Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 06 – Spitting in the Wind

After a comprehensive layout of the order of battle on both sides, the flatland goblins, giants, and mountain goblins advance on the three sides of the first unit, led by Deusolbert, Fanatio, and Eldrie, respectively. Eldrie falls victim to his inexperience and lets the goblins get too close, and their smoke bombs turn his flank into confusing chaos.

But Sir Deusolbert has a big ol’ quiver of giant arrows, each one of which is capable of blasting away dozens of foes in an instant. It’s impressive firepower…but there’s a limit to it, and when he runs out of arrows, he’s badly exposed and must rely on his men to protect him by essentially throwing their lives away—lives the Human forces cannot afford to lose.

Fanatio also looks poised to make quick work of the charging giants, until their chief starts to glitch and enters a kind of savage berserk mode that catches Fanatio off balance. Fortunately, her loyal lieutenant Dakira steps in and blocks the giant’s attack. Unfortunately, Dakira dies of her injuries, and Fanatio uses up a lot of time and energy eliminating the chief.

The episode ends with the front lines just barely holding together after just the first wave of Dark Territory forces, with Eldrie’s unit in particularly bad way. And that wave is nothing but cannon fodder; it felt like the knights were throwing their best weapons at this enemy without much thought to preserving some of that power for the tougher waves.

Then again, they don’t have a choice. Their regular soldiers are under-trained and untested, and even one of the younger Integrity Knights demonstrates he has no integrity by fleeing the battle to hide in a storage shed. The battle has barely begun, and the forces of the Human Empire have already taken a serious hit in manpower, energy, and morale.

Alice glides over all of this, holding her powder for the next waves to come, and summons a massive ball of…something. Destructive energy, I guess? Hopefully she can slow the enemy’s advance at least somewhat to allow the units to regroup, but it still feels like the Humans are going to need a lot more help, either from Kirito finally waking up (or at least instinctively contributing somehow) or the timely arrival of Asuna.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 05 – The Eve of Reckoning

With a title like “The Night Before Battle”, it was clear there would be one more calm-before-the-storm episode before that battle took place, but in this case, it was not only earned, but welcome. After all, there a lot of reunions that need to happen before battle is joined. That starts with Alice’s protege Eldrie and her “uncle” Bercouli.

Eldrie is concerned about the dead weight that is Kirito, but Bercouli demonstrates that he’s still capable of defending himself through sheer willpower. That means he may yet come back to them, hopefully in their hour of greatest need. That’s coming soon, by the way—their forces are outnumbered more than 16-to-1.

Alice considers that perhaps Kirito can’t hear or react to her voice because she’s still suppressing her feelings, and that maybe a gesture of those feelings may finally wake him up. She comes close, but is interrupted by Tiese and Ronie, who heard Kirito was at the camp. I suppose kissing him wouldn’t have mattered; the conditions haven’t been met for him to come back yet.

The pages are beside themselves upon learning of Kirito and Eugeo’s fates, and Alice can’t help but notice they act as if they loved the boys. They rebut that assertion by saying they don’t deserve the right to say they love him, citing their traumatic experience that led the boys to break Axiom law to save them. Alice rejects their position, transforming to “peacetime” Alice Zuberg that would have been had she not been kidnapped.

Her lesson to the two is that bodies are unimportant compared to the hearts and their souls. If they feel they love someone, or that they can and should do something, they need not be ashamed to carry those feelings with pride. It’s something she learned from Kirito and Eugeo and is happy to pass on.

Alice is less enthused by Lady Fanatio carrying such feelings with pride, especially when she asks to see Kirito so she can “try various things” in an attempt to revive him. Alice betrays her own personal feelings for Kirito by barring Fanatio from seeing him. But such bickering has to wait; it’s time for the war council.

Administrator truly screwed the Human Empire in her management of their military forces. The remaining Integrity Knights must make do with what little they have and pursue a strategy of bottle-necking the enemy’s superior numbers in a narrow, barren ravine, hoping that location will also prove challenging to dark mages, who require material in order to cast their arts.

After saying what could be her final goodbyes to Kirito (leaving him in the pages’ care) and Eldrie, Alice mounts her dragon and the forces move into the ravine. The gate resolves, heralding the “Final Load Test.” The good guys are at a huge disadvantage against Miller’s massive forces.

