Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 12 (Fin) – A Matter of Choice

When the hordes of red soldiers arrive, they don’t distinguish between Human Empire or Dark Territory, they just start killing everyone. It’s because of this that the Pugilists’ general, Champion, rips his eye out in order to defy his original programming and do what needs to be done to save his people from being wiped out: join forces with Asuna.

While Asuna briefly loses an arm in combat and is strongly fatigued by using her godlike powers to rend the earth, she has enough both to heal herself and build bridges across the chasm she made so that the Pugilists can reach their isolated comrades and take the fight to the red soldiers.

Asuna, the Pugilists, and the Integrity Knights fight well, but in the chaos, Vecta swoops in on his dark dragon and captures Alice, knocking her out with a sleep spell. Needless to say, this is a big, big disaster, since the world will end once she’s placed on the World’s End Altar (hence the name, presumably).

Bercouli is the first to give chase on his dragon, and once she’s healed, Asuna mounts her horse and follows, but Vecta has a hell of a head start. They can only hope his dragon tires before he reaches the altar far to the south, and that they’ll catch up to him while the dragon is resting.

Back at Rath, Critter is about to send a second wave of American players to overwhelm what’s left of the Human Empire’s army. Vassago wakes up after being out for eight hours. The JSDF will attack in twelve hours, so he wants to dive right back in to fight Lightning Flash Asuna and Kirito, whom he assumes is there fighting and not in a semi-vegetative state. He also tells Critter he has a “very special” account to use this time.

The second wave arrives and surrounds Asuna’s forces, but they are decimated by aerial bombardment from a single archer in the sky: Shino has finally taken the stage, much to Asuna’s tearful relief. With Critter re-instituting the 1000:1 time difference, they’ll have a whole other cour in which to catch up to and defeat Vecta, but it’s not going to be easy. Unfortunately, we won’t return to Underworld until April 2020. It will be a long wait; hopefully there will be some decent Winter shows to keep us distracted until then.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 11 – Protecting The World They Built

When Vecta sends his remaining troops across the chasm Asuna created a few at a time, it goes predictably badly, gaining the ire of the leader of the Pugilists. Asuna, Bercouli, and the other knights mop up the relatively defenseless forces, but Vecta isn’t surprised; the Human Empire has superior AI for its grunts and generals. But he has another ace up his sleeve, where his tech Critter is hard at work back on Rath.

The first thing Critter does is synch the Underworld’s clock to the real worlds, so an hour here is an hour there. Then he sends out a massive invite blast to an Underworld “beta test” in America. The resulting montage of people speaking horrific English made me wonder why they bothered, as it almost pulled me right out of the episode, but the end result is that Vecta is able to amass a reserve army of seasoned American MMO gamers, thus potentially turning the tables.

From the realm where she’s on standby, observing the digital world, Yui notices the implementation of the fake beta test, and notifies both Suguha and Shino. Following Yui’s instructions, the girls head to the Roppongi branch of Rath, ask to speak to Kikuoka, and are given access to STL beds. Looks like Asuna will soon be getting reinforcements.

Finally, Yui rouses the rest of the SAO/AFO crew: Lisbeth, Silica, Klein, and Agil, and brings them up to speed. Needless to say, all of them are fully on board with helping Kirito and Asuna any way they can, but the four of them plus Suguha and Shino won’t be enough.

They need numbers to counter the American invasion. A similar beta test blast in Japan won’t give them those numbers, as it’s the middle of the night when perhaps a tenth of the active users. Definitely a clever use of time zones as an obstacle to gaining parity with Vecta’s forces by the same methods.

It falls to Lisbeth & Co. to gather what members of the various tribes of AFO are awake and deliver to them a heartfelt speech that will convince them to undertake all of the risks that come with diving into the Underworld. Those risks include the lack of admin control, UI interfaces, and pain absorbers, and the potential for character degradation or even total loss.

