Though it's been set in multiple different games over the years, Sword Art Online's main focus has never been on the games themselves. Sure, the fact that the stories are set in games is important, but SAO has always treated its settings like worlds that happen to have game-like elements rather than games themselves. That all changes in Alicization.
From the very beginning, both the setting and the story feel like something right out of a fantasy RPG. Rather than jumping right into the main conflict like the Aincrad arc did, Alicization starts out small. It has an end goal of rescuing Alice, but that's always framed as a distant goal rather than the brunt of the conflict. Instead, Kirito begins his journey like any other RPG protagonist: as an underequipped warrior in a small town.
He has no idea how the world around him works, where he is, or even why he's there. Just like any other new RPG player, he has to go through the tutorial area and learn the basics before he can leave the village and truly start his journey. Games like Ocarina of Time don't start with Link charging off to Hyrule Castle to fight Ganon; they start in a smaller area like the Kokiri Forest where you do more mundane tasks as you learn how the game works and the ways its mechanics influence how you interact with the world around you.
The biggest way this affects Kirito in Alicization is the Object Control Authority system. The sword Eugeo shows him has a higher Object Control Authority stat than they do, meaning they can barely lift it and certainly can't swing it, which makes sense in the context of an RPG. Few games let you equip gear with a higher level requirement than where you are, at least without consequences. Kirito trying to use the sword is like a level one character trying to equip a level five weapon: pointless. It's only after he and Eugeo fight off the goblins in the cave that they "level up" and are able to lift and swing it.
During the fight, Kirito also learns exactly how combat works in Underworld. Through trial and error, he discovers that his Sword Skills from Aincrad transfer over, but also learns that his wounds in Underworld hurt just like real ones. Gone are the days where injuries just appear as a distortion in his character model, which forces him to adapt to the different style of combat in Underworld. Kirito is still a low-level character, which he learns all too well as the fight progresses.
Unlike how he started the previous VRMMOs as a seasoned veteran, Kirito's little more than a talented novice in Alicization. Even with his Sword Skills and combat experience from Aincrad, he's far from the top fighter he was before. He's able to impress the villagers with his skills and easily take down the weaker goblins in his way, but learns his limits as he fights the goblin leader.
His duel with the goblin leader becomes a desperate struggle to take down even an early-game boss. Kirito learns that Sword Skills still work through trial and error, but that only gives him a small advantage—he nearly dies before Eugeo comes in to help. Kirito does win in the end, but only just. This is a goblin, one of the weakest RPG enemies out there, and he's still strong enough to nearly kill Kirito and Eugeo. Kirito may be stronger than the average person in Underworld, but that only makes him a talented novice, far from the top player he started out as in previous games.
Kirito's struggle here demonstrates a concept RPG veterans know well: every new character starts out strong for their tier, but is still at the bottom tier. You don't create your character and instantly start fighting bosses—you have to work your way up and get stronger. Indeed, Kirito initially isn't even able to leave the town/tutorial area.
He and Eugeo both decide they want to rescue Alice early on, but aren't able to leave because of Eugeo's calling to chop down the tree. Instead, the two of them have to start "questing" in town. Saving Selka and chopping down the tree aren't explicitly called quests, but are structured just like the secondary quests you have to complete at the start of an RPG. What else do you call a series of smaller tasks you're required to complete before you can progress in your main goal?
After saving Selka and completing their first "quest" Kirito and Eugeo are finally able to swing the Blue Rose Sword and chop down the tree that had given them so much trouble before. Once they do, they're finally allowed to leave the village and start their adventure.
Of course, their departure only marks the first chapter in a much longer journey to rescue Alice from the Axiom Church. As the two-year timeskip shows, Kirito and Eugeo have only just cleared the tutorial; they've got a lot of questing and gearing to do before they can clear this particular RPG. However it ultimately turns out, Alicization is one game that I'm excited to play!
Skyler has been an anime fan since he first saw Naruto on Toonami in 2005. He loves action shows and strong character writing, and finds writing about himself in the third person awkward. Read more of his work at his blog apieceofanime.com and follow him on Twitter at Videogamep3.