Are you sick and tired of isekai light novels that feature a protagonist reborn in a fantasy world that operates very similarly to an MMORPG, complete with stats and skills? If so, you can stop reading here – Hell Mode is unapologetically a novel in this vein. Author Hamuo says in their afterword that they were inspired to write it and post it to Narou because they’d read so many others in the genre, and while Hell Mode does play a few things a bit differently, it also clearly wears its influences on its sleeve. So yes, this is another one of those books.
If you’ve stuck around to this second paragraph, that means you’re not entirely fed up with the genre and its trappings. So, now we can dispense with the eye-rolling and get into why Hell Mode is a good book. While it does a lot of things we’ve seen before, Hamuo also makes at least a cursory effort to make the story their own. Some of these efforts are a little weird – protagonist Kenichi regains consciousness in utero, which is a first – but there are still enough little differences that help the story feel like its own thing. This feeling only increases as the story goes on, and Hamuo becomes more comfortable tweaking the formula. We can see it in the casual nature of some tropes in the early parts of the novel; for example, there’s a throwaway line about Allen (as Kenichi is named by his new parents) finding breastfeeding hot, but it’s just a one-and-done sentence that feels very much stuck in there because it’s the expectation established by the genre. It’s never mentioned again, leading to the impression that Hamuo thought they had to put it in but wasn’t keen on its inclusion.
It stands out all the more upon reflection, because one of the novel’s strength is Allen’s relationship with his family. As the eldest child, he spends three-odd years alone with them, and by the time younger brother Mash is born, we can see this is a very loving family. Allen’s family is close-knit, and it’s clear that his parents are doing the absolute best they can for their children despite their financial and social situation as serfs. When Allen’s dad Rodin is gravely injured during a hunt, Allen finds himself stepping up to fill the hole while Rodin recovers, something that surprises even him. It’s the moment that Kenichi truly becomes Allen, and while there are still game aspects that he’s keen to exploit and explore, the devotion to his parents and siblings is real. They aren’t just NPCs to him, and that does a lot for the story as a whole.
There are still plenty of game mechanics strewn throughout, and these are easily the weakest part of the book. That said, Hamuo does go out of their way to establish a hard magic system, and Allen’s early choice as Kenichi to play on the eponymous Hell Mode means that he doesn’t start overpowered. He has to figure things out mostly on his own; yes, he gets a grimoire that only he can see with some very basic information and the inevitable stat screens, but nothing is just handed to him. He’s also not in complete control of his life, which keeps him from feeling too much like the stereotypical blank slate protagonist – the story starts before his birth, and the novel ends when he’s eight years old. Even though he’s got a lot going for him that other kids his age don’t, he’s still a child in the eyes of everyone around him. Interestingly, Allen doesn’t rebel against this. He does find ways to work on his skills out of everyone’s sight, and at times he demonstrates that he can do more than is expected of him. But mostly he’s willing to go along with just being a kid in the adults’ eyes. We’re told that as Kenichi, he had a perfectly fine childhood, so he’s not doing this to make up for something he missed out on, which again demonstrates how comfortable and close-knit Allen’s family is.
To be perfectly honest, if the game stats aren’t interesting to you, you really can just skim (or skip) over them and still get an enjoyable fantasy novel out of this. The entire basis of the series is that Allen has to work hard to master his strange new class of Summoner, and that’s something amply shown through his hunting and magic practice. The stats add a little bit to our understanding of how much he has to practice, but like with the throwaway sexy breastfeeding line, they feel more like they’re included because they’re expected, or possibly because Hamuo doesn’t feel secure enough in their writing to realize that they aren’t needed. The translation also helps to give us a clear picture of his hard work, even if J-Novel Club still seems to be having a torrid love affair with the phrase “in a fluster,” which at this point is so overused in their books that I dread seeing it. (Mind you: I was badly burned by its excessive overuse in Seirei Gensouki, so I might be hypersensitive to it at this point.) The illustrations, provided by Mo, are pleasant but not spectacular and work well to show us some of the class differences in the text.
Hell Mode may not win anyone back to game-based isekai if they’re already tired of it, but it is one of the better entries into the genre. With stakes that feel more real and a main character who not only has to work for his power but also enjoys doing so, it’s got enough to separate it from the herd and make it enjoyable.