Sword Art Online / Sword Art Online II / Sword Art Online: Alicization

3 out of 5

Directed: Tomohiko Itō (SAO, SAO II), Manabu Ono (Alicization)

(Yeah, these are separate shows, but I still just view them as seasons, and so review them together, as I did with Durarara!! and DRRx2!!)

SAO and SAO II ebb and flow by their cours: starting out addictive, with killer premises and a fun cast, frequently thrilling fight sequences, and plenty of can’t-wait-for-it cliffhangers.  There’s some rather frustrating fan service that ruins the spell, but every now and then a thoughtful line from lead Kirito or one of his associates will suggest that maybe we’re going to delve into issues beyond the actiony scope of plot…  When the second cours start, though, you trash any thought of that: the killer premises are swapped out for stake-less, wish-fulfillment ones, and the fan service ratchets up while the show still puts on a straight, serious face, making it that much more obnoxious.

Alicization is an appreciated course correction to this bifurcation, staying on one track for its whole run and keeping that slobbering, male gaze tamped down to favor two male leads – Kirito and Eugeno – instead, but the world in which its story takes place is also more grounded and thus lends itself to something of a mundane pace and feel throughout, thanks to non-adventurous (and sometimes clumsy) writing.  It’s enjoyable as linked to the ongoing SAO universe, but probably wouldn’t stand out on its own.

Sword Art Online is the name of the virtual reality MMORPG Kirito – and many others – get “stuck” in in SAO’s first cour, as the developer has hacked their VR units to essentially kill them should they try to exit the game prematurely, with death in the online world also doing the same in reality.  This is a cute way into a seinen, but it’s also an intriguing hook: SAO dabbles in familiar RPG elements as our lead goes solo – most join up into groups – to work his way up a central tower and beat the game, while also lightly dabbling in the psychological effects of having to “live” in the virtual world, and wondering what would cause the dev to have done this, and what’s going on in the real world…

It’s so intriguing that it’s baffling why they skip past a tone of floors of the tower and come to a conclusion partway through the season, with cour two switching to another game (ALfheim Online) and lusting after fairies.  There’s a real world threat attempted here as well, but it’s lacking in the all-encompassing feel of SAO, and Kirito begins to act more like a typical can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees dullard hero type than the more calculating rogue of SAO.  Also, let’s have some brother / sister fan service as well.

…Which results in the bikini filled ‘extra edition

Admittedly, SAO’s writers come to a relatively mature solution on this, clearing the slate for SAO II’s new MMORPG – Gun Gale Online.  Switching out the swords of SAO / ALO for guns, the first cour picks up some threads from season one to inject GGO with players who are wielding special weapons which kill the users in real life.  While this could be a viewed as a remixed version of the original arc, the new setting and characters revitalizes it and we’re back in business, hungrily demanding new episodes up until the tense conclusion.

Aaand then we repeat the second cour issue again, with some piddling RPG missions.  Less fan service, but a lingering question of why this stuff matters, despite further attempts to write in some heavier considerations on life in VR versus life in the real world.

Alicization then deposits Kirito into another virtual world, waiting out healing on some injuries he sustained.  There’s a girl in a tower to be rescued, essentially, and though there’s some intrigue as virtual Kirito can only half recall why he’s in this new world, the series is mostly straight up swords and knights fantasy, but lacking the embellishments of SAO’s / ALO’s / GGO’s worlds.  It’s a nice change of pace, and percolates into a moderately exciting back half, but while there’s a tie to the outside world, it seems too far away to matter.  So we’re just focusing on girl-in-tower, which is pretty basic.

Ebbs and flows.  The voice acting is quite good throughout, and A-1 should be commended for their fluid acting, relatable character work, and really well choreographed and exciting action.  It’s been an uneven ride, but even at its worst, there’s the sense that something exciting is probably around the corner… and so far, that has proven true.  So I’m on board for whatever world Kirito wants to drag me to next.