~A guest review by Frog-kun~
This is a review for volumes 1-4 of the Sword Art Online: Progressive light novel series, written by Reki Kawahara. The English edition was first released by Yen Press in March 2015, and the translation has since caught up to the Japanese publication. The series is still ongoing, with four volumes currently available in both English and Japanese.
Sword Art Online is a series that likely needs no introduction to light novel and anime fans at this stage, although the spinoff series Sword Art Online: Progressive may be a bit less familiar to some. Simply put, it’s a “reboot” of the Aincrad storyline, promising to tell the story of how each floor in the game was conquered. Depending on your feelings about the original series, this may or may not be an appealing prospect.
Above all, Sword Art Online: Progressive appears to have been written with an eye for addressing the common criticisms against SAO. Kirito reprises his role as the main character for this series, but he’s not the godlike gamer he was in the original series; instead, he just seems like a perceptive kid who often needs help from others to balance his overspecialized talents. The other characters in the world of SAO get a chance to shine in Progressive—most notably Asuna, whose journey from newbie to VRMMO veteran is one of the main focuses of the reboot.
Worldbuilding was always the strongest aspect of Kawahara’s stories, but it’s even more impressive in this series. One of the things I liked most about Progressive was its emphasis on the social dynamics in the VRMMORPG setting. The lives of other players were often touched upon in the original series but were never really delved into. In Progressive, we’re given a clearer picture of the guild politics, and the various side characters play key roles in moving the narrative forward. This makes the game world feel as if it’s populated by people instead of just serving as a canvas for Kirito’s exploits.
The tone of Progressive is also quite a bit different from the original series. Although the possibility of death is at the back of everyone’s minds, the characters also spend a fair amount of time simply enjoying their adventures. The overall feel is quite laid-back, perhaps because the reader is assured that Kirito and Asuna can’t die at this stage of the story. The same thing doesn’t apply for many of the side characters, however; the main source of dramatic tension in Progressive comes from the idea that most of the new characters could perish at any moment.
Arguably, the biggest problem with Progressive is that it spends too long exploring all the facets of its world. The first four volumes are unusually thick for light novels, but they still only cover the first five floors of the game. I personally didn’t find the padded length to be a problem, although there were admittedly some parts which repeated game mechanics that the reader would already know about. These exposition parts were always thoroughly woven into the character interactions or the immediate plot, so they rarely felt dry or repetitive to me, although your mileage may vary.
As solid as the narrative of Progressive is on paper, it wouldn’t have been so enjoyable without strong prose and diction. Stephen Paul’s translation is one of the best I’ve encountered from Yen Press, to the extent that I would rather read Sword Art Online in English over the original Japanese. The translation particularly shines when it comes to the dialogue, giving each character a distinctive yet naturalistic way of speaking. Although Progressive is a distinct step up from his previous works, Kawahara isn’t particularly known for writing witty dialogue–but the translation has a way of making even the stock Japanese phrases sound fresh and full of personality in English. Sword Art Online and Progressive are both worth buying for their English translations alone.
All in all, Sword Art Online: Progressive marks just how much Reki Kawahara has improved as a writer over the years. Given that he began writing Progressive a full ten years after publishing the original SAO web novel, it’s natural that his abilities would grow noticeably. Progressive isn’t a hugely innovative work, but it gets the storytelling fundamentals right, delivering a classic adventure story that should appeal to readers outside the “VRMMORPG” or “Overpowered MC” subgenres. In many ways, Progressive is the MMO survival story that many of SAO’s critics thought the original series should have been. I also have no doubt that preexisting SAO fans will get a kick out of Progressive too, particularly fans of Kirito and Asuna’s relationship.
Just be warned that this series is not getting a conclusion anytime soon. So far the series has been averaging about one volume a year, so at this rate Kawahara may be writing Progressive for the rest of his life. But when the installments are this good, I don’t mind waiting for the long haul.
Frog-kun’s rating: Strongly Recommended