Created By: Reiki Kawahara
Directed By: Tomohiko Itó (Season One & Two, Ordinal Scale Movie), Manabu Ono (Season Three: Alicization, War of Underworld)
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Audio: English, Japanese
Format: DVD, BluRay, Netflix, Crunchyroll
Licensed By: Manga UK for Season One, Anime Limited has Season Two onwards
I’m sure to many this franchise needs no introduction, as for some of you it may have been your first anime. As it became a massive hit when it began back in 2012 and has since been known to divide the anime community back in the past. We are coming up to the shows 10th anniversary next year and after seeing clips of the new season: Alicization Underworld, I decided to go back to the very beginning of the show and catch up.
It’s the year 2022, virtual reality gaming and its technology has come a long way. Now players can ‘fully dive’ into an online multiplayer role playing game by using a NerveGear, that allows the user to experience and control their online characters with just their minds, whilst in reality they are just lying down in their bed with a gaming helmet on. Both the NerveGear and the latest VRMMORPG game Sword Art Online, were created by Akihiko Kayaba. Who welcomes all the new players when they enter the game – only to trap them all inside on Launch Day as he removes everyones ‘logout’ button. Now 10,000 players of all ages are trapped within the online game, with no way to disconnect – except to beat the game by defeating the Boss on the 100th floor.
We follow a young man named Kirito, as he does his best to survive in the game as a solo player. Along the way he often joins up with other players and even joins a Guild, in order to progress even further towards the Boss floor. Two years pass both within the game and the Real World, many have given up all hope of ever leaving Aincrad and have begun businesses, bought homes and as for Kirito – meeting a fellow SAO player named Asuna and having a family together by more or less adopting a wandering child that they found in the forest. This couple keeps pushing forward at all times for the sake of all the players still trapped in the game and in memory of those that have died along the way. The first Season of Sword Art Online had heart ache, a thirst for survival, seeing people reach their limits, the dark side of humanity but also the many girls that have all fallen head of heels for Kirito. With only one of them getting that all important ring on their finger. Now this show may not have been for everyone, as there were a number of dark themes involved, including PKs (Player Killers) within the game that were murderers. We also had immense violence, torture, some shocking and intense scenes at times, especially towards Asuna towards the end of the first season. It came close to hitting the 18 age rating at times.
Season Two is set a year after the events in Aincrad but just a short time after where we left off in Alfheim Online, as both Kirito and Asuna begin to readjust to reality and attend school again. We have since been introduced to Kirito’s cousin Suguha, who joins the gang as they continue to explore ALO. This season follows Kirito as he ports his avatar over to another game called Gun Gale Online, at the behest of a Government Official after reports of several real life murders linked to the game and a player going by the name Death Gun. Here we meet a player named Sinon, who assists a very feminine looking Kirito as he gets his barings in the new game. Sinon has an interesting backstory and is using her character in GGO to help tackle her childhood trauma. Once again by the end of this season, another girl has fallen for Kirito. With Asuna still the only one in Kirito’s sights, the rest of the girls still manage to follow him wherever he goes. This season also see’s Kirito playing a significant role in how a Government taskforce tries to bridge the gap between crimes committed between the real and virtual worlds.
In the second half of Season Two, we return to the adventures found in ALO. As Kirito and his friends set out on a quest to discover the legendary Holy Sword Excalibur. Once that side mission is complete, its Asuna’s turn to shine as after her duel with an undefeated player, she is asked to join a party with a guild known as the Sleeping Knights, in order to complete a mission. There we meet the undefeated swords-woman Yuuki, known across ALO for her 11 hit original sword skill “Mother’s Rosario”. This was a heartbreaking arc to watch, as Yuuki’s story was tragic. Asuna, having ultimately discovered her secret, rushes to her side and does all she can to comfort her. Once again it is both Kirito and his ideas of limiting the gap between the real and the virtual worlds, that allows Yuuki the chance to experience a normal school day yet again. Something she had been unable to do for so very long. Although the end of this season left me in tears, it was beautifully done and left such an impact on all the characters involved that continued to be shown again in the coming seasons.
