Sword Art Online: Aincrad Review

GameStop, Inc.

Written By Reki Kawahara
Art By Tamako Nakamura
Yen Press
ISBN: 978-0-316-37123-0

Cvr SAOIn the not too distant future, the first VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) dubbed Sword Art Online debuts. Players experience the game as if it were real life with the new immersive game helmet the NerveGear. No one is more excited than Kirito, an SAO beta tester eager to immerse himself in adventure. After a full day of game play, however, Kirito and other players attempt to log off only to discover the option has been removed. All players are trapped in the game, until they can beat the final boss. If any of them die, though, it’s game over for real.

Sword Art Online garnered a lot of attention over the past year with its premiere on Cartoon Network and live streaming. Yen Press decided to ride the waves of the anime’s release by importing the manga and light novels to the US. Yen Press is one of the top US manga publishers and they offer a mix of titles that range from excellent to “why was it brought over in the first place?” The anime has received hot and cold reviews and such extremities could dampen the manga’s success.

Sword Art Online has an interesting publication history. The author Reki Kawahara originally wrote SAO for ASCII Media Works’ Dengeki Novel Prize contest, but found he went over the page count. He then published it online and it grew popular. Kawahara eventually entered the Dengeki Novel Prize contest with another novel, which won the grand prize. ASCII Media Works was also interested in publishing SAO, so it was turned into a light novel series followed by anime, manga, and other adaptations.  SAO Aincrad’s concept about videogames crossing over into reality has been explored in other manga. .Hack/Sign and Btooom! are the first ones that come to mind, one could even argue that it has throwbacks to Ghost in the Shell (which is probably pushing it a bit too far). More authors, in Japan and the US alike, are exploring plotlines centered on videogames with a virtual immersion element. SAO distinguishes itself by making it a “do or die” situation. How many gamers have asked themselves what would happen if they couldn’t log off or wished they could forever remain in the fantasy world? It sounds good, but past the prologue the story is littered with clichés common to the most banal fan fiction.

The prologue deserves points for grabbing your attention with the idea that players can’t log out until they beat the game. It then jumps two years into the future, the SAO players have rallied together, worked their way to the 73rd floor, and have built a sustainable society (albeit a digital one). Kirito prefers to play solo (ah, the lone wolf archetype) and has become one of the game’s strongest players thanks to his time as a beta player. His preference to stay solo results from other players discriminating against beta players and their unfair advantage. He also is apparently suffering from PTSD from an incident, but he gets over that in a matter of chapters. The other lead is a female player named Asuna. She is with a guild named the Knights of Blood and supposedly one of the most skilled sword wielders. She has become a quasi-celebrity in SAO, because of her talents and her gender. Girl gamers are limited stock, so of course they are revered especially the most attractive ones (hint sarcasm). Per Asuna’s request they team up, though Kirito encounters some trouble when Asuna’s guild wants to defend her honor and get him to join. Why wouldn’t Asuna be able to defend herself?

Asuna and Kirito are one-dimensional shells with all their experiences and emotions being the single, most dramatic ever for them, until something else occurs.   Other characters fair even worse with very little development. At least, Asuna and Kirito have some meat on their bones even if readers are left gnawing for something. The greater part of the action takes place in the dungeons players need to conquer. The battle scenes are typical manga fair with the loss of minor characters and Kirito demonstrating his prowess. There is some explanation about the battle system and how players gain experience and skills. It helps understand how game play is done in the storyline, but it also feels awkward when the narrative is suddenly disrupted for explanation. Even more disrupting to the storyline is when Kirito and Asuna decide to marry each other, take an extended honeymoon, and end up adopting an AI as their child. While the event does contribute to defeating the ultimate boss, it happens too quickly to be believable and the laid on sentimentality is full of sugar. Kawahari pulled in the shojo tearjerkers for it.

Tamako Nakamura drew the art with character designs by abec. The art style bounces around throughout the manga. Details and textures are sparse throughout the entire manga, although in the beginning there is more. As the story progresses, the details are lost and the style changes as if two artists drew SAO. The style changes from average manga fair to something that imitates game avatars. The change to the later is very clean and rounded with bold black and white shading-it’s more cartoony and has a limited appeal. Backgrounds are almost non-existent and character designs do little to keep reader interest. The battle scenes are easy to follow, earning a couple points.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad is gloppy soup that attempts to be five star dining. The broth is a basic fantasy outline. The characters are the main ingredients with their traits as clichéd spices that don’t blend well. The art is the soup bowl that is cheap ceramics instead of fine china. It’s a book that passes right through readers heads and leave them hungry for the savory storyline they were promised.

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