Warning: this review contains major spoilers. If you haven’t seen the first episode yet and plan to, go watch it and come back after.
So, it’s no secret that I’m an unapologetic fan of Sword Art Online. It was one of the very first series I watched when I got into anime back in 2013, so I have a lot of nostalgia attached to the original series, and each new season since continues to be a lot of fun. While last year’s Alicization was one of my favourite SAO arcs, this first episode of Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld (now there’s a mouthful of a title) has almost entirely ensured this season’s position as the best outing of the series so far.
This first episode, while not particularly action-oriented, is still packed with important and exciting story developments. After the gruelling fight against Administrator Quinella last season, Eugeo lies dead; Kirito has lapsed into a vegetative state, unable to speak or move without assistance; and Alice is a mentally broken soldier, unable to wield her sword as she once did. Determined to protect Kirito, Alice takes him into hiding outside her hometown Rulid Village, where she and her reunited sister Selka have cared for him the past six months. Meanwhile, the defeated Integrity Knights have rallied after the loss of their leader and are preparing for the inevitable invasion from the forces of the Darkness Territory.
SAO is no stranger to dark or depressing plotlines, as evidenced by Sinon’s PTSD or Yuuki’s tragic death in SAO II. However, this opening episode introduces us to perhaps the darkest episode of the series yet, with the usually invincible Kirito left broken and the proud and strong Alice a shell of her former self. Thankfully, this episode doesn’t rush to restore the status quo and allows time to let the emotional weight of what’s happening sink in. The quiet moments in which Alice tenderly cares for Kirito expertly vacillate from heartwarming to heartbreaking, and Kirito’s subconsciously attempting to derive comfort from holding Eugio’s sword hits with a truck-load of feels. But easily the saddest moment of the episode occurs within the first few minutes, when a halting and broken version of iconic theme “Swordland” plays as Alice clothes a similarly broken Kirito. This moment is appropriately sombre and effectively sets the tone for this apocalyptic season.
While our hero Kirito will obviously return to his former self at some point this season, I honestly hope the story lets him sit on the back burner for a bit. The new focus on the morally ambiguous Integrity Knights promises some epic fights in the future (hinted at in the OP), as well as a chance for some more in-depth world-building and character development. Since several of the knights were given interesting and sympathetic backstories last season, it seemed like a waste to leave them behind, so I’m glad they’ll be playing a larger role this arc, particularly Eldrie, whose fight against Kirito and Eugeo last season was one of my personal highlights. The fractured relationship between Eldrie and Alice also intrigues me, and I hope we see more development in that area, especially since their matching dragons are cute and I want to see more of them too.
There hasn’t been any action yet, but the tension in this arc is already palpable. Alice’s barely suppressed anger against the other villagers crackles (literally), and the desperation of the Integrity Knights as they struggle to prepare for an imminent apocalypse is aptly portrayed. The episode’s final scene, in which a comatose Kirito gasps in horror and Alice sees her village under attack, has me thoroughly invested, and the next episode cannot come fast enough. And with the OP promising Asuna back in action, I’m super stoked to see what kind of ride this season of SAO takes me on.
As for the OP, I’m reserving judgment until I hear it a few more times, since most SAO OPs take a few listens to really grab me, but while I’m unsure of the song, I’m absolutely certain that the visuals of this particular OP are amazing. The bright colours pop, and the closing shot of Alice marching onward in full armour gives me goose-bumps already. Although I dearly miss Kirito and Eugeo’s dorky handshake, I’m excited to move onto and love a new SAO OP again. Lastly, this season’s ED is performed by SAO veteran and all-around legend LiSA, so I have no complaints there. Now all I need is to hear Alice’s theme one more time, and I’ll be perfectly satiated with the soundtrack.
Although anime elitists are somehow still invested in hating on SAO, the series has only gotten better over the years, and this arc has the potential to be the best yet. This first episode expertly builds up tension, and I’m excited to see where the storyline goes from here. If you’ve ever enjoyed SAO and for some reason dropped the series in the past, I highly recommend getting caught up as soon as possible, as the Alicization story has been thoroughly entertaining and promises to get even better this season.
Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld is currently airing on Sundays and is legally available for streaming on Crunchyroll.