I can’t believe it’s been over 2 years since season 2 of Sword Art Online finished airing; fans have been waiting for new animation to be released and we get that in the form of a film this year! I don’t really post anime reviews in general but I feel confident enough to put forward my opinion on the Sword Art Online series as I have read most of its material (including all the main light novels and some of the side story light novels). I’ve decided to split my review into a spoiler free section (to help those who want to make an informed decision about whether to watch this movie or not), and an in-depth section with spoilers to engage those who want to analyse the intricate details behind the movie and the series in general.
Kirito and his friends get involved in an Augmented Reality (AR) MMORPG called “Ordinal Scale” (think Pokemon Go crossed with Sword Art Online) using a new AR device called “Augma”. But mysteries begin to unfold when bosses from the old Aincrad (the original world of SAO) appear in Ordinal Scale, and the former SAO players start being targeted by a mysterious figure…
What is it?
“Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale” is a film which follows the events depicted in Sword Art Online II and before the events in the Alicization arc. The film, in my opinion, caters best to an audience who have paid close attention to the events which unfold in both seasons of the anime, as many of the plot points from the anime are further developed in the film. Viewers who did not pay close attention to the anime or simply forgot most of the minor details which took place can still enjoy the film, but may be confused at small snippets which refer to something raised in earlier in the anime.
The animation quality in the film is absolutely stunning! They have really put a lot more effort into the battle scenes and animating that with a lot more detail (perhaps due to having a larger budget for it). There are flashbacks depicting familiar scenes from the anime, and other non-action scenes which are animated similar to the anime series. I suppose there was no reason to use high grade animation for simple scenes like that, but it’s a bit of a shame that they didn’t also consider enhancing some of the familiar scenes from the anime. The colours remain just as vibrant and bring to life the rich fantasy elements of the SAO series, making it very visually appealing. Once again, what seems to shine through in this film are the battle scenes, which are a lot more complex compared to the battles in the anime series.
The new soundtrack for the film gives a nice refreshing ambience which hopefully gives viewers something new to appreciate (other than “Swordland” – the popular background track most viewers will remember SAO by). Something new they’ve done in this film is the introduction of a new character who sings a few pop songs (performed by artist Sayaka Kanda) to augment the Ordinal Scale game. The addition of this pop music adds a new layer to accommodate the action that is happening on screen. The sound effects are more or less the same as from the anime series, but I found them to be much more engaging – perhaps that was due to watching the film in a proper cinema this time.
One more note I forgot to add the first time round is how Kajiura Yuki’s (the artist behind all the SAO soundtracks) composition of one of the songs in this film, “longing”, is very similar to “to the beginning” (Fate/Zero 2nd opening) by Kalifina – Kajiura composed both songs. It was very strange getting the feels for Fate/Zero from watching an SAO film – but I personally think it would totally work to have Kirito appear as part of the Saber class and reveal his dual-wielding skill as his Noble Phantasm or something. Anyway back on topic.
Kirito and his friends return, each of them developing their characters a little more. Kirito and Asuna take the lead in this film (as expected), but Reki also does a good job showing development in these two characters and their relationship (no spoilers). The remaining cast play good supporting roles in the film (similar to how they are portrayed in the anime). Although it has always been a shame (in my opinion) for Reki to not focus too much on the rest of the characters, I do kindly respect his decision to focus more on Kirito and Asuna (a lot more on Kirito, I should say) and therefore provide a much higher quality portrayal of their characters and their growth.
The new characters (as featured in the trailer – Yuna, Eiji and Dr Shigemura) help create a lot of depth in the themes and ethics which Reki Kawahara wanted to raise. Whilst their characters are not too well developed throughout the film, there is enough of a backstory to each of the new characters such that they do a good job in revealing another aspect of the death game, SAO.
The voice acting is just as captivating as in the anime; the strong cast of voice actors (including the new characters) definitely continue to bring Reki’s imaginative world to life.
