As Awaken Online enters its closing chapters, the line-by-line reviewing I’ve been doing starts to break down for three reasons. First, it starts to rely more heavily on its fight scenes, which all work. You can follow the action, it isn’t over-described to the point of killing pacing, and each one involves the use of some new tactic or minion so none of them feel repetitive. The story also relies much less on “what if I used my stealth to assassinate people?” level tactics in the endgame.
Second, the Controller appears to love Alex just as much as it loves Jason, and while the primary source of his power is not his class abilities but rather the quest line that gave him control over a humongous army of NPC soldiers, it’s still bullshit-flavored bullshit where the game just bestows tons of powers onto the antagonist in order to get him to pose a serious threat to Jason. That’s terrible game design, but in terms of narrative it means that Jason is much less of a Mary Sue in the second half of the book as compared to the first. He’s still arbitrarily granted undeserved superpowers that allow him to kill boatloads of players not because he is smart or cunning, but because his numbers are fucking gigantic compared to theirs, but he is also required to be smart and cunning on top of that in order to win against Alex’s equally stupid broken nonsense.
And third, the issues that have otherwise plagued the book – the stilted dialogue, the absurd level scale, the aforementioned absurdly broken powers distributed by the Controller for passing vaguely defined personality tests, you can sing along by now – are all things I’ve beaten well and truly to death, and going line by line those are the only things that really leap out at me.
So instead let’s talk about how Jason, Alex, and Riley are the only three players in the entirety of the battle for Twilight Throne that the Controller gives a single flying fuck about. The others are treated as cannon fodder to be shorn through by Jason’s zombie bombs and eleventh hour custom-sculpted bone super minion. The only one who ever demonstrates any unique powers or poses any kind of a threat as an individual is Alex. The exact number of players as opposed to NPCs in the army isn’t clear, but it seems like it should be at least a few dozen, considering the total army is 1500 strong. And out of all of those dozens, Alex is the only one with remotely interesting powers? Why does anyone else bother playing AO, when the only thing you get to do is play second fiddle to one of the three people the author cares about? And the book does it again by granting Riley new magical superpowers as soon as the plot demands them in order to finish off Alex after he defeats Jason’s eleventh hour super minion by a hair. Suddenly she can coat her arrows in dark mana and shoot down Alex’s mooks with them. It’s not clear what level she is, but the book has made a point of how she hasn’t done basically anything her entire time in the game up until this point, so it seems unlikely that she’s particularly high-level, yet she can cut through soldiers established as being roughly level 100 (higher level than Jason, who is now supposed to have been power-leveled far past the average, and not far behind Alex, who at last report is still the highest level player in the game even amongst the beta testers) like they’re butter, in danger solely because of how badly she’s outnumbered.
Unless you’re one of these three assholes, the Controller doesn’t give a shit about you.
Riley apologizes to Jason and vindicates all his feelings. They aren’t technically a couple at the end of the book, but the signposts for the series are only getting stronger. Pretty much the entirety of Riley’s purpose in this story is to provide emotional validation to Jason. It’s implied she might be an actual character in the next book, but look, I paid $5.99 for this one which is steep as Hell for a Kindle book, so I’m damn well going to judge this book by itself, and Riley is in this book just enough to be insulting.
Likewise, there is an implication that the Controller has singled out (not technically singled out, but close enough) Jason to receive ultra-overpowered abilities for some specific reason, and also that he is going to have to confront players with two or more brain cells to rub together in the future, but I don’t care, because the explanation for Jason being so heavily favored during voodoo Force cave chargen for such stupid reasons isn’t in this book, nor do any of the beta testers show the remotest amount of competence in this book. The primary antagonist of the book is Alex, but to the extent that Alex poses any significant threat besides being a petty bully, it’s that he has blackmail material on Riley, a plot point that is not even introduced until nearly the very end of the book and which is affected by Jason’s actions throughout the first 80% of the story in only the most convoluted manner possible. Sure, it happens to turn out that Jason building his little empire inspires Riley for…some reason, to stand up for herself…by, uh, going to her parents for help, and then it turns out that high school seniors are in fact no match for the power of the plutocracy and Alex is immediately defanged. Up until that actually happens, though, this book is the story of how a high school student wants to avenge himself against a bully by griefing him in a video game.
The only reason I got to the reasonably decent ending is because I was able to churn out a prodigious amount of blog posts absolutely eviscerating the terrible first half. And it’s not like everything set up in the first half later becomes necessary (although that still wouldn’t excuse such a sloppy set up). The six mana types are only very vaguely associated with actual personality types (and again, using words with so much overlap that several of them appear to be basically identical). Harry Potter didn’t make us wait until Chamber of Secrets to figure out what it even means to be a Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw, and if you’re going to have personality test superpowers the least you can do is give the reader enough information to work out what superpowers they’d get out of the deal, although really, the answer is very likely “none” because only people the author likes get to have superpowers – most players have to spend 12+ hours of real time to become an archer.
And that segues us nicely into how Awaken Online is no fun to play at all unless you are specifically Jason. Granted, the only reason Alex can’t have fun with it is because psychopaths are a constant maelstrom of paranoia, greed, and rage who almost never experience happiness, but the mind reading AI presumably knew that when it decided to make him one of three people in the entire game who would get enough gameplay features for the game to be worth playing at all. In fairness to the Controller, it’s not clear how Riley was ever going to be able to have fun with this game unless it just microwaved Alex’s brain the second he logged on, which, considering he’s clearly a budding serial killer would arguably be a good idea, but also arguably not be a good idea, so I won’t judge that one either way. That still leaves, within the radius the story takes place in alone, dozens of players each in Lux and in Alex’s army who get no significant abilities at all after hours of gameplay. I get agitated when an MMO drags me through thirty minutes of tutorials before giving me at least one or two abilities (beyond my standard attack) to play with, and it wouldn’t have hurt the novel to establish some character classes who can do more than just swing swords at Jason’s minions before dying to them. It already establishes a bunch of NPC casters. What was the point of explicitly stating Jason is one of the only necromancers in the game?
Awaken Online is about a full dive MMORPG. In fact, it’s just about a full dive MMORPG. There is no death game plot, there is no tournament league, “Jason plays an awesome video game” is the entire premise. And instead of being awesome that video game is actually pretty shit and you’d have to pay me (and pay me a lot) to play it if it actually existed. So why are we even here?