Category Archives: LitRPG

Survival Quest by Vasily Mahanenko

2016-standout-award-badge-smallIn keeping with my theme this summer—LitRPG novels (stories that take place in part, or entirely within, a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game)—I recently read Survival Quest. It is a series on its seventh entry in its native Russian, and the first three have been translated into English.

Title: Survival Quest
Author: Vasily Mahanenko
SeriesWay of the Shaman Book 1
Publish Date: April 20th, 2015
Genre: LitRPG
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description: Barliona: a virtual world jam-packed with monsters, battles-and, predictably, players. Millions of them come to Barliona, looking forward to the things they can’t get in real life: elves and magic, dragons and princesses, and unforgettable combat. The game has become so popular that players now choose to spend months online without returning home.

In Barliona, anything goes: You can assault fellow players, level up, become a mythical hero, a wizard, or a legendary thief. The only rule that attempted to regulate the game demanded that no player be allowed to feel actual pain. But there’s an exception to every rule. For a certain bunch of players, Barliona has become their personal hell. They are criminals sent to Barliona to serve their time. They aren’t in it for the dragons’ gold or the abundant loot. All they want is to survive the virtual inferno. They face the ultimate survival quest.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.

Vagabond Vahn says…

As with the other LitRPG novels I’m reviewing this summer, this one is listed on Goodread’s 119 LitRPG novels list. It caught my attention initially because it is, or was at the time, listed first. It deserves to be. In Survival Quest, virtual reality games are the norm, and one has become so big that the government even has a stake in it. Prisoners serve their time in pods, loaded into the virtual reality world of Barlonia where they work in the mines, earning the virtual currency that the government then benefits from thanks to to the immense popularity of the game. If they serve their time well, they’re granted in-game parole and let out of the mines into the virtual world at large, with a red headband marking them criminals and a 30% tax that goes directly to the government on any money they earn.

This is a fascinating idea and, honestly, not as far-fetched as it may sound at first. With the popularity of online games such as World of WarCraft or Second Life at its peak, the idea that corporations, governments, banks and other organizations would become involved and profit from it becomes a realistic prospect for the future. Vasily Mahanenko takes this to the next level, and pulls it off brilliantly.

When presented with a LitRPG synopsis, a suspension of disbelief is required. The technology simply isn’t there yet. Thankfully, Survival Quest is written in such a way that I had no trouble believing this to be right on the horizon. I own an Occulus Rift virtual reality headset. With it, I go rock climbing in China, live the life of a Viking warrior, time travel, and dive the depths of the sea from my chair. The idea of serving time in prison is not appealing. Serving that time in a VRMMO? Still not my idea of fun, but definitely interesting to consider and a fresh reason why the main character is “stuck” in the game. This helped keep me immersed in the world of Barliona.

The Good: There are interesting gameplay mechanic ideas here. In Barliona, players do not have to feel pain as they can set their sensory thresholds – unless they are criminals. Unfortunately for our main character Mahan, when he hacks a sewer security system to impress a girl he gets caught and sentenced to serve eight years in the virtual world of Barliona, with the full sensory experience. While serving his time we see standard gameplay mechanics like skills, leveling up, acquiring better gear—all the normal LitRPG mainstays. Thankfully in addition to this familiar ground, he introduces a few neat twists, such as a skill based around how mean you can be. In a prison, this particular skill is a favorite. It is also addicting to level up, as a feeling of euphoria is given to the players. The criminals have no filters, so this is an all encompassing feeling for them, giving them the motivation to keep going despite fatigue and pain.

The story begins in the prison but it is made clear that Mahan will earn his parole and leave. Knowing there are more entries in the series to come (and three are currently available), I enjoyed the pacing presented in this first entry. Familiar with game mechanics due to playing prior to his sentencing, Mahan is quick to accept his situation and start figuring out how to make the best of it. One of the standard techniques in this genre is for the main character to become extremely lucky, or find loopholes in the code, that sets them apart from every other player. Mahan is certainly lucky at times, but it felt more organic and acceptable and less that the author simply needed to give the character a way to succeed.

