The Demon Tree
The End Mountains
The Sage of the Library
Ruler and Mediator
If you’ve got this far with Sword Art Online you’ll likely fall into one of two categories. Either you’ve loved the fantastical blend of time-jumping storytelling and big fights from before or you’re itching for Sword Art Online to finally live up to its promise with a better paced story and less formulaic plotting. Alicization, Sword Art Online’s third season, in its simplest form is a a bit of both. At times, SAO falls back on the tropes that made the first two seasons so frustrating but still manages to weave a compelling story regardless of its flaws.
Admittedly, Sword Art Online: Alicization does not make it easy to get into the story. The intentionally confusing opening 46 minute episode begins in a strange fantasy world. This vibrant area is occupied by a cute girl called Alice, a seemingly oblivious Kirito, our hero from the first two seasons, and Eugeo, an axe wielding loyal companion. After accidentally stepping into the forbidden Shadow Zone, Alice is kidnapped by the infamous Integrity Knights, the police of the world who carry out justice with an iron fist. From here, the story then turns to the two boys finding Alice and discovering more about this strange world in the process.
Much like seasons past, Sword Art plays out in two timelines – one inside the game and the other in the real world. This time though, in a bid to tie all the other seasons together SAO makes a conscious effort to include Gun Gale Online (the game from the second season) and Aifheim (the elf world from the first season) to form a more cohesive narrative. The first half of the season plays out much like last year’s, with a consistent pacing and a great bit of characterization. In what seems to be an unfortunate trend for Sword Art Online, the second half devolves back into time jumps forward, formulaic tropes and a dizzying array of fights. All of which either preceded or followed by tons of exposition to explain the world in which Kirito now finds himself in.
While the series does well to pepper in some surprises and little twists along the way, especially one late on around the whereabouts of Alice, it all feels a little too familiar. This bright flame of promise at the start of the season slowly flickers out and disappears by the time the final episode arrives. It’s a shame too and these time jumps completely offset the pacing and balance of the show, which was finely tuned during the opening episodes.
Given the way this season pans out, the focus shifts somewhat from the more interesting protagonist Eugeo back to Kirito whom we’ve followed for the past couple of seasons. While it’s always fun to see Kirito kick some bad guy butt, it’s a bit of a shame that Eugeo doesn’t get much of the limelight. His story feels a lot more interesting and important early on but as the focus switches back to Kirito, Eugeo just sort of blends into that sidekick role.
Aesthetically at least, Sword Art Online: Alicization is one of the best looking animes I’ve ever seen. Holy cow, the artwork is gorgeous. Backgrounds are vibrant and brimming with tiny, animated details, graphical effects like sunlight filtering through tree leaves or the masterful use of colour combine to provide a visual spectacle of wonder and delight. Character models are detailed and still hold that trademark SAO tag of large, glossy eyes that pop in every scene. Say what you will about the story, visually at least, SAO sets a benchmark for quality and beauty unrivalled in this genre.
If you loved the first two seasons of Sword Art Online, you’ll likely love this continuation of Kirito’s virtual adventures. The entire show is amazingly detailed with a real eye for colour and smooth animation. The thoughtful way all three seasons are tied together is a nice touch and the characterization and new virtual world is generally interesting and well designed. The time jumps make an unpleasant return though and in doing so, offset the pacing for the whole season. Alicization is a gorgeous, enjoyable season of SAO action that does a lot right but seems unable to shake the issues holding back the previous seasons. Still, if you made it this far you’re likely to see it through to the end, flaws and all.