Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Aug 17th 2014
Aichi Sendou is as timid as can be, uncomfortable with just about everything. The only thing that makes him happy is the special card from the game “Vanguard” that a boy gave him three years ago. It turns out that that card is super rare, however, and a bully steals it from him, claiming that since Aichi doesn't play, he doesn't deserve the card. When Aichi follows him to get it back, he finds that his benefactor has returned and wants him to play Vanguard! Aichi is about to discover a whole new niche for himself as he becomes a dedicated cardfighter.
Welcome to the manga series based on a show based on a card game! Cardfight!! Vanguard is the latest in multi-media franchise series (or at least one of them), and thus a somewhat surprising choice of title from the usually much more literary Vertical. While it certainly does fall prey to some of the issues of the card-fighting genre, it does manage to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. It probably isn't going to convert anyone to the genre, but it is a decent story, and the limited edition certainly comes with some good bonuses if you're looking for a new trading card game to get into, as it comes with a starter deck. (Please note that the review copy did not come with the deck, although I did have a game designer read the instructions in the back of the manga volume to give an assessment. More on that later.)
The basic plot of the book, while it does revolve around playing the game “Vanguard,” has more to it than that. Series protagonist Aichi Sendou is extremely shy. This makes him stand out from his peers as someone easy to pick on. When he was younger, he was being victimized when another boy, Toshiki Kai, stood up for him and gave him a special card from the game, encouraging Aichi to draw strength from the avatar. Since Aichi is in desperate need of any source of hope, he begins to build a deck around the card, hoping to see Toshiki again some day, and maybe play against him. Fast forward to the present, when the class bully sees Aichi's Blaster Blade card. He immediately covets the rare item, and so relieves Aichi of it and runs off to the local card game shop to use it in a battle. But Aichi isn't taking this laying down and follows the bully. At the shop he meets Toshiki again and learns to play “Vanguard” for real...which of course he turns out to have a great talent for.
What sets Cardfight!! Vanguard apart from its brethren is its hero. Aichi's nearly crippling timidity almost stops him before he gets started, and his strength, when he finds it, isn't physical. The manga doesn't let you forget that the characters are playing a card game – while you might see them dressed as their avatars or hear the cards “talk” to them, it's still clear that they are choosing cards and laying them down on the table. Action scenes, as explained by Toshiki early on, are entirely in their imaginations. This makes clear the appeal of the game that the series is selling, as well as why you might pick up this game instead of a role-playing game on the computer – everything is determined by how you picture it happening. Aichi can be strong because he imagines it so, and that's a pretty great message to send to readers. Throughout the first volume Aichi defeats bullies and egotistical jerks without becoming either himself, although on the down side, he also doesn't appear to gain a whole lot of self-confidence. But it's early days yet, and he does become less withdrawn and find a place where he feels comfortable, which is nice to see.
The apparent power of “Vanguard” to transform lives is overplayed with other characters, including the token female, Misaki, and the inclusion of wacky foreign teacher Mr. Mark feels unnecessary, although his decision to give his students playing cards of various famous generals is an interesting one. Really only Aichi gets any character development (Misaki's tragic past doesn't quite cut it) and the need to include as many cards as possible does cut down on actual plot, but when you strip the volume down to its bones – a merchandise tie-in – it does a good job with what it has to work with.
Readers of the card-fighting genre may recognize Akira Itou's angular art style from Yu-Gi-Oh! R (released in English by Viz), and he has carried over the pointy hair and skinny bodies from that series. When he is drawing card avatars, his art is much more fluid. Hair is the real artistic issue here, with some characters having a serious case of Dragon Ball hair and Aichi really needs to cut off that weird hank he has in front. Itou did not design all of the card avatars – he gives credit at the end of the book – but his art is such that you wouldn't know if he did not tell you.
The final pages of the volume are devoted to a game tutorial, designed to be played with the starter deck included with the limited edition. Without the cards, the instructions do still make sense and are very clear; it is simply easier to understand if you actually have the cards in hand. If you have played similar games before, you won't have any problems learning to play “Vanguard.”
Overall, Cardfight!! Vanguard is going to be best enjoyed by those who are familiar with the game or just enjoy card battle games in general. It does make a real effort to give the hero a problem to overcome and has some good message about imagination and how it can be used, which in a video game oriented time is nice to see. It probably won't win new fans to the genre, but it certainly does try its best to stand out above the rest.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : C+
+ Aichi has some real non-card related issues to deal with alongside the game, good messages about imagination. Varied card avatars are all pretty interesting, instructions are clear.
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