I don’t doubt they’ll need to rely on a last-minute intervention from…someone; maybe Kirito answering the call in their greatest need, maybe Asuna, finally arrived in Underworld and ready to fight to save her fiancee. As for Alice…we just saw a lot of death flags… :(

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 04 – I Don’t Want to Live In This Dark Territory Anymore

Before arriving in Underworld as Emperor Vector, Gabe has a vision of a girl he grew up with, and remembers his father talking about the location of the brain in humans compared to insects. I already didn’t like where this was going, because there’s little point in showing this guy’s past other than creeping people out even more than his desire to eat ALICE’s “sweet” soul.

Most of the tribes of the Dark Territory support Emperor’s decree for more “blood and terror”, except for Dark Knight Commander Vixur ul Shasta and his lieutenant/lover Lipia. Dark the Dark Territory may be, but they know delicate alliance between the tribes will be thrown out of balance and lead to ruin if they go all out against the Human Empire.

Lipia shares Vixur’s sentiments on this matter, but takes it upon herself to rectify it by waiting for Vector in his bedroom and attempting to assassinate him. He’s able to repel her attack, and after strangling her to death, her soul emerges from her forehead and he eats it, experiencing something he’s been yearning for since it happened just once more in his life, with his childhood friend Alicia.

It hapened after he killed Alicia when he drove a screwdriver too far into her ear, hoping to find her soul. Whether he was trying to kill her or not, he was extremely happy with the result, and sought to repeat it by doing it to many, many others. It helps that he’s voiced by the veteran Ishida Akira, who does “aloof, world-weary misanthrope” very well, but yeah…yet again we’re dealing with a straight-up sociopath and irredeemable bastard of an SAO villain. Would be nice if he had more…nuance.

Gabe’s lieutenant (who gets a name this week: Vassago) is amused by how naturally and how well-suited for acting like an emperor his boss is. In a communication with Critter back IRL (where just two hours and change have elapsed), they are warned that if they’re killed in their current bodies, they won’t be able to return to the Underworld as superusers, but mere grunts. So for all intents and purposes, they’re mortal here.

Gabe goes ahead and warns his would-be future assassins by presenting the head of Lipia frozen in a block of ice. This throws Vixur into a fit of rage, but one of the dark mages poisons him before he can touch Vector. Somehow, he manages to overcome the poison and enter a kind of Overdrive mode, launching a suicide attack on Vector that ultimately fails.

Vixur ends up in a strange void where he learns Vector’s soul is “neither alive or dead”, which will make it hard for anyone to kill him. It sucks that seemingly the only two people who opposed Vector are immediately out of the picture.

Before joining the other knights in preparing their defense, Alice peeks over the suddenly crumbling Eastern Gate and spots the massive armies of the Dark Territory advancing. The Human Empire isn’t just, as Alice says, “out of time”, but they’re also very lacking in numbers, and even if they were to mobilize regular citizens, what hope to they have against vicious goblins, orcs, ogres, giants, and…er, pugilists?

We’ll just have to find out. Suffice it to say, I’ve seen enough from the perspective of the bad guys, who are, in true SAO fashion, the baddest bad guys to ever bad who need to get got in the worst way. I don’t like them; mission accomplished, show. Hopefully it returns to Alice’s POV, and/or gets around to updating us on Asuna’s status.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 03 – Starting Positions

Now things are starting to fall into place: the black ops team that infiltrated Ocean Turtle are a tactical team led by Gabriel Miller, AKA Subtilizer in Gun Gale Online. The NSO approached him to carry out the mission on behalf of the US Government to prevent Japan from gaining a decisive advantage in military AI tech. But with Alice’s Lightcube out of reach, their tech guy Critter determines the best way to achieve their mission is to dive into the Underworld and secure Alice that way.

The only problem they face is that all the high-ranked “superusers”of the Human Empire are also locked, meaning they can only dive in as ordinary citizens. Miller suggests they dive as a Dark Territory player instead, and sure enough, their two highest ranks, Dark Knight and Emperor Vector, are unlocked and ready to use. Miller will go in as the Emperor, and his right-hand man the former.

While Miller’s team is figuring all this out, Higa pretty much also determines their best bet is to dive in, only they have full access to their choice of Human Empire superusers. Since Higa determines that Kirito needs forgiveness from someone close, Asuna is the natural choice to dive in.

Higa also seems to realize the Dark Territory superusers are unlocked and available to the enemy, but for some reason doesn’t bring it up to the others. Asuna finally prepares to dive in and save her fiancee, which is now also a mission to keep Japanese military tech out of foreign hands. Three guesses as to which she considers more important.

