Review: Sword Art Online (Anime)

If you enjoy your video games as much as I do, you someday hope to experience a time when full virtual reality technology exists, and instead of just playing video games, you get to live in them. In Sword Art Online, this technology exists thanks to the amazing “nerve gear” gaming system, which puts the user into a “dive” where their consciousness is  transported to the game world. The premise is pretty great, and grabbed my attention right away. When everything goes wrong with the new game titled “Sword Art Online” and the players find themselves trapped inside the game, unable to escape unless they beat the game, I was looking forward to each new episode to see what would happen next. Unfortunately for Sword Art Online though, it does what many great role-playing games can tend to do, and forgets about the amazing story it was building and decides to lead you to side quest after side quest when instead you want to go back to the main plot. Even though the side quests are just as enjoyable to play (or in this case, watch), they don’t let the characters develop or let the plot progress at a good pace, which kind of sucks some of the overall enjoyment out of a series after you finish it. Sure it was good while you were going through it, but when everything is said and done and you look back on it, you realize how much more of the main story you wanted to see and how shallow the story actually was.

Story

The first half of the story follows the ever so amazing Kazuto Kirigaya, otherwise known by his online username Kirito. With the launch of a new Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (that is a mouthful), known as Sword Art Online, players rush to experience this brand new game. What they do not realize is that the game creator, who is also the creator of the nerve gear, has disabled the ability to log out of the game, leaving all the players consciousness trapped within the game. To complicate matters, if anyone were to have the nerve gear tampered with or if anyone were to try an remove the nerve gear from the players, a short microwave burst would be sent from the helmet, killing the person instantly. Also, death in the game results in the same penalty, ones own life. If the player ever want to return home and escape this twisted game they need to reach the 100th floor of the game by defeating the boss of each floor. As soon as the final boss is defeated, everyone will be able to finally log out of the game.

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The story brings this dark undertone to an otherwise light hearted fantasy world. To die in the game means certain death, which is a very scary thought when it comes to video games where death is treated as a simple mistake that is easily fixed with the reload of a previous checkpoint or a respawn. Unfortunately, Sword Art Online hardly ever touches this theme of loss. Instead, the story kind of pushes this theme aside to go full steam ahead with the goal of reaching the 100th floor! That is, until the story gets sidetracked by what I can only describe as sidequests to the main story. I would like to let you believe that this rarely happens, and that there must be some important reason as to why the anime focuses on these side stories instead of actually progressing the plot, but I would be lying. Entire episodes are dedicated to these filler stories, which range from what is basically a fetch quest to gather materials for a new sword with a random chick to a relaxing vacation in a cabin. Sure these side stories introduced new characters who show up from time to time in the future, but the honestly didn’t need to spend so much time following them. Especially when the anime skips entire months of the story in order to fit everything in.

The story has certain moments that really stick with you as you watch it and as you move on, and they usually go back to the theme of loss and how death in the game means death in real life. During these scenes, the impact of the loss of a character is truly felt, and you get to see how it affects the remaining characters afterwards as they realize that they have just lost another person. Strong bonds between people are created and shattered in an instant, and you are left realizing how traumatizing and depressing this world actually is. These moments impacted me pretty strongly on an emotional level, and the easily depressed and emotional folks (such as myself) may find these scenes a bit hard to watch, if not leave you in a depressing mood. Although these scenes were not the most entertaining to watch, these parts of the story are what really grabbed me.

When you reach the second half of the show about half way through, the entire plot is basically changed to something completely different from the first half of the show. Honestly, this is also one of the most controversial parts of the show, as many fans thought that the first arc of the show was all it needed, and the second half only diminishes the quality of the story that the first half was trying to tell. Without going into heavy spoiler territory, basically there is no longer some crazy death penalty that the characters have to worry about, and instead the story turns into what is essentially a Super Mario game, trying to rescue a princess in a castle. In my personal opinion, I thought it would have been much better to end it off at the end of the first half of the story, and to have focused more on the world of Sword Art Online and the events that take place there. If you ever decide to watch this anime, you will probably understand why once you witness the conclusion of the first arc.

