Title: Sword Art Online
Author: Kawahara Reki
Published: August 2009
Genres: Action, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance
Note: Definite spoilers from Volumes 1 + 2, light spoilers for Vol 3 + 4.
Kirito has succeeded in defeating Kayaba Akihito and clearing the death game Sword Art Online, releasing the players from their virtual prison and returning them to real life. For around 300 of the players though, they still remain in a deep slumber, with their minds locked away in the virtual world. Yuuki Asuna is one of them, and when Kirito gets wind from his friend Egil about a VRMMO with a picture of a character resembling Asuna, Kirito decides to investigate and jumps into the fantasy world of Alfheim Online, a community ruled by races such as salamanders, sylphs, fairies and elves. To his surprise, he finds that all his character data from SAO still remains, and soon reunites with the AI Yui, now a Navigation Pixie in ALO. Kirito is quickly joined on his mission by a sylph named Lyfa, but what is her true identity? And what does Asuna’s real-life suitor Noboyuki Suguo have to do with all this?
So the SAO arc has ended – naturally, that means the only way forward is for the story to tangent off into different territory, and the most obvious way to do that is to introduce a whole new game. I must admit that when I first began reading, I was very against the idea of Kirito and Asuna entering a world that wasn’t SAO, since their whole relationship and development occurred in that environment. Coming to think of it though, having the SAO arc go on for too long would have eventually resulted in the story getting boring, and that’s the last thing I want from this kind of setup. I still do enjoy all the side stories and various new pieces about Kirito’s time in SAO, and I’m sure Kawahara Reki likes writing them as well. While exploring new VRMMOs is always exciting, there’s something about the original SAO that can never be replaced.
After that beautiful relationship (Kirito x Asuna forever, guys) we realize that in fact, Asuna hasn’t woken up. Oh shit. Seeing Kirito mope around, continuing to visit the hospital in the hope that Asuna does wake up was so depressing, that anyone would quickly wish a thousand fucks on whoever is still causing them to be apart. Cue entrance of jealous suitor Suguo, who is one of those people that you quickly mark as a douche-on-sight, just from hearing the word suitor. And oh boy is this guy a dick. It didn’t matter in SAO, but in the real world you’d think that someone as pretty (and rich, as it happens) as Asuna would get a lot of attention, and hey, here’s an arranged marriage for Kirito to go against. Suguo makes it very clear straight off that it’s him trapping Asuna, and since Kirito can’t prove anything in the real world, the only option is to crush him on his own turf – in games.
The world of Alfheim Online (ALO) was intriguing. Unlike SAO, there’s no threat of permanent death here (Kirito checked his logout button just in case) and so the environment is very different. There’s no need or desire to grind and farm levels or exp, and everything seems much more relaxed. Guilds like the <Army> or <Knights of the Blood> just don’t exist – we instead are split into different factions led by a leader, such as the Sylph Lord, Sakuya being head of the sylphs. The factions aren’t exactly at peace with each other, but that’s to be expected, adding to the competitiveness of the game. Kirito’s target is to reach the World Tree and climb to the top, which also happens to be the target of the entire game, meaning he’s met with resistance from more than a few people along the way whose territory he just happens to have trespassed on.
I know some people aren’t happy with the fact that the main female lead has gone from Asuna to Lyfa, and that number of people will increase even further once people discover Lyfa’s real identity. However, everything Kirito’s going through is for the sake of rescuing Asuna and having her by his side once more, which is what I kept repeating to myself over and over every time something questionable happened. Don’t worry, it doesn’t go into anything like NTR xD You might be interested in the fact that Lyfa is voiced by Taketatsu Ayana in the anime next season, and since she hardly appears at all in the first SAO arc, it’s probable that they’re animating this ALO arc too, which is fantastic. Lyfa’s RL character makes a small cameo in the Aincrad arc, but if that’s all it is, why stick her with such a high-end VA?
The ending (of Vol 4, since both these volumes are part of the same arc) was superb, like how Vol 1’s ending was. I won’t spoil the reading enjoyment, but you will experience that warm happy feeling more than once, as if the world is amazing and you can die happy. In Eva’s words, everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Just a quick tip – if you don’t like drastic changes, you may want to skip to either Vol 7’s filler/side story, or Vol 8’s series of short stories, since the next arc after this features a major curveball once more. Hint – a VRMMO, about guns. Yes, guns.