Fan art. Source

At the urging of someone close to me, here’s my review of Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale, based on my having attended the US premiere in Hollywood.

It’s a fascinating look at a “what if” situation. Specifically, it continues the situation introduced by the series itself, so I’ll go over that briefly before digging into the movie.

In the TV show, Sword Art Online (SAO) is the newest of a near future’s virtual reality (VR) massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG). In this fictional future, VR terminals, called NerveGear, completely immerse players, temporarily shutting down their real-world body’s motor and sensory functions. That means that usually, users must log in someplace comfortable, like their beds at home, or a secured location. One player does so from a place that’s not their home, but it’s a spoiler, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

 

Screenshot from SAO TV series

 

At any rate, there’s a significant event in the SAO game world, attracting all players to the same location. It’s thousands of individuals. The event is one unique to the game world, created by its lead developer. What happens is a terrifying thing: an ominous entity appears and tells them the game’s real objective. The only way to leave the game is to “win” it, by conquering the final boss in the highest dungeon. All players are affected by this condition. They cannot log out!

Unspoken is also a terrifying secondary condition. Dying in-game results in real-life death. The first season of the series is then the adventures of the main protagonist, Kirito, and the friends he gathers in-game. Kirito has gaming experience, and specifically with an early release (beta) version of SAO, which leads to his having fine-tuned skills and knowledge of the game’s behavior. He’s quickly labeled a “beater” (beta cheater) due to that when he’s found out. That pushes Kirito to go solo, refusing to team up formally with any other players. It drives him to quickly level up to be the first to conquer and progress through the massive 100-level dungeon. He later has trouble and finds out that the higher levels require huge teams, so he must have allies, and it progresses from there.

Gun Gale Online, from SAO season 2. Sinon and Kirito.

The second season takes place in a post-apocalyptic, shooting-based world, Gun Gale Online (GGO), that, while safer than SAO, had it’s own real-world connection to a problem player. It deals with a slightly different set of real-world issues as well. It’s worth a watch.

I was late to the screening (80-minute drive directly from work), so I arrived at the tail-end of the movie summarizing this 2-season plot. The film is watchable, on its own, due to that. It’s been more than couple years since the SAO game ended, and many “survivors” of SAO were admitted to a unique set of schools to complete their real-world education and (not mentioned) rehabilitation, after having spent years logged into another world. Some, like Kirito, had also joined other VR worlds after SAO or joined its newer, fantasy-based successor.

There exists in the post-SAO future an augmented reality (AR) game, called Ordinal Scale. This game exists as a separate visible (to players) overlay on top of what they see in the real world, via a less bulky head-mounted display, much like Google Glass. Unlike VR games, players must be physically conscious and, importantly, real-world locations matter. If you’re thinking of Pokemon Go, it’s a logical evolution of that type of AR game. In Ordinal Scale, there are boss battle events put on nightly, which rewards the players participating, if they manage to virtually survive and if the boss is defeated. Players receive short notice as to the location, which is usually either an existing public space, or a cordoned off space, so there’s a controlled safety factor the game’s developers are aware of.

The movie begins, however, with Kirito, and the others, noticing strong things happening to players, and specifically to SAO survivors, after some of the battles.

The movie’s worth a viewing so that I won’t go too deep into its plot. It’s related to the events in the original SAO game, but for a character not seen in the show, but with a connection to many SAO players. Ordinal Scale does touch upon a few of the current worries around AR, but the fictional world also offers some interesting solutions to some, such as having specifically planned-out places for players to safely gather. It also encourages exercise, which a VR player like Kirito quickly finds is hindering him a bit until he comes up with a creative solution to help him progress. He and others notice that the bosses are bosses they’ve seen in SAO before, giving them a useful leg up on dealing with them and also ensuring they do the most damage, which affects their ranking.

The number 2 ranked Ordinal Scale player also is a key figure and appears to be an SAO survivor as well, which quickly gains the attention of Kirito and his girlfriend, Asuna, who recognizes him first as a former guildmate from SAO. They’re concerned that this player is connected to strange happenings stemming from Ordinal Scale, and Kirito gains a rival since one can’t make it to #1 without going through #2.

There’s also a virtual idol appearing in many of the boss battles, Yuna, who also happens to be a pop singer with many fans in their real world, and who has an upcoming concert in a major arena. She serenades players as they battle, granting both a bonus buff at the beginning and granting an experience point boost to the top player for each victorious battle. There something strange about her, and many don’t know if she’s a real life person, or a virtual idol, like Hatsune Miko. This ambiguity does matter, but any more description of her is too much.

If fantasy-based action appeals to you, this is a must-see. If you have an interest in AR or VR, I’d say give it a look as well. It’s a great adventure, nonetheless. I do want to see it again, not just to see it from a further back row, but because it is entertaining. I’m giving Ordinal Scale a top recommendation, and I do hope that more anime series get a movie if this one does well in a wider release. US release is March 9, so mark your calendars!


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