That being said though, I did enjoy the second half of the show. Although it lost its heavier themes and moments, the show still had the same sense of a urgency found in the first half, where a goal needed to be reached at all costs. The action scenes are still pretty good, and the love interests are still there for those who love watching Kirito get into these weird half relationships.

Characters

The characters of Sword Art Online are pretty much what you would expect from a Shonen anime. Kirito fits the role of unbeatable hero, and his ability to become insanely overpowered is unmatched by any other character. The story tries to explain why Kirito is so powerful in the beginning by letting you know that he was a Beta tester for Sword Art Online before it launched, so he is able to get all the good quests and level up faster than everybody else. For some reason though, all of the other Beta testers are unable to even come close to Kirito’s power level, even though he goes through the entire game as a solo player. There are even parts of the show where he completely breaks the game and performs actions that strait up shouldn’t be possible, as if his willpower alone could override the games code to let him do the impossible. In the second half of the show he is a complete newbie to the game and yet is still able to destroy everybody, even when he basically has no idea what he is at.

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 Asuna takes the place of the lead female protagonist, and although starts off alright as a character, she is later left on the side lines so that we get to see more Kirito, and his countless internet girlfriends. Being introduced as a new player who has some serious bad ass points already, she had potential to become a powerful character in the game and a well developed character with hardships of her own. Instead, she just becomes Kirito’s girlfriend who is pretty much completely useless compared to her boyfriend. In the game she is one of the highest ranking officials of the games most powerful clan, but the show never lets us see this side of her. Instead she is about just as generic as the other characters in the show and is left behind to watch Kirito save the day. What could have been a very cool and powerful female lead turns into a cardboard cutout of a typical Tsundere character who is completely useless without her boyfriend around to back her up.

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Earlier I mentioned Kirito’s internet girlfriends, which make up about 90% of the characters in this show. For a guy who has spent his entire life playing video games and being a shut-in, he sure knows how to pick up chicks. There is not much to talk about these characters other than the fact that they are pretty generic in personality and they seemed to only serve the purpose of flushing out the cast so that Sword Art Online actually feels like an MMO instead of a game in which only Kirito exists in. Each character ends up falling for Kirito for some reason or another, and continue to follow him around later on in the show as his own personal harem. Even his cousin ends up falling in love with him, which brings a whole new level of uncomfortable scenes and cringe worthy moments to the show.

Presentation

If there is one thing that Sword Art Online does right throughout the entire series it would have to be the presentation. The soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura is stellar, and it really brings out the intensity of the battles and action scenes. The first opening theme, “Crossing Field” by LiSA, was probably the stand out theme used in the series. It has a certain epic feel to it, where the song starts off rather slow and generic sounding, but than suddenly breaks out into this awesome song. The second opening song, “Innocence” by Eir Aoi, is also quite good and pleasing to hear. As for the ending themes, they both are quite good to listen to as well, and they end off each episode perfectly with some relaxing music to help unwind after each episode. They are not as memorable as the openings, but still a treat to listen to.

The animation is top notch as well, and there is not much to say here. There was not a single moment where the I was generally displeased with the quality of the animation or the art style, as it was pretty amazing throughout the entire show. The animation shines during the action scenes, where animation perfectly captures the fast paced movements of the characters, and it really made you pumped up as you watched it unfold.

Personal Enjoyment

Although I felt Sword Art Online dropped the ball on how it handled its own story, and failed to reach the full potential shown in the early episodes and the ending of the first story arc, I ended up somewhat enjoying Sword Art Online. Even though I realized the flaws in the plot and characters, I was just drawn in each episode to see what would happen next in these fantastic virtual worlds. I did lose interest at certain points during the story, mainly when nothing was really happening plot wise and Kirito started doing random side tasks and met a new female character to impress.

