by Theron Martin,

Sword Art Online: Girls' Ops

GN 1

Sword Art Online: Girls' Ops GN 1
With Kazuto (aka Kirito) away on a study program and Asuna tied up with family affairs, Keiko Ayano (aka Silica) and Rika Shinozaki (aka Lizbeth) decide to nvite Suguha (aka Leafa) to join them on a quest for Angel's Whisper rings, items originally from an SAO quest which have now become available in an ALO add-on quest and are perfect for the romantically-inclined. While engaging in the quest, though, they encounter a dual blade-wielding fairy who looks startlingly similar to the Kirito they all know. That person instead turns out to be a fellow female SAO survivor, one who idolizes Kirito so much for having beaten the game that she took him as a model for independent strength. As Keiko, Rika, and Suguha soon discover, the psychological wounds left behind by the experience still linger for some. The original Kirito eventually came to accept in both SAO and ALO that even he was stronger when he had others to help and support him; can the girls now teach that lesson to this wayward soul as well?

Given the immense success of the Sword Art Online franchise, it should not be a surprise that it would eventually spawn some manga spin-offs. (Madoka Magica, anyone?) That the first such manga would feature Silica, Lizbeth, and Leafa is also no surprise, as fans have clamored for the former two in particular to get more attention ever since they were first introduced. Given that the end of this volume clearly indicates that it is not a standalone production, could this become the next A Certain Scientific Railgun?

Probably not, because there is one crucial difference between the SAO universe and the Index/Railgun universe: unlike in the latter, none of these girls are ever going to outshine Kirito and Asuna in popularity. (One need only attend a large anime convention to see ample proof of that.) That being said, the way Girls' Ops splits it time between the real and virtual worlds provides promising potential for developing some of the franchise's most significant side characters. And yes, while Suguha was a veritable co-lead for one story arc, she has now been relegated to that role in the franchise, too.

That Keiko and Rika have already befriended Suguha enough to exchange phone numbers, and that Asuna is still doing physical therapy instead of gym class, suggests that this story takes place in the interim between Extra Edition and the Phantom Bullet arc of the second anime series. It touches upon some points that have largely been overlooked by the franchise's main storyline, such as the sense of brotherhood/sisterhood SAO survivors tend to have (Keiko and Rika have to be reminded that they are leaving Suguha out in their reminiscing on more than one occasion), and it clarifies that Kazuto, Asuna, and crew are the exceptions rather than the rule when it comes to SAO survivors continuing to play VRMMOs. It also points out that SAO survivors can continue to look like themselves if they ported their avatar data over from SAO. Most importantly, it also delves into the kinds of psychological wounds that those who did survive the game might still have to deal with, a topic that was touched upon in the Phantom Bullet and Mother's Rosario story arcs but not to this extent. That makes the fact that Keiko and Rika seem relatively unburdened by their experience all the more remarkable.

As much as the story focuses on that and the effort of the trio of girls to help Hiyori (aka Kuro) come to terms with her in-game loss, it is not entirely heavy. The girls do have their fun (a quest-giving tsundere angel, for instance) and the sense of adventure in working through the quest and defeating the boss plays out pretty well, including some nice tactical coordination in the boss fight. The story also adds in just a small spark of mystery in its late stages, a point which will presumably be addressed again in a later volume. Girls Ops was penned by the suspiciously-named manga-ka Neko Nekobyō (a pen name, perhaps?), whose previous manga efforts are vastly more obscure. Neko handles the storytelling and characterizations competently well, but is not quite as strong on the character designs, especially compared to the sharper and more clearly-defined artistry Kiseki Himura is delivering in the Sword Art Online: Progressive manga. This shows most in depictions of Suguha, which never look quite right, though she does acceptably well with others. Battles scenes are not the easiest to follow but not problematic, either. Neko's use of panel layout is also more eclectic than the precise regularity of the Progressive manga; this sometimes gives the impression of being a bit sloppy, though it does not hinder the storytelling.

At 236 pages, Yen Press's release of the first volume makes it one of the company's longer non-omnibus manga titles. It still carries the same MSRP as the two Progressive manga to date, despite having 58 and 60 more pages (respectively), so the value for your buck is greater. Original sound effects are retained with tiny translations in both English and romaji, and the amusing illustrations showing various characters in the clothing of other characters have been included on chapter break pages. It ends with a three page Afterword manga and a “special thanks” page, which mentions that the Angel Whisper ring idea was apparently used by Reki Kawahara in one of his SAO-related doujinshi. Cover and interior color art on the one glossy page are sharp in their use of color but nothing special in terms of drawing quality.

If you ever thought that Silica and Lizbeth got short shrift in the main storyline, and/or were disappointed that Suguha/Leafa got relegated to Minor Supporting Character status after her feature arc, then it probably goes without saying that this is a must-have story. For everyone else, it is an unexceptional but generally satisfying expansion of the SAO franchise.

Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : C+

+ Features some underused characters, delves more into the impact of having survived the Sword Art Online game, higher-than-normal page count for the same price.
Artistry is not as sharp as concurrently-published manga efforts in the franchise.

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Production Info:
Original creator: Reki Kawahara
Original Character Design: abec
Art: Neko Nekobyō

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