Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online: Progressive
Kirito and Asuna once again serve as the vanguard on to a new floor – this time the fourth – but to Kirito's surprise, there has been a drastic revision to it since the Beta Test: what was once a dry, nondescript floor has now become one where the main thoroughfares are rivers instead of canyons and all of the population centers are either surrounded by, floating on, or traversed by water. (Think Venice for the main city.) This presents new challenges, as water navigation was never part of the game before, but the Dynamic Duo adapt more quickly than anyone else. Once they have built their own boat (named Tilnel in honor of Kizmel's dead sister), they take a direction that the other lead players don't: they continue the Elf Quest from the previous floor, which leads them to a dastardly discovery and, later, to a new encounter with an old friend.
One of the most appealing features of the Progressive retelling of SAO's Aincard story arc is that it has the time to explore all the floor-to-floor variations which make Aincard the dynamic setting that it should have been. That is more evident in this novel than in the previous two, with the whole adventuring approach taking a drastically different turn due to the water element. Author Reki Kawahara comments in his Afterword that he went this direction simply because he had always wanted to write a story about traversing a map by water. That probably provides a blueprint for what we can expect from future novels in the series: since he never laid out the specifications of most of the floors before, he is just going to use each one to explore whatever setting element or style strikes his fancy.
Another distinct difference between this novel and the previous two is that Kawahara places much greater emphasis on describing the scenery in detail. This does result in him again going into considerably less detail about the boss fights, a point which Kawahara laments about in the Afterword, but it was the right decision. While those fights are ostensibly the feature pieces of each floor, they become less impactful after a while, and sometimes the path to those fights is going to be much more interesting than the fight itself, especially once the lead teams have a strategy worked out for dealing with the boss without casualties. Besides, the novel hardly lacks for action because of it; Kirito and Asuna's early battle against a Magnatherium vibrates with clever tactics, while a later battle between elvish factions becomes part-sea-battle, part ground-based guarding action. Along the way the increased attention to detail on things other than just the intricacies of Sword Skills and game mechanics shows, although Kawahara continues to be especially sharp on the latter two.
Sadly, that doesn't translate over into the character development. The closest thing to character advancement seen in Kirito is that he starts to worry much more about how he is eventually going to have to break away from Asuna for her own good. Though he has been shown thinking about this before, he is becoming more and more aware of how hanging too much with a “beater” could damage Asuna's future ability to lead (in the sense of her not being able to get enough acknowledgement from other players), which he is more and more convinced will eventually be essential to defeating the game. On Asuna's side, her main development is the revelation that she really, really loves boats – apparently every bit as much as she loves baths. Otherwise she is pretty much the same temperamental semi-tsundere as ever. Granted, everything coming from the perspective of a 14 year old boy unused to dealing much with other people (much less girls) could be coloring this, but the writing continues to imply that Kawahara just doesn't know how to handle Asuna. Hardly any other characters of long-standing consequence get significant development, either, but they also generally have little impact on events. The one other significant development involving characters is what may be the story's first direct reference to Lisbeth, as a “female blacksmith” is referred to as arriving on the fourth floor at one point.
The one other aspect of the writing which does improve a little is the sense of humor. So far that's been mostly dependent on Kirito getting smacked around for getting into potentially embarrassing situations with Asuna, but here Kawahara makes at least a bit more effort. The whole business with the boar-themed underwear (and, for that matter, the fact that magical underwear even exists in the game) might be worthy of a chuckle, and it is becoming increasingly clear that Kirito hogging the Last Attack bonuses has become a running joke rather than pure aggrandizement.
The book clocks in at 250 pages including the Afterword, which puts it at about the same length as the second novel but well short of the first. It starts with the standard set of glossy color pages previewing the novel's content, but that set ends with a map of the fourth floor and some explanatory comments about the design – a nice touch. The illustrations during the story conform to previously-set standards, which means that they ultimately don't add much to the experience.
Near the beginning of the first Progressive novel Kawahara dwelled on Asuna's viewpoint for a little while, but he has not come back to that even briefly since then. Seeing some future floor told at least partly – if not entirely – from her perspective would be quite welcome at this point. Perhaps we will see that if (when?) Kawahara continues the story to the point where the two part ways. For now, though, the story keeps rolling along just like it has been.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B-
+ Improved descriptiveness of the setting.
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