Final Thoughts

Sword Art Online starts off with a really great story to tell, but it loses its way somewhere along the road and it never truly reaches the full potential. With the ending of the first story arc, I was honestly pretty shocked at the conclusion the story had taken, but I was also somewhat pleased with the outcome as I felt it really showed the impact of this game world had on our main characters. When the second story arc starts up though, it kind of forgets about everything that made the first arc really enjoyable to watch and just continues the story like it didn’t matter. It still has that “fantasy mmo” feel to it, but it is clearly not the same.

The overall ending to the show was also pretty good and tied things up nicely, leaving room for fans to want to watch future seasons or for someone to just drop off here and still feel like they got a complete story.   My overall feelings of the show are somewhere in the middle of “enjoyable” and “why did I watch this”, making it a tough call as to how I felt about the series as a whole. If I were to use just one word to describe how I felt about it, I would use either “medium” or “mediocre” as it just wasn’t a show that I would really ever sing the praises of, but at the same time I don’t feel like it was all that bad either.

 

Final Score: 5/ 10

Recommendation: Try It

 

If You Liked It, Also Try:

No Game No Life: Similarly, the main protagonist is unbeatable. The story revolves around the fact that the protagonist is unbeatable at games though, and it has some exciting games to showcase.
Log Horizon: Characters are trapped in an MMO, a plot that should sound familiar. I haven't actually watched all of it yet, but from what I have seen I think it is a safe choice for those looking for  another take on the "trapped in a fantasy mmo" story.

 

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First Impression: My Love Story (Manga – Volume 1)

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Publisher: Yen Press

Story By: Kazune Kawahara

Art By: Aruko

Takeo Goda isn’t what you would call a teenage heart-throb. He lacks a cool sense of style, he isn’t that great with talking to girls, and his ability to read others is pretty sub-par. Takeo’s best friend Sunakawa however, has all of that plus more, making him one of the most popular guys around when it comes to attracting ladies. So when he saves a young girl named Yamato on a train from a perverted groper, he thinks that he has no chance of ever being with her with Suna around. To Takeo’s surprise though, Yamato has fallen in love with him, and so begins Takeo’s love story.

Unlike the typical shojo that dances around the topic of getting together and dating, My Love Story just charges strait in, getting the characters together within the first two chapters. There are some bumps along the way for the new couple, mostly stemming from Takeo’s inability to read peoples emotions, and his notion that Sunakawa always attracts the girls he likes. Still, even with these initial misunderstandings, the story doesn’t spend an eternity playing with the characters feelings and never actually making them a couple. I thought it was both refreshing and highly enjoyable, since Takeo and Yamato make such a cute couple together.

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Other than the relationship between Takeo and Yamato, the story also puts the relationship between Takeo and Sunakawa in the spotlight. They have been best friends since they were kids, and at first one might think that the only reason they became friends in the first place was because they lived next to each other. Throughout the story though, you get a glimpse as to what has kept them together so long, and what  type of friend Sunakawa is. As it turns out, Sunakawa isn’t just some cool guy who likes to poke fun at Takeo whenever he does something stupid, but instead is a true friend that would do anything for Takeo. Its nice to have Sunakawa come into the spotlight every once and a while, instead of just leaving him in the sidelines, and it is especially nice that he doesn’t have some scheme up his sleeve to get Yamato to leave Takeo. Instead, we are given a story about a young couple who have just fallen in love, and a great friend.

In the end, I enjoyed my time looking into Takeo’s love story and am looking forward to seeing where the story takes us. There are sure to be many sweet moments ahead I am sure between Takeo and Yamato, as well as some lighthearted humor as Takeo continues to be oblivious to other peoples thoughts and emotions. Although it isn’t the most compelling story of love I have ever read, it does a great job of keeping things light and keeping you smiling throughout. For anyone looking for their next great shojo, I think My Love Story might be able to fill that order.

 

Recommendation: Try It

First Impression: No Game No Life (Manga – Volume 1)

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Publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment

Story By: Yuu Kamiya

Art By: Mashiro Hiiragi and Yuu Kamiya

Sora and Shiro are siblings of extraordinary talent. Together they form the online persona known as [   ] (pronounced blank), who is undefeated in over 280 games. Unfortunately, these talents don’t translate to well in the real world, so Sora spends his days as a NEET (not in education, employment or training) while his little sister Shiro stays beside him as a shut in. Their life takes a turn for the exciting though when they are transported to another world by the God of Games, Tet.

