Before we begin, be sure to check out Ordinal Scale, a movie of the franchise that’s events take place prior to the main story here. So here we are, back again with another installment (the 3rd) of Sword Art Online that follows the adventures in the virtual reality world of prestigious gamer, Kirito. If you’ve gotten this far with into the franchise, you either loved the excellent blend of its infamous time-jumping storytelling and iconic big fights from the past or hoping for a season that lives up to its promise with a better-paced story and less formulaic plotting. Alicization is the best of both, and while it occasionally falls back to its tropes of old, it still manages to weave a compelling story regardless of its flaws.
Like it’s previous seasons, Alicization plays out in two timelines—one inside the game and the other in the real world. This time around, Gun Gale Online and Aifheim are included, as the production team at A-1 Pictures are tying the past seasons together to form a more cohesive narrative. The first cour has consistent pacing and a great deal of characterization. The second cour raises the stakes, the battles become a lot more grandiose, some instances of revisiting some old tropes which is unfortunate. But an issue with both is the dedicated episodes of heavy exposition to explain the world in which Kirito now finds himself in. While informal, it gets a bit tedious, especially in parts where Asuna and the Cardinal are given ample screen time. But in retrospect, it is needed as the previous seasons sprinted to the finish line without taking the time to properly build up its world, which is something Alicization does right.
The techno-logic of Sword Art Online has been both impressive and questionable, raising many eyebrows at times. But the logic behind the new tech, “Soul Translator”, is interesting—as it renders the virtual world via memories, instead of polygons, this virtual world is practically indistinguishable from the real world, as every object within the virtual world is at the same level as the real thing in the user's consciousness. The artificial intelligence that is developed for Project Alicization is based on the structure of a human's brain, in order to create an artificial intelligence with awareness and the adaptability level of a human. The rest of the concept that follows is fascinating—the idea that artificial intelligence can be built from the bottom up—can be born, grow, learn and develop with its own unique experiences to guide it. And this is what makes this specific virtual reality world that Kirito is now in, with the addition of newer characters in Eugeo and Alice, all the more intriguing.
In the Underworld (name of the virtual reality world), time passes by a lot quicker than it does in the real world, we get to see Kirito and Eugeo grow up together over the course of a few years. We get a sense of the world through their eyes as well as their interactions within it. Here, Kirito (well sort of) starts off with a blank slate, somethings such as skills from previous games haven’t transferred over, he also can’t log out and some of his memory is distorted. So, the tense feelings that existed in Aincard seep through to Alicization. This also allowed Kirito to take on a different role as more of a mentor to Eugeo, who shares the limelight. This is an interesting dynamic as not only has Kirito taken a step back as the main hero, but we get another male character who can carry the story, overcome the obstacles and challenges in their mission to locate and save Alice, and also be a capable chick-magnet himself. There is a bromance between them, the chemistry they have is to the likes of Batman and Robin, just that the 'Robin' here is a lot more prominent.
Alicization does well to add in some surprises and twists along the way, especially around the whereabouts of Alice, the Integrity Knights, and the presence of the Cardinal and the Administrator. This bright flame of promise at the start of the season starts to flicker from time to time, mainly from the sometimes-excessive expositions and instances of Deus ex Machina but starts to burn brightly as the story reaches its climax stages. The interesting part of Alicization is the questions the series is posing in regards to ethics, morality and artificial intelligence. It’s territory the show has dived into a bit before but never deeply as in this season when the inhabitants of the Underworld are beholden to a “Taboo Index" of laws that aren’t actually moral in and of themselves. Which brings me to the #MeToo scene that happens in episode 10. For starters, there is a warning of strong and explicit content before the episode starts. Although I understand the reasoning behind the decision to include such a thing, to show the immorality of the Taboo Index but it could have done without. Admittedly, even though it’s a serious issue but I pissed myself laughing how ridiculous one of the nobles looked when he was flying on to the bed.
Aesthetically, Alicization is one of the best-looking anime of the season, and Sword Art Online has that reputation in general so it’s to be expected every time from A-1 Pictures when they are working with this series, Sword Art Online continues to set the benchmark for quality and beauty unrivaled in the genre. The artwork is gorgeous, background arts are vigor and vibrant, brimming with tiny animated details, great use of graphical effects or the masterful use of colors combine to provide a visual spectacle of wonder and delight. Character models are detailed and still hold that trademark look. The animation is solid, it makes the choreography of action sequences very crisp and smooth, and they have incorporated new and old camera techniques and special effects to not only maintain but enhanced the quality of the visual spectacle of the battles. A-1 Pictures still uses some of the classic soundtracks as well as newer ones that are really epic. LiSA’s OP and ED themes once again capturing the feeling of the anime perfectly, and the voice acting maintains its quality from the prequels.
Alicization is Sword Art Online’s biggest and most ambitious story arc with a lot more mystery, suspense, and darker themes. If you loved the first two seasons then you’ll likely enjoy this continuation of Kirito’s virtual adventures. The entire show is amazingly detailed with a real eye for color and fluid animation. The idea of having all three seasons being tied together is a nice touch and the characterization along with the new virtual world is generally intriguing and well designed. The time jumps are not much of an issue this time around but they do make their way back and in doing so, offset the pacing momentarily. Alicization is definitely one of the better installments of the franchise to date. It was unable to completely shake off the issues that held it back in previous seasons but was still enjoyable with a lot of more interesting concepts. Looking forward to 3rd and 4th cours, and more of Alice.