What a Season!
It finally happened folks, I gave a Sword Art Online season a perfect score. I’ve always enjoyed the series, but up until now, Ordinal Scale was the only thing that’s even come close as overall entries go. My worries that were sown when Alicization had first debuted in Fall 2018 were quickly washed away. All that setup was certainly worth the payout, and I can’t wait for the rest!
I think it’s important to stress just how unexpected this was for me. There’s always been something holding back each new installment in the franchise when it comes to Sword Art Online. Whether that be a lack of focus, pacing, or missed opportunities, I’ve never been able to truly embrace the show as heavily as some others in the community. Warts and all, I still have been able to enjoy each installment, but to say I’ve truly loved any of them prior to now, just wasn’t something I could say. Furthermore, wasn’t something I thought would be possible.
The reason for mentioning this is to really drive home just how much I liked War of Underworld. From start to finish, there were no wasted moments, great depth of character, and strong story (as well as emotional) beats that kept me eagerly awaiting the next episode. Even when the season slows down briefly for one episode in the middle to make sure everybody is up to speed on things, it didn’t feel like a waste and still managed to add to what came before it.
This demonstrates incredible growth from when this all started back in 2012 with the first season. It’s rare that you get to see a show that’s spanned multiple years like this improve in all aspects ranging from writing to presentation with animation and sound. While I still think, even after this, there is room for further improvement, such as hitting this mark consistently, I’d like to celebrate even reaching that point at all.
I suppose now that I should actually review the specifics concerning War of Underworld. In case you forgot, here’s a quick catch-up where Alicization left off:
Some military force has stormed the place where Kirito’s body is hooked up to the Underworld with Asuna on board. As a result of their interference, the crew outside of the simulated world are stuck with not much they can do to help Kirito. Furthermore, Kirito took a blow when the force cut power to the station from the outside, putting him into a coma, making Alice the only real survivor of the events in this season.
I know a lot of folks say SAO is at its best when Kirito is out of the picture, and War of Underworld is going to act to only further this point. He spends the entire season in this comatose state, but his presence is still very much felt. You get to see just how much he’s impacted the characters in the story thus far, and while it can seem a bit shallow in some ways, it was a smart move for the story.
The biggest benefit for this is the sheer depth of character Alice gains as a result. She decides to become Kirito’s primary caregiver in this time. You get to see the prejudices she faces as a result, the toll things have taken on her, and her conflicting emotions toward Kirito himself.
This is felt most when the war, the focal point of the season, begins. Alice is prepared to throw her life away in order to protect this world, to fulfill the goal that Kirito had before he was rendered useless. Her emotions really come through, the acting is expertly delivered here. To further complicate things Alice even tries to kiss Kirito to cement her feelings towards him, and as a way to formally say goodbye.
Naturally, she’s interrupted before she can follow through on this, and her attitude does change, but it was a powerful moment that really worked for the show. The whole idea is that these AI are on par with actual humans, and these very human actions, sold that fact without any room for doubt.
Unfortunately, some drama was sown in our world as a result of this. The SAO community was freaking out over the fact that Alice almost kissed Kirito and it was stupid. I know that fans of the franchise get a lot of flak that isn’t really deserved, but when folks act like they were here, it doesn’t help their case.
I mention this, because it did impact my enjoyment of the series at the time. It made me feel irritated toward the show, even though I was actively enjoying it. While this ultimately didn’t deter me from forging ahead, something I obviously don’t regret, I can confidently say that this did keep others out. That’s a real shame.
While I’m on a slightly negative topic, let me mention the one thing I didn’t like about this season. This wasn’t enough to drag the score down, but there’s something in fiction like this that you shouldn’t do: explain the “science” behind something that doesn’t need explaining.
You’ll see this in the form of the team outside of the simulation explaining why Kirito is likely in a coma to Asuna. It was obvious that Kirito was in a coma as a result to the power disruption form Alicization, but for whatever reason this is given an in-depth explanation. I can’t even really do it justice on rehashing the reasoning here, but it was really dumb. It’s not like this didn’t achieve something for the story, it drives Asuna to enter the story in the simulation, but it is the obvious weak point of the narrative.
Moving away from that, you probably caught what I said above, but Asuna finally joins the story in a proper capacity. No longer is she just a bystander, but now she is an active participant. Diving into Underworld, Asuna now finds herself deep into the war and things are worse than expected.
She’s not the only other human to have recently come into the simulation either. The enemy force from Alicization has also entered the world on the bad guy side in order to capture Alice. I have to say, I’m liking the main villain too. Learning about the “real” Alice and his drive to “see people’s souls” is a great concept. It let’s him be this almost cartoonish villain while keeping him grounded, something SAO has struggled with in the past.
Speaking of the “bad guys”, the folks in the Dark Territory get some nice focus here as well. You really get to see how there’s not much difference between them and the humans, it comes down to what side of the line they were born on above anything else. While some relish in the horrors that are going on, you can sense that a good chunk of them are not thrilled about this war.
Kind of a shallow commentary on the real world, but it worked for the show. The big bad, who is a human from outside the simulation, constantly takes actions that sow discontent in his ranks. Things like sacrificing huge swaths of his forces to cast a single spell, disregarding if an action will result in major casualty. Plus, there’s just the general brutality of war.
You ought to know by now that this is my kind of thing, so I was not disappointed! However, it wasn’t just this more dire tone the story took, but rather the stakes it helped invoke. Another common complaint leveled at this series, and frankly, lots of others, is the fact that you can’t feel these stakes. While you know that the main cast is pretty safe still, there were a lot of characters in War of Underworld that didn’t have that luxury.
When your story focuses on a war like this one, it’s all the more critical that you have this tension. The battles felt meaningful, outcomes were not automatically decided, and consequences were felt throughout the entire season as a result. I fully expect this to continue in the second half since some of these things still haven’t fully paid off.
Even with this only being half of the story for War of Underworld, with the rest coming 2020, I still wanted to give this that coveted perfect score. I felt the hype, and even after looking back, have only come to appreciate what this season accomplished all the more. Any worries I might of had since SAO made its return are all but eroded at this point. The series has bought a lot of goodwill here and I just pray it sticks the landing.
It was tricky to talk about War of Underworld because it’s only half of the story and it exceeded expectations. There’s loads more I didn’t even mention! How about you though? Did you enjoy this as much as I did? Let me know in the comments below. If you enjoy my work, please utilize my donation buttons below as it really helps me out. Thank you again for reading, and I hope to see you back soon!