In the land of Disboard, Tet has forbidden all violence and wars. Instead, conflicts are to be solved with games, and all the inhabitants of Disboard must follow his ten covenants (which all outline the basic rules for the games). Sora and Shiro quickly learn the laws of this land, and they are quick to take advantage of it by beating a stranger at a bar in a game of poker and taking all of his money. For the duo that have never lost a single game in their career, Disboard is a paradise compared to the real world.

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When it comes to the first volume of No Game No Life, one of my favorite aspects of it was the little games that Sora and Shiro play. They are usually pretty short, only covering maybe six pages at most, but during these scenes you can truly see the brilliance of Sora and Shiro. For instance, during the game of chess between [   ] and Tet, we find out that Shiro is able to completely understand all 10^120 possible states of the chess board which makes her nearly unbeatable at the game. It is during these scenes that you kind of forget that Sora an Shiro were outcasts in the real world that would spend all their time shut inside.

Another aspect of this manga that is shown quite frequently in the first volume is the large amounts of fan service shown in the art. Almost every few pages will have a panty shot or a character in a sexually suggestive position. It can be a bit much for the faint of heart, so I do not believe it is a good choice for those who typically dislike ecchi. Throw in the fact that Shiro (who is 11 years old) is often shown in these scenes, and I can see an even bigger group of people getting turned of by the fan service. Also, there is a bit of a brother x sister relationship going on between Sora and Shiro, were they basically never leave each others sides. If you can get over all of these aspects though, you begin to see that the manga has fun with all of the fan service. Sexual innuendos and jokes often left a smile on my face, and the art itself during these scenes never disappointed.

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If a crazy fantasy adventure filled with fun characters, sexual innuendos, crazy games, and lots of panty shots sounds up your alley, then No Game No Life is the manga for you. I will warn that it has been some time since the first volume was released in North America (October of last year to be exact) with no signs of Seven Seas continuing to publish the series. For those interested however, Yen Press has begun releasing the light novel version, so you can still continue the story if you wish. In the end No Game No Life was entertaining from beginning to end, so even if you have to continue the story through some other means I still recommend this manga to those interested.

Recommendation: Read It

First Impression: Tokyo Ghoul (Manga – Volume 1)

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Publisher: Viz Media

Story and Art By: Sui Ishida

If Ken Keneki were to write to story about his life, he believes that it would surely be a tragedy. After finally getting a date with the girl he has been crushing on for a while, it is hard to imagine why that would be the case. The reason why Keneki’s story is tragic, is due to the fact that he fell in love with this particular girl however, since she is secretly a ghoul, and ghouls hunt down and eat humans on a regular basis in these dark streets of Tokyo.

It is not as if his bad luck ends there though, because while he is being attacked by Rize a freak accident involving steel beams manages to kill Rize before she is able to finish Kaneki off, leaving him to fatally wounded at the scene. The surgeon who operates on Kaneki is left with no other choice than to transplant new organs into Kaneki before he dies, and with no time to look for donors decides to use the organs of Rize.

So begins the tragic tale of Ken Kaneki, the half ghoul half human that seemingly has no place in the world. Having Rize’s organs transplanted into him has basically turned his body structure into that of a ghouls, which means Kaneki has to face a plethora of challenges just to survive. For instance, ghouls cannot eat human food or drink beverages, since everything tastes horrible to them and it damages their health. Other than coffee, the only thing a ghoul can have to curb their hunger is human meat, something Kaneki cannot stomach to even think of eating. Also, ghouls are highly territorial and aggressive at times, so learning how to protect ones self is key.

What I loved the most about Tokyo Ghoul was how edgy and dark it felt throughout the entire first chapter. Characters eyes are often drawn without pupils when they are being attacked which give them an incredibly creepy look, and ghouls have pitch black eyes with a small white pupil. The art can get really sketchy sometimes too, which I really liked. It helped make the story feel a bit more gritty and chaotic, a reflection of Kaneki’s story in this first volume.