Before diving, Asuna does something very wise, which is texting the SAO/GGO/ALO Scooby Gang to tell her where she’s going and that she’ll be back with Kirito. While she doesn’t explicitly tell them not to go in after her, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shino & Co. don’t remain on the sidelines for this one.

Thankfully, Yui seems to know about the situation, which will probably only intensify their desire to help their friends. Prior to the ALO meetup, Shino has a flashback to a GGO match in which Subtilizer killed her. If she learns the same dude just dived into the Underworld as the arch-villain, settling the score with him (or just overcoming her fear of him) is just extra incentive for participating.

That brings us to a palace in the Dark Territory I don’t believe we’ve ever seen, but it’s reassuring to see that the “bad guys” in Underworld aren’t all inhuman monsters. There are humans like an aging lord and his younger protege, who are apparently locked in a will-they-won’t-they romantic situation. A super quick way to, well, humanize the Dark Territory and make its forces bit more more compelling than hordes nameless, faceless beasts.

Just as the older man finally proposes to the woman, there’s an emergency: the lock on the throne room has been destroyed, and Miller and his LT have spawned there as Emperor Vector and the Dark Knight. Just as the Dark Territory was looking at the possibility of peace talks now that Administrator is dead, these two bros are going to jack everything up in their quest to get Alice.

It’s already been established he can be a creep with women…so there’s that to not look forward to. Mostly I just can’t wait till Asuna’s in there kicking ass and rescuing (and hopefully curing) Kirito. The stage is finally set; now it’s time to start the game.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 02 – A Knight of the Human Empire

In the first half of an episode split right down the middle between Underworld and the real world (still a rarity in isekai anime), Alice leaves Kirito at the cottage to deal with the goblin and orc raid on Rulid. While I feared the raid was merely a diversion meant to separate the helpless Kirito from his protector, it’s much simpler than that: the goblins and orcs just want to mess shit up.

The village’s chief man-at-arms, whom Alice’s father must obey, almost lets that happen, since the richer villagers want to protect their possessions at the cost of the lives of the poor. Alice arrives in time, and with Selka’s support and by revealing her identity as an Integrity Knight of the Axiom Church, she convinces the villagers to follow her retreat plan.

While the villagers fall back, Alice stands alone between them and the massive horde, but does not falter. Naming herself a Knight of the Human Empire, she orders an air attack from her dragon, then uncovers her right eye and unleashes the power of the Fragrant Olive Sword, decimating the monsters.

After watching her uneasily live a much simpler life, Alice rises to the occasion when the stakes are raised, and watching her act as a one-woman army without a moment of uncertainty is extremely satisfying. It gives me hope that other former Integrity Knights can shrug off Admin’s residual chains of control and stand up as fellow Knights not of the Axiom Church, but of humanity itself.

She allows the remaining goblins and orcs to flee, with the warning that she won’t hesitate to finish wiping them out if they return. Confident they won’t soon bother Rulid again, she takes Kirito and leaves, until such a time that her self-appointed mandate is realized.

She hopes one day she can hang up her sword for good and return as plain old Alice Zuberg, daughter and sister. In addition to being damned fun to watch kicking ass, Alice has emerged as one of the most motivated and compelling characters in SAO. I just hope she’s not killed off needlessly.

That first half on its own scores a solid 9 in my book, as in concert with last week’s episode completes the arc of Alice returning to her role as knight for her world rather than mere caretaker to Kirito. The second half, entirely set in the real world, isn’t quite as strong due to all the exposition, but is just as necessary to watch play out, as adds an extra layer of peril and challenge.

The way SAO works is that we gradually get lost in the fantasy of the virtual worlds, thus that they feel as real as the worlds from which their “players” originate. With the added dimension of severe time disparity between the worlds, and the fact that in our own world about two years have passed, the events aboard Rath’s Ocean Turtle have felt frozen in amber.

But as soon as Asuna grabs Kikuoka by the scuff and all but promises he’ll be a dead man if he loses Kirito, I’m immediately reinvested with what’s going on here, and how it will affect life in the Underworld.

Asuna, Kikuoka, Higa and Rinko are safe for the time being in the sub control room, but a mysterious black ops outfit has successfully taken control of the main control room, STL room, and most of the lower section, and whoever sent them may have enough official sway to keep the SDF escort ship Asahi from intervening.

Whoever they are, it’s clear they’re after A.L.I.C.E., but neither side is able to extract her Fluctlight externally; it must be done within the Underworld simulation itself. Assuming they’re on their own, the mission it to retrieve Alice before the men in black. Kirito, their man on the inside, would seem to be their only hope…or would be, were it not for his present condition.

