Rika, Keiko, Suguha, and Hiyori are schoolgirls who spend their free time in the virtual reality game ALfheim Online, or ALO. In the opening volume of Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, the first three befriended Hiyori. Now, in the second and third volumes, the four girls continue their adventures together and a terrible secret about Hiyori is revealed. But first, a swimsuit contest!
When volume two opens, the girls need in-game money to fix their damaged armor. How will they get the cash? By winning an in-game swimsuit contest! The contest awards points for audience attention, so the girls go fanservice-wild all over the beach in an attempt to raise their scores. Then a monster attacks the swimsuit contest: a giant jellyfish with a taste for inappropriate tickling! How will our bikini-clad heroines fare against this perverted tentacle-monster? (After reading the first volume of SAO: Girls’ Ops, I would never have predicted writing that sentence about the second one.)
In volume three, a new arrival to ALO threatens to reveal an awful secret about Hiyori’s past. She knew Hiyori back in the days of Sword Art Online, the killer game that trapped players inside. People in SAO did terrible things to stay alive. Will Hiyori lose her friends when they find out what she did to survive SAO?
The tone change between these two volumes is enough to give you whiplash. The former revels in fanservice, while the latter is full of emotional scenes and flashbacks. Almost the entire second volume takes place in-game, in and around the swimsuit contest. The third volume includes more real-life scenes: fearing rejection, Hiyori stops logging onto ALO, forcing her friends to track her down in the real world.
While volume two is gleefully over-the-top with its fanservice, no nudity appears in either book. There is no graphic violence, either. Readers may find it refreshing that the fanservice is mostly intentional on the part of the girls. This isn’t a case of revealingly torn clothes or someone walking in on a girl’s bath—the girls have agency. They make the decision to put on those bikinis and strut their stuff (though nobody asked a creeper jellyfish to crash the party). Also, it’s easier to accept some unrealistic boob physics, given that the characters we’re looking at are video game avatars rather than real people.
The virtual reality MMORPG setting impacts both volumes. In volume two, the swimsuit competition has to be designed to avoid violating the game’s sexual harassment rules. In volume three, players take advantage of rules that allow them to attack other players under certain circumstances. The situation is compared to the way things were in SAO—an odd choice, perhaps, since it reminds readers that the stakes were far higher in SAO than they are now in ALO.
The artistic style is consistent inside and outside the game world, using fine, delicate lines with a variety of screentones and shades of gray. The artwork focuses on the characters, who are pretty, active, and expressive. Both the fantasy landscapes of ALO and the classrooms and cafes of our heroines’ real lives are shown enough to give a sense of place, but definitely remain in the background.
Volume one had the characters going on quests and beating monsters while cementing their friendship. These volumes, with their focus on swimsuit contests and tragic backstories, involve less of ALO’s usual gameplay, and not much combat. Each volume has some battle action, but more time is spent on the characters’ emotional lives—and in volume two, on their boobs.
Because the first three volumes are so different, it’s difficult to say who is meant to be the ideal audience for this series. Fans of the SAO universe will enjoy the ALO adventures of some familiar characters, especially the SAO references in volume three. Volumes one and three are plot-heavy and interconnected, while volume two is a wacky escapade barely tied to the others. Some readers will take it in stride, and those who like fanservice will love it, but it’s worth noting that any reader uncomfortable with all the fanservice can skip volume two without missing any plot developments.
Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, vols. 2-3
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Neko Nekobyou
vol 2 ISBN: 9780316268998
vol 3 ISBN: 9780316552677
Yen Press, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: Teen