The Bad:  For those that find it hard to overcome phrasing, please note that this novel is translated from Russian. I happen to think the translation was very well handled, but there are times where it’s obvious that I do not share a cultural perspective with the author, in terms of how I would comment on things I see or experience. There are also moments when the perspective changes from past to present tense within the same sentence. I do not know if this is a result of the translation or the original intent, but I felt it worth noting for readers.

Above, I mentioned that the author handles the character getting lucky better than some other entries in this genre. However, there are still moments where the story falls prey to that technique. Far less so than some other novels for sure, but they’re still present.

The Conclusion:  I love this story. Being familiar with both MMORPGs and Virtual Reality games, I had a lot of fun becoming part of Mahan’s struggle to serve his time, and survive his eight years in-game.  Accepting that it is a translation from the get-go allowed me to push through any phrasing issues that may otherwise have bothered me. The main character gets lucky or comes off as a genius for what may otherwise seem perfectly logical things to the reader, but less so than other LitRPG novels I’ve read, and with that perspective, it didn’t hinder my entertainment in the least. I immediately bought the second entry and finished it in record time. The third was recently translated into English as well, but as of this writing, the fourth is not yet available. I am eagerly awaiting the next four (or more?) entries.


Ultimatum of the Nameless God by Brian McGoldrick

Another entry in my review series of LitRPGs, stories that take place partially or entirely within massively multiplayer, virtual reality games.  PLEASE BE WARNED: This novel includes descriptions of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Title: Ultimatum of the Nameless God
Author: Brian McGoldrick
SeriesPath of Transcendence Book 1
Publish Date: July 29th, 2015
Genre: LitRPG, Sci-Fi
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description: Taereun: Battleground of the Damned was never really a game. It was a testing ground to find minds and souls for the The Nameless God to use, and for tens of thousands of players, the game became reality, when they were put in the bodies of their characters. The Nameless God told them that he would return them to their real lives, if they fought through the Labyrinth of Yggr and freed his body from beneath the city of Haven. After searching for over 11 years, they found the Gate leading to Haven.

After being murdered right before the gate to Haven was opened, Mark McGuinness wakes up in a hospital in his original body. As a child, he was in an automobile accident. A freak whose body rejects most medical treatments, he was left scarred and disfigured. Angry, bitter and disgusted with the world, he had used Taereun: Battleground of the Damned to take out his frustration and anger, so he would not lose control and hurt or kill someone in real life. The closest he had ever come to being happy was living as Talon, during the eleven year search for Haven.

Having learned about the Power called ki, Mark McGuinness discovers that his human body is capable of channeling and using it. Once again armed with Power, he finds a way to travel from Earth to Taereun. He has questions he wants answered and people he owes. Whether mortal or divine, he will let no one and nothing stand in his way.

WARNING: For Mature Audiences Only. This story contains profanity and rather graphic descriptions of violence, gore, sex and sexual violence.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.

Vagabond Vahn says…

You know when the description of a novel contains a warning about physical and sexual violence, gore, and other adult themes, you have to make a decision.  Are you willing to explore these themes, or are you more comfortable simply moving on?  There is no right answer to this question.  Not only do each of us respond differently to these types of warnings, but we approach our handling of them in a variety of ways depending on where we’re at in our lives.

Ultimatum of the Nameless God was in the List of 119 LitRPG Books on Goodreads.  The title caught my eye.  The warning raised an eyebrow, and I decided to see how deep down a novel in this new genre would go.  I’m glad I did, but I’m conflicted sharing my review.

I want to be clear right now that in no way do I encourage or condone unwanted sexual violence.  This story includes rape, straight and homosexual.  It includes torture and violence, both sexual and physical. They are not the focal point of the story, but they happen.  With that said, these themes have existed throughout human history and I am not one to ignore them simply because it makes our society uncomfortable.  So it was that I purchased Ultimatum of the Nameless God – and in the end, despite the above, I’m glad I did.

