Review of Hell to Pay (An Ascend Online Adventure Book One)

I enjoyed this book tremendously.

As someone who works in the gaming industry, I tend to have a hard time reading things in the up-and-coming LitRPG genre.

Many of the books in this genre have fundamental flaws in their premise that stretch plausibility too far for me to suspend my disbelief. Some of these problems are misrepresentations of how the gaming industry functions, how technology functions, design decisions that wouldn’t make any sense, etc.

I’m pleased to say that virtually everything in this book felt plausible to me. There isn’t a lot of in-depth discussion of the game designers, which is fine – leaving them out just prevented the author from making obvious mistakes.

The game itself within the story is very reminiscent of Everquest, with a combination of classic class-based gameplay, spell books and scribing spells, and skills that level based on usage. Other elements are borrowed from other real MMOs and RPGs, such as base classes that can eventually develop into more advanced classes, prestige classes, etc. This makes the game mechanics feel familiar, but with a few fun twists that help keep the story from feeling like a carbon copy of existing games – it’s an extrapolation on existing systems that generally feels plausible.

The main character is both competent and likable. It’s all too common in stories like this for characters to treat NPCs that clearly have emerging sapience as helpless robots or slaves. I was pleased that the main character treats NPCs like people from the outset – he’s essentially “in-character” from the moment he gets into the game, which helped the immersion of the story and helped me empathize with the characters much more easily.

As others have said, the puma is clearly the best character. The author gets major credit for making me love an NPC as much as I did.

There’s a lot of town building here and a focus on a small location rather than an immediate life-or-death struggle. I loved this. I found it far preferable to stories where the main character races to the top of the leveling experience within a novel or two or gets overpowered abilities from the outset of the story. This whole book largely focuses on low-level gameplay – and the story benefits from that significantly.

I will say that there were some elements of the game itself that I would consider tremendously unethical as an actual game designer, but in the world in which the book takes place, these elements still felt plausible (if disturbing). I won’t say too much to avoid spoilers, but I’m curious to see if this will be explored further in the future.

There’s no harem in this story, which I also consider a huge plus. I’m getting exhausted with all the harems in this genre. This is a plus for me, but it might be a minus for others who are looking for that sort of thing – so, just beware of that if you’re considering reading it. Romance is not the focus of this story. There are some great friendship and comradery, though, both between different players and between players and NPCs.

This is my first time recommending a LitRPG written by an author outside of Japan, and I’m doing so whole-heartedly. The book hit my nostalgia buttons hard and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Andrew Rowe

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