Sword Art Online: Alicization
Genres: Action, Fantasy
The Fall 2018 anime season has come to an end, and with that, so does the first cour of Sword Art Online: Alicization. I mentioned in my review of the first episode that I am not the biggest fan of the series but wanted to go into this arc with an open mind, especially since readers of the light novel claim that this is the best arc in the series. With twelve episodes down, I can confidently say that I agree with these fans – this is better than everything the series has shown so far. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that I can recommend Sword Art Online: Alicization, especially if you already don’t care for Kirito and the gang.
I’d like to start on a positive note in an effort to avoid sounding like I’m just bashing the series. From a production standpoint, Alicizaiton is the best in the series. The animation is top notch, none of the drawings feel lazy, and the soundtrack plays the right music at the best possible times. All of the characters look their best too, especially Kirito. The designs are cleaner than they have ever been. The change in director is evident here, and it is for the better.
So the anime is pretty, but how is the rest of the show? Unfortunately, it is a mixed bag from here. I’ll start with the story, which I have mixed feelings towards. Alicization takes place in a new fantasy setting that isn’t reality nor a video game. I don’t want to spoil too much here, especially because the nature of this world is revealed about halfway through the cour, so viewers won’t be in the dark for too long. From the beginning, this new world is engaging, with an introduction that will make viewers forget that they are watching Sword Art Online. The world has a mix of fantasy and science fiction elements and is full of intrigue. There is a sense of wonder at the beginning of the show, but that fascination quickly gets muddy as the picture becomes clearer.
The new world lives by a code of laws known as Taboo Index, which dictates every aspect of every citizen’s lives. In the beginning, this seems fine enough, but as the show progresses, the way in which the laws are enforced lean towards science fiction rather than fantasy. There is nothing wrong with this, especially because Sword Art Online is a blend of both genres. Viewers will be confused as to why the world is the way it is, especially in the beginning, which makes for an interesting mystery. I found myself wanting to learn more about this world. Unfortunately, while I was invested in the world, I was constantly frustrated by the way information was presented to me.
Alicization is a slow burn, which is something that I think that the rest of the series would have benefitted from being. Slower pacing would have been preferred, especially in the Aincrad arc. I would have been much more invested in the characters and their relationships if I witnessed their growth more personally ( For example, I can believe that Kirito and Asuna love each other because they were together for two years, but for the viewer, they went from strangers to marriage in only ten episodes). The slow development of Alicization is much appreciated, but at times it is a bit too slow. The narrative gets bogged down by boring explanations of the sciences. Entire episodes worth of time get spent on a character simply explaining a mechanism to another character (For the viewer of course), and these moments often come at unexpected times. For example, during an exciting moment in the fantasy world, there was a sudden shift to Asuna in the real world while she investigates a matter dear to her. I’m not saying that Asuna’s arc is uninteresting, but it came at a time that I didn’t care about it.
This is the primary reason why I can’t bring myself to actually like Alicization‘s narrative. It has a lot going for it, especially in its world-building, but it gets bogged down by the same things that make the original series so controversial, just on a smaller scale. It feels cluttery, and the story-telling is mostly convoluted. I think the series is going in the right direction, but I can’t say if it will find a way to be consistently interesting. It’s possible that the show will start to focus on the interesting aspects of the narrative, especially since it got so much exposition out of the way early on. I am not exactly confident, but I can say that I am hopeful, because there is so much potential in this series’ story.
While the story runs into many issues with the narrative, I can safely say that the characters have benefitted immensely from the changes in Alicization. I found most of the characters in the original series to be one-dimensional and regularly unlikable. This especially applies to Kirito, who basically serves as a protagonist who fulfills power fantasies. Watching Kirito always win in mostly unbelievable ways that cheat the way the world works has always been unsatisfying and the series’ biggest flaw. With Alicization, Kirito doesn’t feel unstoppable. He isn’t in a game this time, and while he has carried over many of previously acquired skills, he is still struggling to thrive in this new world. Kirito has had more growth in Alicization than the rest of the series combined. There are still some moments where he suddenly pulls out some ridiculous skill or hail mary, but it doesn’t feel as forced this time (Though I still have some issues with the “You have to believe in yourself to get stronger” approach to growth that this arc leans on). Alicization allows for Kirito to grow both as a person and a warrior, which is a nice change of pace for the series.
The rest of the cast of Alicization is mostly weak. Strong characters have never been SAO’s strength, and that doesn’t change here. Alicization’s secondary protagonist is Eugeo, and really the only character that I genuinely like in the show. In a few episodes, he has more development than most characters have had in the entire series. Again, the rest of the characters just aren’t up to par, and at times it makes the show difficult to watch.
Kirito and Eugeo’s relationship is certainly a highlight in Alicization. Over the course of these twelve episodes, Kirito and Eugeo have formed a strong bond that resonated more with me than Kirito and Asuna have. Watching the two characters grow has been one of the better parts of the story so far. The characters endure a lot together, from life-threating events to mundane moments. The variance of significant events helps the characters to feel more authentic overall. Most interactions between characters feel stiff and unnatural, especially when it comes to Kirito and everyone else. The abnormal interactions are much more toned down between Kirito and Eugeo.
Is Sword Art Online: Alicization worth watching? If you are a fan of the series, it is definite yes. This is the best that Sword Art Online has ever been. The new world is genuinely interesting, the production is incredible, and the bromance between Kirito and Eugeo is fun to watch. For everyone else, know that at the end of the day, this is still Sword Art Online. The series is still plagued by many of the same pitfalls, just on a smaller scale. Everything that was unbearable previously is now a nuisance. The highs of Alicization are truly spectacular, but it feels like they are always followed by an episode or two of mediocrity. Some episodes are simply boring, which is worse than just being bad.
There is a lot of potential in the next cour, especially because all of the exposition is out of the way. I hope that this show can find its way because I am tired of only enjoying a third of every episode.
Sword Art Online 1st Cour
The same stuff plagues Sword Art Online, but it isn't so bad this time. There is a lot of potential here, but right now, its just potential. Nothing more.