Now that I’ve finally found the time to catch up with both the Alicization anime and read the latest light novel volume, I’ve been remembering what a fun series Sword Art Online is. Alicization is such a change of pace from previous seasons; it’s basically a Shonen Jump battle manga at this point, and I’m completely okay with that. Plus, the latest volume of the light novel starts a brand new arc, so despite the fact that this series has been running for years, diving into Sword Art Online has been a fresh experience lately.
Getting back into SAO like this reminds me how much Reki Kawahara has grown as an author over the years. As I pointed out in an Anime News Network editorial in 2017, Kawahara first began writing Sword Art Online in 2001. As a recap, a rough timeline of Kawahara’s career would go like this:
Sword Art Online volume 1 (written for the Dengeki Taisho) -> Submission is scrapped, gets posted online instead -> the rest of Sword Art Online is posted online, up until partway through Alicization -> Kawahara takes break to write Accel World volume 1 for the Dengeki Taisho -> Finishes off Alicization in 2008 -> Accel World volume 1 gets published, Kawahara writes new volumes -> Meanwhile, the SAO web novel is edited and republished by Dengeki Bunko.
…This means that Accel World is a newer work than Sword Art Online, but nobody really pays that much attention to Accel World (not even myself, tehehe). Even so, I’ve always thought it was unfair to judge what kind of author Kawahara is now based on what he wrote over 10 years ago. Although Kawahara began writing the Progressive reboot series in 2012, it’s only in the Unital Ring arc starting from volume 21 that the overarching story of Sword Art Online continues past the web novel. That’s why I went into volume 21 with a heightened sense of curiosity. Just what kind of author is Kawahara nowadays?
SPOILERS FOR SWORD ART ONLINE VOLUME 21 BELOW:
Unital Ring takes place one month after the events of Alicization. Despite the fact that he’s behind on his schoolwork and also general life stuff (he hasn’t decided on a present for Asuna’s birthday, which is three days away), Kirito is back to playing VRMMORPGs, because of course he is.
At this point in the series timeline, hundreds of VRMMORPGs run off “The Seed”, the freeware program based on the original Sword Art Online game that can be used to create an infinite number of VR worlds. Alfheim Online and Gun Gale Online are only two of many VRMMORPGs created with The Seed. One day, every world created with The Seed converges, creating a mysterious survival game named Unital Ring.
As a result of the worlds converging, every player reverts to level 1. They also lose their items, equipment, magic and abilities (but not their Sword Skills). Although no one dies in the real world when defeated in the game, any player who dies in the game will not be able to log back in again. Also, whenever you log out, your avatar will remain in the game, completely vulnerable to attack. A mysterious announcement also informs all the players that “the first player will receive everything”, indicating that the game is a race.
When the worlds initially converge, causing the New Aincrad castle to fall to the ground, Kirito is with Asuna and Alice in the log house where they normally hang out in Alfheim Online. Although almost every player inside New Aincrad died when the castle fell, Kirito and his friends somehow manage to stick around, although they have to repair their log house within a time limit, otherwise it disappears forever. Since Kirito and Asuna have strong memories about their love nest, they make it their highest priority to repair the log house, and don’t appear to really care about the larger mystery of the world for now.
In other words, most of volume 21 is actually a rather laid-back adventure with no pressing goal beyond “save the log house”. Most of the story revolves around exploring the immediate surroundings for materials and levelling up survival skills. Among all the games showcased in the Sword Art Online series so far, Unital Ring seems like the most tedious one to play, although that is almost certainly an intentional design choice.
The tone and delivery of this volume reminded me a lot of Sword Art Online: Progressive, which is also a fairly unhurried adventure that takes the reader through each and every floor of the original Aincrad. The characters casually banter with each other as they slowly piece together the nature of the world. The ending of this volume makes the ties to Progressive even more obvious, because Argo the Rat, a side character from the Aincrad arc who got a lot more attention in Progressive, makes a surprise appearance at Kirito’s school.
In other words, Unital Ring so far has many of the same flaws and strengths as Progressive. On one hand, the dialogue and character writing has never been better. On the other hand, the pacing is as slow as a crawl. Remember the days when SAO arcs only took one or two volumes to wrap up? I don’t necessarily miss the rushed plot progression and half-baked character development from the early days, but surely there’s a middle ground.
One area that Reki Kawahara has recently promised to do better in is with the female characters. That can already be seen in this volume. There is no sexualising fanservice, for a start. Even when the characters lose their clothing and equipment, it’s only Kirito who goes around shirtless, and that’s framed as a joke. The romantic affections of Kirito’s harem are downplayed, and (with the obvious exception of his girlfriend Asuna) it honestly seems like they’re more interested in dunking on him than having his babies nowadays.
Most obviously, however, Silica gets her own subplot to shine. I’ve had a soft spot for her ever since her adorable karaoke scene in the Ordinal Scale movie, but she never really got much attention in the main story. But in this volume, she has a battle with a buff Amazon lady, and they become great friends because of it. I am all for Kawahara drinking the feminist kool-aid if it means more cute moments like this.
SPOILERS OVER. YOU CAN READ SAFELY NOW.
If you were to ask me if Unital Ring is an improvement over previous SAO arcs, then I would say that it is, generally speaking. However, it does feels strangely underwhelming after coming straight off the high stakes, high fantasy saga of Alicization. I hope that the series does not take too long to get to the overarching plot of Unital Ring. Even in the first volume, I found myself skimming over menial details like how the crafting system works.
Above all, Unital Ring feels like a refinement of SAO’s core appeal: worldbuilding, characters and adventure. I’m not sure if everyone will like the direction of modern Kawahara’s writing; it’s light-hearted fun rather than doom and gloom. But it’s so joyous, it reminds me why I’ve stuck with SAO in spite of all of its low points. When you get down to it, Kawahara is one of the best light novel authors in the business when it comes to making interesting game and fantasy worlds. Even if the games he envisions don’t sound fun from a design sense, watching the characters find joy in it is the fun.
Also, Kirito kills a bear while shirtless. That’s pretty awesome.
Note: The comments on this post contain spoilers, so if you haven’t read the volume yet, read at your own risk.