The Good: It’s no secret among those who know me that I favor sociopath characters.  I relate to them on some level, and they intrigue me.  I find them far and few between as protagonists.  This is one reason I’m drawn to stories about assassins, vengeance, revenge.  The main character, Mark McGuinness, fits this mold.  There is a great balance in the exploration of what has led him to walk the line between being a sociopath and a psychopath—and he arguably does cross that line at times, but I find myself on his side when he does.

The story and events are gritty and uncompromising.  While it’s given away in the book’s description, the character comes to realize the “game” he’s been playing all this time is actually another world, and the people there, real.  The danger to them, the joys and horrors they experience become all the more palpable.   The journey Mark takes from his character of Talon, to his physical being of Mark, to the new Brand he becomes once back in Taerun kept my interest from beginning to end.

Brand leaves behind the scarred, weak Mark of his past.  He wants revenge for the death of Talon, his alter ego when he thought it was all a game.  He wants vengeance for the wrongs that have been thrust upon him.  He wants to remove all sense of powerlessness and won’t allow another to hinder that quest.  I find an almost atavistic empathy with these motivations and they continue to intrigue me.

The Bad:  Brian’s writing style is straightforward.  It doesn’t read as an author writing for the masses, it reads as a good friend across the country relaying an epic story to me.  This is detrimental to the experience for some readers.  For me, the events of the story itself made up for it and after a time I hardly noticed, but I feel it important to share for those who may be bothered by it.

I think the strengths of the story could have benefited from more exploration of the other characters.  At the same time, doing so could have created conflict with any empathy the reader has managed to build and share with Mark McGuinness.  I’m not sure in the end what I would prefer, but as result the side characters sometimes become background characters instead.

The adult themes may be a serious turn-off for some.  I equate it to watching a movie with depictions of the subject matter.  They are rarely the central point of a scene, but the author doesn’t shy away from drawing your attention to them, much the way the camera may pan over the scene and the audio revel in the screams.

It ends on a cliffhanger—be prepared if this kind of thing drives you nuts.  I immediately moved on to book two, and thus was not affected by this fact.

The Conclusion:  I wrestled for a few weeks before writing this review, about how I would rate Ultimatum of the Nameless God, and how I would present the review on the site.  It’s a great story.  It has straightforward, if not impressive, writing.  It explores concepts that make an awful lot of people uncomfortable but which shouldn’t necessarily be shied away from if we’re going to become better as a people.  It held my attention throughout, and provides a fresh alternative protagonist to the LitRPG Genre.  In the end, it’s a Great story.  I recommend reading it if the warning doesn’t immediately turn you away.  If it does, then the warning has served its purpose perfectly, because it is warranted.

Sector Eight by Michael Atamanov

Sector Eight is a fantastic example of the emerging genre called LitRPG, where everything takes place partly or entirely within a virtual reality, massive multiplayer video game.

Title: Sector Eight
Author: Michael Atamanov
Series: Perimeter Defense Book 01
Publish Date: September 18th, 2015
Genre: LitRPG, Sci-Fi
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description: A strange body that refuses to obey you; a weird game you can’t quit until your contract expires; a world teeming with powerful and very real enemies. The game in which your reputation and faction relationship are the only things that matter.

These are the conditions of the agreement Ruslan signs without reading. The only thing he remembers is that he’s been contracted to command a space fleet in a brand new game he knows nothing about. Objective: to survive for six months. After having made some inevitable newb mistakes, Ruslan has to rethink his strategy, dropping traditional gaming conventions. But what will it cost him? What new trials and tribulations await him that even the game designers have failed to anticipate?

Possible spoilers beyond this point.