Reki brings to the stage another great plot, looking into a new aspect of the aftermath of the SAO incident. It definitely brings back a lot of the nostalgia of the original SAO which should be a great appeal to viewers who have long since gotten a bit tired of all the other games Reki has been writing about (ALfheim Online, Gun Gale Online, and now Ordinal Scale). Bringing the plot back to “that death game” allows us to re-live what we’ve already seen in the anime, but also wonder about the various untold stories that happened during the two years when players were trapped in SAO. This movie plays upon and reveals more aspects of the game we’ve been curiously dying for.
There are a number of aspects of the plot which were not done too well, but all of those are minor technical details which will be discussed in the spoiler section below. Some of this relates to the film’s consistency with the rest of the Sword Art Online timeline, which Reki has (in my opinion) struggled to implement well. This is understandable given that the events in the movie take place between the end of Mother’s Rosario (end of season 2) and the start of the next arc (which is meant to take place a few months later), so it is a bit hard to accept the state of the universe as what the film presents. But if you ignore all that (or just simply aren’t aware of it) then you won’t lose your sense of imagination in the film.
Overall, the film is sure to be a great hit for all Sword Art Online fans. The animation is definitely the strongest aspect of the film and the plot will definitely make fans yearn for the next instalment in the series. For viewers who are new to the series, the flashiness of the film will hopefully spark a curiosity to watch the first season to figure out the preluding story to all that happens in the film. The film definitely creates a lot more hype for the (what seems to be more or less confirmed) next season of Sword Art Online.
My rating: 9/10
I’d give a 10/10, but for fear of having my own favourable biases towards the series, I’m subtracting a mark for some of the imperfections the film portrays in its plot.
Below is the in-depth review with spoilers so please turn back if you don’t want any spoilers on the film.
For this in-depth review I’ll use everything we see in the film and cross reference as much as I can remember from the anime (up to the end of season 2) and the light novel (up to the end of “Mother’s Rosario”). I will also make references to Aliicization, the next arc, but given that it is published in Japan only (and not localized officially in English yet) I won’t reveal any spoilers about it.
I think the first thing that comes to mind about the film is WHEN it is set, towards the end of April 2026. Mother’s Rosario ends around early April 2026 (whilst the plot in Alicization starts about 4 months later in August 2026). It is a bit hard to imagine how the Augma device has suddenly become so widespread in the real world so soon after the Death Gun incident in GGO and all the side stories which take place after that. It’s like augmented reality came out of nowhere and became a “thing” – kind of like…Pokemon Go. But more than just using augmented reality in a mobile game, Augma had become a tool which everyone used to gather rewards points to redeem rewards and also sending messages and such – it really does remind me of the device in Accel World (written by the same author) and how it gets used to augment the daily tasks of each person.
Bear in mind that Reki wrote the plot for the film after the events in the light novel (the rest of the light novel had technically been “written” already even if he hadn’t published it at the time he started writing the plot for the film – hint: web novel). And seeing how Reki is working on additional content to build upon the SAO universe (ie. The Sword Art Online: Progressive series) I can understand that Reki simply just wanted to “insert” a plot somewhere in the timeline he had already created. Perhaps he didn’t have much of a choice as to where he could insert the story – season 2 of the anime had just finished, and he hadn’t quite finished publishing the rest of the light novels, if he were to promise a new story he probably would have to insert it in the 4 month period I mentioned above. Nevertheless it is an awkward point in the timeline for him to insert what happens in the film and so I find it hard to accept it as “canon”.
Ordinal Scale and the Suspension of Disbelief
Can’t believe I would be using a term we learned in English class, but the whole AR game “Ordinal Scale” really highlights upon an important aspect of Reki’s writing style, which perhaps gets understood by many people who watch Sword Art Online and review it negatively. Ordinal Scale is an AR game which overlays game graphics onto your physical surroundings, and players move about in a deft fashion (or stand completely still) to combat monsters in the game. As cool as the concept of the game sounds, the world of the viewers has already been tainted by a similar AR experience – Pokemon Go. It’s so easy to draw upon our experience of something like Pokemon Go (and the crap that Niantic did with the game) and portray that perspective onto Ordinal Scale.
