With Death Gun brought to justice and Kirito's time in Gun Gale Online at a close, our protagonist can enjoy some rare downtime and get back to indulging in the more simple pleasures afforded his virtual reality - getting back to ALfheim Online to hunt down rare items and new quests.
As it happens, the advent of some free time for Kirito has coincided with quite the hubbub within ALO, as the existence of a fantastic sword named (of course) Excalibur has surfaced within the game world. As it happens, Kirito already knew of the existence of the sword itself but not of the quest to acquire it, but with the item's availability now public knowledge he's determined to be the one to get it. Thus, Kirito and his party of friends assemble to join the populace of ALO in the race to grasp Excalibur for themselves.
Of course, things are rarely that simple in life, and in this particular case there's a significant wrinkle in the quest that the gang are faced with - ALO's AI-based content generation system has somehow managed to dream up a quest within which failure would likely lead to the destruction of the entire game world, with no option of restoration in sight. With time running out, the race is now on to save ALfheim itself, never mind the fancy trinket that is the reward for completing the quest.
This premise that a quest could wipe out a game world is Sword Art Online II's attempt to generate tension from a scenario that is otherwise effectively a filler arc before we get to the meat of its next proper story, but to be honest it doesn't work - these episodes don't have enough time to build a situation where you feel any real concern for the virtual world the characters inhabit, and of course the lack of any real world consequence within this fantasy construct strips much of the tension away from proceedings by default.
That leaves us with only one real reason to chug through this story arc, and that's for a handful of fantastic action set-pieces which sport some excellent animation and a real show of this series' craft along those lines that match anything you'll have seen elsewhere within Sword Art Online. It is at least nice to see this kind of attention given to a story that could easily have been pushed completely to one side in deference to more important events, but it's merely a layer of polish atop what is ultimately a mediocre and forgettable story.
If all of that sounds like a good reason for you to skip this volume of the series however then think again, as those three episodes lead into the final two instalments on this disc which kick off the Mother's Rosario arc. Entering the year 2026, our focus shifts towards Asuna, as we get to see for herself the difficulties she faces in her staid, cold home life, while in stark contrast back in her virtual life she and Kirito get to enjoy the joy of rediscovering their old home thanks to the latest update in New Aincrad. This coincides with rumours doing the rounds about Zekken - an incredibly strong swordsman that has been challenging all-comers yet remains undefeated against every individual who has tried their hand at besting them... yes, including Kirito. With nothing to lose, Asuna finds herself up for the challenge - and what a challenge it is too, which seems to be exactly what "Zekken" is looking for...
There isn't a lot to say about these two episodes in isolation from the rest of the story arc (the woes of covering an anime series split into volumes, dear readers) - they're important as set-up for future events but are unremarkable when shorn from that greater context. Suffice it to say though that you'll be glad to have watched these instalments once the final volume of the series arrives on home video though.
Talking technical for a moment, we have no qualms with the Blu-ray side of this release used in this review - subtitles are all present and correct (and after issues with parts one and two episode title subtitles now show up even if you skip the opening credits), video and audio quality are as they should be, and the show's English dub continues to be solid throughout. As with prior volumes, if you're still watching on DVD then you'll be missing some of the extras available only on the release's Blu-ray disc, but if we're honest they aren't really show-stoppers unless you're a massive hardcore fan of Sword Art Online anyhow.
Taken in isolation, this is undoubtedly the weakest of Sword Art Online II's currently available volumes by its very nature - it has nothing remarkable to hang its hat on, and the story that takes up most of its running time is an enjoyable visual spectacle but little more. As mentioned though, this volume is also an important lead-in to "the good bit" and the meat of the show's final story arc, which still makes it a necessary purchase if you're collecting Sword Art Online II as a whole.
This leaves us in an odd position where we have to rate part three of the series as "not particularly good, but still a must-buy" for fans of the show. At least, having seen it in streaming form already, we know we're in for a treat (albeit an emotional one) to close out the series.