Warning: this review contains spoilers for the first twelve episodes of Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld.
And thus another arc of Sword Art Online comes to an “end.” I use the word “end” loosely, considering episode 12 does not wrap things up in the slightest, nor does it even try to resolve this season’s conflict. That said, I’m not at all disappointed, because this was a very enjoyable episode and because SAO is set to return as soon as this April. In this review, I’ll naturally be reviewing the latest episode, but I’ll also be broadly summarizing my opinions on these last dozen episodes as a whole. This review is obviously a bit late, but I felt I needed to rewatch this season before giving my final thoughts on it. Hopefully that explains the week-long delay, and now, without further ado, here’s my review for episode 12 and the first half of War of Underworld.
While the latter half of this season has certainly been no stranger to duels and melees between the two clashing armies, there actually haven’t been many opportunities to watch the various heroes fight together; the Integrity Knights have generally fought alone on this battlefield, with the exception of Eldrie and Alice’s moments together. However, episode 12 gives us a taste of these larger-than-life heroes fighting on the same front-line, and there’s something utterly delightful about seeing Asuna let loose as the Lightning Flash once again, this time alongside Integrity Knights Alice, Renly, Bercouli, and Sheyta. On top of that, watching the chaos of an alliance-shifting three-way battle between the Dark Territory, Human Empire, and U.S. gamers is immensely entertaining.
The addition of U.S. players to the battle through the fake beta was a stroke of genius and a creative twist that added to the emotional stakes of this battle but was also a realistic reminder that the whole conflict this season has taken place in a video game. Writer Reki Kawahara is clearly a gamer himself, and he thoroughly understands gaming culture. These new human players don’t just pick a side and stick to it. No, instead, they go rogue, excited to fight and kill anything that comes near them, friend or foe. The sheer chaos caused by their entrance into Underworld humourously and accurately replicates the experience of having unpleasant online teammates, but the situation still manages to feel tense and dangerous, especially as Asuna grieves at the senseless loss of life as humans kill what they believe are NPCs. The often disturbing blurring of real life and virtual gaming, as I mentioned in an earlier review, is what distinguishes SAO from shows like it and what makes it so continually compelling. It never loses focus and becomes a generic isekai, as its stories always tie into the real world, and these little reality checks are what keep the fantasy moments feeling fresh and creative.
The standout of this final episode is definitely Iskahn, the leader of the Pugilist army. His duel with the unnerving Sheyta in episode 9 positioned him as perhaps the only morally complicated figure in the Dark Territory army since the curious and premature character kill-offs of Shasta and Lipia in episode 4. Episode 9 also introduced one of SAO’s most intriguing potential romances with Iskahn and Integrity Knight Sheyta, as the two share an unusually strong romantic chemistry. Ever since their duel, I had hoped there would be more scenes of them before this arc was over, and episode 12 delivered. Iskahn is now one of the few Underworld residents to break the Seal of the Eye and the first bad guy to do so at that. The fact that it was his rage against the emperor mixed with his desire to protect his comrades that broke the seal keeps him morally ambiguous, as his motivations remain both self-interested and selfless. Even his tentative alliance with the Integrity Knights and his budding camaraderie with Sheyta—who chooses to fight by his side and possessively protect him from any attacks but her own—don’t signify a sudden change of heart. His decision to help the Human Empire is a practical choice to protect his world and to spite Emperor Vecta, so his true allegiance is still quite dubious. Furthermore, the scene in which he tears out and crushes his own eye demonstrates his somewhat self-destructive and admirable determination, an attribute we haven’t really seen in any of the franchise’s villains before. While the next arc will likely primarily focus on major characters like Alice, Asuna, Sinon, and whichever other SAO survivors join the fray, I hope we get to see even a little bit more of this interesting and complicated new character, as well as his peculiar relationship with Sheyta.
Episodes 11 and 12 are also when War of Underworld finally begins to shift focus back to Sword Art Online’s older cast of characters. Asuna is back in full force, slicing her way through enemy armies and chasing after the kidnapped Alice. This season has often been without a clear protagonist, with Alice only taking on that role for roughly half the episodes. And while that scattered focus was quite effective, it is nice to see the narrative focus narrowing and returning to familiar and iconic characters again, as we head into a likely Asuna, Sinon, Leafa, and Alice heavy arc.
Lastly, while I said earlier that this episode wasn’t much of a climax and didn’t remotely attempt to wrap-up of this arc, it did leave us with some interesting cliff-hangers to keep me eager for this upcoming spring season. With Alice captured by Vecta and Asuna, Renly, Bercouli, and Sinon hot on her tail, the next arc is sure to begin with a bang, unlike the exposition-heavy start of this season. Furthermore, the epic entrance of Sinon, who has traded her classic sniper rifle for a souped-up bow, promises an exciting and epic return for the rest of the ALO gang. I’m sad there won’t be any more new episodes for a while, but at least this one ended on a high note.
With my thoughts on episode 12 out of the way, I want to spend the rest of this review talking about what I really enjoyed from this season. War of Underworld is perhaps the most risky and ambitious arc in the franchise so far. While last season did the brunt of the world-building and set-up the conflict that would unfold this season, War of Underworld never feels like it’s just coasting or wrapping the story up neatly. In a surprisingly bold move, this arc hasn’t featured series protagonist Kirito at all and hasn’t attempted to fill his position with any one hero either. Instead, the series has balanced a cast of characters, with each getting a day of glory and a chance to shine. While some of the early episodes suffered from this choice (with episodes 3 and 4 introducing and immediately resolving pointless conflicts between Vecta and the dark knights), the shifting character format worked perfectly in the latter half of the season. By focusing on each of the knights stationed in different areas of the battlefield, this season managed to create a truly epic battle that few anime can rival. By giving equal time to each of the knights’ battalions, War of Underworld provides one long battle sequence that feels truly epic in scale.
