Sword Art Online is a series that needs no introduction, given that it is a gateway Light Novel that helped popularize this medium (along with Web Novels) to a new high just like Final Fantasy VII popularized JRPGs in the west. It is a franchise that everyone already knows its name and this tale shows the reason why SAO is deserving of such massive popularity and commercial success. The 4th SAO arc, the “Project Alicization” is the largest and most ambitious arc this franchise has and every part of it is worthy of praise.
The previous manga adaptations of SAO were, at the
very least, horrible. This one along with the Progressive are the only ones worth reading because they manage to adapt the original source in a way in which the story is good in and on itself in the manga format even for those who haven't read the novels.
Reading the synopsis of this manga will not provide you any valuable information to tell you what this arc is about, which is, as odd as it may sound, a good thing. The sense of mystery at the beginning of it is one of its many charms. It feels like playing a RPG for the first time having no hints of what to do or any manual to give you instructions about where to go, and the mysteries are uncovered progressively, one by one, as the story advances.
Every story draws inspiration from other works and SAO is no exception to this rule. The previous arcs were influenced by many tales, that included but were not limited to:
H. Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy (VII), K. Miura's Berserk, H. Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion, S. Miyamoto's The Legend of Zelda and G. Lucas' Star Wars as well as some bits of Norse Mythology and Arthurian legends. This time around the main influences are two classic books: L. Carrow's Alice in Wonderland (hence its name) and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
The story is confusing/complex and it takes a certain amount time to grasp its many concepts. While the previous arc were about how VR technology can influence society and people's personal lives along with another concept tied to it. This arc changes the focus and instead it provides us a more in depth look at the 'human' side of it, the A.I.s/NPCs and the depth given to each one of them was formidable.
Regarding its themes, there are more mature and meaningful ones such as alienation, indoctrination, corruption, war, religion and the suchlike, as well as delving deep into the complexities and ramifications of the human soul and human consciousness, granting us a gratifying, rewarding and philosophical outlook to the meaning of life. Moreover the tragedies and the emotional depth this arc has are astounding and very impactful, always carrying a sentimental meaning to them and not happening just for the sake of it.
Just like in the previous arcs we are blessed with a glorious, vast and well-detailed world building and a myriad of fascinating new concepts such as the «Soul Translator» (STL), «Fluctlight», «Sacred Arts», the «Synthesis Ritual» along many, many others. They're explained thoroughly so you better be ready for a handful of info dumps and dialogues with the same length as the ones written by N. Isin. Although they may be long, they're very informative and enjoyable to read and crucial for a true comprehension of this story.
The romantic subplot remains the same, and I must say that it amazes me to see how much Kazuto and Asuna care for each other even when they're two realities apart, as well as being away from Asuna being one of Kazuto's first and biggest concerns when he finds himself in the new, mysterious land called the Underworld. Other than main couple the are many other pairings with great chemistry in this arc too.
•Great sense of mystery;
•Heavily influenced by Alice in Wonderland and The Lord of the Rings;
•Glorious worldbuilding and great concepts;
•Good romantic subplot.
Kazuto Kirigaya, the troubled yet obstinate and game savvy protagonist, starts off as weak and unskilled this time and has to fight, practice and become stronger in order to find a way to escape the mysterious world in which he found himself in. Just like in the previous arcs, he manages to change everyone he meets along the way of his adventure. The main difference this time is that there is a more human approach to his character and a focus on the conflict between Kazuto and his ‘Kirito’ persona, and his development is one of the most noteworthy aspects of his character in this arc.
Eugeo, a dweller of the land known as the Underworld, is Kazu's best friend and his inseparable companion in this arc. Appearance-wise he is very similar to him, slender, charming and with some bishounen attributes. The main difference being his flaxen hair and his green eyes. Personality-wise he is very much alike to Asuna, a kind and considerate person who cares deeply about the people around him and despises those who treat others badly. And just like both of them he has a likeable personality and an evident development throughout the story. And also if you happened to like Zack Fair from Final Fantasy VII(: Crisis Core) there's a high probability of you also enjoying his character because of their many similarities.
Alice Zuberg, the main heroine from this arc, is a prodigy in magic and also the childhood friend of Kazuto and Eugeo. She's a strong and competent fighter with a great sense of justice. In terms of appearance she resembles Asuna a lot, but Alice has her own distinctive golden hair and sparkling blue eyes and also her signature white lace on her forehead. Her personality coincides with Kazuto's, both being serious and determinate, being blunt and having some problems with human interactions, and also willing to go to unbelievable lengths to succeed in their objectives. If you liked Saber from the Fate Series it is very likely for you to be fond of her too, because of their uncanny resemblance oh and she also has a dragon +1.
