Sword Art Online Progressive is the latest improvement on a the popular series but it is still a hot mess.
The draft of a work can show completely different stories. John Green accounted in his Vlogbrothers videos that he had twelve years of drafts for his story The Fault in Our Stars and that the first version of Looking for Alaska there wasn’t a maze reference. Fitzgerald’s editor thought of the symbol of the green light in The Great Gatsby. [Another example] The point is that that the second draft isn’t just a thing to proof read but a chance to take the good kernel of a story and cultivate it.
Sword Art Online is two light novel series, a soon to be three season anime, a movie and five video games. The creator and writer of SAO Reki Kawahara writes all of the the SAO stories while also writing every media form for his other series Accel World and The Isolator. The story of premis of Sword Art Online is a massively multiplayer online role playing game where the entire game community is trapped on launch day because the videogame interface which immobilizes the player will microwave their brains if they die in the game.
The series up until now has been a mixed bag endearing to most of it’s audience but falls to underdeveloped ideas, plotholes, lackluster characters and some despicable and disconnected story turns. What is interesting about Sword Art Online Progressive is that it is a technically a spinoff of the main series and at least the fourth draft and hard reimagining of the story.
The original novel only covers content in like seven out of 24 episodes 1, 2, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14. If you didn’t know the origin story of SAO is Reki was going to enter a short story contest with SAO and rushed it. Reki was writing SAO for a short story contest and wpent too much time on the relationship. So, he put in the surprise ending boss early. Although he missed the contest and went over the targeted word count, that still seems to be what happens in the SAO that was published. Some revision started in the second novel seemed to be a pass at fleshing out the Aincrad arc and was called side stories and we get the stories of Lisbeth and the moonlit black cats, which was used to pad out the anime. The problem remained that it was exactly extra padding with an always leveled up Kirito solving problems by being overpowered and made out SAO to be a harem show.
It is a popular fan theory/headcanon that the show should just be a slice of life about the people trapped in a videogame. Which is kind of what we get in Progressive. Another sticking point for the analysts is the crappy protagonist Kirito. And progressive gives us the fan favorite character of Asuna, who is much more well rounded. What gives me a mixed sense of hope is that all of the ragtag character elements propped up throughout the Anime proper is front loaded in this iteration of SAO. Asuna’s mother issues take up page one, a little ham-handedly if you have seen all of the anime but it makes an interesting introduction for the first time reader. Asuna is very reactive to the world around her. She is sad, hopeful, surprised, happy, and goal oriented.
The story ideas that are here clash with what is fun or potentially fun about the show. By fun I mean interesting misery, which is fun for evil people; So, fun. What a good show does is establish a premise and explore that by pushing the logic of it. In the original airing of SAO, they establish the premise and neglect to exploring it by episode three or four.
The tension of one of the main characters being killed is gone by the time Kirito gets attacked by a gang of people and they can’t even get his HP down before it regenerates. The plot armor is strong in the Progressive manga as well. The threat of a death game is not done very well. The first thing that happens, once flashbacks of Asuna and her mother are over, Asuna gets attacked by a monster and fails to fight it at all and shadow cloaked kirito swoops in and ex-machina’s her to safety. The only named character that has died in Progressive has been the same raid leader that died in the second episode of the show. Players are inexperienced, sloppy, or busy arguing and no one gets punished for not paying attention to things that can kill them.
The newest arc, the element of an evolving quest engine from the thor/excalibre most boring part of the anime is brought into the fold with a battling pair of NPCs that Asuna gets to choose who to help. This element is immediately demystified by Kirito who expositions about how instances work and tells Asuna what to do.
Nothing of the lore of the game is important. The only NPCs in the story so far have been shopkeepers, and I’m using “in the story” generously, and one quest giver that took away all of Asuna’s weapons. There aren’t an aspects to the story that are not introduced in the same arc and every element ceases to be important after its arc. Why should we really care about NPCs, when there are real people that could be dying.
Even if the lore were to hold some kind of allure to make up for the missing death game elements, Kirito ruins them by explaining them how the writer thinks programmers talk, so everything is as boring as possible.
Even if this is meant to be a series of vignettes about life inside the game or the experience of the game, they lack all thematic and elemental consistency.
There is a group of inexperienced adventurers who run a gold scam and buy the best gear in the game to leapfrog themselves to the front line and we are told their inexperience is evident but that fact exists as a clue to the stupid mystery of the arc and does nothing to show just how dangerous the front line is. The paranoia of a death game isn’t waiting around and underneath every action of the story.
When Asuna and Kirito do leave the boss room and meet enemies that are way stronger than them, they do nothing to play it safe, nothing to preserve their lives and they are rescued.
The more I think about this series the worse it is. There isn’t enough good. There isn’t enough interesting. There isn’t enough tension. The only thing going for this series is some meh fan service and nostalgia for a relationship that won’t come to any kind of completion until the 78th floor (I didn’t bother to fact check because it doesn’t matter).
Possibly, some people could write off some of the mess by looking at it as a slice of life. That is dumb. The progressive manga jumps around just as much as the original story. The two thousand people that die in the first two months, skipped. Any of the hard lessons on why people do certain things to keep themselves safe, skipped. The great migration, when people’s avatars stood still because they were being transported to the hospital, where they could be sustained and drip fed, skipped. The people who were alone and never found to take to the hospital and starved to death, skipped.
Other imaginative aspects of being trapped in an MMO are also missing. How cramped the first floor safe zones and player towns, places that are made with players being on quests and able to logout in mind, skipped. New players logging in because they want the challenge of a death game MMO, skipped. OTher storylines that it is not my job to come up with. The Anime Log Horizon is still the best example of living in an MMO show and they don’t have the death factor and cheat because it is a semi real world that skips all the flawed programming of a MMO.
What really blows the piss out of Sword Art Online Progressive is that Reki is and isn’t even writing it. The artist Himura Kiseki, who cut his teeth on Dojinshi, and just debuted with his own major original manga is the one making Progressive. Reki writes the Progressive lite novels and I don’t know if the artist has any artistic freedom. So, it isn’t even in the incompetent hands of Keki but it still is extremely flawed.