War of the Underworld is exactly what people mean when they say “Look pretty and do as little as possible.”
There is sakuga in every episode, the artwork is vibrant, and the fight choreography is better than ever. As for the writing, it is hasn’t improved much over Sword Art Online’s previous seasons. Where the narrative shines is its premise: The underworld is a hellish land cloaked in a warm aura radiating from the blood-red sky. Flatter than an ocean, it is a wasteland populated with no vegetation as far as the eye can see. Divided by a valley of stone are humans on one side and monsters in the Dark Territory on the other.
In real life where the A.L.I.C.E. simulation is operated, a group of terrorists invade the game; they overthrow an empire of monsters then march them into a war to kill the good guys and Kirito—who is in a vegetative state for the duration of this season. The terrorists enter the game as generals of the monster army, it all plays out like a shlocky imitation of Matrix 3. Once again, the script is overwritten as hell. There are so many buzzwords and names that you’ll need flashcards to keep track of them. Before the titular War begins, every single character who isn’t a CGI soldier gets a close-up with a name tag. About twenty of them were introduced before anyone drew a sword. We only needed the name tags because the setting is so underwritten. With the bare minimum world-building, there is suddenly an all-out war and we’re expected to follow along. There are only two people on either side you have a reason to care about. Alice and a wheel-chair bound potato, and the two bad guys they’re fighting against.
Any moments of self-sacrifice or emotional death ring hollow. Every tearjerker moment felt 100% like emotional manipulation, but I can’t say they made me feel nothing. When the music cuts out, the scene fades to washed-out colors, and all that’s left is a close-up of someone with tears streaming down their faces, it is almost moving. Almost. A cowardly knight got a sad flashback that explained his personality, it should have been sad, but he was so irrelevant that it evoked no emotion. The moment at least made him less one dimensional. However, it’s immediately undercut because he suddenly becomes a fearless badass. And that’s the best character development we’ve got. A few of the knights got half-episodes like that guy; I’ll admit, these moments of introspection paired with an electric guitar riff and breathtaking sakuga were awesome.
A majority of the screen time is dedicated to battles, strategizing on either side, and knights valiantly fighting alone. The best animation comes out during the solo knight battles. The animation is nearly movie quality during these moments. There’s a fair share of CGI during footsoldier combat for filler between the impressive fights. There is at least one spectacular display of sakuga every episode, which is unheard of in a TV anime. This commitment to a visual spectator is what made A-1 Pictures split this season into two cours, a wise decision on their part. It's not every day I find myself praising this problematic studio; with the recent release of Kaguya-sama: Love is War, now this, it’s safe to say they’re on a roll. The directing and writing of this series, unfortunately, falls far below Kaguya-sama. Logic defying fighting, plot holes, mediocre editing, the roller coaster pacing, and an overreliance on name tags. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen this many tags on characters, locations, factions, and times.
One guy throws a punch, another catches it before he hits him—two seconds pass then we get close-ups of their shocked expressions. This probably seems like I’m nitpicking, but when everything in the show is off by a second or two, it makes the action feel slow and disconnected. Both OP/ED in the prior Alicization themes were much better than these ones. The songs are average, both visually and audibly. Lisa and Eir Aoi did much better work on the last season. I’ll also say, the voice acting was great amidst all of the action. The Engrish interspersed in the real-world characters’ dialogue was hilarious.
A vegetative Kirito is hilariously wheeled into the battle in his wheelchair. Right from the first episode, it’s hinted he will wake up when the time is right. Essentially he is a plot device waiting for when Alice is in a pinch. He hangs behind the army, with a constant creepy smirk on his face, while Alice awkwardly hovers above on her dragon as if it’s a damn helicopter. That dragon can kill a horde of monsters like it’s nothing. She is just as overpowered as Kirito. Alice could have been a good character, unfortunately, she is just as flawless as Asuna. Neither of them develops over the course of the season. And being TOO nice isn’t a flaw!! Rather than the main character, she is an extension of Kirito. Just like every other 14-year-old looking girl in this show, she is in love with Kirito. She is motivated by her desire to protect him first, everyone else comes second. While Alice has her own reason having no personality, it doesn't make for a good protagonist. At one point, another knight showed up, a female knight mind you, who wanted to see Kirito so she could “try some things to wake him up” *wink wink nudge nudge. If Alice hadn’t stopped the bitch, she would have given him a good old handy while he was too mentally incapacitated to consent. Alice wouldn’t want another woman putting the moves on her man, obviously. The whole confrontation is disgusting on multiple levels, but it just goes to show Alice’s main purpose in the show is to look pretty and protect her future husband (little does she know he’s engaged).