To spell it out, we would imagine that Ordinal Scale is a game concept that just wouldn’t work in reality. How can you expect entire zones of a city (roads and buildings included) to be cleared of all normal activity so that a bunch of gamers can come and play an AR game? That would be way too disruptive to society – and we’ve seen Pokestops removed from Pokemon Go for this very reason. We see one instance in the film where Kirito goes off chasing a ghost of Yuna, which ends in him tumbling out of some bushes in the middle of nowhere, and confronted by a police officer who asks if he is okay. This does hint at how dangerous AR games can be (in the hands of irresponsible people) who would go chasing things in the game without any concern for their actual surroundings and their safety almost like…Pokemon Go (think of the people who have gotten themselves hurt or killed from playing the game, in all sorts of crazy ways).
In order for us to accept the way the Ordinal Scale game is, we really have to suspend our disbelief and appreciate the imagination that Reki is creating – much like the rest of Sword Art Online and Accel World. It’s very easy to take the games played in SAO and the events which unfold and compare them to something similar to the real world (other MMOs for example) and judge the series by saying “oh, that’s so unrealistic, in a REAL MMO this would never happen”. But the point is that everything in this series and even in this film is NOT REAL. You’ll find yourself enjoying Reki’s work if, like with most other anime, you let yourself be taken away by the imagination. If you want to want something more down to earth then watch the abridged series.
But my point here is that the game wouldn’t make sense in the real world, but it definitely is a great concept that Reki came up with. It’s just hard to separate our imagination with Ordinal Scale with the terrible experience which was Pokemon Go (mobile AR games have been set back a few years because of Niantic’s poor execution).
One simple yet creative idea Reki brings into the film (which adds to the lore of the SAO universe) is the introduction of the Ordinal System. This is meant to be in complete contrast to the Cardinal System (which pretty much every other game in the SAO universe is built upon). The idea is executed well but a bit too simplistic and unreal (yes, I know, suspension of disbelief), no real life game would ever implement something as imbalanced as an ordinal system. Explained in more detail here
(http://sao-movie.net/us/special/report/dengeki-fes-2016/) the Ordinal System sets the stats of each player based on their ranking relative to other players. That means in order to get stronger, you have to rank above other players primarily through defeating other players in PvP. A system like this makes for a good plot in a film but viewers from a gaming background will know that this would create an imbalanced. I’m thinking Reki would’ve considered this in his script writing but realized there probably wasn’t time to convey this point in the film.
Let’s talk about the new characters for a moment. Yuna is graphically well designed and brings with her an ensemble of vocaloid-style pop music, an addition to the series we haven’t seen before (but that’s because in a light novel there is no music). The whole singing/music thing does remind me of Angel Beats where I feel the music adds only flavour but nothing for the plot. It is a nice addition nonetheless and gives the film a different feel to the anime in terms of the soundtrack.
As a character, Yuna adds a new dimension to the style of imagination which Reki excels at – and that revolves around the plot of trying to restore her (soul) through the memories of the remaining SAO survivors. It’s a new concept never seen before in anime, but readers of the light novels will see that this is a recycled idea (no spoilers here). I will say that Reki has done a good job in portraying this concept better than how he originally wrote it in the light novels and it does make for a very strong plot.
We’re not told what sort of player Yuna was, or how she died in SAO, but I guess we do know that she probably went with a Bard-style build, and this does fit with the whole pop-style music her Ordinal Scale counterpart displays (though perhaps from a completely different musical genre). We are made to wonder again whether we see the “real” Yuna at all during the film – through all the appearances she makes to Kazuto, through the way her father dismisses her pleas to stop the memory extraction program as simply a malfunction of an incomplete AI, and also through her short appearance as a shield bearer towards the end of the film. That last point about her appearing with a large shield during the stadium scene is a little confusing as this is quite unlike how her character is displayed in the flashbacks. I’m not here to answer the question of “what was Yuna really like?” because I think Reki captures my attention by making me wonder how many memories it takes to inject into a computer to simulate who Yuna really is (think Kayaba Akihiko and how he “injects” his consciousness into the virtual world after the end of the SAO arc).
