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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The End of Aincrad As We Know It

Edge of Hell's Abyss: While enjoying a fishing tournament, Kirito receives an urgent e-mail from the leader of the guild requesting their return.
The End of the World: Game Over. (Source: Crunchyroll)
Spoiler warning: Review contains spoilers for the thirteenth and fourteenth episodes of Sword Art Online.
I couldn't put it more plainly or more to the point than Crunchyroll does for its episode summary of 14: Game Over. End of game. No save point, no restart, no expansion pack. It's win or die, a Game of Thrones MMORPG that our heroes have been stuck in for several years, literally putting their lives on the line with every virtual fight they involve themselves in. Kirito has become Aincrad's best hope in clearing the game, defeating the final boss, and getting everyone out alive. Here it comes: the final countdown! The great battle! The duel to end all duels! But first, fishing!

(Sound of a needle scratching across a record, comically.) Wait - what? Yes, the final battle for the users of Sword Art Online is preluded by, of all things, Kirito fishing with an old man on the lakefront by his marital home. Spoiler: Kirito is a crap fisher. He is easily beaten out by this old man, who just happens to be involved with SAO in real life, in a rather embarrassing way (he's a security IT guy, of all things - whoops). They end up working together in order to catch the most powerful and difficult to capture of all fish, and it's after this victory - and with the aid of Asuna - that Kirito receives an urgent summons from Heathcliff of his guild to come back to the front lines.
There is a boss on level 75 who is whooping everyone's ass, and Heathcliff has decided to form a large party of players from across all levels to take the boss down. Naturally, this reunites Kirito and Asuna with past friends from other guilds, including Klein, Kirito's first friend in Aincrad. This boss, Skull Reaper, is not an easy guy to take down; fourteen lives are lost in the battle before the level is cleared. And in the aftermath of the grueling battle, Kirito pulls a Detective Conan on us (or insert your deductive detective of choice here) and points out that Heathcliff is actually - wait for it - Akihiko Kayaba, creator of Sword Art Online, the man responsible for thousands of deaths and the very reason all the users were trapped in a virtual reality to begin with. And that's when things get ugly.
I have been saying from the start that if Akihiko is involved in the game after his grand speech in episode one, it would be as one of the players. Kirito even realizes that the most boring way to interact with an MMORPG like Aincrad is to just watch someone else play in it - and Akihiko, even based on what little we see of him before now, does not seem like the kind of man to just sit back and watch. But to become the leader of the most powerful guild in Aincrad, leading his soldiers through the front lines so they can reach the top level together? That's something else entirely. And here I thought it was gonna be Asuna. That's one theory shot down in flames, thank God.
The sudden duel to the death between Kirito and Akihiko/Heathcliff seemed like a cheap way to cut the story short. I always felt like we were going to see Kirito actually work his way to the top level, except now that his main target is in front of him, there's clearly no point. He saw a chance to save the players and he took it, and for that I can't blame him - but I can blame the lazy writing that got him there. Perhaps SAO did not want to walk us through the grim reality of watching more players die in the higher levels and decided that approximately six thousand players was a good number to cut off at in terms of survivors. For that, I really don't blame them. The series is depressing enough as it is in number of deaths.
The duel itself probably wouldn't have been very dramatic for the majority of the time if it weren't Akihiko and Kirito. Their moves and abilities up to a certain point were certainly quick paced and well orchestrated, but not very emotionally stirring. The only thing that gave it gravitas was the fact that they were fighting for Aincrad's destiny and that Kirito had bargained his own life for Asuna's, asking Akihiko to disable her ability to commit suicide should Kirito be killed. A selfish bargain, yes, but at that point Kirito wasn't going to watch any more good people be killed, especially the love of his life and Aincrad wife.
Naturally, Asuna is killed anyway - on Akihiko's sword, sacrificing herself to save Kirito from his finishing move - although her death is still a bit tricky to pin down, since she shows up later once the game is cleared. Again, a female character's death is used as the fuel to fire up a male character and lead him into victory. Yawn. Yet it also propels Kirito to seemingly defy death long enough to beat Akihiko and clear Sword Art Online for good. I don't know how Kirito was able to come back from Akihiko's HP-draining stab like that, especially since if he had used the revival item from episode three, they would have bloody well mentioned it. It's cheesy as hell but it works, and that's what counts in the end, especially to those poor souls watching the battle, half convinced they would all end up dead like Kirito.
(Or maybe, somewhere in the digital mainframe of Aincrad, a small, sliver-like fragment of Yui had been watching over her adopted father and gave his avatar enough life to break through Akihiko's defenses and save them all. Perhaps.)
I found the final scene between Asuna and Kirito, huddled together in the sky castle above a disintegrating Aincrad, saccharine in flavor but emotionally hard hitting. It's also a bit of a logical loophole, as clearly Asuna died in the previous scene but yet is there with Kirito and is credited as one of the people who cleared the game. It's possible that Asuna's sacrifice directly tying into Akihiko's defeat actually saved her life, as those who clear Aincrad are automatically saved themselves - and that would mean Kirito and Asuna. In essence, Asuna had to die in order to live.
It's no wonder the first thing Kirito does upon awakening in his hospital bed - still strapped into his Nerve Gear, body gaunt and pale from spending years barely living through machines - is to find Asuna. He knows she's alive. There is no doubt in his mind that the beautiful, talented young woman he fell in love with is somewhere out there, also waking up and looking for her husband, the man she saw dozing in the grass under a clear blue Aincrad sky years ago.

Sword Art Online could have easily ended with this set of episodes. Naturally, since it is 25 episodes, it didn't. I'll be intrigued to see how the world has changed since Kirito first jacked into SAO and what society will do once all the players try to come back to their old lives, if those still exist. This series may have been spotty in nature so far, but it has always been enjoyable and hard to turn away from, which is always a plus. I've heard tales that the second half of this series isn't as good as the first. I'm willing to test that theory for myself. All I know is this: Asuna better be alive, or there will be hell to pay.