Kaito is a gamer who only exists in the real world because he has to - if he could, he'd do nothing but play games. One day, he gets a mysterious game called Gamerz Heaven in the mail. He has no idea who sent it, and it's a beta release with a limited and unknown number of saves. He decides to give it a try, only to learn that it's a bizarre virtual reality game that turns the real world around him into his gaming environment. A cute little boy called the Navigator (later renamed "Nata") is both his guide and the thing he is required to protect. Every single person in the game wants to both kill Kaito and grab Nata. If Kaito loses, the game villains will use Nata to enter the real world.
To add gravity to the situation, any person who is killed in the game, whether that person is a player or a real-world person who has become Kaito's opponent, disappears from the real world as though they never existed. Also, any property damage that occurs in the game is transferred to the real world. Whether Kaito chooses to continue the game or not, Nata and the real world will still be in danger. Kaito either has to actively protect Nata or watch as the real world is eventually taken over by Gamerz Heaven monsters. Kaito wants to protect Nata, but will a low-level player like him be able to get very far?
I saw this at a used bookstore and picked it up because sometimes I need a little crazy in my reading, and Maki Murakami is good for that. It wasn't until later that I learned that Gamerz Heaven is a 4-volume series, and ADV only put out 2 volumes in English. Which means, unless I hunt down scanlations, I'll never get to finish the series. So annoying...
Anyway, at least this volume delivered on the craziness. No, there wasn't a giant robotic panda (read Gravitation if you don't know what I'm talking about), but there was Murakami's usual over-the-top male protagonist (wearing a t-shirt with a logo that changed every few pages, or even from one panel to the next) and a virtual reality world that was a mix of destructive monster battles and mundane reality. For example, the first time the area boss appears, he's buying a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store. Everyone at the store kneels before him because he's the boss, but that doesn't stop the store manager from calling the cops on him after he turns the place into a pile of rubble.
Those with at least a little gaming knowledge will probably appreciate this volume the most. Gamerz Heaven (the game) laughs in the face of learning curves. Within seconds of entering the game, Kaito has to figure out how to equip a weapon and battle a monster. The next time he logs on, without even getting a chance to level up, he runs into Rush, the area boss. The third time he logs on, he finds himself face-to-face with the final boss. Since all Kaito has been able to do so far is beat low-level monsters, run away, and spit blood, I'm curious to see how he'll manage to survive in the next volume. His friend Kawashima seems to be a more able fighter in the game than him, but I doubt even she would be able to fight the final boss so soon after beginning to play the game.
This volume introduced some mysteries I'd like to find out more about. Who created Gamerz Heaven, and why did that person send the disc specifically to Kaito? Ren, Kaito's game creator friend, seemed particularly interested when Kaito mentioned Rush, so I wonder if there's a real-world Rush and if Ren knows him. Also, why does Itsuki hate Kaito so much? She actively encourages bullies to go after him, and she arranges things so he'll probably be expelled. So far, my guess is that she's also linked to Gamerz Heaven. Her hairstyle is somewhat similar to that of the final boss, so maybe her game avatar is the final boss?
It's a little frustrating, knowing that I might never find out the answers to all my questions, and volume 2 might bring up even more. What I've read so far has definitely piqued my interest, and it would be nice to see how things turn out.
I should note that, as is usually the case with Murakami's works, the characters are so-so. Kaito's a game-obsessed maniac (although thankfully not as whiny as Gravitation's Shuichi). Kawashima playfully uses him as a punching bag while also maybe nursing a slight crush on him. Ren and Rush are both badass, which we mostly know because that's what we're told and because they both bear a strong resemblance to Gravitation's Yuki. Itsuki is mysterious, a little menacing, and not much else. Nata is supposedly adorable (Kaito squee'd over him a lot, but I wasn't particularly impressed). And the volume's other characters are barely worth mentioning. This is the sort of series you read for the premise and the craziness, not the characters.
All in all, I like the series so far and, if all 4 volumes were available, my guess is that I'd probably be reading them. I've submitted an ILL request for the second volume, because, what the heck, I might as well. Bring on the never-going-to-finish-this-series pain!
One page of translator's notes, which was somewhat helpful.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- .hack//SIGN (anime TV series) - The .hack//whatever series is pretty huge, and I have no idea which one is the best to start with. I've seen two of the anime series, and .hack//SIGN was the best of the two, so that's what I'm recommending. If you like the idea of gamers being able to walk around in immersive virtual reality worlds, you might want to give this a try. It's a more serious/less crazy take on this premise than Gamerz Heaven.
- Dragon Drive (manga) by Ken'ichi Sakura - Another action-filled series focused on gaming. In this case, players are given dragons that get stronger as they win battles against other players' dragons. As in Gamerz Heaven, the protagonist is pretty weak when he starts the game. I've written about the first volume.
- Ready Player One (book) by Ernest Cline - Those who'd like another story with a protagonist "living" in a virtual world might want to give this a try. It sounds like it's a bit more grounded than Gamerz Heaven, but still fun. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my TBR list.
- Sword Art Online (anime TV series) - I haven't seen this yet, but it might be a good one for those who'd like another "characters living in a virtual reality world" series. The only way to leave the game in this series is by beating it, so I'm gonna guess that this series is a good deal darker than Gamerz Heaven. An additional note: Sword Art Online fans are rabid. As a reviewer, they scare me almost as much as Fate/Zero fans.
- Maki Murakami's other series - I was trying to think of other manga artists whose series have a similar level of crazy, and I kept drawing a blank. I'm not sure how many of her works have been released in English in their entirety. Gravitation, despite its bloat and Shuichi being a puddle of whine, tears, and snot, is one of my favorites of hers.