was involved with and we get Kirito caught up in a situation that could cause the various races to go to war. While I would have loved to have seen this explored in a lengthier way similar to what we had in Aincrad, there’s not the time here to do it. And honestly, without the motivation of them being trapped in the game, it becomes just that – a game. And I can’t find the emotional investment in it. What allows it to work and work well is that it’s more about what Kirito is capable of as a player in trying to defuse the situation through his confident and slightly cocky manner. That it turns into a fight isn’t a surprise, but it is a surprise to see just how much natural gameplay talent he has in this kind of situation and the way he’s seemingly enjoying being able to cut loose. It’s not that he’s full of pent up issue energy with it but rather just the thrill of the game, something he’s forgotten about over the years in Aincrad.
Naturally, all of this will play into events later and it’s easy to see how, but that’s just a given. Where the show spends a lot of its focus is on the actual events at the World Tree as Kirito makes his way there at last and Yui senses that Asuna is near. It’s here that the real thrust of the season is made clear as Kirito is pretty much driven beyond words from this point on to get her back. He knows the stakes in the real world to what’s going on and he knows what Sugou is up to when it comes to her in this realm. But knowing that she’s close, the bond they forged in Aincrad is proven to be quite real. There’s always that concern among some people, especially those that have never forged a real online relationship, as to how real the whole thing is. Kirito’s expressions make it clear that he is truly in love with her and will go to the end of multiple worlds to save her. It’s a great series of events that unfold from it as we learn the dangers of the World Tree quest, the reality of what the admins have done and the resulting fight with the main villain. It is admittedly in a lot of ways a pro forma exercise, but the execution is spot on and the time spent over the whole series with Asuna and Kirito is what drives it and makes it exciting, especially when it transitions into the real world.
The women in Kirito’s life are a big part of what’s defining this arc and I really liked how it all plays out. A good chunk of it deals with the problems Suguha is facing in letting go of her (not) brother and realizing she has feelings for Kirito, which of course is a tragic little situation when the reality of it is settled. Especially since she sees how committed Kirito is to Asuna in the real world and connects it at last in the game world. Suguha is a good character that doesn’t get the time she really needs here, but her troubles provide some good drama to the show and I enjoyed seeing how she ended up stronger at the end. Similarly, I really, really enjoyed the prologue episode here that deals with events after the ALO adventure is done as we see what’s going on with Asuna and Kirito. The real world side of it is something that could easily support an interesting slice of life show on its own, but mostly it just reinforced how well paired these two are and that their relationship was able to survive the transition to reality. And that those who came from Aincrad have a bond that will transcend the game and into other ones.
The second half of this series is one that gets a fair bit of grief from a lot of people and I can certainly understand why. For me, both in simulcast form and in these sets, it provides a good balance to what the first half was all about. Whereas that was the life or death reality of the game and the kinds of intense bonds that can be formed through them, here we see whether they can survive the test of reality. There’s some creepy stuff going on with what the villain of the arc is up to and some good if mostly harmless when you get down to it. While some of the story material could benefit from a few extra episodes, it’s all about the short period of time everything has to happen in. This arc gives me some great closure for Kirito and Asuna’s relationship (while leaving me wanting more) and the relationship between Kirito and Suguha. Everyone has been impacted by what Kayaba did with Sword Art Online and this is all about surviving it and making it a positive part of your life rather than it controlling you.
Japanese PCM 2.0 Language, English Dolby Digital 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Second Season Textless Opening, 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: November 19th, 2013
Running Time: 150 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.