It’s a tough sell, and many of the assembled players believe SAO survivors look down on them, but Lisbeth digs deep and gives an impassioned call for everyone who loves MMOs to come to the aid and defense of a world all of them helped create, and an AI in Alice who is the culmination of their shared experiences and emotions.

As we all know, War of Underworld is being split into two cours, the first of which will end with the next episode. And while it will be hard to wait for the ultimate conclusion to this arc, this first half looks primed to end on a very satisfying note as the titular Underword War enters its next phase.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 10 – The Turn of the Tide

After a quick look at Asuna utilizing the STL to enter the Underworld, she makes her appearance and saved Bercouli, Ronie and Tiese. The latter two are the first she meets, and she corrects their assumption that she’s the actual Goddess of Creation Stacia. When they thank her for saving everyone, including Kirito, Asuna asks to see him at once.

Their reunion is powerful but muted on the surface, like Kirito himself, but he still manages to shed a good number of tears upon hearing his girlfriend’s voice, seeing her face, and feeling her embrace him. It’s also clear to the pages that these two definitely know each other. But when Asuna leaves the tent, she is attacked by Alice, and the two spar magnificently until Bercouli breaks it up.

A good deal of exposition follows, as Asuna explains who she is, where she and Kirito come from (in terms they’ll understand), and the forces at work beyond the Underworld. Her mission as a representative of Rath is to bring Alice to the real world before the enemy, or the entirety of the Underworld will be erased. Bercouli figures out for himself that the enemy Asuna seeks is Emperor Vecta.

Despite all the sitting/standing around and talking, this is still an episode I enjoyed immensely. Not only did Asuna finally reunite with Kirito, but she and Kirito’s Underworld allies finally get on the same page. Alice is reluctant to “run away” to the real world with her, but the alternative is much worse, she agrees to do so, but only after the Dark Territory is defeated, or a peace negotiated.

Asuna agrees to join them in that fight. Now, at least, Alice is aware of the stakes of having a target on her back; merely sacrificing herself will be pointless, as it will spell the end of Underworld’s usefulness to the enemy. Once everything is laid out, the various parties head to bed…but it isn’t long before Asuna goes to Kirito’s tent, which Alice previously had forbade her to enter without her permission.

The two women reach a compromise: in exchange for access to Kirito, Alice wants to learn more about Kirito from Asuna, who is happy to agree (though she warns it’s “a very long story”; a nice meta quip). The two start by listing all the weeks, months, and years they’ve known Kirito, and in what capacity. His page Ronie joins in the “information sharing”, as does his former master Sortiliena Serlut.

Even in his present vegetative state, Kirito was able to bring together four strong, talented, kind people together to share stories about their time with him. The “competition” never strays into the realm of the absurd (watching the four tug at his arms and legs, for instance just wouldn’t do). I also appreciated the show didn’t throw in a cliffhanger introducing the latest threat, but ended on an earned, calm, and optimistic note.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 09 – Slash & Flash

Getting impatient, Vecta orders his main force of Pugilists and Dark Mages to advance with orders to capture Alice unscathed at all costs. Now that his prey/soul-snack is in sight, it won’t be long before he takes a more active role in the battle.

Another new Integrity Knight in Sheyta Synthesis Twelve volunteers to meet the Pugs and slow them down. Her specialty is impossibly fast slashes from an elegant and flexible épée-like sword skinnier than she is (the Pugs mock her lack of muscle tone on several occasions).

Sheyta has no problem carving up the Pug leader Champion’s forces with brutal efficiency, but Champion himself is literally made of harder stuff, which intrigues her. She draws the battle out longer for two reasons—she’s buying time for Bercouli, Alice, and the others, but once all of her armor has been sheared away and Champ is at full power, she’s actually having fun.

She’s about to finish things when Champ’s lieutenants snatches him away. The match ends in a draw, but put a rare smile on Sheyta’s face. She and Champion gained a mutual warrior respect, the kind of two-sided badass brawl I prefer to simply obliterating the masses of boring evil monsters.