Asuna Yuuki, the strong-willed, fierce and loyal companion of the protagonist, has a different role in this arc. She acts as the audience surrogate this time, providing us an insight into RATH, the STL and the «Project Alicization», with long, expository dialogues between her and the members of the company. While she's on the Ocean Turtle (one of RATH's bases) she looks after Kazuto's body, since he’s the ‘prince in distress’ in this story (kinda). But on the second part she's back to action to display her badassness once more, in a role that she truly deserves after all she went through previously.
The supporting characters this time are very memorable. Ronye and Teise, Kazuto and Eugeo's respective kohais, are very likeable. Sortilena, Kazuto's sempai, is a formidable instructor. The old, wise and caring Cardinal has a pivotal role in the story, and she also gives us a long, expository dialogue along with Kazuto about the intricacies of the Underworld. Koujirou Rinko has a really mysterious and alluring personality. The interactions between the entire cast are very entertaining to watch, especially the friendship between Kazuto and Eugeo, which is realistic, pleasant and unlike many others in anime/manga/LNs, it is not unnecessarily homoeroticized.
Each one of the Integrity Knights have their own emotions, objectives, hopes and dreams making all of them characters on their own and more than just mere tools to be used at the War.
As for the antagonists from this arc, they are marvelous, but I can't say much without giving away heavy spoilers. First we have Quinella, the almighty ruler of the Underworld, the bewitchingly beautiful main antagonist of the first part of this arc, and she's splendid, her characterization shows us that she’s evil incarnate and she has a machiavellian objective, to which she performs many coldhearted deeds to achieve.
Gabriel Miller - also known as Vector - along Quinella, is the best antagonist in Sword Art Online. A legend of VRMMO games and a heartless sociopath that has a really creep obsession with the human soul since childhood. He has the objective of capturing an extremely valuable artifact and using it to fulfill his desires and much like his female counterpart he has no qualms whatsoever when it comes to causing death, misery and destruction wherever he goes if that means accomplishing his personal objectives.
And lastly, remember when Kayaba Akihiko said that he didn't remember the reason for creating SAO? In one of the dialogues between the RATH employees and Asuna it is explained in a very detailed way his reasons for doing it.
•Kazuto is more human in this arc;
•Eugeo and Alice are great additions to the cast;
•Asuna has a different and more talkative role in this arc;
•Supporting characters are all great;
•The antagonists are also great.
Yamada Koutarou was responsible for adapting the Phantom Bullet arc, he also did Fire Emblem: Hasha no Tsurugi and the manga adaptation of Seiken no Blacksmith and just like in his previous works, while adapting the Alicization arc he made a pretty good job at it. He manages to portray the characters' emotions and feelings really well. The action scenes are very entertaining. And overall he manages to create a really good atmosphere.
With the character design made by bee-pee, who was also responsible for Accel World and Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, every character, despite some of them sharing many similarities, looks distinct from one another. The main characters looked really good, the monsters and creatures (orcs, goblins, dragons, etc.) looked fearsome and the Integrity Knights looked really cool.
Similarly to many manga adaptations from LNs, the artist took the liberty to add chibi illustrations during explanations as well as adding some more simplified traces and some exaggerated portrayal of the characters during some interactions, giving a more comedic and humorous depiction to them. Something which I personally find to be pleasing, though I'm aware of the fact that it may not suit everyone's preferences. And if I had to be a little bit nitpicky, I would say that he needs to put a little more effort on the backgrounds. But other than that the art is great.
•Great art style;
•Great character designs;
A masterpiece, undoubtedly a masterpiece. The Project Alicization is an epic, emotional, mysterious, thrilling, engaging and thought-provoking tale with a stellar cast of fantastic and complex characters. It blends sci-fi themes with fantasy elements marvelously. It also manages to leave you at the edge of your seat constantly with its well thought out story and magnificent plot twists. I have no other choice but to say that this is definitely one of the best things Japan has to offer. But before reading it I suggest you to read the novels (and also the side stories) since there are many things that are going to be referenced that you need to have a prior knowledge about what happened to not get lost because the manga and anime adaptations did a pretty poor job with explanations, especially the details about the members of the Laughing Coffin, which are extremely relevant since they play a huge part in this arc.
Along with the Mother's Rosario, this arc is the reason why SAO is my favorite Web/Light Novel series; they are also displays of how much Reki Kawahara's writing skills improved since the first volume of SAO. I highly recommend this manga to everyone who just can't get enough of this franchise, who wants to see a well-adapted SAO arc with a great art, and also for those who want to re-experience this magnificent arc once again through a different medium. And lastly but not least, always remember folks: Stay Cool.
•A master work;
•Read the novels before reading it;
Story - 10/10
Characters - 10/10
Art - 9/10
Enjoyment - 10/10