Hi twitties. It’s time to come back to everybody’s favorite light novel series, One Trendy Storytelling Trick a Volume. And by that I mean HakoMari – Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria. So I hear this one (and the fourth volume, with which it forms a whole) is a battle royale story. Nice. And, judging by the illustrations, it looks like Oomine Daiya will be playing a bigger role in it. About time this mysterious white-haired badass was rolled out onto the stage. He’s been emitting vaguely sociopathic vibes in vain since the first volume. I must say though, I approached this 190 page-long booklet with plenty of scepticism. If it’s another Battle Royale clone, it had better done something to differentiate itself from a numerous crowd of examples of this genre. Volume One was a thrilling read, but was it that different from any other loop-mono? I dunno about that.
Seems like O, the master of Boxes, approached Oomine Daiya, the cool but rude genius type and Hoshino Kazuki’s classmate. Daiya announces to the shlubby protagonist: “I’m your enemy now”, and so begins the “Game of Indolence” (怠惰なる遊戯; Taida Naru Yuugi). Every Box is supposed to be an emanation of its owner’s core, essential feature. In Daiya’s case, it’s “being eternally bored”, so the Box transports six people into a closed space with no escape, and a pointlessly cruel game, with thrills as its only purpose, starts. Some of those six participants are familiar faces – there’s Hoshino Kazuki, his not-girlfriend Otonashi Maria, Oomine Daiya… and three new ones: the genial president of the student council Shindou Iroha, cute girl Yanagi Yuri, and Kamiuchi, the charao type.
The game quickly turns out to be something different from what Takami Koushun pulled off in his memorable novel. Or rather, the “Kingdom Royale” game nominally is a battle royale of sorts. But, maybe we should be talking about it using a term with a wider meaning: a deathgame. Each of the six participants is randomly assigned a Class, named after a fantasy character type. Every Class has its own unique conditions of victory, conditions of defeat, and an ability which can be used to kill others or avoid being on the receiving end of a murder attempt. Noitan the grotesque mascot (why does it always have to be a bear?) explains the rules. The game is played through conversation, negotiation, speculation, deception and choosing options from a touchscreen. Killing is done by pressing a button here. Except, all the players are also given a combat knife. As it should be easy to foresee, the knives are there so that one can throw the kings-and-wizards farce out the window and kill people the oldfashioned way, without paying attention to what their Class allows them to do.
It might not be visible from this description, but Kingdom Royale proves to be an extremely intricate system. Not your usual deathgame. Classes are not equal. If you think about it for five minutes, there’s a fixed, predictable order in which people are supposed to be dying off. There are Classes to which keeping their identity secret is a priority, while some can withstand being exposed with almost no problem. Every Class has its own optimal way of playing, too. The six kids should probably figure out what that narrow path looks like in their heads… and do it not only for themselves, but the competition, too. And that’s only scratching the surface of the surprising depth of Kingdom Royale. I didn’t know what to look forward to, but kept my expectations rather low: how can a deathgame story possibly surprise me? And then HakoMari v3 showed me that I don’t know jack about deathgames. Wow. I admit to being physically unable to come up with something this smart and impressive. How did Mikage do this, even? Did he have an existing model to base Kingdom Royale off? I had one big problem with Takami Koushun’s Battle Royale, and stories about people playing a game in general. First, you introduce the rules of the game and then show the reader one session of that game. It writes itself. HakoMari v3 doesn’t give off this impression of ease at any moment. I also have to confess: I could be thinking for five minutes about every line in this novel and considering all of its implications, but I’m too lazy to be doing that. Props to Mikage Eiji for giving the reader this option, though.
Trapped in a white-walled structure, Kazuki and his competition proceed with the game, having no other choice. Even if they decided to do a sit-in as a protest against the game’s originator, they’d die of hunger in seven days – there is a time limit in place, to encourage the teenagers to kill each other. How do they play, then? Maria has a plan: forbid others from killing and pour all of their effort into finding a backdoor that’ll let them escape the deathgame. Maria vowed she won’t ever kill another person in the previous volumes and Kazuki does the same. The others aren’t as pure and good – the first dead body hits the floor on the evening of the first day. The initial plan has to be trashed. Kazuki assumes the villain responsible for the mess is one of the four players that isn’t him or Maria. It’s probably Daiya, right? The white haired buffoon must have an extra reason for not wanting to lose the game – if Daiya dies, the Box should die with him and the game ought to end. The supposed villain, however, wins the game. His arrogant attitude proved not to be groundless. Then again, his fumbly opponents hardly were a threat to him, especially Kazuki.
The story doesn’t end here, though. Without warning, the Classes get rerolled and we enter a second session of Kingdom Royale. Ain’t that strangely similar to volume 1? It’s almost like another spin in the Rejecting Classroom. Does anybody retain their memories from the previous spin? The novel does not mention that, we can only speculate. This time, Maria explains Boxes and the thesis that Daiya is the Box user, the one to blame for the deathgame, to the rest of the crew before anything else happens – looks like Daiya is at a disadvantage now. So far so good. And then, Daiya quickly catches up – he clearly is powergaming the shit out of Kingdom Royale. Unlike the good guys who, once again, exhibit such eyeroll-inducing naivete and vulnerability, they suck at playing so much, it seems all is lost. Kazuki really is the only pleb among geniuses, isn’t he. Maybe that’s exactly why he’s there. He keeps talking big about how he’ll protect Maria… and then does nothing. The farce continues, at least until Kamiuchi knifes Daiya… and nothing happens. The game continues. Is somebody else the Box user then? Maria is out of options. Soon, Kazuki gets killed and the game ends…
Session three. Shindou Iroha has memories of the previous session, and uses those to slaughter everyone before Noitan can brief them on the game’s rules. Hoshino Kazuki wakes up in a dark space where Daiya says “It’s your turn” to him. The game will be played a total of six times and each time, one of the participants is a Player – the only truly conscious person who retains memories of the previous session. If they die in the game, they die for real. Before Kingdom Royale resumes, Daiya proposes Kazuki a deal: if he manages to drive the game to a peaceful end where nobody dies, he can consider the Game of Indolence beaten. TO BE CONTINUED.
Volume three ends here. That was really nice, way above expectations. If only the protagonist wasn’t such a clown. Daiya deserves his position more if you ask me. And now on, to volume four…!