There's a pattern observed in a lot of long-running shonen manga, where early chapters are dense but speedy stories that inevitably wrap up by the end, but those self-contained adventures drift into the ether as the series establishes itself and starts tackling more long-form arcs. The first two volumes of this Perfect Edition release weren't devoid of larger story details, but it always felt like every chapter – even the individual segments of the two-parters – told a complete story with a satisfying arc by the time they finished. Not so with Volume 3, where it seems like every new chapter mainly exists to introduce a new plot point that will be, presumably, paid off some time later.
That's not necessarily a bad thing – longer narratives all but require build up in order to be memorable – but it does leave this volume feeling a little weightless compared to the first two. There are tidbits of character arcs developing, but no real sense of progression, as Soul and Maka remain more or less at the same place they were at the start of this. Black Star and Tsubaki are barely factors outside of comedic relief, and while Kid gets significantly more screentime, it's mostly there to reintroduce Krona to the story and foreshadow more important plot points down the line. None of this is unpleasant or incompetent, but it definitely left me wanting more in the wrong way, compared to previous volumes.
Thankfully, even if this is mostly setup, it's pretty fun and easy to read. Ohkubo's eye for action only gets sharper with each chapter, and the introduction of the immortal wolf-man, Free, offers up a ton of creative avenues for action. The guy's actual personality is a little bare bones – he's a really powerful idiot, which is a role we've already filled – but his fighting style is as wild as anything Soul Eater has introduced so far, combining the vicious ferocity of an unkillable beast with uncanny ice magic. I especially enjoy him forming a boulder of ice around the ball and chain he always wears, creating a lethal Skip-It that's always a joy to see in action. My biggest complaint is that his fight ends with an anticlimax, but that just means he gets to stick around and eventually show up with even more ridiculous tricks.
That said, outside of Free's introduction there's not a ton of fighting to speak of. After a charming enough comedy relief chapter about the students studying and/or cheating for a big exam, we follow Kid and his twin weapons on a mission aboard a ghost ship that's been harvesting innocent souls for unknown purposes. It's here where the strain of building up larger plot points becomes a more glaring fault, as Kid's new opponent is woefully nonthreatening, only justifying his screentime by offering a hint at some dark secret in DWMA's past before getting munched by Krona and Ragnarok. That could work if that mystery were teased out longer, but by the end of this same volume we know everything about what's foreshadowed here. This is doubly unfortunate because Kid remains the least interesting or well-rounded of our protagonists, and sending him on an errand to essentially kill time doesn't help.
After that though, we do get some honest-to-goodness story progression, as Stein figures out Medusa's disguise just in time for her to spring her own plan into action. It's here we learn her goal is to revive Asura, the Kishin who has been sealed below DWMA by Lord Death's spirit for hundreds of years. We only learn about Asura himself through a brief flashback from Death's perspective, but what we see of him is certainly compelling. As a Kishin borne not by desire for power, but from an uncontrollable fear, there's a lot of interesting ideas the series could explore with him as a contrast to our heroes. There's certainly some neat parallels between his desire for strength to escape fear and Soul's willingness to embrace the Black Blood's power to protect Maka. And as a Meister who devoured his own Weapon partner, he possibly represents the darkest taboo of the entire setting.
But that will have to come later, if at all, as the final chapter of this volume instead sets up some classic one-on-one shonen battles. We'll have to wait for volume 4 to see those play out, but Maka and Soul's rematch against Karna is all but guaranteed to be eventful. Death Scythe and Stein's standoff with Medusa also promises to finally let us see the most powerful duo of the show in action, and my hopes are high. Ohkubo's fights have yet to disappoint, and I see no reason to expect them to start now.
The Perfect Edition's included color pages continue to be a great feature, especially as Ohkubo begins to branch out in his artistic style. The flat colors and exaggerated designs in several of these color spreads make for a wonderful contrast to the cleaner style of the manga proper. There's a real sense that while he's refining his style for the narrative proper, Ohkubo is always looking for news ways to catch your eye, and they make the start of every chapter a welcome treat.
On the whole, this volume feels like an extended prelude. It's not altogether bad, and never stops being entertaining, but when I hit the back cover I was left with the sensation that the real good stuff was all waiting down the line. Chalk it up to growing pains as Soul Eater expands its focus and scope, I suppose.