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Arc 2: "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" (SPOILERS)
(Don't bother reading the novel. It's just as bad.)

Let's get the incest out of the way, first: it was the most unneeded aspect of this arc. Comes out of nowhere, serves no purpose since the main character is already all but married, doesn't resolve itself, and bears a bit too much of a resemblance to a certain Hentai genre, while using a familiar Cop Out that makes me question why this was done in the first place if it wasn't even going to go all nine miles.

Let's also get the tentacles out of the way.

And the near-Netorare— no, I am not kidding.

And the increased amount of Gainaxing and general fanservice— seeing part of the problem, here?

While SAO had its flaws, it was vanilla— if not tame— with fanservice, and an enjoyable and sometimes tearjerking story. What about the second arc? GAAAAUGH. The flaws from the first arc are not only not fixed, but accentuated. The lack of the death game mechanic found in the first arc makes less thrill. Oh, they're at risk of dying? They can try again! No urgency, and yet... they still act like they were trapped in SAO. Only Kirito has any reason to be freaking out over anything in this arc, because he's trying to rescue his wife who's almost literally a Vogel im Käfig— yes, after becoming a waifu, Asuna becomes a Distressed Damsel. They try to emulate the tension and stakes that the first arc had, but the first arc was a Deadly Game. And this isn't. So, it's kind of silly that they try making a talk about pointless gaming politics suspenseful. It's kind of silly that Leafa cries for Recon after he sacrifices himself by blowing himself up for a mob (which does nothing of value). The "villain" is definitely silly and clichéd and poorly done. And the whole arc is just silly.

But it doesn't acknowledge that.

And that's the other part of the problem. It's brimming with these clichés from run-of-the-mill anime, but it takes itself too seriously unjustly— there's a scene that looks like it came straight from The End Of Evangelion. It expects you to take it seriously, but doesn't properly deliver, and just becomes a condescending cockslap in the face. If it didn't take itself seriously, I wouldn't have much reason to complain.

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Arc 1: "It's Okay."
(For the record, read the novel. The anime copies it almost verbatim, improving some aspects, even...)

When I get over the raw emotion that the series seems to carry, it becomes a lot more easier to properly give my thoughts, and really... it was eh. I mean, the series definitely dropped the ball by the second arc, but even in the first arc, there were flaws. The main character felt like a Gary Stu without any distinct personality, only being defined by his actions (which were the standard hero fare) instead of having a personality to justify those actions. The only times he loses, it's either because someone had to cheat, or he ends up bending the system over to exact revenge before finally not dying. The supposed Action Girl Asuna goes from that to a Faux Action Girl to a complete waifu in a relationship that, while admittedly cute, was too saccharine and had a progression rushed way too quickly without much, if any, conflict. Opportunities for development on Kirito's part are brushed aside either to make him look badass or make him look sensitive or propel the romance (which, by the way, is a Romantic Plot Tumor)— his guild died and he's feeling survival guilt? Well, we're not going to actually have him bring that up by and for himself or in any other way until seven episodes later when it helps make a cute moment with Asuna, and they're not even going to address it then. And the antagonism, possibly Kayaba excluded, is just a complete black on the scale of black-and-white morality, and horribly so. So, then, why do I still say it's meh?

It all comes with presentation, and the first arc succeeds in that. Again, it's actually better than the LN in a lot of aspects: dropping some things, editing some others, and adding emotional weight in a way that only moving pictures can do while being further helped by the weight of the setting itself. The pathos is well done and justified. The romance, while lacking in substance, is cute, and the fight scenes are just bloody amazing. Even seeing all the flaws, and even being pissed with the complete romantic detour the arc takes between episodes 8-13, the anime's first arc is a fairly enjoyable romp.

So, 6.5/10.
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