Sword Art Online was a virtual reality game whose players could not log out, and if they died in the game, they died in real life. But SAO is gone now, beaten by a hero named Kirito and his friends. In its place a new game appears: ALfheim Online. It has all the fun fantasy adventures and battles of SAO, but without the “trapped-in-the-game, potentially-deadly” element. It’s very popular, even—perhaps surprisingly—with a few survivors of SAO.
Rika and Keiko, known in the game as Liz and Silica, survived SAO. Now they’re enthusiastically playing ALfheim Online, along with their schoolmate Suguha, who plays a character called Leafa. Because the game has the same quests and characters that SAO did, Liz and Silica know what to expect… or so they think. When a new quest becomes available, the trio jumps at it, only to find it much more difficult than they anticipated. The girls are in trouble until a mysterious swordsman joins the battle. The swordsman, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Kirito, turns out to be another SAO survivor. SAO killed thousands of people, and survivors were often left traumatized. Can Liz, Silica, and Leafa accomplish their quest and help to heal the swordsman’s emotional scars?
Mild spoiler: the girls learn fairly quickly that Kuro, the mysterious swordsman character, is played by another girl. I think this is important to clarify that the first volume of Girls’ Ops does not, in fact, revolve around a man who rescues and upstages our heorines. Kuro is an interesting, complex character; after losing people in SAO, she’s determined to protect others in ALfheim Online. The other girls seem to have suffered less trauma, but they understand what Kuro went through and they’re ready to help and support her. All four are heroic, good-hearted characters who are easy to root for.
Although there are several Sword Art Online manga series that chronologically precede this one, I had no trouble understanding this story as a newcomer to SAO. Its references to past events are intriguing without being confusing. ALfheim Online doesn’t have the life-or-death stakes of Sword Art Online, but it’s fascinating to see the characters processing the emotional fallout of SAO while playing another game that superficially resembles it.
Most of the volume follows the in-game characters Liz, Silica, Leafa, and Kuro. They are drawn in the same style as the real-world girls who play them: pretty, detailed, and highly expressive, which suits the emotional storyline of this volume. There is some mild visual fanservice, but the characters don’t feel sexualized; there are a few allusions to their relative breast sizes, e.g. how well they would fill out each other’s in-game armor. The visual focus is definitely on the characters rather than their surroundings; there are hints of the fantastical nature of the world of ALfheim Online and our heroines encounter plenty of supernatural creatures there, but we see little of the scenery. There are battles in which characters get hurt, but the fights are bloodless. Injured characters register damage on their hit point meters, which pop up when they are attacked.
Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops has epic battles, but it also contains a lot of emotion and conversation. It’s fun to see female characters who are passionate, skilled gamers. Our trio of protagonists defy stereotypes: they care about beating monsters and completing quests, but also about getting their pretty armor fixed and being emotionally supportive to their new friend. Readers who enjoy fantasy stories with heart and who don’t demand nonstop action will devour this volume, even if they are new to the SAO universe. Those who are already SAO fans may enjoy this new installment even more, since it follows up on some characters they’ve met in previous series.
Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, vol. 1
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Neko Nekobyou
Yen Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: Teen