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Another thing I quite enjoyed about this first volume is that it opens up an entire underground world to explore in the streets of Tokyo, and raises some moral questions on what is right and wrong, and what it means to be human. In order to survive, Keneki must eat human flesh, but as a human he cannot fathom the thought of becoming a cannibal. For the other ghouls who have been eating humans for their entire lives though, we get the question on is it wrong for them to do what they do when we know it is the only way in which they can survive. Its an interesting thought, that a horrible crime might not be so evil under extreme circumstances. and more than once did I sympathize with the ghouls who are forced into such horrible lives of hiding and murdering.

Tokyo Ghoul’s first volume has set up an interesting story full of gore, violence and chaos. It is a great series for those who can stomach the idea of ghouls going around murdering and eating people in the streets of Tokyo, which is not something I would have imagined would be easy to stomach. Still, for a manga that really doesn’t make you feel very good about yourself or the main character (or any of the characters really) I can’t help but not recommend this one for everyone to read.

Recommendation: Read It

First Impression: Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma (Manga – Volume 1)

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Publisher: Viz Media
Story By: Yuto Tsukada
Art By: Shun Saeki

Soma Yukihira and his father run a small family restaurant, where both of them like to show off their cooking prowess to customers as they serve up delicious meals day in and day out. That is how Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma starts out, but like most Shonen out there, things don’t stay small and quite for long. You see, Soma Yukihara’s father is an extremely talented cook, and so is Soma himself. So good in fact that they practically give their customers orgasms when they eat their meals… yeah.

From the get go you can tell Food Wars is going to be a wild ride. Soma and his father are both extremely talented chefs (their cooking is so good it causes extreme pleasure when you eat it), but for some reason they spend all their time in a small restaurant. That is until Soma’s father closes up shop in order to travel the world cooking with an old friend, and Soma is sent to the Totsuki Saryo Culinary Institute (Japans finest and toughest culinary school) to hone his skills and help him surpass his fathers cooking.

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Each chapter of Food Wars presented Soma with a new challenge to overcome and a new dish to make. The earliest challenge he is faced with requires Soma to make a delicious meat dish for a scheming land shark who wants the land his father’s restaurant is built on. If he fails he has to close up shop and hand over the land. The task seems easy enough for an experienced cook like Soma, but the only problem is that the land shark and her goons had raided the shop earlier and ruined all the meat they had left in the store, leaving Soma with nothing but some bacon he had bought for breakfast to cook the meal with.

Challenges like that keep popping up for Soma, and he has to use his wits, ingenuity and somewhat ridiculous cooking skills to overcome them all. The simple act of getting into the school requires Soma to pass a cooking test, where the taste tester is non-other than the top student at the school and world renowned for her incredible pallet (and super taste testing abilities).

Even though you basically know the outcome of every challenge Soma faces (because you know, orgasmic food) it is still an incredibly fun read. Whether it is the expressions of the people eating his food, the way he comes up with his meals and cooks, or the overarching plot, everything is over-the-top and extremely fun to read. It’s a typical battle shonen when you look at it, except everyone battles with cooking instead of their fists. So in that regard, it is a pretty unique experience that I think everyone should check out. Just be warned, there are some really questionable scenes involving squid tentacles and girls… and yes it is as bad as it probably seems. There was only one though and it is fairly early on in the first chapter, so don’t be scared off by that.

Recommendation: Read It

First Impression: Gangsta (Manga – Volume 1)

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Publisher: Viz Media
Story and Art By: Kohske

When there is trouble in your neighborhood that you need dealt with, all you need to do is hire the handymen. Vigilante hitmen Worick and Nic handle the dirty tasks no one else wants to handle, and they are pretty good at what they do.

The first chapter of Gangsta introduces us to our main duo, Worick and Nic, who are tasked with taking out a small time gang lead by a man named Barry. From the opening chapter we clearly get to see that the city of Ergastulum is not a very nice place to be, as it is crawling with criminals and gangs, while violence and prostitution seem to be a norm.