Higa learns that Kirigaya Kazuto emerged in the Underworld with his memories intact, and has been living the equivalent of two years, training, fighting, gaining and losing friends along the way. When the men in black cut main power, it fried his “self-image circuit”—the virtual equivalent of his ego—which explains his condition. Kirito can’t talk, doesn’t know who he is, what he needs to do, and only responds reflexively to “deeply ingrained memories” (which explains why he reacted to the goblin raid).

That means someone will have to head in there and either help him recover or execute the mission in his stead. Asuna is closely eyeing the spare terminal beside Kirito, so surely she’s that someone. But so are the men in black. As the combatants prepare to enter the battlefield, the true War of Underworld is about to begin, and I couldn’t be more pumped.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 01 – The Price

When we last saw Kirito and Alice, Eugeo had just died, Administrator was defeated but not killed, and Kirito had lost his right arm and his fluctlight fried by some kind of power surge. This exemplary episode is all about the aftermath of those events, both immediately following them and some months later.

Aside from Rintarou Okabe or Natsuki Subaru, I can’t think of a protagonist in recent anime memory who has suffered as much or fallen quite as low as Kirigaya Kazuto. He was being kept alive in Underworld, devoid of memories, but after saving that world from a tyrant, he lost even more. In the present, autumn is falling on Underworld, and Kirito is a mute, emotionless husk under Alice’s care—with frequent visits from her sister Selka.

Alice is no slouch in the loss department either. She may have regained a sister and, incidentally, her freedom from the Axiom Church and Order of Integrity Knights, but she lost Eugeo, one of the best friends whom she’d forgotten, while the other of those friends in Kirito is the aforementioned husk. It’s ultimately Alice’s episode, and it’s an unyielding portrait of anguish.

Alice scratches out a meager wage felling trees with her sword skills, incomparable to anyone else in the village. The villagers need her help to make progress, but suck their teeth behind her back and even mess with the minimally-responsive Kirito and the Blue Rose Sword he inherited from Eugeo. It doesn’t matter that Alice, Kirito, and Eugeo saved them from Administrator’s evil plans; they just don’t like them.

Knowing Kirito wouldn’t be safe anywhere near the Cathedral, she tried to return to Rulid Village, but her own father shunned her, so she settled in a cabin on the town’s outskirts with Kirito and her loyal (and adorable) dragon Amayori. It would be a happy life—were it not for Kirito’s condition and the still-looming Dark Territory situation.

The tranquil, picturesque surroundings call to mind Kirito and Asuna’s cabin, once the site of so much joy. But while Alice and Selka try to make the best of things, there’s no escaping the fact this is an extremely dismal situation, with no immediate sign that things will get any better.

Quite the contrary: with Administrator off in some other dimension, the world of men has never been more vulnerable to incursions of orcs and goblins from the Dark Territory. Bercouli musters his fellow Integrity Knights and starts re-training lower-ranked forces Admin had banished, but the time of the titular War of Underworld is just over the silver mountain horizons in the background of those gorgeous vistas.

Eldrie is on a mission to confirm the various tunnels into their lands have been blasted to slow the enemy’s advance, but his dragon senses his younger sibling Amayori and thus Alice. Eldrie begs her to rejoin the knights and join the fight. Alice doesn’t tell him she won’t, but that she can’t. Even if she didn’t have to care for Kirito, she can no longer wield her sword. Eldrie reluctantly accepts this and the two part ways cordially.

As Alice turns in with Kirito, sharing his bed to keep him warm or just so she can have human contact, her remaining eye fills with tears as she asks Kirito just what the hell she should do. After all these months with no progress, I imagine she’s starting to lose hope he’ll ever recover, and in the meantime has been coping, enduring, and operating on inertia.

When Kirito suddenly moves as if reacting to something, there’s a sudden glimmer of hope that’s just as quickly snatched away—he’s only reacting reflexively, as Amayori does. You see, fires are blazing in the direction of the town and there are sounds of fighting—no doubt a Dark Territory raid. So yeah, no hope, just more awful shit to deal with.

As all this is happening in Underworld, we have no idea what is transpiring in the real world with Asuna on the Ocean Turtle. While I’m no sucker for punishment, I do appreciate the bleak depths to which our heroes have fallen, because it will make it that much more compelling if and when they manage to claw themselves out. That’s why we must watch.