Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Novel 2: The Beasts of Undeath
Having defeated Gardranga the UBM, Ray Starling, AKA Reiji Mukudori, is feeling better about his chances in the VRMMO Infinite Dendrogram. But he's also starting to realize that he has a different attitude about the NPCs than most of his fellow players. Sure, it's just a game, but when monsters begin kidnapping and killing children, Ray can't just stand idly by, no matter what anyone says – a life's a life, be it digital or human, after all.
If the first volume of Sakon Kaidō's Infinite Dendrogram light novel series felt a little bit too familiar, that's just because it was gearing up for this second book. The introductory novel is just that – an introduction to the world, the gameplay mechanics, and the characters. This sophomore outing is more about how the story is going to use them.
That's what's setting Infinite Dendrogram apart from similar titles about games that feel a little too real. Unlike something like SAO or Log Horizon, it's very clear that Reiji is playing a game - there are no real-world consequences for his actions online and Ray Starling is very obviously Reiji as he wishes he could be. The catch is that Reiji is the kind of person who gets emotionally involved in his fictional pursuits, something which the very nature of the game exacerbates. As we learned in volume one, the way Infinite Dendrogram is programmed, the NPCs (or “tians”) act like regular people. They are aware that the PCs (“Masters”) at times vanish and can't truly die, reviving after three days in-game, they carry on fairly normal lives, and once they die, they don't respawn. This means that each NPC is a unique character, meant to enhance the experience of people specifically playing the game for a realistic immersion in a fantasy world. What that also means is that the death of an NPC has a lasting effect – other NPCs will mourn them, thrones will sit empty, and there's simply no recreating someone who is gone. It's a neat concept in gaming, but for someone who takes the idea of role-playing seriously, it can also have a negative emotional effect.
Reiji is one of those people. As his entry into the game in the previous book foreshadowed, he's got a bit of a hero complex, and that was strong enough that he was immediately offered the job option of “Paladin” in-game. (We learn this time that he skipped a few lesser positions, which has an unfortunate, yet humorous, consequence.) The very first quest he stumbled into was to save an NPC's sister, and despite the fact that he was grossly underpowered, he managed to complete it. Now he's leveled up and bonded with his embryo, a rare “Type Maiden” named Nemesis, but his playstyle hasn't changed: the plot this time is that he stumbles onto a kidnapping ring and ends up taking on an even more difficult quest to save children from the human-munching monster and his necromancer friend who head it. To do this he teams up with Hugo Lesseps, a French player from the country Ray Starling's is on the brink of war with. Setting aside that issue, the two players set out to rescue the children.
The fact that Hugo is affiliated with the technocracy responsible for a devastating war that raged previous to Reiji starting the game is largely ignored for most of the book, although attention should be paid to the odd comment dropped here and there. This is clearly going to be the overarching plot for at least the next volume, possibly more, especially since Hugo shares Ray's concerns about the people who live within the game world. What's more important to this particular book is what Hugo reveals about players who end up with Type Maiden embryos like Nemesis – it indicates that they tend to get too emotionally invested in the NPCs. Since that has led both players to this particular too-difficult quest, it's hard to argue with Hugo's theory, and Reiji himself consistently talks about how ignoring the kids in peril would “leave a bad taste in [his] mouth.” The question then becomes what, if anything, Reiji is going to do about it. Hugo suggests that it might be emotionally safer to simply stop playing the game. Reiji hasn't hit that point yet, but it's an interesting issue to think about, especially as we see him growing closer to Liliana the NPC and his own embryo.
Ray's relationship with Nemesis is one of the more potentially explosive aspects of the VR world. Embryos, we learned in the previous book, are “born” of a player's own mind, the game system choosing who gets which based on something in their personalities or subconscious. That Nemesis and Ray seem to be heading towards a potential romance therefore raises the question of whether or not that would be the same thing as Reiji falling in love with a piece of himself. While you certainly ought to love yourself, this may be taking it a bit too far for some readers. Right now it's mostly Nemesis who is developing feelings, but even its implication is something it will be worth keeping an eye on, if only because it's psychologically interesting.
As with the first volume, both writing and translation are smooth. Kaido isn't terrific at giving all of his first-person narrators distinct voices, and the story might have been better served with multiple third-person perspectives, but it isn't enough to be a distracting and there's plenty of context to remind us of whose head we're in. The only real issue I have here is two uses of the word “retarded” as a slur. It's used for things rather than people, but it feels very tone-deaf in a modern translation, and there were surely less offensive words that could have been used in its place.
Infinite Dendrogram's second volume helps it to stand out in the crowded field of light novels set in game or game-like worlds. With its baselines established, the story is now free to really take shape, both in terms of themes and characters. This is clearly a series that is going to continue to build on each successive novel, and if you haven't given it a try yet, it's definitely worth doing so.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Interesting themes on how people relate to game characters, builds nicely on previous book, sufficiently scary monsters
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