Of course, wherever there are manga trying to cash in on the success of anime, there too are the increasingly large pile of Sword Art Online manga. I wasn't crazy for the original, but I thought that maybe this one would be better. After all, it's all about the supporting cast!
Oh how wrong I was.
SWORD ART ONLINE: GIRLS' OPS (Sodo Ato Onrain Garuzu Opusu), based on the series by Reki Kawahara, art by Neko Nokobyo and character designs by abec. First published in 2013, and first published in North America in 2015.
After the events of Sword Art Online, some of the players stayed in touch and even continued to play in the fantasy-themed world of ALO. That's certainly true for Keiko, Rika, and Suguha, a trio better known as Silica, Lisbeth, and Leafa. Their latest adventure leads them to a new girl with a familiar face and a determination to game along. When she gets into big trouble, it's up to these three to save her before it's game over for them all.
Despite my distaste for Sword Art Online, I was at least in favor of the premise of this spinoff. After all, there are plenty of characters other than Kirito the VG Jesus and his precious waifu. Wouldn't it be nice to read a story about them doing stuff together that doesn't ultimately end with "and Kirito saves the day and everyone loves him"? Oh, if only that was how it actually turned out. The focus might be on three of the more prominent female costars, but it has nothing interesting for them to do. Worse still, while Kirito is indeed absent, he still manages to insert himself all over the damn story.
To some degree it couldn't be helped. He's going to have to come up when the new girl/SAO survivor Kuro has purposefully adoped Kirito's look and weapon style out of starry-eyed hero-worship. Still, it's annoying that every few pages one or more of the girls has to say something along the lines of "We have to be strong for Kirito-sama!" Heaven forbid that they chose to be strong for themselves, for their friends, or literally anything else that's more immediate and/or sensible. Nope, they have to all be strong because Kirito was strong and saved them all and because all of them are still smitten with him to some degree. Yes, that includes Suguha, which if you'll recall is Kirito's sister. *shudder* It's kind of ridiculous that a book that markets itself as being all about Girl Power ends up being all about a guy in the end. It undercuts the girls' own agency as characters as well as the moral about the power of friendship or whatnot.
God knows that these characters desperately need some outside motivation because on their own there is absolutely NOTHING interesting about them. This book simply presumes you read or watched this series previously so you already know everything you need to know about them. Thus, while there's plenty of talk about fun and friendship, we don't get the slightest bit of insight into who these girls are as people or the nature of their friendship beyond their mutual connection as SAO veterans and members of the Kirito fan club. It's crystal clear that whomever this Neko Nekobyou person is, they are very clearly a man because they have no notion of what girls do and say amongst themselves. It certainly explains why even the real-world conversations between the girls are so utterly flat and empty . The only person here who gets to demonstrate even the slightest crumb of personality is Kuro (real name Hiyori). Even then, she's got a very clichéd backstory and the biggest twist about her is that while she is very serious in-game, she's a bubbly ditz in the real world. I guess it's more memorable than "moe baby", "what's-her-face", and "token imouto".
So I've bitched plenty about the characters, but what about the actual plot? In a world, meh. It certainly works as a rather uninspired side quest in an RPG. I just wish that it could have done without that standard of bad fantasy, the acid slimes that like to dissolve clothing. Yeah, they do use this as justification for an epilogue where Kuro changes her in-game avatar, but otherwise it's a weak excuse for fanservice. In all fairness, why make an effort there when this whole manga only exists as an empty bit of fluff for SAO fans? It doesn't take any chances and doesn't dare to develop the world or the cast of SAO beyond the basics. It's just an empty bit of fluff released to cash in on the SAO brand.
While the artwork here is nowhere near as bad as the original manga, but it doesn't do anything even mildly extraordinary either. The characters all stick pretty closely to the originals, which were already were pretty generic both inside and outside the game. They also spend an inordinate amount of time gawping like fish towards the reader. It's weird that ALO is meant to be this epic MMO-style fantasy RPG, but we see so very little of it. Because of that, we never get much of a sense of scale or plae. We don't even get much sense of one location transitioning to another. The most daring thing it does visually is abuse Dutch angles like a fiend. It's just a thoroughly mediocre-looking book.
Sword Art Online: Girls' Op doesn't bring anything new or neat to the table for new readers and I suspect that even seasoned SAO fans would struggle to find anything of substance here. Wake me when they get around to doing a spinoff about Klein. Maybe THAT one won't be all about Kirito for once.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is complete in Japan with two volumes available. Both volumes were published and it is currently in print.
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