The 2021 anime film Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night is a master class in the art of crafting an original story out of familiar material while making it simultaneously worthwhile for die-hard fans and accessible to newbies. In the movie, director Ayako Kono and screenwriter Yukito Kizawa retell the first two episodes of the 2012 Sword Art Online anime from a different point of view, revealing some hidden depths about familiar characters for longtime fans without requiring new viewers to know much about the series. But in the film’s direct follow-up — Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night, which premiered in the U.S. on Feb. 3 — all that craft seems to have been abandoned.
Set in a virtual reality MMORPG where 10,000 players get trapped and will die if they lose all their hit points or if they try to remove their headsets, Sword Art Online the anime series was adapted from Reki Kawahara’s light novels. In the first season, players in the game are challenged to beat all 100 levels of a medieval-fantasy-esque world if they want to escape the game. Beta tester Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya has a clear advantage, but his progress is complicated by other players, including his eventual partner, Asuna Yuuki.
In the anime series, fans know Asuna as a capable, mysterious fencer who aids Kirito on their journey back to the real world. Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night retells the first two episodes of the anime series from her perspective instead of Kirito’s, introducing her as a studious, cheerful middle schooler who enters the Sword Art Online game on a whim to meet with a friend: Misumi Tozawa, an original character first introduced in Aria.
Through their adventures, the writers add significant depth to Asuna, particularly when she parts ways with Misumi under heartbreaking circumstances. So when Aria gets to Asuna and Kirito’s first meeting, it looks much like it did in the TV series. But for those who’ve seen the movie, it feels completely different, given the new context around a character who, early on in the 2012 anime, was basically just “the girl.”
With Scherzo of Deep Night, the audiences get an original though predictable story that does little more than occupy 101 minutes. Although it’s set between episode 2 and 3 of the anime, right after Aria of a Starless Night, the characters in Scherzo of Deep Night feel completely unfamiliar, and not because Kono and Kizawa reveal new things about them. Asuna suffers the worst downgrade. Originally a child lost in an unfamiliar world, dealing with betrayal and digging deep to find the strength to go on, she’s now relegated back to cliche girl status.
Maybe that could have been forgivable if the plot was doing something new and exciting. Instead, it’s literally a repeat from Aria: Players fight through a basic fantasy world to get to the next boss, who’s a little different from what Kirito experienced during the beta. Eventually, they beat him through the power of teamwork.
That’s just not good enough to justify making Asuna loud and obnoxious in Scherzo, especially when she’s obviously crushing on Kirito. She’s also, for some reason, a bit clumsy and easily flustered now, instead of being a graceful athlete. Weirdest of all, the warrior who fought giant monsters and decided in Aria of a Starless Night that dying isn’t the worst thing in the world, as long as it’s on her terms, is suddenly deathly afraid of ghosts. Her new timidity isn’t a cute little character detail thrown in for characterization’s sake — it’s a huge, integral story element that drives a lot of the plot forward.
The plot itself doesn’t contribute much to the overall Sword Art Online story. It doesn’t explore the joys of gaming or the horror the Sword Art Online players are trapped in, like Aria does. Nor does it expand on the franchise’s key characters by forcing them to use their gaming skills in the real world, like the first movie, Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale. Scherzo does briefly toy with the idea of Player Killers who, instead of getting out of the game, want to embrace the chaos of their situation and use it as an excuse to literally kill other players, all to feed some sort of psychopathic need. The anime series briefly touched on that idea, and expanding on the concept could have given the film its own fascinating identity by asking the important questions about ethics in ultra-realistic gaming.
But the PK storyline doesn’t really go anywhere. Nor does the welcome return of Misumi Tozawa, which only repeats the lessons learned at the end of Aria of a Starless Night: Misumi isn’t a bad person, but she did a bad thing, and now she’s fighting to help others in order to make up for it. There’s nothing inherently bad about the film’s plot, but it lacks any of the subversion, deconstruction, or expansion of the SAO mythos that made Aria so much fun.
The story does get more exciting during the final boss battle, which is phenomenal because of its breakneck pace and the opponent’s massive size. The boss mechanics feel like they could exist in a real-world game. But with so few surprises along the way, Scherzo of Deep Night feels like an inconsequential pit stop that’s simply designed to set up a possible next SAO movie, without putting in the creative choices that would get fans excited about that possibility.
If Sword Art Online gets a fourth movie, it would be better if it shifted back to Aria’s approach, and revealed more about the world by focusing on things we haven’t seen before. Another approach might be to follow season 2 of the anime and change the setting from the SAO fantasy game to the VR battle royale shooter Gun Gale Online, expanding that world instead. Either way, these theatrical adventures for SAO are only worth it if they offer something new. Scherzo is just too safe and familiar.
Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night is currently playing in limited release in American theaters. Check the movie’s website for details. The first two movies and the Sword Art Online anime are streaming on Crunchyroll.