Vecta sends Vassago to harass the Humans’ supply corps, and ends up crossing swords with Ronie (never any luck, that girl). However, she’s able to sound the alarm, and Alice and Bercouli are also there, having anticipated their supplies would be targeted. Even so, Ronie is in big trouble against the far stronger Vassago…until a miracle occurs.

At least, Ronie considers it a miracle, because the God of Creation Stacia appears above her and rends great fissures in the earth that swallow up Vassago and his minions. Stacia, of course, is merely an Underworld avatar being inhabited by our good friend Yuuki Asuna, who makes one hell of a divine entrance that simply gave me goosebumps.

On his way down his own personal size abyss, Vassago recognizes “Lightning Flash” from Knights of the Blood in SAO. The hero(ine) is finally, finally on the scene, in a powerful avatar poised to rescue the damsel-in-distress—in this case Kirito in a welcome inversion of SAO II. I can’t wait to see her fighting beside Alice.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 08 – Sacrifice on Both Sides

Alice just continues to be the biggest badass in SAOA, as it should be, since her name’s in the title. Fresh off of obliterating a sizable chunk of the enemy’s forces, Alice comes down to earth exhausted, but there’s no rest for the weary as she gets right back up.

When the chief of the Ogres emerges from the carnage, Alice learns that she’s the primary target of Emperor Vecta before sending him to the grasslands to where he wants his people to return.

Meanwhile, Eldrie comes before her consumed with shame and self-pity for not being able to live up to the standards of her disciple, but she’s just happy he’s still alive.

After a brief war council, Alice proposes and Bercouli agrees to split up their forces. Being the “Goddess of Light” the Dark Emperor seeks, she’ll gain the attention of a sizable chunk of his remaining forces, evening the odds for the Human Empire. She’s essentially bait.

On the other side, a discouraged Dee Eye Ell gets her second wind when Vecta offers her the lives of the 3,000 orcs in order to provide the energy necessary for a large-scale counterattack.

Like the Ogre Chief who simply wanted his people to return home, the orcs are painted in a sympathetic light, and the show is unblinking in their suffering as they give up their lives for a larger cause than themselves.

Alice doesn’t see the attack coming until it’s too late, but Eldrie is there to divert and absorb it with his Recollection, resulting in severe injuries that ultimately claim his life. While Alice is beside herself and orders/begs him not to die and leave her, promising to do anything for him, Eldrie couldn’t ask for a happier death, in the arms of the mentor he protected, valued and loved above all else.

Thanks to Eldrie, Alice can fight on, decimating the Dark Mages to the point Dee Eye Ell just starts sacrificing her own underlings in order to stay alive. Dee dreams of becoming Empress, meaning at some point she’d have to betray Vecta.

But Alice intends to skip over her entirely and go after Vecta directly. She knows at some point she must reach the World’s End Altar, she just has more immediate matters to attend to—not to mention a full head of steam after losing Eldrie.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 07 – The Broken Knight Repaired

Last week we saw Renly had run and hidden in a supply tent behind the lines, but as luck would have it that’s the very tent to which Ronie and Tiese take Kirito in order to keep him safe. Before they arrive, Renly is haunted by Administrator saying he’s always been “broken” due to his inability to master Perfect Weapon Control.

We learn the reason for that is that when sparring with a friend, he accidentally dealt a lethal blow to him after shattering his sword. But when a goblin too big for the girls to take on bursts into the tent, and he sees how strongly Kirito wants to protect them, Renly snaps out of his funk and kills the goblin with his sparrow blades.

He then makes his way back to the lines, killing every goblin he sees. until he’s faced with their chief, for whom his standard attacks won’t work. Again he remembers Kirito’s determination and uses Recollection to bind his two blades into one, cleaving the charging chief straight in half. Linel and Fizel, who fell back to rescue him, return to their unit, learning he’d managed to found his courage without them.

