The second season of Sword Art Online is somewhat unusual. First, it’s actually titled Sword Art Online II, like a film sequel, while its 24 episodes cover three distinct (and largely unrelated) story arcs. Fortunately, SAO II is very good, delivering more of the great action and world-building for which the first season was praised – even if it’s still held back by some familiar failings.

The first half of SAO II revolves around a new VR MMO called Gun Gale Online. While the original Sword Art Online, like most other MMOs in this universe, was fantasy-inspired, GGO has a gruff, realistic aesthetic reminiscent of  Western military shooters. In a disturbing throwback to the first season, an incident early on suggests that one player in GGO has developed the ability to ensure that players he kills in-game actually die in real life. Naturally, the government is concerned, but for some reason the powers that be are unable to investigate the mysterious but wildly popular game via conventional methods. Don’t the people responsible for GGO file taxes anywhere? Anyway, in the hope of finding out what’s going on, the government turns to the most experienced VR MMO player around, Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya, survivor and hero of the original Sword Art game. Kirito agrees to play GGO and undertake an investigation into the enigmatic player-killer known as “DeathGun”.

Kirito is more familiar with fantasy games than he is with Western-style shooters, and his efforts to play GGO like a traditional RPG make for some of the season’s more amusing moments. The main character introduced in this arc is Sinon, an expert sniper. The vast majority of GGO players are male, and Sinon is one of the game’s best female players. Naturally, therefore, she’s drawn towards the chick magnet Kirito, and helps him find his feet in the new game. While the GGO storyline is mostly enjoyable, it’s an irritating trope that every female character lusts after Kirito. By the end of the GGO arc, his “harem” of girlfriends has expanded to about five or six.

The second story in SAO II lasts only a few episodes, and sees Kirito and chums pursue a legendary weapon in the new fantasy MMO, Alfheim Online. It’s an entertaining story of the kind that made the early episodes of SAO so much fun to watch. There’s something inherently satisfying about seeing a group of friends explore a visually striking environment and work together to defeat a challenging opponent – even when the stakes are much lower than in the original Aincrad. It reflects well on the continuing ability of the writers and designers to create compelling scenarios.

But by far the best part of SAO II is the final story arc, “Mother’s Rosario”. The protagonist of this arc is not Kirito but Asuna, a popular character who is largely neglected in the earlier parts of season two. Here, Asuna is recruited by another guild, The Sleeping Knights, who want her to help them take down a challenging new boss. This is the beginning of an important new friendship for Asuna, and sets the stage for some poignant and heartbreaking drama that represents the best storytelling since the start of the first season. It’s further evidence, if any were needed, that the show would be better served by reducing the focus on Kirito, and giving the rest of its interesting cast some more space to breathe.