Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online: Progressive
For the second straight floor Kirito and Asuna go ahead to open the gate on the new floor, but upon reaching the third floor they opt to merely inform Argo about it and let the others in the boss raid take care of it. Instead they immediately begin a “campaign quest” that Kirito knows about from the beta test, one which will extend for several floors and which involves taking a side in a duel between forest elf and dark elf knights. As he did in the beta test, Kirito and Asuna opt to support the dark elf, but this time the unexpected happens: not only does the dark elf, a woman named Kizmel, survive a fight where she normally dies, but she also proves to be a vastly more robust NPC than any that either of them have encountered before, to the point that they have difficulty continuing to think about her as a mere NPC. That is not the only surprise which awaits Kirito, either, as someone seems intent on maneuvering the two newly-formed lead-party guilds – the DKB (Dragon Knights Brigade) led by Lind and the ALS (Aincard Liberation Squad) led by Kibaou – into conflict, and that someone's approach to dueling suggests a sinister intent.
The second volume of Reki Kawahara's ambitious reimagining of Sword Art Online offers plenty of intriguing content, but perhaps none more so than its Afterword. In the Afterword for the first volume, he mentioned an intent to average about two floors per volume, but by the end of this volume – which only deals with the third floor – he has already deviated from that intent. That is actually less haphazard than how the Progressive line has come about, however. According to Kawahara, his grand ambition of writing the story all the way was not actually planned that way from the start; it just happened . What was originally intended as a fill-in short story became a novella, and then he became curious about what happened on the next floor, and so another novella happened, and things just progressed from there. That leads us to this story, a single tale which takes all 248 pages to tell – and that without going into any details about the third floor boss battle. In the end, though, that battle is inconsequential compared to what goes on before it.
Kawahara has stated that his intent is to focus on themes with each novel, and in this one the theme is the nature of quests in an MMO. He expounds philosophically on this in the Afterword, but even in previous works which have focused on players on a quest (the Calibur arc of Sword Art Online 2 and the whale quest in Extra Edition), the storytelling did not delve into the mechanics of going on quests to anywhere near the degree that this novel does. A focus is the nature of a campaign quest (here described as an overarching quest which links many smaller components), but he also looks in detail at how players do and do not interact with each other while completing either the same or opposing quests, including the concept of “instances” (i.e., spaces in a quest that are individual to each player/group performing the quest). Another element is how completing certain quests a certain way can sometimes lead to unanticipated bonuses, such as discovering an NPC blacksmith capable of making potentially game balance-breaking weapons or a clue about tackling the floor boss. He even delves into how quests can be cleverly used to help reveal the backstory of a setting or manipulate those on the quests.
Other elements expand a bit more on topics that Kawahara has brought up before, whether intentionally or not. With Yui, who originally came from one of the side stories of his second SAO novel, he introduced the concept of a NPC backed by an AI complex enough to generate human-like behaviors and responses. He returns to that idea with Kizmel, only this time he reveals a fairly involved backstory for said NPC as well as fully adaptive interactivity which can even put game concepts into terms that the character would understand. Yui was cute enough that we never really thought all that deeply about how involved a program she was, but Kizmel brings that out much more clearly. Previous SAO works have also used the concept of finding sinister ways to manipulate the confines of the rules, and that comes out in Kirito's conflict with Morte, especially the ugly way that someone might avoid the penalty for PKing in the game while still actually killing someone. Watching Morte in action suggests the possibility that we are seeing the seeds of Laughing Coffin germinating here.
Kawahara's attention to exacting detail in the use of swords skills and describing battle choreography is probably at its finest here in Kirito's duel with Morte, though it also shines elsewhere. On the downside, Kirito's interactions with Asuna suggest that Kawahara's weakest point is still writing female characters when he is not telling the story from their perspectives. Here Asuna comes off as very mercurial and seldom has any behavior that isn't in response to something Kirito did or did not do. That she is sharp-witted and a quick study does come through, but beyond that her defining characteristics here are largely getting uptight about sharing living quarters with Kirito and a near-obsession with baths. Despite Kirito's repeated claims that Asuna is someone destined to be a leader of the game, she still stands too much in Kirito's shadow at this point. Contrarily, that Kirito is not well-suited to be a leader except by example and by dint of exploiting his beta tester knowledge comes through quite clearly.
Yen Press's release of the novel features a fairly sharp cover picture of Kirito with Kizmel. In the standard format, several glossy pages of color illustrations start off the novel, although a map of the third floor is also included amongst them this time. Several other black-and-white illustrations – usually ones heavy on dark shading – dot the text. Beyond the aforementioned map and three-page Afterword, no other extras are present.
That Kawahara is actually seriously intent on carrying the stories all the way through seems improbable unless he eventually starts condensing, as at some point the floor stories will start blending together. For now, though, with the setting still progressively coming together (including some backstory on how the castle supposedly came to be), the details remain distinct and interesting.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ “In-world” setting backstory, very detailed fight descriptions, highly informative Afterword.
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