Elsewhere, the Dark Mages and Ogres are on the march, but 800 aerial minions are launched as air support. They all fly straight into a dense lattice of Bercouli’s time slashes, which he activates simultaneously, taking them all out. If last week was the Dark Territory making some inroads, this week was clearly the Human Empire pushing back.

That trend continues when Alice finally makes her move. She had generated a giant mirror filled with luminous elements harvested from the souls of the dead below. She’s saddened to learn that both human and dark territory forces have the exact same souls, rendering their entire conflict pointless in her mind. Nevertheless, this is a battle that has to be one.

To that end, she compresses the mirror sphere into a much smaller size, until the elements within reflect infinitely. Having scooped up all the souls, the charging dark mages aren’t able to fire off a single attack, and along with the ogres, are obliterated when Alice finally unleashes the destructive power built up within the sphere in a terrifying beam.

Alice gathered the spent lives of thousands in order to craft an attack to destroy still more thousands, all for the sake of one. To her, protecting Kirito is paramount, but as we know, it is she who is most important and in need of protecting, as she is Gabriel’s primary target.

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.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 24 (Fin) – Bigger Fish to Fry

It’s all down to Kirito vs. Administrator now, and their climactic swordfight doesn’t disappoint. Despite having really long hair and only one arm, Administrator is no slouch in the swordsmanship department. She knows all the Aincrad-style moves Kirito showed Eugeo, plus a few that even Kirito doesn’t know about, and seems to revel in the opportunity to teach an insolent cur from the outside world an abject lesson in submitting to his betters.

Kirito looks like he’s just barely hanging on while Administrator is content to draw out his suffering, but Eugeo, barely hanging onto life, reaches out to Kirito, and they have a little tête-à-tête in which Kirito finally recalls the memories he lost of growing up in Rulid Village with Eugeo and Alice. Eugeo tanks Kirito for his friendship, brotherhood, and love these past few years, then bestows upon him the Blue Rose Sword, which becomes the Red Rose Sword in Kirito’s hand.

Now dual-wielding against a one-armed opponent, Kirito would seem to have the upper hand, but it ends up yet another draw, as in exchange for the increasingly crazed Administrator’s last remaining arm, Kirito loses his right one, while Admin reveals her hair is prehensile and can be used to restrain and strangle Kirito, which she does.

Administrator can’t get over how much insolence she has to contend with in this fight, but as Eugeo says, Kirito is going to keep standing up and dusting himself up as many times as it takes. He manages to cut through Admin’s hair, then delivers a strike to her core that does irreparable damage, forcing her to access a console and beam herself out of there.

Before she gets away, promising she’ll be seeing Kirito again in the real world, a naked, burning Chudelkin jumps onto her, seeking her loving embrace, resulting in a huge fiery explosion. Quite the ignominious end for the ruler of the Underworld…though it’s probably not a true end.

With Admin out of Kirito’s hair, he tries to tend to Eugeo, but it’s way too late for anything other than a tearful goodbye, with Eugeo relaying what he now understands about love being something you give, not something you seek. Both a younger Eugeo and a younger Alice appear in Kirito’s head to announce that while their paths may soon separate, their memories of one another will remain forever.

Just after Eugeo passes away, Kirito gets an “external observer call” from Rath: it’s Colonel Kikuoka and Higa. The control room is under assault, either from the military or some other power that wants their hands on the STL tech. They give Kirito instructions to deliver Alice to some place called the “World’s End Altar”, presumably to complete the process of bringing Kirito back to the real world with his brain in one piece. Asuna is also mentioned. But Kikuoka’s foes have other plans.

They seek to sever the main power line, which will cause a surge that could fry Kirito’s fluctlight, killing him before he can be safely extracted from the Underworld. The line is severed, the surge occurs, and Kirito experiences something akin to a lightning strike, inside of which a blurry image of Asuna from above, fitted out in her SAO regalia. Whether it’s Kirito’s memory or Asuna entering the “game” for the first time, I’ll have to wait until October to find out, when the Alicization saga continues with War of Underworld.