Your assessment of Sword Art Online: Progressive will come down to your tolerance for fanservice: targeted objectification or hypersexualization of anime and manga characters. All fanservice aside, this is a fairly entertaining debut story for Asuna Yuuki, one of the breakout stars of the Sword Art Online franchise popular on CrunchyRoll.
Asuna finds herself at a crossroads in life: does she double down on her studies to get into a good school, or apply herself to a virtual reality Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game called Sword Art Online? Asuna is teased in both worlds: in reality, girls ostracize her and she doesn’t fit in with her classmates; in the game, men discuss her body and belittle her contributions. Asuna doesn’t have to deal with reality for much longer, though, as Sword Art Online is taken over by a mysterious hacker who modifies the game so that in-game death results in actual death and players cannot leave unless they advance to the end.
Sword Art Online takes advantage of videogame logic in a way that will especially speak to gamers. The first wave of deaths are those who underestimate the risk based on other MMOs and push themselves too far, expecting instant resurrection. Some players rely on knowledge they obtained playing a beta release of the game, which turns out to be an advantage as well as a tragic weakness. Controlled and experienced via neural impulses, the game relies on motion-based “inputs” from the player’s brain, rewarding exact timing and stances. Asuna begins the book out of her league, but once she learns the rules of combat, her quick-study nature puts her on the front lines of an assault on the local dungeon.
Asuna eventually gains the notice of a master player, Kirito, and they begin to help each other. He offers her a bed for a night at a local inn, including a shower and bath, which Asuna cannot refuse… because she feels virtually dirty, I guess? I know I felt dirty during the subsequent shower and bath scenes as Asuna undressed to bra and panties. Even readers who would normally excuse a quick peek for gag purposes will roll their eyes at Asuna’s extended nudity; the only reason her nipples remain unseen is that they are not drawn. I thought the guys ogling her earlier were supposed to be examples of bad behavior as they objectified her body, but the manga goes on to sexualize her for several pages anyway. That treatment is clearly not in keeping with Asuna’s character as she is written by Reki Kawahara, so I wonder if it’s a seedy attempt to lure readers and whether it continues in later books.
In spite of the questionable treatment of its female lead, Kiseki Himura’s artwork serves the book’s gaming environment well, from its vaguely medieval virtual world to the swords and shields swung in combat against waves of monsters. The first volume sets the stage for plenty of story to follow as Asuna, Kirito, and company progress to the next floor of the game, discovering new challenges and hidden wonders, right down to the joy of virtual food. Here’s to future volumes that play to characters’ strengths without fetishizing them.
Sword Art Online: Progressive, vol. 1
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Kiseki Himura
Yen Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: T