I’m going to be honest and admit this was one title I was highly anticipating this season. There’s been a lot of hype around this arc thrown around but to be honest I’ve tried to avoid reading any actual spoilers so I went into this knowing nothing other than more SAO. And that in and of itself is probably enough to power through some of the less elegant moments of this 47 minute monster of an introductory episode. Emotionally, I fell back in love with Sword Art Online, Kirito and everything I hope this series will be. Objectively, there’s some issues. So I’m going to hit the negatives first and then tell you why you should watch this anyway.
*Some Spoilers – Okay, lots of episode spoilers, no spoilers of future developments because I don’t have a clue where this is going.*
Going in with no knowledge of what this arc is about is incredibly disorienting. You are thrown in as a young version of Kirito and a blonde haired kid named Eugeo try to cut down a tree and then a blonde girl named Alice shows up and feeds them lunch. It’s a very low key introduction but without any context you’re brain is mostly trying to figure out whether Kirito is playing a game, and if yes, why is he so young.
Discarding those questions and just going with it, you get a pleasant enough introduction to this world with the kids taking you on a quest to find some ice, driven by Kirito. It is probably this part that made me the most convinced that they were in a game given the other two characters seem very NPC like in the way they respond to his suggestions. Though, the same could be said for Klein and the normal cast of SAO so that wasn’t exactly a proven fact. But, this does make it a slow start. Yes, I get this episode has 47 minutes, but this was a very meandering way to begin the story and while we will eventually get to a dragon fight and an arrest and things that are interesting before Kirito essentially wakes up, this series is very much banking on audience anticipation to keep you watching because if a series you had no familiarity with started this slowly it would probably hit the cut list very quickly.
A final problem with this episode is the exposition dump Kirito lays on us in the second half when at the cafe with Asuna and Sinon. As soon as they started talking about the new full dive technology accessing souls I kind of wanted to roll my eyes just a little. I can go along with head gear that makes your senses feel like you are in a game and translates those sensations to the body, but directly accessing the soul (which is apparently light stored in tubes inside your head in case you were wondering) and writing to it just seems like an unnecessary complication and lending itself to pseudo-science jargon. I’d have happily bought time distortion in standard VR technology without bringing souls into the mix.
Now, why should you watch anyway, other than it being Sword Art Online?
Firstly, Kirito and Asuna. Admittedly, the episode focuses almost exclusively on Kirito. The entire first half he’s the only one of the original cast who is present and it isn’t until the second half where we meet up with the rest of the gang, but Kirito is in fine form. The younger, weaker Kirito who still has that save the damsel and fix things mentality was kind of adorable to watch and the older more contemplative Kirito seems like he was going to be pretty interesting. Not to mention, Kirito practically proposes to Asuna asking her to go to America with him because he can’t live without her, which kind of hits the idea that SAO has ever been a harem anime firmly on the head. Despite his save the damsel in distress motivation, Kirito has only ever had eyes for Asuna. Of course, doing so practically raises his own death flag and this episode is happy enough to oblige in the name of ending on a dramatic cliff-hanger (47 minutes and you still felt the need to leave the audience just hanging).
However, leaving Kirito aside, SAO is clearly doing what it has always done and that is exploring the line between games and reality and the nature of humans whether it is in game or in real life. That aspect of the show has always been nicely done and regardless of the arc the story has come back to the theme again and again. Alicization isn’t deviating from that although again I’m not sure we needed to throw souls into the mix.
Finally, despite the pacing and the exposition dump, this episode was still really fun. Okay, that’s a biased opinion from someone who just enjoys SAO but that’s kind of the point. This is entertainment and it does that. Is it going to work for everyone? Probably not. But fans of the franchise will probably not be disappointed and I’m not sure this exists for anyone else anyway given the episode barely pauses to introduce Klein, Sinon and the others who briefly show up for a gun battle before vanishing from the episode. There’s assumed knowledge of characters and context making it clear this one is for existing fans and isn’t an entry point. Unless of course the only important characters are Alice and Eugeo and the others just exist to give fans a hand wave and then vanish, in which case new viewers will be a little confused momentarily but just fine in the long run.
So, I’m hyped for more of this and I’m really hoping it delivers.