Sadly, because we don’t really get much of a backstory to Yuna, I can’t say she ends up being a memorable character (particularly also because the time setting of the film doesn’t seem canon either).
Eiji falls under the same problems that Yuna faces: not enough backstory. I like the way Reki chooses to pick a character who is NOT from Laughing Coffin to be the antagonist this time. Eiji as character continues to build upon our curiosity of what happened to the rest of the SAO survivors, even though the general so far seems to be that they all turn evil due to some anguish they experienced in the game. Yes I say these things in a way such that I can really like the film, but dislike all the new characters in it.
Eiji’s backstory of being a weak and cowardly player from KoB (Knights of Blood, or “Knights of the Blood Oath” if you take the localization) is an interesting perspective, but sadly I don’t think Reki manages to flesh this out well. The way he holds contempt against the stronger players, including his own vice commander (Asuna) isn’t explained well so even his grudge against Kirito the Black Swordsman doesn’t quite make sense. Why he is seeking strength, and why he wants to bring Yuna back also isn’t explained well (or at least I didn’t quite get it from my first viewing of the film). Throughout the film, I was also wondering what his relationship with Yuna was. What I saw in the film (again apologies if I had missed something vital) seemed to be that she simply encouraged him when he was feeling down and weak during SAO. I thought perhaps one of the reasons he really wants to bring her back is because she had died protecting him in the game due to his lack courage and strength – frankly, this sentence alone would’ve added a lot more impact to both Eiji and Yuna’s characters (for me anyway). But instead we’re left with something which is a little less appetising than one would’ve hoped.
How Eiji manages to become so physically strong in the film (that he could beat up players and hold up Klein by his head) is a mystery, it could be to do with something similar to the muscle rehabilitation that Kirito goes through when he clears SAO. One thing I did realize after reflecting a bit was the Ordinal System playing a part in why Eiji was so much stronger than Kirito throughout most parts of the film –Eiji was ranked 2nd whereas Kirito’s rank was much lower, and Ordinal Scale operates by making higher ranked players much stronger (see details below). Eiji’s strength leaves no impact on Kazuto’s character (the poor kid has gone through a lot of life and death situations already, what more could one measily grunt from KoB bring?); he doesn’t bring that fear of death element which all the Laughing Coffin members bring when they come across Kazuto outside of SAO.
I can’t believe they got Takeshi Kaga (remember the host of Iron Chef? And also the voice of Light’s father in the live action movie for Death Note?) voicing this guy! Aside from this, there’s perhaps nothing going for Shigemura that is worth mentioning. His character also sadly does not have a strong enough impact to rival the other established characters. Shigemura plays the role of being Kayaba Akihiko’s mentor (man surely the educational institution behind these two “scientists” should have a bad reputation by now) and the designer of the Augma device. His noble purpose to bring back his deceased daughter leads him to seeking out the memories (and lives) of the SAO survivors. It makes complete sense for him to backstab Eiji (how did he not die before the end of the film) for his memories.
One question I did ask at the end of the film is why Shigemura asked Eiji to help him. Again, if there was a deeper explanation as to the relationship between Eiji and Yuna, this question might have already been answered. However, it just seemed more logical if Shigemua had gone and asked the Black Swordsman for help (why ask a weak cowardly player when you can ask the strongest one); bear in the mind Kikuoka Seijirou (on behalf of the Japanese government) has already approached Kazuto for help with the Death Gun incident (amongst other things which will unfold in Alicization). The only reason I can think of Shigemura not wanting to approach Kazuto is because he understood what he was doing was illegal and needed someone who wouldn’t have their morals get in the way.