Like the decision to forego having one clear protagonist, the decision to focus on one extended battle is risky, partly from the possibility of diminishing audience interest but especially from the possibility of a diminishing animation budget. However, the animation impressively manages to meet the insane demand for repeated fast-paced fight scenes, delivering some truly beautiful moments. Eldrie’s dogfight with the dark magic insects and Renly’s acrobatic fights against the goblins are perfectly rendered, each scene crackling with kinetic energy. There are of course some minor hiccups—weird moments of CG and some awkward still shots—but they are few and far between and entirely trivial when compared to the overwhelmingly stellar animation of this arc. As for the possibility of boring the audience with one extended, dragged out battle, this season manages to keep the action feeling new and exciting by granting multiple, uniquely epic moments to each member of the story’s cast of characters.
There are a couple such moments in these last few episodes I wanted to highlight in particular: Eldrie’s self-sacrifice in episode 8 and Lisbeth’s speech in episode 11. I believe I mentioned in my review of the first episode that I quite like Eldrie as a character and found his potentially romantic relationship with Alice interesting. Episode 8 confirms that he does indeed love her and has tried to get her to notice him and find him worthy of her love, but sadly, he dies before we get too much of a chance to explore that new aspect of the relationship. While I’m disappointed that I won’t get to see Eldrie again and that his character arc wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, his final scene is incredible and definitely one of the most memorable moments of this season. As mentioned previously, his “dogfight” through the skies on his dragon is one of the most fast-paced and visually appealing moments in the entire battle. The pseudo-glitch that allows him to fight beyond his HP limit emphasizes his extraordinary determination and courage and provides an epic send-off to his character. The subsequent scene, in which Alice attempts to save Eldrie, only to helplessly watch him die in her arms, is quite emotional and important for her character going forward, but most importantly, it facilitates the absolutely cathartic and epic destruction of the dark mages by Alice’s hand. In a season filled with memorable and epic moments, Eldrie’s selfless death and its immediate consequences remain near the top of the list.
But even greater than Eldrie’s sacrifice is Lisbeth’s speech to the ALO players in episode 11. Unlike the other scenes I’ve highlighted and praised in this review, Lisbeth’s speech is no exciting action scene. However, if I had to choose a series-defining moment of SAO in its entirety, I would be hard-pressed to think of any scene more iconic than this one, as it beautifully expresses the worldview and heart of the entire franchise. SAO has always been a dramatic representation of MMO gaming and the bonds that people form through shared gaming experiences. The series has fondly explored the way gaming betters lives, and the narrative even treats psychopathic murderer Kayaba Akihiko more generously than he deserves, just because he was the visionary behind SAO, the larger-than-life VRMMO experience that united the main characters and inspired their interconnected virtual reality. However, the series has also never shied away from the dangers of gaming, often dramatically represented with fatal consequences, and has frequently depicted how virtual reality can be used for the twisted agendas of the real world—the crux of this very arc. The good and the bad, the highs and the lows of virtual gaming—SAO has portrayed all of it with true affection for and understanding of gaming culture.
Through Lisbeth’s speech, SAO delivers both a love letter to and a defense of gamers. As Lisbeth sheds light on the tragic situation of Aincrad’s survivors, including forced medication and therapy and government watch lists (a moment of surprising and much appreciated realism in a shonen anime), she clarifies that the fear surrounding these survivors is not so different from the attitudes against MMO gamers in general. They’re dangerous, they’re unhealthily addicted to useless hobbies, they’re unable to tell the difference between the real world and the virtual, etc. But, as Lisbeth argues, who’s to say which is the true self? Is it the self that works a job, has social engagements, and is forced to live within reality? Or is it the liberated virtual avatar that makes lasting friendships and is developed through a passionate investment of time in a virtual world? Which is the true self? Which self matters more? Most interestingly, neither the narrative nor Lisbeth offers an answer, urging both Lisbeth and the show’s audience to consider the societal biases against gaming, as well as their own devotion to it. Lisbeth’s speech is a passionately-delivered and complicated discussion of the social issues and fears regarding video games and is the emotional climax of the issues SAO has tackled since the very first shot of that tower in Aincrad nearly eight years ago.
Having now watched and rewatched these past twelve episodes and having now written down my thoughts on the season as a whole, I’m reminded all over again of why Sword Art Online remains one of my favourite anime series, despite the severe criticism it so often receives. There’s something special about this series that consistently captures my imagination and emotional investment like few other anime do. Of course, I don’t deny the series is flawed and prone to making the typical mistakes of shonen anime. The pacing is often quite rushed, many of the villains quite weak, and some of the characters quite generic. However, the series has also always taken risks, told engaging stories, and delivered exciting action and genuine feeling in equal measure. This first half of War of Underworld was a delight to watch every Saturday, and if the next half of this season manages to maintain this insane level of quality, Alicization will undoubtedly become one of anime’s most entertaining arcs and one that I will gladly revisit and rewatch again.