Are you bored of reading isekai light novels with a protagonist who is reborn in a fantasy setting with features and abilities akin to those of an MMORPG? If so, you should quit reading now since Hell Mode is an unreservedly such a novel. Although Hell Mode does play a few things a little differently, it also obviously wears its influences on its sleeve. The author, Hamuo, states in their afterword that they were inspired to write it and upload it to Narou since they’d read so many others in the genre. Yes, this is just another of those novels.
You must not be completely tired of the genre and its cliches if you have read to the second paragraph. We can stop rolling our eyes now and discuss why Hell Mode is a worthwhile read. Even though it does a lot of things that we have already seen, Huango at least tries to give the plot a unique touch. The protagonist Kenichi regains awareness in utero, which is a first, so some of these attempts are a little strange, but there are still enough small distinctions to make the story feel unique. As the narrative progresses and Hamuo grows more accustomed to adjusting the formula, this sensation only gets stronger. The informal tone of certain tropes in the novel’s opening sections is indicative of this. For instance, a casual comment about Allen (as Kenichi is named by his new parents) thinking breastfeeding is hot is a throwaway line that feels very much stuck in there because it conforms to the genre’s expectations. It’s never brought up again, giving the idea that Hamilton didn’t particularly enjoy having it included but felt compelled to include it.
In retrospect, it becomes even more noticeable because Allen’s bond with his family is one of the book’s main points of strength. He spends the better part of three years by himself with them as the oldest child, and by the time his younger brother Mash is born, it’s clear that this is a loving family. Allen is from a close-knit family, and despite their social and financial status as serfs, it is obvious that his parents are doing everything in their power to provide for their kids. Even more unexpectedly, Allen finds himself filling in for his father Rodin when the latter sustains serious injuries during a hunt. Now that Kenichi has fully transitioned into Allen, even if he still has aspects of the game that he wants to explore and take advantage of, his love for his parents and siblings is genuine. He sees them as more than just non-player characters, and that really benefits the plot.
The book’s weakest sections are undoubtedly the numerous game mechanics that are still scattered throughout. However, Hamuo makes a special effort to set up a strong magic system, and Allen avoids being overwhelmed from the beginning thanks to his early decision to play as Kenichi on the Hell Mode. Most of the time, he must work things out on his own; sure, he receives a grimoire that only he can access that contains some very basic data and the inescapable stat panels, but nothing is just given to him. In addition, the fact that the story begins before his birth and ends when he is eight years old prevents him from seeming too much like the clichéd blank slate protagonist. Everyone around him still views him as a youngster, despite the fact that he has several advantages over other children his age. It’s interesting that Allen doesn’t object to this. He does manage to hone his abilities out of the public eye, and occasionally he shows that he is capable of going above and beyond what is required of him. But for the most part, he’s content to accept that he’s just a child in the eyes of the grownups. Again showing how cozy and close-knit Allen’s family is, we’re assured that Kenichi had a perfectly good upbringing and isn’t doing this to make up for something he lost out on.
To be really honest, you may skip (or skim) over the game statistics if you find them uninteresting and still enjoy an entertaining fantasy story. The core premise of the series is that Allen must put in a lot of effort to become proficient in his peculiar new class of Summoner, and his practice with magic and hunting abundantly illustrates this. Similar to the thrown-away sexy breastfeeding line, the statistics help us understand how much more practice he needs to get, but they also give the impression that they are included because they are expected, or perhaps because Hamuo doesn’t feel confident enough in their writing to realize that they are unnecessary. Even though J-Novel Club still seems to be infatuated with the word “in a fluster,” which is now so overused in their novels that I fear seeing it, the translation also serves to paint a clear image of his hard labor. (Remember that I may be hypersensitive to it at this time due to the severe burn I had from its over misuse in Seirei Gensouki.) The pictures that Mo provided are nice but not very noteworthy; they serve to highlight some of the text’s class disparities.
Hell Mode is one of the finest games in the genre, but it might not be able to convert someone who is already sick of game-based isekai. It has enough to set it apart from the crowd and make it fun, with more realistic-feeling stakes and a protagonist who not only has to strive for his authority but actually enjoys doing so.