Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, Vol. 1

By Tomo Hirokawa, based on the series created by Reki Kawahara. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dengeki Maoh. Released in North America by Yen Press. Translated by Stephen Paul.

Fair warning, this review contains spoilers for the video game Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization. And while the average reader may be staring at their screen now and saying “DUR!”, believe me, they came as a surprise to me. I have not played any of the SAO games, but assumed that this adaptation would not really have a lot of barriers to me picking it up and just reading it. And that’s… somewhat true? The main issue being when all the other girls in Kirito’s life start showing up. There’s our usual main harem, but then I ran into a girl who I was pretty sure died tragically in one of the prior books, and Yui’s little sister, and a sysadmin helping the group, and… I had to run crying to the Sword Art Online wiki. Not a pretty sight. So yes, for readers of the manga who have NOT played the game (and its prequels)? You will be confused.

The premise is that Kirito and company are beta testing a new version of SAO based off the original game… but without the ‘trapped and dying’ parts. They immediately run into a few NPCs, including one who appears to be more of a blank slate than you’d expect, particularly as the NPCs here are more lifelike and real than had been seen in SAO previously (let’s leave Kizmel to the side for the moment). Asuna names the NPC Premiere, and we begin to watch her slowly develop wants and needs, such as the desire to protect herself. And she certainly needs to protect herself too, as players are going around killing NPCs for their stuff… and the NPCs don’t return afterwards. Can our heroes help Premiere achieve sentience while also stopping the ‘it’s just a game’ PCs and a creepy swordsman named Genesis?

The concept of NPCs being more than what they seem is something SAO (and indeed many other ‘trapped in a game world’ series) has come back to many times, especially since Kawahara began the “Progressive” series. In fact, one of the very first SAO doujinshi the author wrote, back when it was still a webnovel, featured Kirito and Asuna arguing over whether it was OK to sacrifice NPCs in order to clear a level. Clearly the story is meant to have us rooting for Premiere and her fellow non-players, and I’m fine with that – she’s cute and likeable without being overly cloying. As for the rest of the cast, they all show up, but mostly it’s the Kirito and Asuna show, which is fine by me – there’s lots of “they’re so in love with each other” interaction that makes Lisbeth and company a bit ill. (Quiet, Liz, the artist was very kind to you.) And as I indicated there’s a few extra girls who also show up here, and if Mother’s Rosario left you wishing that it could have gone differently… you might want to check this out, though you’ll be whistling for explanations – “buy Lost Song” is apparently the answer.

Overall, this is a fun tie-in manga that I suspect will appeal more to those familiar with the game, though (as I’ve shown) you can read it without any game knowledge and just be slightly confused.

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