SAO’s Unital Ring Arc is Off to an Overwhelmingly Okay Start

Fans and critics of the massive and iconic Sword Art Online franchise can easily agree that it’s been a wild ride. From waifus to gratuitous sex to inherent appeal to contrived B.S., it’s been a very fascinating series of ups and downs. With the anime caught up to Alicization, only one arc remains exclusively in light novel territory: Unital Ring (I’m pretty sure it’s the final arc, too). I would normally wait until it’s finished and cover it in one post (since individual volumes tend to make no progress), but I just HAD to get my first impressions out, since there’s a ghost of a chance that this one is actually good.

In Unital Ring, Kirito is hanging out in Alfeim with his waifus, Alice and Asuna, when they suddenly find themselves playing Minecraft. Like, literally, the game just changes to something completely different. Since their stats also get reset, Kirito is no longer Mr. Perfect… right?

The titular new game is, for all intents and purposes, the most well-realized in the series (which isn’t saying much but still). The game is very intuitive since it plays like Minecraft; you find resources and build stuff. However, SAO is SAO, and Unital Ring has some issues. While a large number of items can be instantly crafted through the menu, as to be expected, the game tries to capitalize on its “V.R.” gimmick and makes it so some things have to be crafted by hand. This would sound cool, but the problem is that you need real-world knowledge on how to make this stuff, and there isn’t exactly anything in the game that can teach you. 

Unital Ring also has a weight system, where items in your inventory will actually, well, weigh you down. While this does allow for some creative situations in combat of all things, since you could drop materials from high up and let gravity take care of the rest, I feel like this mechanic was created solely to make Kirito have to spend the early parts of this arc in only his underwear (i.e. “manservice”). 

This volume is, as expected, merely the characters getting acquainted with the game world and its basic mechanics. Beyond that, there’s no real plot progression. Bizarrely enough, this is probably one of the best volumes of the series. The only sexualization is of Kirito, and there’s relatively low exposition dumping. Since Unital Ring seems to be all wilderness, it at least doesn’t look like there’ll be any rape-faced villains in this arc. The volume ends with the introduction of a new character and a returning character whom I don’t remember at all, and since it’s a cliffhanger ending, they’re likely to be important moving forward in this arc.

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Verdict: 7/10

SAO has really grown up. It’s gone from tedious and pseudo-intellectual to just above average. Unital Ring might not be as impressive of a start as Alicization, but since this is the first entirely new arc (as opposed to the original web novel), Kawahara will be going into it from scratch as a full-fledged adult with an adult brain who might actually be uncomfortable with sexual assault as a plot device. Next time I post about SAO, it’ll be a review of Unital Ring from start to finish, so stay tuned for that!