Why Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale was almost a good movie

Sword Art Online is the marmite of the anime world. Very few people feel anything other than immense adoration or intense hatred towards the franchise. As one of the few that does sit in the middle, it’s pretty easy to see things from both sides: virtual reality gaming is an interesting and fun concept, it’s a pretty anime and there are some fairly interesting characters. On the other hand the pacing can be poor and we have the go to example of a ridiculously overpowered protagonist.

This evening I went to see the latest instalment in the franchise, the two-hour long movie: Ordinal Scale. And once again, having seen yet another part of the SAO story, I still feel indifferent towards it in terms of quality.

Official poster for Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale

For those of you who don’t know much about the film, here’s Aniplex’s synopsis:

In 2022, the world of virtual reality was upended by the arrival of a new invention from a genius programmer, Akihiko Kayaba, called NerveGear. It was the first full-dive system, and with it, came endless possibilities to VRMMORPGs.

In 2026, a new machine called the Augma is developed to compete against the NerveGear and its successor, the Amusphere. A next-gen wearable device, the Augma doesn’t have a full-dive function like its predecessors. Instead, it uses Augmented Reality (AR) to get players into the game. It is safe, user-friendly and lets users play while they are conscious, making it an instant hit on the market. The most popular game on the system is “Ordinal Scale” (aka: OS), an ARMMORPG developed exclusively for the Augma.

Asuna and the gang have already been playing OS for a while, by the time Kirito decides to join them. They’re about to find out that Ordinal Scale isn’t all fun and games…

I’m going to do things differently to how I usually do with reviews like this and give you the bad news first. The biggest problem with this film comes from the similarities it shares with season one of the TV show, specifically the way Kirito is written. I’m not a huge of fan of the protagonist of the franchise and Kazuto doesn’t do himself any favours for me here either.

Besides remaining stupidly overpowered (which I will come back to), he is still immensely big headed. For example, in the early parts of the film it is clear that Kirito isn’t particularly interested in getting involved in AR, as such his lack of interest combined with his general lifestyle then means he isn’t physically capable of being very good of the game when it comes to him actually trying to play. Okay, fine, make a fool of yourself, it is only a game after all. Apart from the fact that it isn’t. There is inherent danger when playing the game, but he decides to do it anyway. I know that the reason here is that he loves Asuna and wants to help – which does make this slightly more tolerable, but only slightly – there would be other ways to help that wouldn’t be half as foolhardy.

What if he wasn’t the strongest for a change?!

All of this feeds into my second problem with Kirito and the film more general: pacing. As far as I can tell based on the calendar that is shown throughout the movie, the story takes place over the course of roughly two weeks, with the main problem for our heroes occurring several days into that. At that point, as I have mentioned, Kirito is not physically able to compete against the bosses that the others have been fighting. So, he gets serious with his training, practicing and exercising so that he stronger and fitter in the AR game. Problem is, this isn’t like a VR game – you can’t just swat and pull some all nighters learning the in’s and out’s of the gameplay, you need time to develop your body to actually become stronger.

The course of events we see Kirito follow should then be impossible. There is no but, no saving grace, it is simply impossible. What makes things worse, is not only does Kirito make himself strong enough to compete, but through ‘sheer will and determination’ (or something) he is able to fight his way into the top ten players of Ordinal Scale worldwide. Yes, in less than two weeks. Remember at the start of the film he is ranked lower than 11000th. I’ll except the end because of the link to VR, but up until that point, I can’t just let it go.

He doesn’t necessarily have to be evil…

So the usual poor protagonist and awful pacing should make this a skippable movie, right? Well, actually no. Despite everything I’ve said up to this point, I actually think Ordinal Scale wasn’t far of being a decent movie. Reki Kawahara has, with the augmented reality Ordinal Scale, come up, once again, with a good concept to base an anime on (despite the being able to hit monsters in augmented reality thing… that doesn’t really work). On top of that, the motivations and reasonings of the characters all seem pretty realistic because of how genuine they are – for example the villain’s motivations (I mean the main villain, not the kid playing the game) for what he does are understandable, if not condonable, which put him in that all to little used grey area of anime character. Throughout the finale, I was genuinely concerned about the outcome, for at least some of the non-essential characters, but when all was said and done, I felt like I couldn’t hate him for what he had done.

The use of side characters throughout was also pretty good – Silica and Lis in particular are involved to the point of actually being necessary to the plot at points, though I will say Sinon and Leafa’s involvement is less impressive.

Do you vaguely remember these people?

Perhaps most obviously though is focus on action in the film. The problems with any instalment in the Sword Art Online franchise come from it’s characters or it’s plot and though some of those remained in force in the Ordinal Scale, they were often less obvious because the action that would’ve been spread over twenty-four episodes was condensed into a two hour film. For me A-1 Pictures are hit and miss with what they make, and the animation for the battles is far from perfect, but, in the early battles in particular, they have done a solid job.

The thing then is this. I enjoyed watching Ordinal Scale. Fans of the franchise will absolutely enjoy this latest instalment, but more than that the movie improves on key aspects of the two TV seasons – namely, in the construction of people we’re not meant to like. Unfortunately though, the film as a media type has accentuated past problems typified by the total lack of regard for pacing. Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale comes closer than any previous incarnation of the franchise to being objectively good, however, once again, it has sadly fallen short.

They make a good wallpaper, I’ll give them that.

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