Reviewby Theron Martin,
Harem Royale -When the Game Ends-
GN 1 (eBook)
High school student Kohinata Asunaro doesn't have any friends, but he's fine with that because he has a vivid imagination, including a recurring dream of a harem involving several classmates. When he opens a strange bottle he finds, he unwittingly releases the demon temptress Zepafur, who decides to pay him back by making his fantasy a reality. Those girls will now vie for his love in a Harem Royale game, with the winner becoming his permanent girlfriend. What Zepafur doesn't tell Kohinata is the more evil aspect of the game: the losers not only die but are doomed to eternal suffering in the afterlife, and they can't tell Kohinata about their fate. Furuwada Serika, the smartest of the unwilling participants, is determined to find a way out, but with the stakes so high, winning the other girls' trust and getting them to cooperate is a tricky affair, especially once it becomes clear that there may be a surprise participant to shake things up.
Most harem series are predicated on the girls (sometimes literally) throwing themselves at the male protagonist for his love, with the stakes rarely being higher than a broken heart if they fail. With this entry in the genre, writer Ryukishi07 and artist Yukari Higa start by asking two basic questions: what if the girls weren't willing participants in the pursuit of the male protagonist's affections, and what if the stakes were so extreme that even death wasn't a clean way out? The result is a twisted and unsettling mix of harem antics with one of those Highlander-style death games, leaning much more toward the latter than the former.
The other interesting variation on the standard harem scheme is that while Kohinata is the focal character for the prologue, he doesn't stay that way. From the beginning of Chapter 1 on, the true protagonist is actually one of the harem girls. Furuwada takes over that role as Zepafur introduces her to the Harem Royale and pointedly emphasizes what fate will befall her in the afterlife should she lose: an endlessly repeated cycle of painful deaths. Whether that's a bluff or an illusion is unclear; accomplishing such a feat does seem ridiculously powerful, but all of Zepafur's talk of how demons feed off suffering and the graphic nature of what Furuwada experiences (or at least thinks she experiences) makes it convincing.
Instead of rotating through the other three girls' introductions to the Harem Royale, the viewpoint primarily remains with Furuwada as she tries to puzzle out who the other girls are, what she can do within the boundaries of the rules, and what she absolutely cannot avoid. The latter involves typical harem antics, but surprisingly, the story doesn't dwell on that for long. The heart of this volume becomes Furuwada's efforts to forge an alliance with the other harem members so that they can all survive, and then to figure out whether or not a fifth participant exists. The story takes on some mystery and intrigue as a result, which is certainly common for a death game story but practically unheard-of for harem plots. Ultimately, the harem side of things becomes less a main story focus and more a convenient framing device.
This whole concept still could have become a sadistic mess, but the decision to reorient the story on Furuwada saves the premise. It allows the absurdity of the scenario to be examined from a woman's point of view, acknowledging that teenage boys do have pretty silly fantasies without being judgmental about it. Some commentary about unwanted romantic attention could also probably be read into this setup, but it's not delivered forcefully enough to imply that the writer had such a message in mind. Furuwada is an intelligent and sensible character, making her reaction to the touchier aspects of her situation come across much more tastefully.
Unfortunately, none of the other three main harem girls are anywhere near as developed by the end of the volume. All of them more or less fit certain archetypes, although the book implies that's at least partially because of how Kohinata sees them rather than being because of who they really are. While they don't entirely distance themselves from their archetypes, they don't entirely conform either, especially when they vent their frustrations over the situation. Meanwhile, Zepafur is a pretty typical anime demon seductress, and given the times we live in, of course she channels all the details about the Harem Royale through an app game. Kohinata is also shown to largely be an average nice guy, to the point that I have to agree with Furuwada's supposition that he'd never tolerate this if he knew what was at stake. Not much is revealed about the nature of the fifth girl (whose identity is revealed as the volume's climactic ending), though she also conforms to a fairly common harem archetype at first glance.
The artistic effort is suitably capable, with each girl having a clearly defined look that's nonetheless ordinary. Except for Yumezuka, all of the girls have sizable chests, but despite that the fanservice is surprisingly light; there are a few panty shots in one scene where the girls have to act aggressively sexual toward Kohinata and some nudity in one bath scene, but this content covers only a handful of pages and the girls otherwise remain fully-clothed. Graphic content is limited to just a few panels, but those are intense enough to include severed body parts and visible entrails. Panel layout in general trends toward melodramatic effects and declarations – perhaps too much at times – but it's sufficient to maintain the story flow.
Overall, Harem Royale is less trashy and more thoughtful than initial expectations. That doesn't necessarily elevate the material, but the unusual alternate viewpoint and other twists on the staid harem genre show some promise.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Goes in some intriguingly different directions for a harem series
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