Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 6

By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.

There’s not nearly as much Kirito/Asuna shipping in this second volume of this two-parter, but that’s fine as I actually was getting into the game part for once. Kirito is dealing with things that puzzle him on several fronts. First, and pun intended, there are the puzzles, including the last boss being a nearly insoluble game of sudoku. Secondly, there are the changes from the beta, meaning Kirito can sometimes be caught doing the wrong thing. Thirdly, the player killers are messing things up by killing NPCs and forcing the game into a completely different direction. And lastly, and most importantly, the NPCs are simply far too complex and realistic to be explained by simple programming. It’s not just Kizmel anymore – we also meet a young girl and her mother whose backstory is too thought out and only makes sense if Aincrad’s inhabitants had been around long before the players were trapped there. All of this disturbs Kirito, a gamer who really doesn’t want to accept NPCs with their own agendas and emotions, more than Asuna, a non-gamer who simply accepts it for the most part.

We also meet another group of players, who are meant to seem sinister but in the end appear to be mostly innocent but easily tricked. They were part of the group trying to stay safe at the Town of Beginnings, but that’s a lot harder than it sounds when you need money for food and shelter. Again, it’s a reminder that a big reason that Kawahara is writing this expansion of this original series is to deal with all the things that he never did when it was just one short book. We also see the flip side of Kirito and Asuna bonding so much with Kizmel, which is that the bad guys can also bond with the NPC bad guys. In fact, one can argue that in this book the villains win for the most part, as the infiltrator of Lind and Kibaou’s groups gets away, and the fallen elf collects the keys that they had been trying to collect. Basically, each book is building on the next, and I’m sure we’ll see both Kizmel and the fallen elves again.

The funniest part of the book involves Kirito meeting an NPC sage who teaches him the meditation technique… which involves NOT eating the hamburg steak directly in front of him. The amusing thing is that, when Kirito tries to calm his mind by thinking about food, the sage rejects it, but when he reflects on his time in the game with Asuna, that’s perfectly OK. Asuna is still denying that she and Kirito are a couple when confronted, in a typical tsundere way, but there’s no question that she trusts and feels relaxed around him where she doesn’t with anyone else. And there’s also Kizmel, who seems to confidently be trying to work them into a threesome – I say confidently as she seems confident neither of them will go for it.

So we get a new floor next time around, but it may be a bit of a wait again, as I don’t think the 7th book is out in Japan yet. There’s a lot of open questions, though. Biggest of all – when did Saber Asuna change to Lancer Asuna?

Sword Art Online, Vol. 16: Alicization Exploding

By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.

Thankfully, this is a much stronger volume than the previous one. It helps that this time around we have very little POV of Gabriel Miller, though the little we get shows he’s as awful as ever, and has a new reason to be after Alice. There’s also no Kirito POV, as he spends the entire book still comatose. This allows a number of characters to get POV scenes, which Kawahara admits in the afterword he’s not really used to, but it plays out pretty well, as we’re introduced to a number of Integrity Knights, as well as some villains, and get a little more into what makes them human. Which is good, given that the entire premise of this arc is that the cast of the Underworld are meant to be just as important and sentient as our heroes, even if Alice is framed as the most special of all. And, coming down as a gift from heaven – literally – Asuna joins the fray, with God-tier powers and an immediate rivalry with Alice, because the author never met a cliche he didn’t like.

Unfortunately, sometimes that means cliches that shouldn’t really be used. I sighed when we got to the Integrity Knight with a massive crush on Fanatio, who was forced to become a knight because she fell in love with another woman, falls in love with Fanatio while a knight, and is promptly killed off protecting her. I should be grateful she wasn’t framed as evil or predatory, I suppose. The ‘bad guy’ cast also ranting about the “white iums’ (aka the good guys) also rankles, though I know that it comes from a fantasy base where white = good and black = bad, and was no doubt written into the Underworld by the developers. Better handled was the cowardly Knight who decides to hide from the final battle, and unfortunately for him ends up in the same tent as Ronie, Tiese and their unresponsive charge, and he is forced to learn the true meaning of Christmas. Or at least that some things are worth fighting for.

Most of this book is a fight sequence, and there are some good ones, particularly a battle between a stoic and (mostly) silent Integrity Knight and a Pugilist (who are basically a bunch of Hercules guys) on the opposite side who find that each has an equal bloodlust for a good fight. That said, we can’t avoid the plot entirely. Asuna is in the game now, but she won’t be enough, as the villains have hacked it to allow a bunch of Americans to log on – not telling them these are anything other than NPCs – and let them kill everyone. Fortunately, Yui – who laments the fact that she’s not as good an AI as Alice and company while at the same time surpassing her own limits, a scene that’s very deftly handled – is bringing in a few more ringers. Yes, at last, we’re getting the rest of the band back together, as the other “main” cast members prepare to enter the Underworld as well.

We have two more books to go in this arc, and I will be very surprised if the next one does not end with Kirito ascendant. But there’s no denying that things are tough right now. Fortunately, with the power of More Deban on its way, we can likely find a way past it. That said, SAO is every five months now, so be prepared for a slightly longer wait.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: Second Squad Jam: Finish

By Keiichi Sigsawa and Kouhaku Kuroboshi, based on the series created by Reki Kawahara. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.

This volume picks up where the last one left off, showing us the bulk of the 2nd Squad Jam, featuring most of the teams we saw in the last one plus a few new ones. The bulk of the book is, of course, the audience waiting for the big fight between Llenn and Pitohui. I say “audience” rather than reader as a large part of this book takes place in a bar in the virtual GGO world, where non-participants and the newly killed can gather to watch what’s going on and cheer people on. It’s a fun conceit, and helps to break up long pages of descriptions of action/descriptions of guns. Moreover, while our heroes are still the stars, the other teams also get a lot of great things to do (provided you like action – I mean, this is never going to be anything but “OMG, GUN FIGHTS!”) and show off their cool sides. And we meet a couple of characters I expect will pop up again in the future.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author quite so gleeful about playing around in someone else’s sandbox as Keiichi Sigsawa is here. (He even writes himself in to have a pathetic “I get killed off” cameo – again.) Theoretically there should be an impending feeling of doom around the events in this game – after all, Pitohui is gaming it so that it may have real-life consequences – but honestly, you rarely get that sense because you’re too busy watching everyone have all the fun in the world. Miyu/Fukaziroh greatly helps here, and I love her addition to the cast so much – aside from being a classic “just cannot shut up” type, she’s a great foil for Llenn. Her crowning moment may be emulating the Black Knight in Monty Python when she gets her hands and feet shot off and still crawls along to try to do some damage.

The battle between Llenn and Pitohui is the climax of the book, with everything else as a mere epilogue (including the actual results of the game, which I found hilarious). Llenn’s desperation to think of something, anything in order to kill off Pitohui herself is admirable and also a bit laughable, especially when she gets stuck in a thinking mantra. She’s at her best when running on instinct, though, and when her gun finally breaks (again, and yes, it still speaks to her), she has her knife, and then a makeshift knife, and then… well, I was impressed, let’s leave it at that. After that sort of battle, the epilogue was a bit of a letdown, especially with the lamest attempt at a fakeout ever – and to be fair, Karen does not fall for it even one iota. Now that Llenn and Pitohui have resolved things, though, what’s next? A third jam? Can we combine the four leads and have the best team ever?

This is still the light novel equivalent of a sugar rush, and I recommend skipping the gun nerd prose unless you really care a lot more than I do. But otherwise the GGO spinoff offers the finest quality action you’ll see in some time. Certainly better than the main series, and I think Kawahara would likely agree.