Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Progressive Vol. 001

Sword Art Online was undoubtedly one of the most popular anime of 2012. Based upon a series of light novels by Reki Kawahara, SAO’s near-future characters, gorgeous fantasy setting, and life-or-death stakes drew an enthusiastic fan following. Yen Press has recently released Volume 1 of the Sword Art Online: Progressive manga adaption, and you can read on for the review. (For my review of  other Sword Art Online manga, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

Yuuki Asuna was a top student who spent her days studying at cram school and preparing for her high school entrance exams–but that was before she borrowed her brother’s virtual reality game system and wound up trapped in Sword Art Online with ten thousand other frightened players. As time passes, Asuna fears what will become of her life outside the fantasy realm–the failure she might be seen as in the eyes of her peers and parents. Unwilling to wait on the sidelines for more experienced gamers to beat the game, Asuna employs her study habits to learn the mechanics of the game–and swordplay. Her swiftness impresses Kirito, a professional gamer who invites Asuna to join the best players on the front line. Is Asuna ready to swap class rankings for player rankings and join Kirito?

The Review

Sword Art Online: Progressive covers the same general territory as the Aincrad manga and the first season of the Sword Art Online anime. Instead of following Kirito’s perspective, however, it follows Asuna’s. While Kirito is enough of a gamer enthusiast to participate in the SAO beta test, SAO is Asuna’s first experience with gaming. As such, her journey is markedly different than Kirito’s even though they’re trapped in the same world.

The manga opens with a 16-page sequence that draws a picture of Asuna’s home life and then proceeds to the early days of Aincrad when the players had yet to clear Level 1. Unfamiliar with even RPG basics, Asuna quickly gets into trouble, and of course it’s Kirito to come to the rescue. Here, the manga deviates from the anime in that the pair meet and interact before Diavel’s call to defeat the Level 1 boss. However, Asuna’s less a weepy damsel in distress and more a determined competitor striving to get to the top of the game. As such, her jump from utter noob to frontline fighter, while remarkable, is believable.

Helping Asuna along is “The Rat,” an informant. She was not part of the anime cast, and, somewhat refreshingly, is a rare female who is not besotted with Kirito. In addition to providing Asuna with resources that unleash her fighting skills, the narrative strongly hints that The Rat, like Kirito, is a beta tester.

While Asuna is as far from a beta tester as can be, beta tester hate is interwoven into Progressive, and The Rat and Kirito show how those players are coping in Aincrad. Sometimes though, that prejudice seems overly forced. Kibaou, the beta tester hater in the Level 1 boss rating party, is even more outspoken than in the anime, and in the heat of the battle, he’s more dismayed about discovering a beta tester in the group than the deadly attack heading everyone’s way.

That aside, the storyline is strong and provides a fresh perspective over familiar territory. Also, of the three SAO manga I’ve read, I find Progressive’s artwork the best. Himura-sensei’s illustrations are clean with an excellent blending of details and tones. Her action sequences are easy to follow with a nice variety of CG and hand-drawn effects to convey impact. I should also mention that while they are not nearly as blatant as Fairy Dance, Himura-sensei does incorporate fan service elements, including a rather lengthy bathtub scene at Kirito’s quarters.

Extras include the first three pages in color and closing remarks from the creators.

In Summary

The SAO franchise for the most part follows Kirito’s perspective so Progressive will be a treat for Asuna fans. It doesn’t add much in terms of major Aincrad events, but it does fill in Asuna-centric details that weren’t in the anime or Sword Art Online: Aincrad. When you consider that Asuna entered SAO unfamiliar with even the basics of RPG party combat, her rise to the top of the Aincrad lineup is as extraordinary as Kirito’s solo feats, and I look forward to discovering more about her journey.

First published at the Fandom Post.

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