I’ll admit that I was rather looking forward to Battle Spire, given that the blurb was seriously reminding me of Sword Art Online, an anime series that my partner and I have always thoroughly enjoyed watching together. So a book that looked to be a mix of Sword Art Online and Die Hard was definitely going to catch my interest, especially if I could then recommend it to my partner, who is a lot more particular about their reading tastes than I am.
Battle Spire follows a college student, Jack Kross, who is logging back into a VRMMO after a year’s abstinence from gaming. Aiming to legitimise his hobby by making money as a gold farmer, he picks the Scavenger class, which is really not intended to be used in combat, but will increase the number of interesting and expensive things that he can sell to other players and NPCs. Unfortunately for him, just as he’s finished the starter quest he finds that a group of hostile players have taken over the server and prevented anyone logging out. To make matters worse, if he’s killed in-game the VR headset will either give him severe brain damage or kill him. Faced with the prospect of either slowly dehydrating and eventually suffering organ failure in his hotel room or being killed by hostile players, Jack finds himself teaming up with the game’s AI to try and take down the players holding the server hostage.
The comparison to Die Hard was a particularly apt one, considering that it’s one person trapped in a tower taking out opponents through traps and subterfuge. And it was a thoroughly enjoyable read because of it. Given that he is a very low level, he can’t engage in any direct combat, so he has to come up with a lot of out-of-the-box, game-breaking strategies to beat all of the high-level players pitted against him. I think the primary strength that makes all of the game-breaking stuff work is the depth with which the game world is described. Everything comes into play, from character stats to how the server deals with NPC respawn rate to NPC behaviours, and that level of detail really pays off. I will say that the level of detail was, at least at first, kind of disconcerting. The thing that comes to mind is when Jack is first creating his character. At this point, he has already explained to the reader what character and class he will be rolling up, so I thought that the character creation process would be more or less glossed over. Instead, all the different options that the game made available at each stage are detailed for the reader to look over, and damn if they don’t genuinely sound like something you’d get in World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. There was a part of me that worried that this might get a bit overbearing, because that level of detail is present throughout the book, as it appears with every level-up and change of weapon. I personally found that it helped with immersion, but I could possibly see people who were hoping for something a bit lighter on background flavour.
In terms of characters, the main two that the reader gets are pretty good. There’s Jack, also known as Zoran, a hardcore gamer who loves the rush that he gets from an MMO, but isn’t sure that it’s healthy for him in the long run. He kind of starts out as the kind of player that I avoid in MMOs, but has a decent character arc that addresses those sorts of issues. Then there’s the game’s controlling AI, dubbed Ellie by Jack for lack of a better name. She’s probably the more interesting of the two, alternating between emotionless robot, concerned server mum and shifty, untrustworthy frenemy. I loved the interaction between the two of them, and how both keep surprising each other.
I was a bit predisposed to like Battle Spire, since it promised a lot of things that I loved about Sword Art Online. While the stakes don’t necessarily feel as high in Battle Spire, I was still thoroughly gripped and entertained by the story. The game world that has been created is interesting and definitely somewhere that I would like to see explored further. The features that define it as a video game are used really cleverly, much more than I’d expected. And lastly, the characters are solid and reasonably likeable. Overall, a thoroughly entertaining read. 4.5/5
Next review: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey