Sword Art Online: Aincrad TP
Publisher: Yen Press
Release Date: March 25, 2014
Price: $19.99
Creator(s): Reki Kawahara (writer), Tanako Nakamura (artist)
Format: 384 pgs., Black & White, Trade Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-3163-7123-0
Age Range: 13+
ICv2 Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
One of the most popular (if not divisive) series of the last few years is easily Sword Art Online.  Originally a light novel by Reki Kawahara, this series captured imaginations as an anime series not too long ago and now it is finally being released as a manga by Yen Press.
The series takes place in the not too distant future in a virtual reality MMORPG called Sword Art Online.  Unfortunately on the first day, the creator of the game appears before the players and tells them that this is no longer a game of fun, it's a game of life or death.  All of the players are now trapped inside the game and if they die in the game they will die in real life as well.  The only way out of the game is to clear the 100 floor dungeon and beat the final boss.
So how does it compare?
If you're a fan of the anime series, you're going to find that this is an interesting adaptation.  Some stories and characters are completely left out of the manga adaptation (most notably the Lisbeth and Silica stories) while others are condensed and presented in an entirely different order than they were in the anime.  However all of the major points of the Aincrad arc are there.  From the time that Kirito first meets Klein to the moment when Asuna and Kirito get married and go on their honeymoon, it is all there.
Unfortunately though this condensed nature really kills a lot of the character development that the anime was able to get into the dozen or so episodes.  As I read through this manga, the one constant thought that entered my mind was that I never felt like I knew the characters nearly as well as I did when I was watching the anime.  Sure, the stories within this book introduced their personalities and natures somewhat but the relationship between Kirito and Asuna in particular tends to suffer from everything being compacted.
The artwork was also a turn off for me. For lack of a better word, the artwork in the anime made the characters feel tough and able to handle anything that comes their way.  In the manga, the characters are much cuter and don't have the same toughness.  It's a small complaint but it was certainly another thought that entered my mind more than once as I read.
It's not all bad though. If there is one thing that the manga adaptation does better than the anime it is world building. In the anime, very little time is spent building the world or explaining little things like how the characters in real life were able to be moved to hospitals without the virtual reality equipment frying their brains. In the manga, the entire process is explained in a way that makes sense.  This was a small detail that was very appreciated.
In the end, I would suggest watching the anime over reading the manga.  However if you don't want to sit through that many episodes, the manga is not a bad way to go.  It has plenty of all the things that made the series so special and does a good job of adapting the story into a brand new medium.  This is a very solid release for teens and adults who are looking for a solid fantasy-action with a touch of romance and drama.

-- L.B. Bryant