February 24, 2023
By Shelley Pallis.
Kenichi is a gamer suffering from that common modern malaise, a frustration with games that make life too easy for him. He’s just spent three years playing a prolonged online fantasy saga, secure in the knowledge that he can just fling money at loot boxes and power-ups if it ever gets too difficult. And now he’s got to the end, he feels a drab lack of affect, as if Johnny Rotten was sitting on the corner of his computer desk sneering: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Kenichi is bored with having to corral fifty randoms online in order to get together a party big enough to kill a boss monster which then only leaves a single treasure item for them to fight over. He’s had enough of the time-wasting digital accountancy of levelling up and acquiring items. He is vaguely aware that he is stuck in a feedback loop of diminishing returns, that nothing quite lives up to the passion and the excitement of his first-ever online game. Because every game is someone’s first, and they love it for (in Kenichi’s case) “thousands of hours”. And then they go looking for one just like it, and it’s not as good…
In search of a challenge, he finds a new game that… oh, I am already boring myself, because author Hamuo, like many a light novel writer, thinks that the reader gives the remotest toss about the minutiae of rolling up a new character. Suffice to say, that with only one eye on the small print, Kenichi deliberately creates a character for himself in a newfound game that ticks all the boxes of the absolute hardest path possible – a “Summoner” (he doesn’t even know what this is, and since it’s being beta-tested, possibly the game designers don’t know, either), starting with no resources as a mere Serf, and with the game set to the titular HELL MODE, supposedly with the toughest tribulations, but the greatest rewards.
Hell Mode turns out to be realer than real. Suddenly, Kenichi is no more, and he is a drowning infant called Allen, pulled from a pond by his mother, and realising that he has somehow been transported to this new and deadly world. He spends a whole year as a peasant baby, before the grimoire to which he is entitled is suddenly delivered, and Kenichi realises that this game really is for keeps.
Hamuo embarks upon a box-ticking mission of his own, revisiting the many clichés of light novels about characters who get to reboot their lives, even while kvetching about how many clichés there are. Allen even wishes for a few more clichés, since it would have really helped if he had been born into a social class that had some books to read. As ever, the story is so predictable that one must poke around in the margins for the little touches that make this remotely original. In Hamuo’s case, it is the self-awareness of his protagonist, who is still an adult mentally, but forced to get on with the tedium of learning to walk, and breast-feeding – he finds the latter intriguing, because of the complete lack of sexual associations made by his new child-self.
The question that this author is asking, repeatedly, is how it must feel to be a character in a computer game, which is all very well, but it’s been asked once or twice before in the world of light novels, and indeed in novel-novels. In his afterword, Hamuo notes that his particular interest was piqued by Reincarnated as a Dragon Hatchling, and he was inspired to add his own offering to the growing pile of Japanese e-books that are not really about rebooting in another world, but concentrate more closely on the experience of rebooting literally from nothing. As the pointlessly long full title of this book, Hell Mode: The Hardcore Gamer Dominates in Another World Through Garbage Balancing, reveals, Kenichi also finds an innovative new way to put what we might call “recycling” to use in his new life. I won’t give it away, but it’s one of the book’s little charms.
While I enjoyed the narrator’s various rants about the poor quality of so many online games, I was left wishing for an even more self-aware book that ramped up the criticism another notch, and began with a frowning reader, slamming shut yet another light novel and demanding to know why the bar had been set so low.
Hell Mode is published by J-Novel Club.