All Ages of Geek Sword Art Online Unital Ring 3

Sword Art Online Unital Ring 3-Review

by: Gen/Esis

Look at that, no short story collections right in between an arc—a smooth transition between Unital Ring 2 and 3…you really love to see it. Not that it was ever something I thought would be an issue, but hey, I’ll take the wins where I can.

Anyway, with most of the arc up till now being an intro to this world, Unital Ring 3 finally gets the ball rolling as new issues perk their ugly head from the bushes. With the last volume finally bringing our cast back together, now the group gets to building toward the future, with a few additions to their ranks.

Well, let’s get to the review: 

Unital Ring 3 is the twenty-fourth volume of the Sword Art Online series, released in Japan on May 9th, 2020 (May 3rd, 2022, in the US), and marks the third entry to the Unital Ring Arc. Picking up where the last volume left off, this one contains plenty of twists and turns, with only a few pacing issues, ending with a cliffhanger to boot.

The plot finally gets a push in this volume as the plot starter himself—Kikuoka—calls on Kirito for some sort of talk. Seeing as he’s the reason Phantom Bullet & Alicization kicked off, you can only guess that he serves a similar role here. But unlike those times, he only provides a few details that give hints to the overall plot, instead of the framework for it—or at least half of it, but I’ll get to that later.

Throughout this arc, Kawahara has shown he no longer relies on info dumping to deliver exposition, and that trend stays true in this volume. Information is more sparse but gives enough to leave the reader asking questions and keeping the plot engaging. Because of this, the meeting with Kikuoka is short but impactful. It gives just enough to warrant his inclusion, but not so much that it becomes a drag to read—which was sometimes the case before.

We also get our first look at this arc’s first antagonistic force. I say first because it’s clear that they won’t be the ‘big bad’ of this arc. But even with the little we’ve seen of them, they’ve already proven themselves to be a force to be reckoned with, setting a timer to a large battle between our crew and the villain’s own army.

While still not entirely clear what their goal is, their introduction came with hints at what their endgame is, something that probably will be explored in later volumes.

With everything about the Unital Ring situation shrouded in mystery, this push to the overall plot was a necessity, but it also creates a divide in the story with the reintroduction of the Underworld.

We last left off the Underworld after the 200 years Kirito and Asuna spent inside. Although we don’t know much about what happened in that time frame, we do know that they ruled the Underworld as Star King and Queen. Here, we finally get to see the fruits of their labor.

With an entire ten-volume arc developing this other world, it’s nice to be back and to see the world with a new coat of paint. Although we were teased at the end of Alicization about the current state of the Underworld, here we finally get to see the advancements brought forth by the Star King & Queen.

While we don’t get much but a reintroduction, the little we do get is enough to throw a wrench in Kirito’s mental state—which is great, really.

Plot-wise, this volume gets the gears turning, which is great after last volume’s more character-oriented approach.

Speaking of which, let’s get to the characters.

Now that most of our characters are back in the picture, this volume does more to add to the characters themselves. Mainly, this one focuses on Kirito, Asuna, and Argo.

Argo in particular, and understand this comes from a place of 100% bias, gets a tonal shift in her character. While the usual Rat is still there, the situation she’s dropped into, and the point she is at in her life, forces her to open up more than before. And while we’ve received very little information about her, we’re given hints at her character having larger importance this time around.

And I, personally, love all of it.

As for Kirito and Asuna, we get a bit more of their feelings after the end of Alicization and how they’ve changed due to it. With these two having few moments to be together this time around, the moments we do get give off their usual wholesome feeling–times two.

There’s a whole lot of happiness and smiles, which gives me an inkling that won’t be staying that way for very long. We all know that Kawahara loves to have really happy moments only to dive bomb straight into something depressing, and a good chunk of these character moments, not only between Kirito and Asuna, feel like a setup for something like that.

Inside Unital Ring, our crew has begun to expand themselves to become a force that other players will think twice about attacking. Which means their little log cabin has been expanded to a town, as they had planned on making at the end of the last volume. Where this goes next is intriguing, seeing as they are recruiting some AI’s, like the Patter, to join the town.

Clearly this will be something bigger down the line, but for now, it’s just nice to have all the friends together working towards a single goal. It feels like there hasn’t been much of that throughout the entire series (especially not one that isn’t involving something extremely dangerous).

Although this volume does push the plot forward, it’s still nowhere near a level that gives the story a sense of urgency or direction. The slower pacing of these novels gives way to more character moments and worldbuilding, but that at times can make the pacing in each individual volume suffer, and I feel this volume suffers from some of that.

The world of Unital Ring has been a huge focus of this arc with chunks of these volumes filled with mechanics and world-building. Kawahara up till now has done an excellent job at interweaving these explanations within the narrative in a way that never made it daunting, and for the most part, that stays true here, but there are some glaring issues.

A good fifth of this volume, maybe even a quarter, feels like a reminder of many of the things we’ve already learned about Unital Ring. While it was interesting to learn before, and although we do get bits of new information, having certain parts repeated for long periods of time and going into detail about things that could’ve been glossed over a bit make the pacing grind to a halt.

Thankfully, this volume doesn’t suffer from that too greatly, but Kawahara’s new approach with the SAO series clearly is showing some of the weaknesses that come with this slower pace. And if you’re reading these volumes as they release, I can see it becoming frustrating how little you get each volume. It doesn’t help that the time it takes Kawahara to release these volumes is becoming longer and longer—and the English translations take quite a while too (And that time will probably increase once they catch up with the Japanese releases)

In turn, as I said before, the character moments and world-building are great, but also, the dialogue is some of the best in the series, feeling more natural and filled with more subtext than ever before.

As a whole, this volume works as a great continuation to the Unital Ring arc and as a piece of the greater story, but the slower pacing is starting to show the weaknesses of Kawahara’s new style. While it has some great content and plenty to sink your teeth into, the story doesn’t move forward enough to where there’s any sense of urgency to look forward to the next volume (Unless you’re a huge fan like me, in which case I’ll read five books of the characters having lunch).

Overall Score: 7.8/10

(Normally I’d either go with 7.5 or 8, but I didn’t feel like either was quite right)

Also, Argo is still great.

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