Sword Art Online Volume 21 by author Reki Kawahara and artist abec has finally been released in Japan. The new book launches the SAO: Unital Ring story arc that is a direct sequel to the ending of the Alicization arc in Volume 18.
Unital Ring’s new characters are both a blast from the past and a connection to the future. Already, fans are noting the direct link to Accel World with the introduction of a new SAO character named Kamura Shikimi. And, what’s this… rat girl Argo is back!?
Besides the Ordinal Scale movie and the Progressive series, Sword Art Online: Unital Ring represents the first new canon story in the main timeline since before the publishing of the first light novel in 2009. The entire Alicization story was initially published online as a web novel and Kawahara wrapped up that story way back in 2008.
When the author first began working on the new book he said that Unital Ring’s story will be “one more big arc” that will go “back to the real world”. Unital Ring involves a new mysterious survival game that’s set in a new world where thirst and hunger are a real threat.
What’s more, all of the VRMMO’s built with The Seed program (Alfheim Online, Gun Gale Online, and many more) have suddenly all merged, or unified, into a single VR game world!
Warning: The following contains a summary for the beginning of Sword Art Online: Unital Ring 1. Some details are also spoilers for the current Sword Art Online: Alicization anime. For in-depth details, please see this article on Sword Art Online Season 4, which contains Unital Ring spoilers.
The Unital Ring story opens with Kirigaya Kazuto (real-life name of Kirito) planning out the upcoming birthdays for Asuna and himself. Kirito eventually decides to full-dive into New Aincrad, a recreation of the floating castle that now resides within Alfheim Online (ALO).
Studying for school inside the loghouse that he calls home, Kirito finds his school studying disturbed by a catfight between Asuna and cat ears Alice. This prologue ends with a cliffhanger ending where the virtual sky turns red with the same hexagonal pattern that heralded the announcement of the first SAO death game.
The wooden cabin is shaken by a gigantic earthquake and New Aincrad begins to crumble and fall from the sky. Using fairy wings, Kirito and friends are able to save the loghouse by redirecting the chunk of land it sits on down to a river far below. But when the system-wide announcement disappeared so did their wings and all three SAO characters plummet down into the water.
Exiting the river, they quickly realize that ALO’s box menu has been replaced by a new ring menu system that requires a different hand motion to summon. Their friends list and messages are now gone, Yui can’t be reached, and no new message explains what has happened. But Kirito and Asuna are greatly relieved that a logout button still exists.
There are many other changes to the game world. Physics have changed and Kirito and Asuna’s elf ears have disappeared (Alice gets to keep the cat ears).
All of their items in storage have disappeared except for two prized possessions. Many of their skills have been reset or are missing although Asuna is relieved that Yuuki’s Mother’s Rosario is intact. Worse, they realize that all of their stats have been reset and they’re now Level 1 characters in this newly modified game world.
The story introduces several new SAO characters. The one that has caught the attention of some fans is black-haired Kamura Shikimi. It’s her family name Kamura that’s interesting because of the way it ties into another story by Kawahara called Accel World.
The Accel World light novels were written after SAO and it’s set in a future where augmented reality allows for the human brain itself to be accelerated through implanted Neuro Linkers.
Similar to how the Soul Translator (STL) of Alicization accelerated the relative time of Fluctlights, the Brain Burst of Accel World allowed a fighting game to happen in a flash so that players could earn burst points for acceleration abilities in the real world.
Years ago, Kawahara said that “it is true that the technology used in Alicization could be, or is the foundation of the technology being used in Accel World.” There was even an SAO vs Accel World crossover and the Accel World anime briefly referenced the Nerve Gear.
Now, thanks to Unital Ring the connection may be tighter. Kamura Shikimi happens to be the same name as the mother of Kuroyukihime, the main female character from Accel World.
It wasn’t until 2018 that Accel World Volume 23 revealed Kuroyukihime’s parents and the circumstances of her birth. It’s possible that future Accel World light novels will elaborate further on this connection to Sword Art Online: Unital Ring.
The real shocker was the sudden introduction of the second “new” SAO girl. At the very end of SAO Volume 21, Kirito finds himself confronted by a woman in real life. She is miffed that Kirito didn’t recognize her even though she had come all the way to transfer into his school.
The book literally ends (minus the afterword) with rat girl Argo waltzing in as a surprise ending. Argo does not reveal her real name, but the final artwork for Volume 21 shows off what Argo looks like in real life.
Anime-only fans might be scratching their heads trying to remember who Argo is because she only made a brief appearance in the anime. The whisker-wearing girl became popular because of the SAO: Progressive manga and light novel series where she played a more prominent role. She’s also made non-canon appearances in the games Lost Song and Hollow Fragment.
Argo is an information broker who was one of 10,000 SAO players trapped in the first game. Argo used to call Asuna Aa-chan and Kirito Kii-bou (hence the greeting in the novel) and she was the second person Kirito added to his friends list besides Klein.
The last time Argo was featured in the official canon timeline was The Day Before, a short story written by Kawahara for the Season 1 DVD release. This was the last line describing Argo:
“She gave me a quick wink— ‘I wish both of you the best, Ki-bou, Aa-chan!’ Leaving us both frozen in shock, Argo disappeared from our sight with the stealth of a ninja.”
Considering her disappearance from the timeline, some fans used to believe that Argo died as part of the 75th-floor scouting party while others hoped to see Argo alive in the future. It turns out Kawahara built up the character in the Progressive series and now she’s returned for dramatic effect.
Unfortunately, international fans will just have to wait until the English translation of the Sword Art Online: Unital Ring light novel releases to find out what happens next. Stay tuned!