Vagabond Vahn says…

Sector Eight, by Michael Atamanov, falls into the genre of LitRPG—the same genre as my previously reviewed book, A Virtual Dream by Brent Roth. LitRPG is a growing genre that takes place partly or entirely within a virtual reality, massive multiplayer video game. I will be doing a series of reviews from this young genre as the summer progresses, and have decided to come out of the gate swinging with this second entry. For a genre so new that its rules are still being written, author Michael Atamanov breaks them without ruining the experience. Arguably, side-stepping the expected enhances it here.

Breaking away from Fantasy, which is the most common setting for this genre, our main character exists in our current or near-future world. For a character like this to share their story with us from inside a video game is a step too far for some people to stay engaged. Those of us who do, however, follow the gaming cultural references with a hunger. In LitRPG, the characters spend time leveling up, learning skills, increasing their various attributes and completing quests; interacting with NPCs (Non-Player Characters), other players, and player-killers alike. In Sector Eight, while main character, Ruslan, does indeed interact with players and NPCs, there is no leveling. There are no referenced attributes or statistics, and the concept of quests is vague.

What it does do, which unexpectedly brings about a fresh experience, is utilize a Faction system that displays how others in the game view a character, and leaves everything else up to the player’s imagination and knowledge of gaming. It is, in a sense, very political.  Players are able to raise or lower their view of others, affecting reputations on both a personal and galactic level. This plays a very large role in how events unfurl as the story progresses, and how NPCs react and relate to Ruslan.

The Good: I expected the break from tradition due to reading a few reviews prior to my purchase and so I knew that while Sector Eight is firmly rooted in LitRPG as a genre, it wouldn’t be sating my craving for “leveling up” the way some of the entries in my upcoming reviews do. Having embraced this, I dove in and was taken on a fantastic ride, and left wondering if the universe of Perimeter Defense – the name of the game Ruslan hops into his virtual reality capsule to play – is really a game at all?  Ruslan starts out the novel leading a battle over voice-chat for a large number of players in a game that is obviously heavily inspired by Eve Online before being presented with the opportunity to jump into Perimeter Defense.  It was a fun tie-in of familiarity for modern gamers, to lead into something we’re only just beginning to explore with the new Oculus Rift and Gear VR virtual reality systems hitting the market in 2016.

The characters introduced in Book 1 have the potential to be strong as they’re fleshed out through the next entry (yes, there is a Perimeter Defense #2) – both individuals that Ruslan is pretty sure are other players, and NPCs he encounters. He’s never quite sure though, as talking about life outside of Perimeter Defense is grounds for an immediate ban.  The dialog is acceptable, and the translation from the author’s native Russian is well done overall (a note on this in the next section).  This is worth noting, as Russia is a leading force in the LitRPG world and not all of the entries in the genre are well translated.

The Bad:  While the translation from Russian to English is well done, I may not be as bothered by oddities in language as some.  I feel it important to point out that while every word is accurately translated, they don’t necessarily always make sense culturally.  I’ve noticed from other Russian translated LitRPG novels that beginning sentences with “Well” or “So,” is very common, but not in the same way Americans use them – rather it seems they start the sentences that way simply to have something with which to initiate the statement.  This type of cultural difference (and there are a few more) can be jarring at first, but I’ve consumed enough Russian translations at this point that I take it in stride, well aware that the main character is Russian but speaking English for our benefit.  If it nags at you, try giving the characters Russian accents in your mind.

badge5v4The Conclusion:  I wholeheartedly recommend this book.  It may also serve well as a gateway from other speculative fiction and science fiction (particularly for fans of the Space Opera style, focusing more on action and drama than accurate scientific representation) into the LitRPG field.  Atamanov has created in Ruslan (and his in-game alter ego) a character I want to know more about – and thankfully, there is a second entry in the series I will be reviewing later!  The story was a good deal of fun and if Perimeter Defense, the game, is ever published here, sign me up.

If you like this book…

…consider trying Edge of Reality (Phantom Server #1) by Andrei Livadny or Start the Game (Galactagon #1) by Vasily Mahenko, both Sci-Fi based and in the LitRPG genre.

