The number of manga, light novels and anime being produced around the isekai storytelling trope continues to increase as each season passes us by. Isekai focuses on characters who for some reason or another, find themselves trapped in or othering playing within a virtual world and combining the ideas of a fantasy world and real-world concepts. Anime based within online culture and worlds are not new, with it really finding life through 1998s Serial Experiments Lain and 2002s .hack//Sign to name a few. But the genre has thrived off the back of Reki Kawahara long-running Sword Art Online light novels, and the anime adaptations from the animators at the acclaimed A-1 Pictures.
While it is clearly understandable why Kawahara’s work has had such longevity across the different otaku media formats, I cannot say that I have been too keen on its anime seasons to date. While the elements are all there to deliver something marvellous, the show struggles heavily with pacing. For example, the first two arcs – Aincrad and Fairy Dance – were heavily rushed through and had minimal substance when it came to building the lore of each virtual world or the players themselves. Rather than cramming them both into one 25-episode season, both could equally have deserved their own 25-episode seasons. Sword Art Online II redeemed itself somewhat, improving its pacing within shorter arcs to really give the narrative and its characters time to shine.
Taking place after the events of earlier seasons, Sword Art Online Alicization revolves around a new virtual world known as The Underworld, which Kirito is testing on behalf of Japan’s Ministry of Defense and its RATH technology division helmed by Kikuoka Seijirou. In what could come as a surprise to viewers, the first episode starts off already in the world, with a young Kirito and his (newly introduced) friends Eugeo and Alice going about their childhood activities. Everything goes as normal until a series of ill-fated events occur, leading to Alice being taken away by the world’s law enforcement group – the Integrity Knights. Not that Kirito remembers this, as his memories are wiped the moment he is removed from the FullDive Machine.
But when attacked by members of the Laughing Coffin guild in real life and injected with a deadly dosage of suxamethonium chloride, the Underworld becomes Kirito’s indefinite home until he can recover through sciencey-sounding logic around his fluctlight – or soul. Now trapped in the world, he reunites with Eugeo and the pair work together to fulfil their own tasks – escape this world, and rescue their childhood friend. Based on the first episode alone, it sets the stage for what appears to be a much more in-depth season which promises lots of character development, world-building and a much richer virtual world to explore. And yeah, it does deliver all that.
The Alicization arc of Sword Art Online has the opposite problems of the Aincraft and Fairy Dance arcs. Its major flaw is that its pacing can be incredibly slow at times. Granted, there are so many resources pooled into delivering an aesthetically pleasing experience – and if that is what you are after, then you will feel right at home. However, there were many times I found myself zoning out for whole sections of an episode due to needless exposition or events / battle scenes which run just a little too long. I think 25-episodes for the overall season is the right length, and it is better drawn out than rushed, but the balance between substance and progression was off once again.
The characters are likable, well-developed enough, and when not drowning in lore, the world-building is much stronger than in previous arcs. I also welcomed the separation of Kirito from the usual gaggle of characters in his entourage, with the focus on Kirito and Eugeo being a clear highlight of the show so far. That is not to say Asuna and co are not written out of the story entirely, instead being relegated to short, brief appearances to set the scene of Kirito’s real-world state and the events that will take place in the next season – Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld. Of course in these brief moments, the female secondary characters get more of a chance to shine than poor Klein and Agil, who both receive minimal speaking lines.
Despite there still being weaknesses in storyline delivery, A-1 Pictures have outdone themselves in the visual department, ensuring that The Underworld, its inhabitants and every conflict is designed and animated flawlessly. This is one such series I would recommend watching on Blu-ray if you are unable to officially stream it through a video-on-demand service like AnimeLab at 1080p. Keeping in line with the high visual quality, the instrumental and lyrical music are both consistently excellent, helping set the tone for any scene thrown at the viewer.
The same can be said of the show’s voice cast, with Aniplex of America and Bang Zoom! Entertainment both meeting the high standard set by the Japanese voice cast. Bryce Papenbrook reprises his role as Kirito, and after all these years sounds no different from when he started voicing the character. Joining the voice cast is Brandon James Winckler as Eugeo and Kayli Mills as Alice – two non-staple anime voice actors who bring a combination of talent and clear enthusiasm into their respective roles.
With all episodes of Sword Art Online Alicization available to stream via AnimeLab, FunimationNow and a handful of other digital distribution platforms, one thing that sets apart a physical release from a digital release is its extra on-disc content. Unfortunately, there is little on offer in either Parts 1 or 2, with a small collection of preview/trailer videos and clean opening/ending sequences. Disappointing considering what previous seasons have offered.
But overall, the value of Sword Art Online Alicization will come down to whether you’ve enjoyed the anime adaptations to date. If you have, then you will undoubtedly find much more to love in this season, with a further increase in production values delivering some genuinely stunning battles. However, if you lean towards my perspective on previous arcs, outside the high production values and a better concept to work with, you may not find much to keep you going further with the series. At the very least, I can say it is an improvement over its earlier seasons.
Sword Art Online Alicization Part 1 and Part 2 can now be purchased via your local anime retailer from Aniplex of America (North America), MangaUK (United Kingdom) or Madman Entertainment (Australia) on DVD or Blu-ray. Alternatively you can read the light novels, which are being localised and published by Yen Press.