Sword Art Online: Alicization - 1.01 Underworld

After a four year gap, Sword Art Online returns with its newest season Alicization, which covers the most recent arc of the long-running light novel and manga series. The season premiere, Underworld, sees a de-aged Kirito running around a strange VR world with Eugeo and Alice, two children his age.

Interestingly, Alice bears a strong resemblance to the title character from Alice in Wonderland (blue dress, white pinafore with blonde hair). After exploring too far one day and breaking a rule in the so-called "Taboo Index," Alice is taken away, causing Kirito to wake up in a panic, revealing everything we saw took place in virtual reality (VR).

It's disconcerting at first to see Kirito running around as a child, especially with characters we've never met before and no mention of Asuna, Sinon or anyone else we'd know. However, once Kirito returns to reality, the episode does a good job explaining the basics of where we are in the story.

Alicization is different from previous installments in that it does not take place in a game environment. Instead, Kirito reveals to his friends that he's testing a "Soul Translator" (STL), a machine that copies new born souls and imprints them with information in a virtual environment. The company in charge of the STL project blocks Kirito's VR memories so he doesn't know what the process is for, but he assures Asuna and the others that the process isn't hurting him (even though it's commented multiple times that he's losing weight).

Given that this is a season premiere, the show makes sure to re-introduce all of the main characters we've come to know since season one: Klein, Silica, Lisbeth and Sinon are all seen running around Gun Gale Online (GGO, a VR game first seen in Sword Art Online II), but the characters feel like they're only passing through for a quick hello as they're not onscreen for very long.

One detail that stuck with me in this episode is how dark and dismal the real world is compared to Underworld (and even GGO). While the VR worlds are bright and idyllic, in the real world it's raining and everything appears dull. It almost feels like the animators are trying to subtly imply that VR is superior to reality, a plot point that has been toyed with in previous seasons (as one can do things in VR that are impossible in real life).

After making plans to travel to America together while Kirito continues his VR studies, Kirito and Asuna are accosted on the street by a strange man, revealed to be Johnny Black, the ring leader behind the Death Gun murders in season two. Kirito pushes Asuna away to keep her safe, but is himself injected with an unknown substance (viewers of season two will know this is lethal succinylcholine, a paralytic that Black used to murder his victims).

And that's how the episode ends: Kirito is unconscious, probably dying, while Asuna screams in terror. It's a gut punch of an ending, but it loses some effectiveness if you haven't seen season two and don't know who Black is or that he murdered several people with poison. While the episode tries hard to keep the audience up to speed with certain details, it does help to have seen the first two seasons to understand all the details and references.

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