I also recommend checking out this Goodreads List of 116 LitRPG Novels.

A Virtual Dream by Brent Roth

Title: A Virtual Dream
Author: Brent Roth
Series: Dragon’s Wrath Book 01
Publish Date: April 12th, 2015
Genre: LitRPG, Sci-Fi
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description: When Brent Roth suffered a workplace accident that rendered him temporarily immobile, he found himself lying in bed dreaming of a better life. He dreamed of a life where maintaining his health was no longer a daily struggle, and then when he had lost all hope, he had discovered a new virtual reality game on the horizon. A VR-MMORPG that offered him everything he lacked in real life, everything that had eluded him.

A world where he could find adventure, companionship, and success all wrapped up in the singular package of The Dragon’s Wrath. The game offered him a chance, a chance for salvation… a glimmer of hope.

It was better than a dream, it was a virtual dream.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.

Vagabond Vahn says…

For some, the relatively new genre of LitRPG has no meaning.  To clarify, all novels in this genre take place – partly or entirely – within an VRMMORPG: a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game.  A young genre, Goodreads already lists 115 LitRPG novels here.  This is a genre that has yet to capture a major publishers eye, and the novels I’ve read thus far are self-published and often translated from other languages.  I decided to delve into some, and the next few reviews I post will be novels from this genre, for better or worse.

The Good: Dragon’s Wrath is fun.  I like video-games, and I’ve played my share of MMOs over the years.  Reading a game set within one, but with a virtual reality capsule that allows players to feel the sensations of the world is interesting to think about.  As with many LitRPG books, the main character discovers things within the game that few to no other players have, and Dragon’s Wrath is no exception.

One of the few well written novels in the genre where the character both is, and wants to be, left to themselves far from civilization.  Time is split between the real world where Brent attends Alpha/Beta tester meetings, and his time in the game where he forges his own path in the snow-covered north in an area most players have written off as useless.  There he works to level up and build a town entirely himself, without the aid of other players.

The setting is fresh.  Reminiscent of video-games such a “The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim” and “Savage Lands”, the viking-inspired, cold and harsh snowy mountains help maintain the feeling of isolation that Brent is looking for.  The time spent alone, basically playing a single-player game helps introduce the VR experience to the audience and set it apart from other LitRPG novels.

The Bad:  While the time spent in-game is mostly fantastic, some of the scenes set back in reality slow the pace detrimentally.  It’s great to know that he’s funding himself while unemployed by selling off the collection of cars he’d built.  It’s nice to know he doesn’t want to do that, but has to.  That said, taking the time to describe driving around with a potential buyer ultimately doesn’t have any major impact on, and pulls us away from, the story in-game.  I can see what the author was trying to do by having those moments – and indeed, the scenes during the Apha/Beta test meetings are worthwhile – but the others unfortunately serve to slow things down.

There are homonyms sprinkled throughout that may bother some.  That said, this is also somewhat common in self-published novels in my experience, and so early on I came to terms with it.

The Conclusion:  Certain scenes slow the pace of what would otherwise be a badge4v4superb entry in the LitRPG field.  It is the first in a series however, and serves as a fun and solid foundation for more to come.  It is definitely one of the better in the genre and certainly worth a read if the concept of LitRPG intrigues you.

Setting up a character far from civilization who mostly interacts with NPCs allows for a fairly introspective ride.  However, there are other players introduced both here and as the story progresses through the next entries, which will help those for whom this genre feels too alien.  If this review is your introduction to LitRPG, Dragon’s Wrath is worth trying.

Other reviews…

If you like this book…

…consider trying Survival Quest (The Way of the Shaman, #1) by Vasily Mahanenko, Project Daily Grind (Mirror World, #1)  by Alexey Osadchuk, or Patch 17 (Realm of Arkon, #1) by G. Akella, all in the LitRPG genre.