I once beat an old-school, combat-heavy, indie RPG called Geneforge 3 as a technical pacifist, never once performing an attack. There were combat-focused zones I couldn’t clear of course, but in terms of finishing the main storyline, there were always alternatives to fighting. I’ve also played through a couple of Pokemon games with type-themed teams. In an earlier game, I’d catch/breed a team of six low-level Pokemon with a common type—say, Ice—transfer them into the new game ASAP, and beat it with my theme team. I mention all this to say that I know from experience how playing a game under a self-imposed restrictions can be a fun, creative, puzzle-solving endeavor.
Ren Takashiro is so fond of self-imposed challenges that in online gaming circles, he’s acquired the nickname “Emperor of Underpowered.” He loves to play MMORPGs using what are commonly regarded as the weakest character classes, seeking out exploits or innovative builds that overturn conventional wisdom. His online gaming buddy Akira urges him to apply to an unusual high school with no physical location, where all classes and activities take place within a VRMMORPG. When they finally meet in class, Ren is surprised to find Akira was a girl all along. Volume one of Redefining the META at VRMMO Academy is the story of…Ren and his girls playing an MMO. That’s it.
To be fair, the book does have a couple of points going for it. There’s a cute baby dragon. Some of Ren’s tactics really are entertainingly clever. The dialogue is occasionally fun (particularly Ren’s habit of using random baseball metaphors). And once in a while, the banter between Ren and Akira conveys that they have a genuine, longstanding friendship. Also, there’s a cute baby dragon.
Unfortunately, Ren is a cad. Moments after meeting, he intentionally dupes the unwitting Akira into choosing a character class notoriously unpopular among girls due to being super revealing. Oh, he has excuses, but they don’t hold water. Are there any negative consequences? Nope. For the remainder of the book, Ren proudly and shamelessly seizes every opportunity to ogle Akira and the other two girls with whom he forms a party. And the girls just kind of accept this objectifying behavior. Ren isn’t the worst light novel protagonist I’ve encountered, but his tendencies kind of spoil the rest of the story for me.
But wait, there’s more! Countless anime, manga, and light novels have incorporated RPG mechanics, whether by setting the story within an MMORPG (e.g., Infinite Dendrogram), within a world based on a game (e.g., Log Horizon), or just within a fantasy world where RPG mechanics are part of the natural order (e.g., Reincarnated as a Sword). I am not opposed to this trope per se. If used well, it can be quite interesting. Unfortunately, Redefining the META… does not use this trope well. Instead, the narrative’s flow gets bogged down in Ren’s boring explanations of game mechanics and jargon. His pedantry outweighs his tactical cunning.
This volume is the epitome of shallow wish fulfillment. High school is a virtual reality game where cute girls team up with the male protagonist through no effort of his own, and then they passively let him objectify them with only perfunctory protest. There’s a little humor, but this is not a comedy like BOFURI. There are a few times Ren and Akira’s friendship comes through, but this is not a tale of heartwarming relationships like Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear. There’s no hint of any mystery like with Dendro, nor any meaningful stakes as in SAO. The action sequences are bland and the world-building is minimalist. It’s not the worst-written or most problematic light novel I’ve tried, but I certainly won’t be continuing the series either.
A review copy of Redefining the META at VRMMO Academy Vol. 1 was provided by Sol Press.