Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online: Progressive
Before she became trapped in Sword Art Online, Asuna Yuuki was a top-scoring upper middle school student who entirely dedicated herself to studying, as she was being pushed hard down a path to success by her mother. Trying out her brother's new game (presumably as a stress break) forced her into a different reality, however, one which she was utterly unprepared to handle. After nearly getting herself killed desperately investigating a rumor of a secret log-out spot, help from an information broker opens her eyes. Deciding that if she does die in the game, it will not be from a lack of effort, she diligently applies her study skills to the game and works hard to become one of the fastest and strongest in the game. Overextending oneself can be fatal in SAO, though, as she finds out the hard way – or would have, if a certain black swordsman-to-be hadn't stepped in to help. Thus began the association that, two years later, would eventually become Aincard's greatest power couple, one whose nascent bond would be further forged in the heat of the battle against the recently-discovered first floor boss: the Kobold King.
Sword Art Online: Progressive is an initiative by original SAO author Reki Kawahara to go back and fill in and expand on some details/stories that were skipped over by the big time jump in the franchise's founding novel. This effort is being tackled on two fronts, with both a manga version and a novel version being released side-by-side. Further muddying the waters is that while the blurb for the novel version suggests that it will overlap some with the manga version, it is unclear at this point whether the manga version is actually just an alternate-viewpoint adaptation or a separate animal entirely. That remains to be seen when the first novel version comes out in late March 2015.
The manga version, which is written by Kawahara and illustrated by manga-ka Kiseki Himura, offers a dramatic change of perspective on the basic story by shifting its focus to Asuna, although it does it in a way that requires established familiarity with the franchise; this is not a good jumping-on point for newcomers. Kirito does figure in quite prominently, but this story is about what Asuna went through in the early days of SAO, how she learned to adjust her mindset for surviving in the game and built the drive that would, many months later, see her as one of the game's top female players. The tension over her mother's demanding standards that was evident in the “Mother's Rosario” arc of the anime's second series is evident here at the beginning and how hard she is being pushed to stay at the top is implied to have been responsible for her initially having a difficult time coping and adjusting. However, the very same work ethic which made her a top student eventually wins out and takes over here, explaining how someone who was a total novice to online gaming could eventually succeed so well. That, combined with her discovery from Kirito that sense of taste could be so effectively stimulated in the game, also explains why she was both motivated and able to push so hard to master the cooking engine in the game, a point never really made clear in either the original novel or anime version.
The other crucial aspect that the manga version contributes to the overall story is to lay the groundwork much, much better for how Asuna becomes attracted to Kirito. Here the manga engages in a bit of revisionist history, as it marks their first encounter prior to the first floor boss meeting (which was the way it was shown in episode 2 of the first anime series) and places the crucial “cream” scene prior to that rather than afterward. According to this version, Kirito saved Asuna once right at the beginning (though it suggests that neither probably remembers the other's presence in that encounter, since they never saw each other's faces) and a second time two weeks later when Asuna gets dangerously outnumbered in a dungeon. However, Asuna is hardly won over so easily. The information broker may have helped Asuna on her way, but Kirito is suggested to be the one who fully helped her appreciate what this virtual world had to offer in terms of actually living a life, rather than just seeing it as a struggle for survival. He also, in the setting's biggest irony, helped her to see the value of working with others rather than just suffering through alone, and she may have seen a kindred soul in him as well; she is shown to have been something of a lone wolf herself, for her looks and competitive grade drive tended to isolate her from other girls her age, not always by her choice. Combine those factors together and it's no wonder that Asuna fell for him, even though their initial conversations were somewhat rocky.
Some other game aspects come out better as well. Argo, the never-named information broker seen telling Kirito about the Red-Nosed Reindeer quest in episode 3 of the anime and the person responsible for the guidebook shown in episode 2, has a much more prominent role here and looks like she will be an integral part of the Progressive storytelling. How much Asuna stands out and attracts unwanted attention because of her appearance is also more firmly emphasized here. That Aincard actually has lingerie shops and that its sensory system can simulate baths come up, as do the process for enhancing weapons and how adding extra plusses can help the way the weapon feels. The disdain for beta testers is also a little more heavily emphasized here. Sadly, one of the most important and desired revelations – exactly why Asuna decided to try out SAO in the first place despite initially pooh-poohing it as a waste of time – is not dealt with here, although inferring that she was simply curious would not be a stretch based on what is shown here.
On the artistic front, Himura was clearly the right person for this assignment, as the Aincard version of Asuna has never looked better than she does here – and that is meant without considering the significant enhancement to her bust size. The action poses of her in the color glossy pages which form the prologue are gorgeous, and the black-and-white renditions of her throughout the rest convincingly portray the striking visual impression she makes. Other characters also look sharp and all are convincingly emotive, including a handful of panels that show nicely silly reactions without being overblown. Combat scene staging and detail work are not top-of-the-line but are good enough to suit the purpose. A bath scene offers a few pages of (non-nippled) fan service but is really the only place where that element has a strong presence. The one negative here is that portrayal of Asuna's hair length is inconsistent; it is clearly shown going only to her waist in some scenes but down past her rear end in others.
U.S. production comes courtesy of Yen Press, who does deliver a quality product but you will definitely pay towards the higher end of the standard manga pricing range for that quality. Sound effects are translated into both romaji and English equivalents in small added type near the original, which in some cases makes it a little hard to read. Included at the end are single pages of comments from Himura, Kawahara, and original character designer abec.
For any dedicated SAO enthusiast and/or Asuna fan, Progressive is a must-read. Others who were critical of how the first novel and/or the anime's Aincard arc shorted on character development and relationship establishment should also find this alternate telling more to their liking, even though Kirito is, once again, saving the day.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Asuna has never looked better and gets much better establishing development, fills in many interesting details.
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