When the first anime series for Sword Art Online came out now more than 10 years ago, it took the anime world by storm. Other franchises, like the popular “.hack” series, had already explored the concept of following the characters inside a computer game and seeing how their adventures basically inform the plot of the stories. Sword Art Online suddenly became a staple of 21st-century anime, and the show’s success launched a huge transmedia franchise that is still going strong today. Thanks to Crunchyroll, the latest film has just arrived on these shores for our enjoyment.
The new film in question is titled “Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night.” which followed the previous film titled “Aria of a Starless Night.” All these series of films are based on a particular series of light novels, the Progressive branch, whose publishing is still ongoing. The Sword Art Online series is based originally on the novels written by Reki Kawahara, but the franchise surpassed that era of the story a long time ago. Kawahara is still the main author of the series, so there is still continuity in terms of style.
The production of the film is in the hands of A-1 Pictures, a production house that has basically taken the role of keepers of the franchise since the moment it jumped to anime form. So, for those who have followed the franchise for a decade or maybe just seen a couple of episodes here and there, you will certainly know what to expect. Sword Art Online cannot really match the visual splendor of most recent anime shows like Chainsaw Man or Jujutsu Kaisen, but the work that A-1 Pictures has poured into the film feels very solid.
The movie is appealing to watch, but it won’t make you go wow. Something that has always brought down the franchise, at least in my estimation, is that the art design never really goes outside the realm of classic medieval fantasy. At points, the art design makes you feel that for all the technological advancements applied to the game, the characters are playing in-universe, and the people who made the game really just went for the most generic look when it comes to the game’s visuals. A-1 Pictures maintains the look in the movie, don’t expect anything else.
In terms of story, the movie follows the fourth book in the Progressive series of light novels, and it serves mainly to tie up some threads left hanging from the previous film. As such, the movie doesn’t really feel very relevant to the overall story but is more like a transitional point between arcs. There is basically no propulsion for the plot, and as the runtime continues, you realize that maybe this is not the adventure you were expecting. So, for those who are not in the know about the novels, expect a story that is more laid back and less epic than the most exciting moments in the show.
This is not a negative; a story needs peaks and valleys. The really intense and epic moments are only like that because they are accompanied by more quiet and mundane moments. However, this locks the film into limbo, where only those who have enjoyed past installments will be able to enjoy this film fully. It might not be impossible for this film to capture new audience members, but it seems like it is something that won’t happen, at least not as much as it should.
This is a constant problem that long-running franchises will need to face at some point. Continuity is the enemy of a new install base, to use the technical term. Even franchises like Marvel are having a hard time acquiring new viewers at this point in time. It seems like those who are willing to keep watching the movies and shows are just those people who were able to jump on the bandwagon soon enough. I remark on this point only to make it clear that this is now a film for those who are interested in getting into the series. If that is you, then start from the beginning. It is the best way.
Despite all that, for those who know about the characters, Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night will be a nice experience. A pleasant experience, to be more precise, but the story this time around is just not interesting enough, especially not to warrant a feature film. This could have been a couple of special episodes because it feels short as a theatrical experience. Asuna finally takes on more of a main role in the story, but it feels like the story itself wants to keep her on the bench, even in this context. It is strange.
In the end, Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night will not attract new viewers, but it doesn’t need to. The Sword Art Online is healthy enough to keep things afloat for many years. However, it would be nice if these theatrical experiences were saved only to deliver the most impactful and epic moments of the story to the community. Taking advantage of the big screen should always be a must if you release your stuff in theaters.