DEATH MARCH has a beautiful setting and an interesting history involving demons and dragons, but it falls short when it comes to creating engaging characters.
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“A dream that, suspiciously, just won’t end…”

This is the final line from the blurb of DEATH MARCH Vol. 1, as well as a good idea of what you’ll feel while reading the book. Its world may be a dream, but its story is a nightmare due to one-dimensional characters.

DEATH MARCH follows Ichirou Suzuki, a 29-year-old video game programmer in the middle of a death march, which the manga defines as a period when coders work overtime and survive on caffeine. Suzuki takes a short nap after working many hours, only to find himself in the very game he’s creating.

Although the concept isn’t incredibly original (think SWORD ART ONLINE), it’s still really exciting. Entering a video game and going off on an adventure to fight bad guys and find treasure — who wouldn’t want to try that? DEATH MARCH’s artwork and setting are very bright, and its story is filled with more shopping than conflict. As a result, the tone is very lighthearted, almost comical, as if we’re not really supposed to think about the fact that Suzuki is suddenly in his game. We don’t know why he’s there or how he’s supposed to get back to reality (or if his life is at risk like in SAO), but I wasn’t expecting all that information to be packed into the first volume, anyway.

Unfortunately, the experience is a little spoiled after he’s only been in the game world for a few minutes. When he first enters it, he’s at Level 1 and quickly finds a horde of enemies headed his way. I was immediately drawn into the story, wondering how or if he was going to get through this battle. If he died, would he respawn back in the game, wake up in his world, or die for real? None of my questions were answered, however, because he uses a spell that completely wipes out the enemies and suddenly bumps him up to Level 310 with maxed out skills. No fight scene, no problem solving — just an immediate power boost. The gamer in me was disappointed that this video game would be so easy to level up in. What happened to playing through a game in order to build up your character?

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Of course, since Suzuki is one of the developers of the game and he believes he’s dreaming, it’s only natural that he would know the secrets to quickly becoming powerful, right? Well, the thing is the spell he uses isn’t a secret at all. He implemented it after his clients complained that the game was too hard for beginners. I understand that making the game easier for new players is an attempt to move the manga’s plot forward, but where’s the fun in starting off as a weakling, only to suddenly gain immense power? Momonga from OVERLORD, another “stuck in a video game” series, is ridiculously strong from the get-go, but that’s part of the premise, and something he achieved after many hours of playing the game. Suzuki’s sudden power boost just feels cheap.

This type of lazy writing also comes into play with the book’s take on the harem genre. Harem is characterized by a single protagonist surrounded by three or more members of the same/opposite gender who may or may not be love interests. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with this genre. One of my favorite anime series is OURAN HIGH SCHOOL HOST CLUB, which is referred to as a “reverse harem” series since the protagonist is a heterosexual female surrounded by males. Harem is exciting because love interests are often super attractive characters, each with a unique personality, as well as their own strengths and weaknesses. It feeds into the fantasy that even the most ordinary person can gain the attention, and attraction, of someone completely out of their league. DEATH MARCH, however, falls short in giving its female characters an array of personalities, at least in its first volume. They’re often debased to one-dimensional characters who need to be saved, despite the fact that a few of them seem to have fascinating backgrounds or their own strengths (which we really don’t get to witness). For example, Zena is a magic soldier who served in the army for two years, but when she first meets Suzuki, she suddenly loses all her combat knowledge and he has to save her. Later on in the volume, during the climactic scene involving a corrupt priest, a gullible crowd, and some slaves, Zena is the first to run into the situation and show off how powerful her magic is. Suzuki comments on this, but then immediately assumes that she won’t be able to last long and is actually in danger. Did he not hear her when she said she’d been in the army for two years?

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Another underserved female character is Martha, the daughter of the landlady at the inn where Suzuki stays. She becomes his guide to Seiryuu City, taking him to booths and shops for new clothes, as well as explaining how basic hygiene works in this world. Aside from this, we don’t really get to see much of her personality. She’s always smiling, but she never develops into anything beyond “the innkeeper’s daughter who’s also a guide.” We do learn, however, that she’s modest, something that Suzuki points out when she doesn’t assume he’s going to buy something for her. You mean to tell me that there’s a girl who doesn’t expect gifts from strangers? Wow! (I hope you sense my sarcasm!)

The only redeeming factor about the first volume is that it provides plenty of interesting information about the game Suzuki has created, from its currency to social hierarchies. We also learn a bit about the history of the land, such as when the last dragon attack was, and about a magic technique called “hero summoning,” which probably explains why Suzuki is there. This history lesson was actually my favorite scene in the volume because Zena is the one to explain everything, a pleasant switch back to her being the smart soldier I wanted her to be, even though Suzuki still manages to patronize her and treat her like a child. In fact, he treats most of the females like children, even referring to one as a “younger relative.” The only women he seems to respect are older (remember, he’s 29), but he still focuses more on their bodies and their ages, rather than their personalities. I know that this is a harem manga and that love interests are supposed to be super attractive, but I also said that they usually have equally remarkable personalities.

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Each character just feels too one-dimensional, and Suzuki himself is far from being a sympathetic hero (a title he doesn’t really earn since he does so little in the story). In only a handful of pages, Suzuki goes from weakling to strongman, never truly facing a battle or enemy. He patronizes the female characters, who are also portrayed as one-dimensional plot devices that exist to feed Suzuki’s hero-complex. He doesn’t do much, but he’s quick to assume that women are in constant danger or at risk of being taken advantage of. Vulnerability only exists in the women, even when we know how strong and smart they’re supposed to be. It would’ve been nice if DEATH MARCH’s wonderful setting had been woven together with some developed characters. I’m not saying we should have learned as much about the characters as we did about the city, but the point of a first volume is to create a stepping-stone for both the setting and the characters. How can I get attached to a “hero” if he doesn’t do anything to earn his strength? How can I support his potential relationships with other characters when all of them are portrayed as simple and one-dimensional? How can I cheer for a protagonist with no redeemable qualities?

If you want a lighthearted fantasy story with a beautifully created world, then DEATH MARCH is perfect. The ending leaves us with a captivating cliffhanger, but don’t expect to get too much enjoyment from the beginning of the book. As I’ve said multiple times, this is just the first volume, so we may see more character development later on, but I really hope it happens right away in the second volume. Otherwise, it’ll be difficult to continue the story, no matter how cool the concept is.

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