After not too long, Alice is swept under the rug in favor of a few knights and generals. The rest of her appearances are brief and surface level. In one of her moments alone with the audience, she monologues about the unfairness of the war. Monsters and men have the same souls, and they should not be fighting, so she says; meanwhile, CGI goblins lethargically wave their swords two at even uglier CGI humans in the background. Their swords don’t even come within 4 feet of hitting each other. The “modeled in ten minutes with Blender” aesthetic really adds depth to Alice’s philosophies. To compensate for Alice’s personality (or lack-there-of) more ladies find their way to Kirito as if he’s a magnet. The thing is, Kirito didn’t need to be such a waste of air in this season. He is a prisoner of his own mind, this was a great chance to give us insight into his thoughts. Unfortunately, this was another case of wasted potential by this adaptation.
During the first half of the show, there is a bit too much time spent in the real world (similar to the most frustrating parts of Assassin’s Creed). Everyone in the real world is there to info dump the plot of this season, no characterization at all. I didn’t know one of these guy’s names aside from Asuna. Oh yeah, she is still hovering around Kirito like a fly on shit, telling us how she “won't forgive you!” if anything bad happens to her boyfriend. God, what does a man gotta do to get a female equivalent of a fruit fly bodyguard? Kirito’s rejected women's club also shows up a few times in person to remind us they are still in love. Even the little winged rat Kirito calls his daughter shows up. The two girls who were nearly molested by the villainous guys from last season made an appearance too. Not for any special reason, just to remind us they still existed and they’re still in love. Being trapped in a new game, Kirito’s harem couldn’t come. Even as a potato, our main god himself still gets all the ladies. If this is your thing, no shade, just take this paragraph with a grain of salt. One last thing to add; when every female character (who knows the protagonist firsthand) only talks about their love of a potato, aside from surface-level observations and info-dumping, I consider them poorly written characters.
As for the villains of this season, there are slim pickings. The first bad guy is a comically evil fat dude who calls Alice a witch for trying to evacuate her family’s village. He wants everyone to stay and defend the village because that’s where all his money is. He even says “but I can’t lose my money-I mean I don’t want the village to be destroyed!” The whole altercation is laughably stupid. Of course, Alice gets them to leave, cue the monster stampede. After that episode, we never hear from him again. Then the true antagonist makes his appearance. The blonde-haired terrorist bastard. This guy is so bad I wished for the first one to come back. The leader of the terrorists is a psychopath who has been killing people since he was a child. The murders of an adorable little girl a beautiful woman in lingerie are shown with creepy detail. In a show about kids fighting off anthropomorphic animals and goblins, gross exploitation for shock factor feels so out of place. You could argue this is ‘character development’ because we need to know the bad guy is Very Evil, even though he’s barely in the show. I’d say his personality was conveyed sufficiently by displaying a woman’s severed head the foot of his throne. Not to mention, the main ‘antagonist’ is barely in the show. Another evil general I want to mention is a woman wearing only ribbons and a cape like a dominatrix. She is Very Evil too. When she kills people she gropes herself and moans. Very depraved. Very necessary character development.
Quinella—the antagonist of the previous season—appears as a ‘devil on your shoulder’ type of villain. In dreamlike flashbacks, she speaks to the knight’s inner insecurities and desires. Her voice is accompanied by an ominous flute as well as a piano, both playing a low methodical tune. Quinella's scenes are enrapturing. She drew the knights, and me, into her eerie world. These moments were some of the best in the show. Sakuga aside, there were a few other highlights in this season.
Sword Art Online has never looked better than War of the Underworld; the sakuga is amazing. As for the writing, it is still lackluster at best. A few slightly relevant knights got a modicum of character development. More time should have been spent developing, you know, Alice or Asuna. It’s worth noting that I’ve been told this adaptation butchered the pacing of the source material. If the premise/characters do interest you I would recommend seeking out the novel. A bevy of flaws aside, War of the Underworld surprised me.
Does it live up to the hype? No.
Is it the best season Sword Art Online? In my opinion, yes.