Can an in-game item cause deaths in the real world? A string of strange deaths create rumours that a user named “Death Gun” is able to kill people in real life by shooting them in-game, prompting Kirito to log into the shooter Gun Gale Online to investigate.

After Kirito defeated Nobuhiro Sugou and released Akihiko Kayaba’s “Seed” program, numerous virtual-reality MMOs have been created with these games becoming more popular than ever. One of the most popular is the VRMMO shooter “Gun Gale Online” (GGO), which has developed a thriving competitive environment. However, after a series of top-ranking players mysteriously die, rumours abound that a user known as Death Gun is responsible. Determined to get to the bottom of this, the Japanese government asks Kirito to log in to GGO investigate. Meanwhile, a solitary sniper named Sinon ferociously battles to enter the grand “Bullet of Bullets” contest, putting her in a collision course with Kirito.

Sword Art Online turns into a murder-mystery story after four volumes of adventuring and this change does a lot of good in keeping the story fresh after the rather uninspired Fairy Dance arc. Author Reki Kawahara switches the setting from the fantasy inspired Alfheim Online (ALO) to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the shooter Gun Gale Online, painting a portrait of a compelling world inside GGO. One of my major complaints of volume 3 and 4’s Fairy Dance arc was that Kawahara spent way too much time building up a world within ALO that not only felt silly but was ultimately only tangentially relevant to the main plot line. In comparison, Kawahara is much more efficient in making GGO a compelling setting, properly creating an interesting world within the game without wasting too much time on needless political drama. It appears the less means more in this case, as I still felt that GGO felt fully realized and had its own unique aesthetic that Kawahara was able to convey very well.

One of the major reasons why GGO succeeds greatly as a setting is because of the way its world as well as the mechanics of the game complement the main plot line. GGO’s focus on competitive battles is remarkably different compared to the quest-based nature of the previous games, and without spoiling anything, fits within the overall plot well. In addition, the shooting mechanics introduced in this volume are a great addition in making battles feel exciting and fresh, and I really enjoyed the way action scenes were portrayed.

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I also felt like the battles in this volume came across much more effectively compared to the flight based battles of ALO, feeling more tactical than before without sacrificing excitement. Kawahara continues to do a great job conveying how a virtual reality game might work and feel, and this extends to his description of GGO’s gun based play. This also worked really well in the competitive environment portrayed, which gave all of the battles a significant degree of tension which makes up for the lack of “if you die in the game, you die in real life” that was the source of tension in the Sword Art Online’s first arc.

While Kirito’s pursuit of Death Gun makes up one half of the plot, the other half followed Shino Asada, known as the sniper Sinon in GGO. Sinon is an intensely fascinating character with a great backstory, and her struggles within the game and in real life were very interesting to follow. I felt on the whole that her chapters were even more compelling than Kirito’s and it was great to see their paths collide during the Bullet of Bullets. Sinon makes an excellent foil for Kirito but is able to carry chapters by herself thanks to her combination of inner strength and personal weakness and I’ll be very excited to see how her plot line unfolds. In some ways, it almost seems as though Kawahara has given up on making Kirito an interesting character as his personal struggle throughout the book didn’t quite hit home in comparison to Sinon’s, and I found her perspective much more interesting as a result. This also extends to the battle scenes, as Kirito remains as overpowered as ever but this is evened out as Sinon’s battle scenes are much more interesting thanks to how they act as an extension of her personality.

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Another main theme in this volume was the way in which virtual reality affects characters afflicted with PTSD. This affects both Kirito and Sinon and I felt that the way it was portrayed made a lot of sense especially within the context of Sinon’s plot. I wouldn’t say at all that Sinon was well-characterized only because of her previous traumatic experiences, but the way her backstory feeds into her conflicted personality is very interesting and was a compelling part of this book. In some ways, her struggle felt the most real out of all the characters who have been introduced so far in this series (and she didn’t even have to be trapped in a death-game to do this!) and I’ll be looking forward to seeing her character continue to be explored in the next volume.

My one main complaint about this volume is that it takes a while to get moving, with much of the first half of the book spent in conversation. This is particularly noticeable during the first chapter which Kirito spends in conversation with a government official discussing GGO and musing on the nature of virtual reality in general. Kirito’s inner monologue is particularly juvenile here and almost feels uncharacteristic compared to the more sombre personality he has displayed up until that point. Thankfully this doesn’t last throughout the book, but Sinon’s chapters were still a welcome change from the series’ stalwart protagonist.

Sword Art Online’s third story arc is off to a very promising start thanks to a great change in setting as well as Sinon’s introduction as a protagonist. The world of GGO is very well-realized, conveying interesting game mechanics and a compelling social structure that doesn’t feel nearly as indulgent as ALO while feeling relevant to the actual plot. The game mechanics also make the action scenes feel fresh again, and they were a particular highlight of this volume. Finally, Sinon is an excellent new character whose story I found very interesting and further helps to carry the plot. While this volume doesn’t solve all of Sword Art Online’s previous problems, it still creates a very entertaining rather that I would encourage even those who are feeling burned out on the series to try.

What do our scores mean?

Sword Art Online Vol. 5: Phantom Bullet was published by Yen Press on August 18th, 2015. Authored by Reki Kawahara and illustrated by ABEC the series is currently ongoing and published by ASCII Mediaworks’ Dengeki Bunko imprint. The series has received a two season anime adaption and volume 6 will be published in English on December 15th, 2015.

Sword Art Online Progressive Manga: Vol. 1, Vol.2, Vol. 3
Sword Art Online Progressive Light Novel: Vol. 1 , Vol. 2, Vol. 3
Main Sword Art Online Series Light Novels: Vol. 1, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5, Vol. 6

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*Copy provided for Taykobon by publisher.
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