Sword Art Online volume 21 is the beginning of the latest arc for the series—Unital Ring. Coming in right after the high gear end of Alicization, and the short unfinished arc of Moon Cradle, this arc has a lot to live up to. So, how does this volume fare next to its predecessors?
Well, in short, quite well—but not in the same sense.
Unital Ring starts with a premise similar to the original Aincrad arc—the sky turning blood red with “Warning” and “System Announcement” signs enveloping the skies. But unlike in that arc, the little home Kirito and the gang created in New Aincrad inside ALO did not become a death game. Instead, it turned into an entirely different beast.
The survival aspect of the original is back, but with a less high-stake punishment for death. Instead of in-game death resulting in their real selves dying, this time, if they die, there is no way for them to log back in.
It might sound trivial, but with a mystery unfolding in the world of Unital Ring, Kirito and everyone else feel the need to see this world to its end. An end that will only happen when the first person reaches “the land revealed by the heavenly light” with the promise that “all shall be given.”
With the game turning from an MMORPG to a Survival game, Kirito and friends are on uncharted ground. A lot of things they’re familiar with are still present, but with a large emphasis on the smaller details like drinking water, eating, crafting, and such, it becomes a challenge for them to get a solid footing.
Right off the bat, most of our beloved characters are nerfed, mainly Kirito who spends most of the book half naked and with little to his disposal. This makes their survival aspect much more interesting because they’re starting from almost zero and have to work their way back to the top.
The book has to spend a good deal of time explaining every new mechanic, but instead of just being told how everything works, it is shown through the characters experimenting with different things until they finally figure things out, making it a much better experience than any exposition dump (Which Reki Kawahara, author of SAO, is prone to doing in earlier installments).
But that also means that this book is much denser than any beforehand, except for maybe the progressive series. In the number of pages this book takes to introduce some of its concepts, Kawahara has before finished entire arcs like with Mother’s Rosario, or half an arc in the case of Fairy Dance. Yet here, the arc barely feels like it’s getting started by the time you flip the final page.
With this arc being the first arc he’s fully written since 2008 when he finished the Alicization arc, the style of writing has definitely changed and is noticeably apparent almost immediately.
Unlike in previous books where there is little chance for characters to breathe, this first book gives much more character moments to those characters who, for the most part, had been neglected up till now. Mainly, and one of the highlights of this book, Silica.
We met the beast tamer all the way back in volume 2, but here, she is given a proper side plot that she could carry. Portraying some of the bravery that she’s developed since we first met her, Silica, alongside Yui and Lizbeth, embark on their own quest separate from Kirito, Asuna, and Alice.
Even with two plotlines running side-by-side, it never feels disconnected as certain plot details hint how the two plotlines would converge.
The slower pace may be a problem to some, but I personally enjoy the time Kawahara is taking so the characters could interact with each other. Even with the slower pace sections, the book never becomes boring and both teams get a nice conclusion to the beginning of their quests.
All in all, there isn’t anything huge going on. No deaths or secret organizations infiltrating an artificial intelligence dominated world or anything, but the more fun nature of the volume still holds an air of mystery behind it.
It leaves the story intriguing enough so readers would want to come back to read what happens next without going over the top pointlessly.
There are plenty of mysteries yet to be unfolded that are teased throughout the volume, and with the two characters teased at the end, things seem like they will become bigger within time.
Overall Score: 8/10