CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of a scene involving sexual abuse is included. It’s been clearly marked, in case you wish to skip it.
Sword Art Online continues to be an enigma. Its issues are varying and pronounced, but I can’t help but have a soft spot for it. Sword Art Online, for all its faults, is achingly sincere. It wants to be a good story, and despite its blunders I admire the spirit to keep trying to be better. Sword Art Online: Alicization is the beginning of its most ambitious story arc yet. It remains flawed, but it’s a fairly compelling effort.
Sword Art Online: Alicization finds Kirito in Underworld, a virtual reality that’s less of an MMO and more of a simulated fantasy world. The artificial humans of this world aren’t regular NPCs. They’re authentic beings with lives, capable of thoughts and feelings. In this world Kirito meets and befriends Eugeo; a meek young man on a search for his childhood friend Alice. Together they venture, hoping to save the people of Underworld from the rule of Administrator Quinella.
Alicization is pretty clear in its goals. The narrative stakes, character motivations and general concepts of its world form a cohesive whole; with most scenes carrying a sense of purpose. Moreover, it’s generally clear in its theming. Kirito’s journey as a stranger in this land trying to find a sense of belonging. The conflict between what’s lawful and what’s morally right. The value of sentient artificial life versus the value of organic life. These ideas remain consistent, and develop naturally through the story.
Although Alicization is mostly solid and coherent, it can be a slog at times. It seems self-conscious of Sword Art Online’s less than stellar reputation, but sometimes that focus is misplaced in the “logic” of the narrative. From the first episode Alicization tries hard to avoid accusations of not making sense or having “plot holes”. In doing so, it gives us a lecture from Kirito about all the jargon of the arc to come. He explains the intricacies of ‘Fluctlights’ and ‘Soul Translators’ to dear audience surrogates Sinon and Asuna, and it’s about as exciting as it sounds.
Is it logical? Maybe. Is it compelling storytelling? Not really. This is a problem of a lot of nerdy fiction. Becoming obsessed with showing the intelligence and depth of their world, at the expense of building resonant stories around that world. Having a nuanced lore on its own can be engaging to a niche audience, but it’s generally not fun or interesting on its own. At worst it can feel like homework.
Alicization isn’t completely without intrigue, though. Kirito comes off a bit more human than before; more capable of humour and vulnerability. At the same time it feels consistent with the Kirito we’ve known up to now, still showing him to be a character who’s strong and confident at the same time that he has a more robust sense of conflict. On top of that, his friendship(?) with Eugeo can be quite charming. The two of them relate to each other, disagree with each other and have banter that feels authentic and fun. It’s not profound, but it allowed me to care about what these good lads go through.
With all that said, it took some time for me to really connect to these things. Outside of a few standout moments, the first half of Alicization is often plodding. Supporting characters have little going on outside of narrative purpose, and things generally move forward at a snail’s pace. Those pacing issues are most egregious when we step outside the simulation. For starters, it’s disappointing how many female characters continue to have nothing to talk about outside of Kirito. More importantly, Asuna’s subplot of rescuing Kirito quickly loses most of its momentum. Once the most burning questions are answered, the outside world becomes a mundane exposition zone that fades in and out of relevance. There aren’t a lot of scenes I’d cut from Alicization, but many scenes could be trimmed down.
CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of sexual abuse follows. If you aren’t comfortable with that you can scroll past this portion of the review.
Well… there is one scene I’d definitely cut. Once again, Sword Art Online sees it fit to use sexual assault to create narrative tension. I don’t know what’s more mortifying: the fact that this is at least the third time it’s tried this, or that this may be the worst attempt of the bunch. I don’t think I can do justice to how horrid and cruel it is. It’s long, and vividly animated, and deliberate in every ounce of its misery. The scene is also confusing in its intent. It indulges in the excruciating punishment of the abusers, but also shows Eugeo and Kirito to be visibly uncomfortable with having inflicted it.
As I’ve said before with Sword Art Online, it’s not enough to just think sexual abuse is bad. In the first place, there was no need for this scene to exist. The narrative of Eugeo and Kirito standing up for justice in spite of law did NOT need sexual abuse. If the subject is going to be done at all, it needs to be handled with an incredible amount of care and empathy. To that end, Alicization is as delicate as a sledgehammer. It’s a disgusting and tasteless scene, and if that’s enough to turn you off then I have no reason to blame you.
END OF CONTENT WARNING
Thankfully, the back end of the series is devoid of scenes like these. And better yet, it may be the peak of the series up to now. Kirito and Eugeo’s battles through the Central Cathedral are good fun. The Integrity Knights are fun battle shonen style boss characters, and the back and forth with them gives us plenty of flashy action set pieces.
Besides being flashy, the battles also have a sense of character depth. The way characters fight is influenced by their personalities and motivations, and you get a clear sense of how unique abilities mesh with each other. We even get some more understated battles of wit to break up the action, like their encounter with Linel and Fizel. A couple of them are underwhelming (like Eugeo’s battle with Bercouli), but all in all it’s a pretty entertaining watch. We conclude with a fairly satisfying final stretch. It’s not without strange moments (like Chudelkin’s lecherous gremlin man antics), but it neatly ties the threads that need to be tied and leaves enough intrigue for the rest of the story arc that follows.
All in all, Sword Art Online: Alicization is a decent watch. There’s some tepid and awful lows that make it hard to strongly recommend, but more often than not it’s surprisingly put together. This is as watchable and endearing as Sword Art Online gets.