Review of Awaken Online: Catharsis Book One
Travis Bagwell, a full-time lawyer and writer extraordinaire, is easily one of the most beloved litRPG authors working today. Though he only has two books currently available—Awaken Online: Catharsis and the follow-up Awaken Online: Precipice—the hundreds of five-star reviews on his books says a lot about the series as a whole. Before dipping my toes into the litRPG waters as a writer, I started out as a reader and I can say that those stars are well earned, and these books are worth a read for those who love litRPG.
Awaken Online: Catharsis Book 1 (from the back cover): Jason logs into Awaken Online fed-up with reality. He’s in desperate need of an escape, and this game is his ticket to finally feeling the type of power and freedom that are so sorely lacking in his real life.
Awaken Online is a brand new virtual reality game that just hit the market, promising an unprecedented level of immersion. Jason quickly finds himself pushed down a path he didn’t expect. In this game, he isn’t the hero. There are no damsels to save. There are no bad guys to vanquish.
In fact, he might just be the villain.
The Main Character
The main character in Awaken Online is a high schooler named Jason and IRL, Jason is a bit of a loser: he’s unpopular with few friends, and though he’s smart, he’s also the poor kid at a wealthy prep school, which only serves to cause him more trouble. On top of that, his home life is pretty abysmal and depressing. His parents, both working lawyers, are absent more often than not and treat Jason as though he’s a house pet instead of a kid, often forgetting about him altogether.
By the end of the book, however, we see a brand-new Jason: one who is capable, confident, more than a little ruthless, and capable of standing up for himself and those he cares about. True, IRL, Jason might not have much going on, but inside the brand-new game world of Awaken Online, he becomes a powerhouse necromancer with a chip on his shoulder and a willingness to do just about anything—or kill anyone—to achieve his goals. And though he’s something of a chaotic-aligned villain in the game world, he never goes full-on sociopath, which leaves him relatable and easy to root for. Additionally, a fun and interesting band of side characters help to keep things light in what is an otherwise dark book.
Travis Bagwell does a great job with the world building aspects of Awaken Online. Most of the story takes place in the city of Lux, which has a vaguely medieval feel to it and is well fleshed out with good setting details. Lux is also populated with interesting characters that bring the city to life. About half-way through the book, Jason manages to tap into a wellspring of necrotic power (partly with the assistance of the In-Game AI, Alfred), transforming the human city into a nightmare place of the undead called the Twilight Throne. The fanciful European buildings quickly give way to hulking, dark-stoned homes that might fit better in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Likewise, the NPC residents of the previously sleepy Lux, transform into a horde of undead; humans, dwarves, and other assorted races suddenly find themselves as shambling zombies and bleached-bone skeletons.
The Game Mechanics
Since litRPG is at least in part defined by the game mechanics governing the world of the story, it only seems appropriate to add this section. Overall, I really enjoyed the game mechanics of Awaken Online—they seem to be an interesting cross between Skyrim and Diablo 2 (the corpse explosion technique Jason uses is very similar to a similar ability in the Diablo Necro Class). Despite those similarities, however, Bagwell also creates some unique and exciting features like the Bone Sculpt skill, which allows him to tailor bones and create new types of undead minions. I also very much like that players don’t select their class outright, but rather their personality and gameplay style guides them toward an appropriate class.
With that said, I do have a few gripes about the mechanics. For one, the game allows weak players—even level one players—to kill significantly higher-level characters with relative ease. Jason exploits this feature, easily killing a bunch of high-level NCPs and gaining insane level boosts in a very short period of time. To a certain extent, this feature is necessary since Jason’s chief opponent, Alexion, is level 133, but I still feel like it glosses over the grinding process indicative of so many MMORPGs. This also leads to the second issue: at such high levels, incremental progression no longer feels meaningful. Moreover, it quickly creates a character that is over-powered (OP), and though I enjoyed the book, Jason is OP. There are a lot of readers who enjoy OP characters, but I think it ultimately robs the story of some of its tension. Still, even accounting for these minor criticisms, I really enjoyed the story.
One of the things I appreciate the most about Awaken Online is the story—by which I mean there is an actual story. I’ve been a fan of the genre for quite a while, and one thing I’ve noticed is that many litRPG books lack a strong central storyline. Many of them often seem to be just a set of random quests, one after the other, with no real connection and no greater story arc. That’s okay and even fun at times, but generally, I like stories and Awaken Online has a good one.
As I mentioned above, Jason starts off as … Well, a loser—a fact seen most obviously through his interactions with his schoolmates. You see, most of the kids in his school come from powerful families with old money, but Jason had to earn his way in on an academic scholarship. As a result, he is something of an outcast, often picked on, particularly by Alex—a wealthy athlete whose Dad also happens to be one of the Chief Executives at the gaming company responsible for Awaken Online.
After waking up late for school, Jason has a nasty run in with Alex which ultimately results in his expulsion from school, which sets the stage for the events of Awaken Online. Jason leaves school, only to come home to an empty house—his parents are out of town, again. He’s fuming mad, and understandably so, but he quickly forgets about all of that when he realizes Awaken Online just released today. Eager to escape from the real world, Jason enters the game only to come face to face with one of his schoolyard enemies; he promptly beats said enemy to death with a rock. A dark start, certainly, but given his awful day, it almost seems understandable.
From there, a mysterious robed NPC transports Jason to Lux where he meets NPCs, learns a bit about the game, acquires his Class—Necromancer—and unwittingly stumbles upon a scheme hatched by the city’s nobles to sell out the town to a rival Kingdom, which is all kinds of shady. This political element shapes the first half of the book: Jason gets his class, then uses his new-found Necromantic powers to overthrow the corrupt plutocrats and reshape Lux into the nightmare city of the Twilight Throne.
Forming the Twilight Throne is the big middle climax of the book, and paves the way for the second half of the story. All of a sudden everyone in Awaken Online is talking about Jason and the Twilight Throne, and now there’s a price on Jason’s head. The Cities of Light are sending an army to wipe Jason’s upstart Kingdom off the map, and at the head of that army is a Holy Paladin, Alexion. Of course, Alexion is none other than Alex—Jason’s IRL tormentor, and the kid responsible for his expulsion. Worse, Alexion is an early Beta Tester who is shockingly over-powered.
Jason and his crew spend the rest of the book whittling away Alexion’s vast army using some fast thinking and a whole boat-load of devious tricks. In the end, it comes down to a satisfying and epic battle between Jason and Alexion.
Travis Bagwell is a good writer who knows the story he wants to tell and knows just how to tell it. Admittedly, it’s not perfect. There are some writer tics that could be cleaned up—too often used turns of phrase or overused words—and a few pacing issues (particularly in the beginning). It is common to debut novels, but it is still a well-written, well-edited novel, which is vastly superior to many of the other offerings in the LitRPG genre. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. It’s a classic adventure/revenge story featuring a cool character with a cool class and a satisfying character arc. Well done.
A solid Four-and-a-Half Stars. This book is exactly the kind of litRPG I dig: fast, funny, and action-packed with a good story to tell and an author who can execute it. Check it out here.