The story itself sets it up to be more mature than most other stories that follow vigilantes trying to clean up a city. One of the opening scenes show a prostitute named Alex being physically harassed by Barry for not making him enough money. Later we see her coming out of an alley way with a bloody nose after a customer smacks her in the face. These aren’t things you typically see in a manga series of this nature, especially one that doesn’t take a “realistic” approach to the world by introducing super powered thugs and mercenaries called “tags”. These gritty scenes really make the city look like a horrible place to live, and it helps the reader to root for Worick and Nic to take down these horrible people.

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Other than the unsettling scenes of abuse and crime, the first few chapters also let us have a look into who our main characters really are. Worick works as a male prostitute, having sex all day with clients when he is not out hunting people down. You also learn pretty early on that Nic is actually deaf, which leads to some interesting character interactions (such as when a character doesn’t understand any sign language). It also sets Nic up to be the cool, silent type of character, which could be a hit or miss for some. Nic also serves as the duos muscle, as he is able to perform super human feats as a top ranking tag. Not only is he faster and stronger then most, he can take a beating that no normal human should be able to survive. When combined, Worick and Nic create a team strong enough to take on some of Ergastulum’s nastiest criminals.

Overall, Gangsta is a pretty good read for those looking for a new action series to sink your teeth into. Especially if you are looking for one that is a bit more graphic than most. There are some really cool fight scenes in the first volume (which show off Nic’s super-human abilities) that should keep any action fan pleased. The story also introduces a few mysteries about Worick and Nic’s past, as well as who is behind some of the big crimes going down in Ergastulum, so if you enjoy the first volume you will be pleased to know that the story seems to be opening up into something much bigger by the end.

Recommendation: Read It

First Impression: Prophecy (Manga – Volume 1)

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Publisher: Vertical Comics
Story And Art: Tetsuya Tsutsui

In a world full of injustices, the “paperboy” is here to tip the scales in favor of those who have been used and abused. After going viral online, the special cyber crimes department of the Tokyo police force discovers a masked vigilante going by the name “paperboy”, who has  started posting videos online which give a warning about the next crime he is going to commit. Although he is not killing anyone, his crimes range from kidnapping, both physical and sexual assault, and arson, making him a dangerous person to society and a top priority for the police department to capture.

Prophecy is a classic tale of cops vs. robbers, and tells an interesting tale of cat and mouse between the well equipped cyber crimes department and the intelligent cyber criminal. Paperboy is able to leave false trails whenever he commits a crime, and outsmarts the police more than once. He is a competent hacker that is able to get into the most secure networks, and leaves behind no trace on how he is able to do it.

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Although the story sounds a little too good to be true (A mastermind able to outsmart the entire police department and cyber crimes division, all while remaining entirely invisible) the way it is set up is all too real. He is able to outsmart the police with well thought out plans, so as the police catches up to him he is already one step ahead. His hacking skills aren’t as impressive as they first seem, and his crimes never get out of hand. They seem like real things a person could do if they were a little crazy enough to go through with it.

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One of my favorite things about the story in the first volume was how real everything felt. The crimes were not too extreme that they felt like an amateur couldn’t pull them off, the motives behind the “paperboy” were real and heart wrenching, and it showcases the abuse that happens to people on a daily. One man is working in a place where he is unwanted and abused because of it, a poor girl is raped and people online think it was her own fault for “being too easy”. It showcases the harassment that occurs in real life, and its almost sad to watch at times. I loved this aspect of the story because it helped make the story feel more real, and that lead me to sympathizing with the antagonist as he tries to right the wrongs of society.

The closest thing I have read to prophecy would probably be Death Note, which had a similar plot of a criminal outsmarting the detectives trying to catch him as he committed his crimes. If you have read Death Note and enjoyed it (or watched the anime), then I have a strong feeling that Prophecy might turn out to be something just as great. There are only two more volumes after this one, so it is hard to tell whether the story will be fleshed out in the end or not, but from what this first volume shows I have a lot of hope for it.

Reccomendation: Read It