by Rebecca Silverman,

Paying to Win in a VRMMO

Novels 1 & 2

Paying to Win in a VRMMO Novels 1 & 2
As the heir to the powerful (and lucrative) Tsuwabuki Concern, Ichiro Tsuwabuki leads a life of privilege. The fact that he's amazingly good at everything he turns his hand to as well further compounds the image of a young man leading the ultimate life. Although he is self-centered from all of this, he's also not completely unaware of those around him, so when his younger second cousin Asuha asks him to join her in the world's first VRMMO to help her reconnect with a former friend, Ichiro agrees. But once he starts playing the game, he discovers that having things exactly as you want them will take more work than in real life. Well, more work – and a lot of money.

Prepare to have a new definition for the overpowered hero. Ichiro Tsuwabuki, leading man of Blitz Kiva's light novel series Paying to Win in a VRMMO, is nearly as perfect as a man can get. He's filthy rich, he once had successful careers as an idol and a classical violinist, he's gorgeous, and he has impeccable taste and business sense. Oh, and he's well aware of all of this, which can make him a bit insufferable, but as far as he's concerned (or aware; his own personality may be the only thing he doesn't understand) that's just part of his charm. Or at least it is in the regular world – when his cousin Asuha invites him to begin playing the first commercially available virtual reality MMORPG, Narrow Fantasy Online, or NaroFan, Ichiro discovers that things like “starting gear” and “skills” can't be simply ordered or manipulated to be as he wants them. Or at least, not without purchasing more premiums than you can shake a dozen sticks at. The result is a hero who has bought his power, and while it doesn't make him any less unbeatable than SAO's infamous Kirito, it certainly does put another spin on it.

I invoke Kirito on purpose. The first volume of the series, which is published digitally by J-Novel Club, is full of satiric references to Reiki Kawahara's series. Since it takes place in a version of reality very similar to our own, with marketable (and good) virtual reality the only major new development mentioned, Kiva mentions a very popular light novel series that had an anime adaptation and stars a swordsman in a black coat. Because of its popularity, NaroFan offers a special tie-in outfit players can purchase – a skin to make your character look like “Kirihito.” Thus there are veritable hordes of Kiri[hi]tos running around NaroFan, including one guild that is entirely made up of them. It's both funny and an apt statement on SAO's initial popularity, somehow more amusing than if, for example, the characters found themselves in a cosplay situation rather than playing a game.

Over all the first novel is the better of the two, in part because it really has more fun with its concept. After introducing us to fourteen-year-old Asuha Tsuwabuki and her older second cousin (he's in his early twenties), the story leaps ahead a week to when Asuha plans to meet Ichiro in the game. She figures that he's not logged in before, waiting for her exams to be over so that they can play together. Unfortunately for her, Ichiro's not the patient (or thoughtful) type, and his live-in maid is a hardcore gamer. Not only has Ichiro bought the premium edition of the game, he's also already fifty levels above Asuha, crushing her dreams of helping him to level and teaching him to play. He's also somehow managed to spend enough money to manipulate the systems so that his avatar looks exactly like him (with horns, which are part of the race he's playing), down to the suit he's wearing for armor.

To say that Asuha is disappointed would be an understatement. An even bigger one would be to imply that Ichiro notices or cares. To put it bluntly, he's a total asshole, too aware of his own superiority to be able to interact with people on any sort of caring level…and yet he's not wholly unlikable as a character. Or rather, he is unlikable, but written so that it's hard to truly hate him, at least in volume one. This is an endorsement both of Blitz Kiva's writing and J-Novel Club's translation – I have been consistently impressed with the smoothness and naturalness of their work, and it really shines through here in the text's ability to make us aware of Ichiro's personality faults without making him utterly unreadable. Actually the more annoying character is the maid, who falls into otaku tropes rather easily, from her need to wear Victorian maid garb at home to her cross-playing (complete with role-playing) of an older male knight.

The subject of cross-playing, or creating an avatar of a gender the player is not, is touched upon in the books, making the astute observation that it largely went away once VR made it so that players were not looking at their characters from behind, which is part of the appeal of playing a sexy character. It does not, interestingly, address the reason why some women play male characters, which is online harassment; that doesn't seem to have factored in for the one cross-player we know thus far, though I do hope it comes up at some point. It seems likely – there has been mention of people hitting on girls in the game, albeit briefly. Hopefully it will be handled a bit more deftly than most of volume two, which has Ichiro telling Asuha in-game about how he came by his unusual armor, basically telling us what happened between when she invited him to play and actually logged on to play with him. This is not as entertaining as volume one's descriptions of trying to find Asuha's missing friend or Ichiro attempting to join a raid, largely because it relies upon Ichiro not understanding that he's making life difficult for Iris, the character of a seventeen-year-old student whom he picks to make his special armor. (There's a real argument to be made that this is a reference to Liz in SAO.) Ichiro's attentions not only get her on the bad side of a powerful crafting guild, but also embarrass the shy girl and get her a very powerful real-life foe. (Although this last is barely touched on at the end of the novel, given her ambitions, Ichiro may have sabotaged her career, at least temporarily.) Although Ichiro is still written with the sort of oddly likable qualities that kept him afloat in volume one, the real consequences of his actions for Iris, who, unlike Asuha, doesn't have any way of knowing what she's in for, are upsetting and irritating. In the afterward, Kiva mentions that Iris will become a demon character; after reading volume two, it feels like it might be out of self-defense.

Even with its difficult protagonist, Paying to Win in a VRMMO's first two books are entertaining reads. Ichiro's willingness and ability to buy his way out of (or into) anything and the other players' frustration with him come through clearly and are largely used to point out the basic annoyances of gaming on a budget or for the sheer love of leveling under your own power, and the digs at SAO in volume one are a lot of fun. (I'm torn if Edward in volume two, who plays a “machina,” or machine person, is a Fullmetal Alchemist reference or not.) Ichiro's exploitation of pretty much everyone and everything for his own amusement, possibly barring Asuha, works well in the game setting, even if they can get on your nerves in volume two. Although this could have gotten away with being a single book, it will be interesting to see where it goes from here, and if Ichiro ever gets a clue about his own personality.

Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B-

+ Volume one is fun with good digs at pop culture, translation reads very well, Asuha feels like a real fourteen-year-old
Ichiro and his companion can be grating, volume two is weaker overall with a less interesting plot

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Story: Blitz Kiva

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