In this week's Sword Art Online, Kirito and Asuna get a well-deserved break from the front lines. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that they are free from the mysteries of the game...
Following his semi-dramatic proposal last week, Kirito and Asuna have decided to marry and settle down on one of the lower floors. Strangely enough, this is fine with Heathcliff. After all his 'Duel Me for your Freedom' behaviour in the previous episode, he is open to the two of them having a vacation. Although he does make it clear that soon afterwards, they will be sent to the front lines to do battle again.
What ensues may come across as either cute or a choking hazard. After the constant threat of death and destruction has been looming over the heads of every player, it is good to see the main characters finding solace. However, Asuna seems to be zig-zagging with regards to how close she feels to Kirito. For instance, she agreed to marry him, but gets tongue tied when she thinks he heard her say 'I love you'. Then we see scenes where she sleeps next to him in Sword Art Online's prerendered underwear range - something she had difficulty showing him last week. Okay, Asuna is a mild tsundere to begin with, but the way her behaviour flips may seem a little unusual to some viewers. The animators deliver on the visuals though, and the scenes are acted well, so everything comes off adorably. Whether you like or dislike these scenes is dependent on your tastes.
Anyway, in order to fully enjoy their vacation, Kirito takes Asuna to the lake for a bit of casual ghost hunting. You know, a normal date. Apparently the lake doesn't just attract fishermen - the nearby woods are the haunting grounds of 'real' ghosts, as opposed to Sword Art Online's enemy types. (Ghost hunting here sounds absurd until you remember the vision that appeared at the end of the Murder Mystery arc.) Sure enough, as soon as they enter the woods, Kirito and Asuna find an unusual girl who doesn't seem to register as a regular player.
Enter Yui, a wide-eyed little girl who wants Kirito and Asuna to be her Daddy and Mommy. We are treated to a few cute scenes of the three of them as a happy family, bonding over incredibly spicy sandwiches. Each scene is tinged with melancholy, though. Yui remembers nothing about her parents, and recalls being in a 'dark place' on her own. Whatever her backstory is, it is not one of the happier ones.
Talking of dark backstories, one seems to have found a home in the Town of Beginnings. You might remember Sword Art Online's entry town from the first episode - where it was revealed to the players that they cannot log out, and would die if their avatar lost all its hit points. Now two thousand of the remaining six thousand players live there, including the youngest players and their self-appointed care givers. Kirito and Asuna head there with Yui in hope of finding her missing parents, but stumble on something more sinister.
The Army, who are willing to sacrifice soldiers in mindless suicide runs, have taken it upon themselves to seize control of the town. As collateral for protection, guild members are attacking child gamers to extort cash and equipment to add to the ranks of the Liberation Army. No prizes for guessing whose side Kirito and Asuna are on, or who is on the receiving end of a beatdown. What is surprising is Yui's sudden and unprovoked breakdown. It is not unusual for a child in Yui's situation to be sensitive, but it is unusual when such an outburst is accompanied by the sound of static. This mystery will hopefully be solved next week.
So, my appraisal of this episode of Sword Art Online is mostly positive. As I mentioned before Asuna's mental state zig-zags a little, but the relationship between her and Kirito feels genuine, and it is heartwarming to watch. The return of a mystery angle is also welcome, and harks back to the Murder Mystery arc that was a pleasure to watch. Although this is a side story, this story line doesn't feel flabby, and it promises to add another level of texture to the world of Sword Art Online.