Following on from Season Two, the “Ordinal Scale” movie was released. Having bridged the gap once more between the real and virtual worlds, a new headset and VR game was released. Similar to when Pokémon Go was first released, you had to travel around to both catch Pokémon, defeat gyms, participate in raids and hatch eggs. This film brought the VR world into the real world, you could ‘dive’ out in the open on the street during live events. With Boss raids a common event, they were organised in a way that wherever it was taking part, areas of the city would be cordoned off for the event for safety precautions. It was a community event, instead of solo gaming. You would imagine that Kirito would love this kind of game, but in fact it was the opposite, as it didn’t feel the same as a ‘fulldive’. It relied more on your physical ability, as it was just you as you are doing all the movement. Too much physical effort for Kirito it seems. Ultimately there was something sinister going on behind the games development, as several players’ memories became affected – including Asuna’s. As Kirito begins investigating more into the games developers, he uncovers that there is a link between this new VR game and the developer of SAO: Akihiko Kayaba.
Season Three takes on the Alicization arc. Where a member of ‘Laughing Coffin’ ends upattacking both Kirito and Asuna one night out on the street. As Kirito manages to push Asuna out of harm’s way, he ends up being injected with the same poison that was being used to carry out the murders he was investigating in GGO. Now clinging onto life and with severe brain damage, it’s none other than Investigator Kikuoka that brings forth the idea that Kirito gets transferred to a military hospital in order to get specialized medical attention. By using the same full dive tech that was used by Yuuki in ALO, Kirito awakens in the same world he onced visited as part of his part time work at Rath. However he still retains his memories, all except the moment he was attacked by Laughing Coffin and the memories he once held in this World. Now Kirito must figure out how this ‘game’ works, what he can do and how he can get out again.
In this series we meet Eugeo and Alice, both of which were born in the same village and grew up together. In this world there are rules and laws, if they are broken by an individual, they are taken away by an Integrity Knight to be punished. This is what happened to the young girl Alice, now Eugeo wishes to go and rescue her. However first he has to complete his Sacred Task, which of course Kirito teaches him a short cut in how to do this.
This season is unlike anything that happened in the franchise previously. Although Kirito is now ‘trapped’ in a new world, it’s not a game. This is an AI building environment, these ‘people’ are living out their entire lives, generation after generation right here. All experiencing life just like people in the real World. It’s almost like The Truman Show, a world set up so that individuals will believe its real and will live their lives out as normal. And of course this is all being done with an ulterior motive, not for the world of gaming but as a technological advancement for warfare by creating a ‘bottom-up’ AI. One that was created not by inputting all the data, but by learning it itself and establishing its own morals and values. So although Kirito is recovering within the ‘full-dive’, as his neural brain paths are being restored, he is also trying to help rescue the captured Alice within. There is quite a bit going on in this show, although very little time has passed between all these events in Asuna’s world – perhaps a week or two at best. For Kirito, it has been over two years and a lot has happened in that time!
Part Two of this Season has only finished airing in recent months and has yet to receive an English Dub. So the physical release will be some time for Alicization: War of Underworld. However you can still watch the English sub version now over on Crunchyroll if you just can’t wait! For me, this arc of the franchise has been the strongest yet and needed the previous seasons to get the characters and storyline to this point where this arc would be possible. Ultimately it is Kirito that has suffered the most in this season, I can’t say much as there are far too many spoilers involved. It’s such a strong season and I have no idea where it will go next, but there is hope for another season. We know already that there is a movie in the works named Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night, which brings us all the way back to Season One in Aincrad from Asuna’s perspective as she encounters Kirito and we see her initial struggles trying to cope with her new reality trapped within a game.
For now feel free to buy your physical copies of the anime franchise today. If you prefer streaming, then Seasons 1, 2 and the first half of Season 3, as well as Ordinal Scale are available to watch now in English Dub over on Netflix. The full franchise is also available to watch in full over on Crunchyroll.