It’s difficult to see how this arc might pan out.
Don’t get me wrong, the plot seems pretty clear, Kirito is going to explore this new MMO and probably have a rivalry with the new villain Death Gun, a character who will hopefully be devoid of Kayaba’s lack of a motivation, and Sugou’s uncomfortable and disgusting characterization. Death Gun still seems rather juvenile in conception, a loner with a stupid name trying desperately to sound cool, wearing a long black hood and a metal skull mask, but I’ll take basically anyone over the show’s first two villains.
On the protagonist end of the spectrum, everything still seems to be the same. Kirito’s still got a dull personality so that anything he says can sound like it’s in character, even if it hasn’t been established previously. For example, he tells Asuna that he wants to invent Augmented Reality technology that will effectively merge the real world and the virtual world together, spending a scene exploring in depth that the only difference between the real world and the virtual world is ‘the amount of information’ they can convey. Kirito, however, hadn’t previously expressed any interest in actually creating technology. Some guy who I don’t remember from the first season turns up to inform us that there might be a link between this player called Death Gun in the new MMO, Gun Gale Online, and a series of recent deaths where players playing GGO died of heart failure. The opening scene depicts Death Gun quite killing this top player via TV screen, and yet a large chunk of the running time is dedicated to convincing Kirito to play a video game. I’m glad the refusal of the call is being used to give this guy some personality, but it’s a pain to watch someone who has already gone through two dangerous MMO adventures so adamantly refuse to give a new adventure a whirl. The scene lacks tension when we already know what Kirito is going to do.
But honestly, that’s about it. As a set up, it potentially fixes a few problems from the first series, but the premise of the Aincrad arc was also promising, and it ultimately didn’t follow through. The improvements include the new setting. GGO wasn’t shown to us in much detail, but already it seems like a much gritter, industrial setting to contrast the usual fantasy setting the series is known for. Asuna seems safe from becoming a damsel in distress again, the other members of Kirito’s pseudo-harem didn’t make an appearance, Sugou wasn’t even mentioned, and while we didn’t see Sugu, she doesn’t seem to have any more hang ups about the whole incest thing. In a way, I’m almost disapointed that I couldn’t rip this new season to shreds, but I suppose I have to give it some breathing room. It’s not like all of the previous season was as horrible as episode 24.
This new season already seems poised to be less painful than the first one. In terms of themes, though? Nothing. Nothing has been added. This could be a decent action series, but it will still be a series based on the foundation of escapism and using video games for empowerment. While it is perhaps true that virtual reality will one day become a fully integrated and exciting accessory to real life, I can’t help but feel Kirito and the show as a whole is missing a part of the bigger picture. The improving technology of the virtual world is not what will make it more real. It’s how the people will treat each other. Until SAO proves to me that it can treat it’s characters as more than devices to the audience’s desires, I will not be convinced that as a demographic we will deserve to populate these exciting new worlds.