by Theron Martin,

Cube Arts

GN 1 and 2

Cube Arts GN 1-2
Takuto has just gotten his first VR game: a beta test of a setting called Cube Arts, which, curiously, is specifically marketed to teenagers. Upon entering, he meets his three friends in the game and sets to finishing a base that they had already started to establish. As neat as the game is, there's one problem: there are glitches with logging out, which may keep them stuck inside for weeks or even months of accelerated game time. After one member of the group is killed by a sudden attack from a seemingly-innocuous monster, the survivors discover the other major problem: reviving is not working, either. They aren't the only ones who are stuck, as everyone they meet seems to be in the same situation. What happens to the players who are waiting to revive is a mystery, but the more immediate concern is that this setting has some very real – and in some cases very big – dangers.

Cross Sword Art Online with Minecraft and you get this original manga series. In fact, that was probably precisely the impression that new manga-ka Tomomi Usui was aiming for; he admits in the Afterword for volume 1 that he is a heavy player of Minecraft, while the name of the series and use of a “trapped in a VR game” theme are just too suspiciously similar to SAO to deny a connection. The series stacks up enough differences over its first two volumes to avoid being called a copycat, but as of the end of volume 2 it has yet to fully escape comparisons.

The biggest difference is in the game design. While the original SAO setting of Aincrad was a dedicated RPG, the setting here is a “sandbox” game, one where free-range creative endeavors replace leveling up and dedicated storylines. Partly because of that, the players do not have more than vague suspicions that they are in a probable death game, as in this case no one has told the players anything about it. They just know that there are problems with logging out (which is not a major issue since the game's time moves much faster than real life) and reviving if killed. Injuries and deaths can also get surprisingly gruesome for a basic survival game; for instance, one character spends all of volume 2 with a missing lower right arm, and how that happened was not tame.

The other major difference is that this is a group endeavor from the start. Though one member does not survive the first volume, the other three are shaping up to be a solid team: Takuto is the take-the-initiative type who is growing into a melee combatant, the more reluctant Yu is developing as an archer, and affable, heavy-set Shige is becoming the team's expert builder. Through the course of the first two volumes, they meet and fall in with two different girls: one a capable type who seems to know her way around the game, the other a victim of other cruelly enterprising players who does not yet seem much capable of doing anything on her own. The challenges so far have mostly been team activities rather than solo endeavors, so there is unlikely to be any “lone wolf” type here as a main character.

The factor which distinguishes this story the most is the world design. By patterning it heavily on Minecraft, Usui creates one of the more distinctive VR worlds seen to date in manga and light novels. Nearly everything in this setting that is not a player or a tool/implement/clothing item used by a player is blocked-shaped – even the animals, monsters, and larger plants. (Because of that, when a creature shows up near the end of volume 2 which is not block-shaped, that's probably very significant.) Resources can be mined as blocks and used in proper amounts to create various objects, extend walkways, and so forth; the first two volumes have already shown a wide range of what can be created, from grenades to minecarts and tracks to even something basic like cloth bandages. Because of this, the setting has the kind of throwback design appeal (I'm old enough that this reminds me of when everything in computer games was pixelated) that draws people young and old to Minecraft.

What transpires here can also be quite graphic, and that is something that SAO did not have until it reached its Alicization arc; even then, this is more extreme. People do bleed when injured; in fact, any injury short of death remains, and methods for easily healing them do not seem to be available. The setting can also be dark in other ways, such as the player who is apparently kidnapping and imprisoning other players. Sometimes he starves them (eating is apparently necessary here), other times he uses them as literal bait in monster hunts. Essentially, he is using other players as materials. There are darker death game-type stories out there, but this one eventually shows more of an edge than it lets on at first.

Between the first two volumes, the series provides sufficient mysteries to generate and maintain interest, though the “how” and “why” behind this scenario, and exactly how the tech works here, is left every bit as vague as usual for death game stories. Usui's art, while not top-rate, is also good enough: characters are relatively simple yet easily identifiable, but there is a death of background art except when showing off the features of the setting. Sex appeal does make its appearance in the skimpy costume of one character and the curvaceous look of an unusually interactive tutorial girl, but so far this is a very minor factor overall.

In all, Cube Arts will not blow anyone away in a qualitative sense, and the lighter tone it takes most of the time hampers its ability to generate strong tension. However, it is worth a look as a slightly different take on a “trapped in a game” scenario, or if you are (or were) ever a fan of Minecraft.

Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B

+ World design makes for an interestingly distinct setting, sufficient mysteries
Has some problems adequately generating tension, might be a little too vague at this point on what's going on

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Story & Art: Tomomi Usui

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