Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale - Anime Review

It's been a while since the Sword Art Online incident, and the world has begun to move on. The new trend is augmented reality, a technology whose popularity has exploded following the release of a new augmented reality device called the Augma. But is the Augma really as safe as it seems?

The Lowdown

Although virtual reality has dominated the marketplace for some time now, new competition has arrived in the form of a device called Augma. Augma utilizes augmented reality as an alternative to the previous "full dive" virtual reality. Whereas users previously had to go into a deep sleep to utilize virtual reality, with the Augma they can go about their daily lives in the real world while still accessing similar games and applications found in virtual reality. Because of the convenience of the system, many of its functionalities are already being adapted into normal life. Quite a few people have bought into the system, including many of Kirito and Asuna's friends. In fact, quite a few of the old Sword Art Online players are playing a new augmented reality MMO game called Ordinal Scale. In Ordinal scale, enemies spawn in real life through the lenses of the augmented reality gear and players' abilities are determined based on their world ranking. However, when old bosses from Sword Art Online begin to appear around Tokyo, Kirito begins to realize that there is more to this game than originally meets the eye.

How Was It?

Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale is interesting to talk about because of the polarizing nature of the series. Although the anime is quite popular in the west, there have been quite a few criticisms leveled at it, and not without reason. Between this and the question of how the show can maintain high stakes now that the "death game" is over, both fans and not-fans alike might be wondering just how this new movie stacks up when compared to the original series. I saw Ordinal Scale in American theaters during its limited release, and my initial impression following the movie was that it was quite enjoyable. Of course, nothing is ever that simple.

It's been a little while since the events of the Sword Art Online incident by the start of the movie, and society is beginning to quite literally put the entire thing into the history books now. However, for those who were unwitting participants in the game, their experiences have become a part of them. The way that the SAO veterans interact with their memories of the game is a core focus of the story in the movie and a driving point of the plot. Ordinal Scale's new brand of augmented reality MMO gameplay is a highly attractive offering for grizzled Sword Art Online veterans, and Kirito's friends are no exception. Despite being trapped and forced to play a similar game for two years, players are still drawn to Ordinal Scale. This relationship between Sword Art Online players and new games isn't a new concept in Ordinal Scale; the second half of the first season and the second season explored a similar phenomenon in different games. However, Ordinal Scale focuses much more fervently on this plot point. While there is a conflict in the story, most of the conflict is centered around Sword Art Online and how it continues to shape the lives of those who took part in it.

One example on a more specific level is Kirito and Asuna's relationship, something to which Ordinal Scale pays particularly close attention. Kirito and Asuna met and grew close to each other during their time playing Sword Art Online, and these shared experiences form the backbone of their relationship. But it's more complicated to see how their relationship progresses in the real world beyond Sword Art Online, especially when Sword Art Online and the real world begin to mix thanks to Ordinal Scale. If you're thinking that this focus means more screen time for Asuna, you would be correct. In fact, the first half of the movie almost exclusively focuses on Asuna. Her dynamic with Kirito and how their past experiences with each other mix with their present ones are central to their characters in the movie. However, I wouldn't really go as far as to say that they particularly progress as characters. The movie opts to flesh out the story of Sword Art Online without really trying to change any of its pre-established characters in any particular way outside of their relationships with each other. This actually works quite well, since the focus on relationships and new characters are easily built upon from the foundation that already exists in the series.

Ordinal Scale's setting is engagingly mysterious from the beginning, something that should not come as a surprise to long-time Sword art Online fans. The film quickly familiarizes viewers with the way society views the Augma augmented reality system, but leaves many of the details of the actual system unknown. This base level of understanding of how the Augma works in the beginning makes the unknown more interesting. In a similar fashion, new characters to the series are mysterious because of their deep ties with the Augma system. While the creator of the project, Dr. Testuhiro Shigemura, clearly has his own reasons for creating the system, other characters more actively play a part in this early suspense. These include Eiji, an Ordinal Scale player ranked second in the world, and Yuna, the idol personality for the Ordinal Scale game that appears and sings during boss fights. These new characters are interesting in the beginning because of what isn't known about them, but the movie does a good job of keeping them interesting through further plot developments as the story goes along. In a similar vein, the conflict and ultimate antagonists of the movie are well-developed and their motivations are remarkably more complex and fleshed-out than many other Sword Art Online villains. The villains' goals and motivations also tie in well thematically with the relationship progression of the previously-established members of the cast.

In complement to the characters, the use of augmented reality within the game of Ordinal Scale was particularly effective for a movie. With more significant time constraints, making a properly fleshed-out in-game world would have led to pacing issues if handled on the same scale as the worlds of Aincrad and Alfheim. However, Ordinal Scale utilizes the real world through augmented reality to make itself less of a "new universe" and more of a new usage of familiar space, in more ways than one. The abrupt shift from the "real world" to the augmented reality of Ordinal Scale for boss fights is exhilaratingly fast and features some fantastic CGI. The movie's animation in general is very consistently high quality. Sword Art Online's focus on the combat elements of video games hinges less on real strategy and more on fast-paced fighting. As such, much of the suspense relies on the ability of animators to make sword swings dynamic and character emotions believable. In the same vein, the goal of the Ordinal Scale game is less to serve on its own as an interesting world and more to serve as a battleground for the story. While fighting old Sword Art Online bosses in Ordinal Scale, the characters are confronted with their memories of Sword Art Online and their conflict with those memories' long-lasting consequences is the crux of the narrative.

Thankfully, Ordinal Scale knows where the strengths of the series lie, and does everything it can to build its fights up in this manner. Character emotions are drawn and voiced effectively, combat is smooth and action-packed, and the soundtrack is excellent. In fact, one surprising element of the movie was the way boss battle music was handled. Ordinal Scale's idol mascot, Yuna, performs a character song during every major battle in the movie, and each track was highly reminiscent of the level of epic boss battle music in real role-playing games. With all of these elements combined, Ordinal Scale's fights are some of the best orchestrated and most well-animated in the series, something Sword Art Online is already known for. Unfortunately, on the subject of things Sword Art Online is known for, towards the end there are a few arguably questionable leaps that the plot takes in order to make the finale epic. This is a bit frustrating because the over-arching story is actually well-organized. It might take a few logical leaps to justify parts of the later portion of the story, but the movie manages to smooth some of this over with the emotional notes it hits along the way. The plot resolves quite effectively, and the movie really gives off a satisfying feeling of resolution with the character arcs of the series' story up to this point. 

Final Thoughts

There are two types of people who might consider watching this movie: those who have seen Sword Art Online and liked it, and those who have seen it but didn't like it. Regardless of what category you fit into, Ordinal Scale is in many ways the best of Sword Art Online since the original Aincrad arc. It has much of what makes the series appealing, such as dynamic action, a thrilling soundtrack, and effective emotional moments. It also improves on some of the negative aspects of previous seasons, bringing more engaging villains and cleaner pacing. At the end of the day, if you really don't like Sword Art Online's core story, you likely won't enjoy the movie. However, for fans of the series or even those who felt that there were some problems with some of the previous arcs, Ordinal Scale has a lot to enjoy in it. The movie is a worthy addition to the franchise and serves as an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the Aincrad story.