One of the random quirks of the film is how at the start it mentioned Augma being a completely safe device which cannot cause any harm, and well guess what happens throughout the rest of the film? First people start losing memories because of the satellites running Ordinal Scale being able to provide a high frequency signal to scan someone’s brain for SAO-related memories. And then at the end of the film it was revealed that it’s possible for the satellite signals to be set so strong that a brain scan would kill the player! And if there’s not enough imagination there, we have the whole convenient plot point of allowing players to Full Dive through Augma – I thought this product was meant to have much less capabilities and risks than the NerveGear or AmuSphere? Reki doesn’t seem to do a good job trying to smooth out how product design risk takes place – but that perhaps highlights the reality that in today’s society it’s so hard to release a product for something completely new and have it follow legal requirements and cover up chances for harm and failure. You’d think by now the citizens in Reki’s universe would catch on that this sort of Virtual Reality technology can be quite fatal, or give rise to killer instincts (as in GGO).
The 100th Floor
I think this was a great battle scene in the film, and again it showcased a lot of the spectacular animation you would expect from the film having a higher budget than an anime. You also get the nice nostalgia of pulling together nearly all of the major characters across both seasons of the anime, team them up at the pinnacle of their strengths and to wreak havoc on the last boss of Sword Art Online! Honourable mentions to seeing Kirito’s dual blade action again, with the Starburst Stream finisher; but also seeing the recently deceased Konno Yuuki make a cameo in Asuna’s inherited “Mother’s Rosario” original sword skill (now that’s a load of contextual lingo right there!) The fight was epic no matter how you look at it and I’m sure it would’ve really satisfied a lot of the viewers.
That is, until you consider the major “flaw” in this scene. The biggest one being the disappointment I felt as I gasped the question: “Could the boss they be fighting possibly be…that man…?” And when the film delivers a resounding “NO!” as an answer, a lot of my anticipation was met with emptiness. If you’ve watched the first season of the anime then you should know that in the original SAO game, Kayaba Akihiko had intended to be the game’s final boss; to wait for Kirito on the 100th floor and be the last challenge the protagonists have to face before finally clearing the death game. If ALO and Ordinal Scale had followed their description to copy (as best as they can) what the original SAO game was meant to be like, then it’s hard to find reasons as to why the 100th floor wasn’t the commander of KoB, Heathcliff.
To a minor extent, it was also inconsistent to have non-SAO characters/equipment in that scene. We pretty much had a cross of three games in the one scene (SAO, ALO, GGO) which is great and all, but is inconsistent to what the scene is meant to represent – is this floor 100 from the original SAO, or from the ALO import, or something completely different? Combined with Yui’s “hack” of loading everyone’s save data from all the games, our heroes’ victory over floor 100 seemed quite hollow at the end of the day; what was it that they actually beat? And it also seemed conveniently too easy (compared to what their struggles might have been).
I know it’s senseless to do the whole “if I was Reki I would’ve written the plot this way” because I’m sure he had a reason (which might not have been articulated into the animation – translating scripts to animation and preserving meaning isn’t easy), but it would’ve been great to see some sort of “final showdown” between Kirito and Heathcliff the way it should’ve been (and allowing their characters to build up more). It would’ve been possible too; if creating an AI replication of Yuna is possible then surely Kayaba’s omnipotent consciousness would’ve been able to show itself in Ordinal Scale. Again this one flaw continues to build upon the notion that this film is not canon.
It’s easy to suspect that the dialogue-free cinematic which follows after Kirito defeats the boss and obtains that all-powerful greatsword was just to speedily wrap up the plot. Bosses were destroyed with a simple flick of the sword and Kirito saves the day in a matter of seconds. Again we lack a lot of details around what that sword was and what power Kirito was able to wield to destroy all those bosses in one fell swoop.
