I gotta say, I really didn't expect this to be good. ZEXAL is universally considered to be overall the worst spin-off of Yu-Gi-Oh! so going in with the manga adaptation I was expecting something equally average or uninteresting. I'm not saying it's a masterpiece because it's far from it, but as far as what could have been done with the source material this is a really great effort.
It's more or less a re-imagining of the first half of the anime except that it ends at the first half rather than it being an opening to the main story. The weakest part isn't
quite because the story is bad, it's more that it's absurd and wasn't given enough time to really build upon itself. A lot of plot points were brought up in the 2nd half to tie things together or to conveniently bring the characters to where they are without it feeling forced. It does adapt the first few episodes of the show as the first few chapters to give it some breathing room but it really should've used that time to set up some future plot points rather than being a retelling.
With that said, the material for the story itself isn't that bad. The pacing is actually very consistent and never feels like it's moving too slow or too fast. Genuinely no issues in that regard. There's plot twists, a sense of development from start to finish and a clear signal to where it's going from point A to B.
As opposed to the anime which has a lot of mixed quality in the art department, the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga series tend to have really great art and here it's no exception. The art is really well detailed, there never appears to be inconsistencies in the style, minor errors are few and far between and the character designs while very "Yu-Gi-Oh!" in style are very consistent. The artist's personal style for the existing anime cast makes them look a little less childish than how they were presented in the anime which fits the more "shounen" feeling story than the anime had.
The cast in ZEXAL is notorious for being heavily underused and shafted for the Yuma dickriding, but after the first 12 or so chapters Yuma gets about as much focus as Kaito and Shark do. His friends definitely don't do as much in regards to dueling but they still feel like they have a role in the story and the more annoying character traits present in the anime are more endearing here. The character development in the main cast is great, everyone really feels like they're maturing and you can see just how different they are by the time you've reached the end. Some of the more minor characters have less impacting character arcs than present in the anime and while they're even shafted entirely it doesn't feel like their original personalities are lost. They don't develop as much as I'd like to have seen but it's still present.
I had fun reading this, it felt like the first season of the ZEXAL anime if the filler was removed and some of the weirder ideas were scrapped in favour of a more streamlined experience. Not much else to say there.
I wasn't reading this expecting it to be my favourite Yu-Gi-Oh! manga spin-off but here we are. As a pretty big fan of the series I usually just hope for something that isn't shit but the ZEXAL manga ended up being decently well written, has beautiful art and a well revised cast of characters. It's a bit weird to jump into this series without having read or watched the previous spin-offs, but assuming you have, don't hesitate to give this a shot. You'll be pleasantly surprised. If you haven't read or watched Yu-Gi-Oh! at all though, I'm still going to recommend the original over it because this still requires you to be relatively invested in the card game aspect.