You all stayed for this surely? Anyway, as part of the spoiler-section, the post-credits scene more or less confirm that the Alicization arc will come to anime. In the scene, Kikouka shows Dr Shigemura “Rath” (the company behind Project Alicization which forms the basis for the Alicization arc) and the monitors seem to show a small aerial shot of one of the large human cities. We also get a silhouette of Higa Takeru, one of the lead programmers, you can tell that it’s him from the shape of his hair. The mention of the word “Rath” showing Higa Takeru is strong evidence to suggest that the Alicization arc is coming soon.
This makes perfect sense since Reki finished publishing the end of the light novel in Japan towards the end of last year so now they can start developing how to pace out light novels volumes 9-18. My anticipation would be at least 2 seasons (48+ episodes), but it would also make sense to make a single season of 52 episodes which run for a full year. There is a lot of content to cover and I absolutely can’t wait for the light novel to be brought to life through animation.
Kirito and Asuna
Okay I realized I probably need to say something about Kirito and Asuna’s relationship developing in this film. First, the growing intimacy (and the post-credits scene with Asuna’s mother) were probably what Kirito x Asuna fans wanted to see. The film gives both characters the goal of watching the fireworks together, which acts as a recurring motif to motivate the characters to push on. But aside from all the wonderful lovey-dovey scenes, I would sadly have to say this does NOT fit into how their relationship develops in the rest of series. This is also why the ambiguous “ring” which pops up towards the end of the film also is…well…ambiguous.
This is just my opinion, but I always saw Reki having an intention to make Kirito have a harem. Small spoiler for Alicization: if you think Kirito already has enough girls in his harem so far (with Sinon being the latest girl) then think again! Reki never really builds an overly romantic relationship between Kirito and any girl throughout the series; Asuna comes out on top overall but romance is not really a prominent aspect of this series.
Other small things which I noticed:
- Suguha was on a kendo camp the entire course of the film – was there an argument with the voice actor that caused her character to not play as large a role in the film? It’s not like the kendo camp added any value to the plot
- Klein and the rest of the Fuurinkazan guild being ambushed by Eiji in the park with NO WITNESSES to Eiji’s assault – I get that playing Pokemon Go in a dark alley can have disastrous consequences, but Klein and his guild were out in the wide open, how does this happen with absolutely no-one seeing Eiji?
- Kirito seemingly afraid of the wide adoption of Augma at the beginning of the film and his reluctance to use it – I thought he was meant to be a tech fanatic and would’ve at least done a lot of investigation around the device. It seemed a bit out of character for him to avoid using it, and also avoiding Ordinal Scale (I mean, all his friends were using it). It would’ve been nice if we got an explanation for it.
- Thumbs up to the slow motion scene around when Asuna rushes past Eiji and he whispers “switch” in her ear – this acts as a reminder to SAO tactics which was used to help players avoid being left unprotected after they used a skill/ability (some sort of post-skill delay). It creates a lot of suspense for the viewer who all go “this guy must’ve been in the death game”. Another memorable time where this happens is Death Gun’s arm moving in slow motion as Kirito witnesses the Laughing Coffin emblem on his arm. What doesn’t quite fit about Eiji saying it is that he was meant to be a coward in SAO, I wonder how often he would’ve actually been at the front lines fighting in a serious battle where the “switch” tactic was required (yeah, he’s in KoB and all but flashbacks showed him too scared to jump into battle alongside the rest of his guild).
- I know I might be sounding quite negative in this critical analysis but there were also a lot of small funny moments which got me laughing throughout the film. It would take too long to list them all; but there are HEAPS of them
I know I only covered the larger elements of the film here and haven’t really processed many other things. This review is already super long and I’m glad if you’ve managed read it to this point. All up I would still rate the film a 9/10 despite the many flaws in it. The film in itself is still really good in my opinion and full of many captivating and funny moments. It’s not going to get everything right; and it’s also not going to perfectly into the timeline with everything else which has already been written. But nevertheless, it is still a film which SAO fans will really enjoy. And if you disliked everything in SAO so far, then you’ll have the same sentiments towards this film.