What happens if a people without hope, without faith, are given proof that God is real and wants them to succeed? That’s the question that the first volume of Outer Ragna posits, and which it attempts to answer within its fairly compressed page count. Of course, that makes Outer Ragna Volume 1 sound like a philosophical work, which it isn’t. It’s a light novel centred around a fictional video game, in the vein of contemporaries like Sword Art Online and The Rising of the Shield Hero—so instead of philosophical pondering and discussions on the nature of humanity, it has maniacal villains and mind-numbing mechanical discussions. Even so, Kasugamara’s passion shines through the trappings of the medium, enough to make this first volume worth at least a passing glance.
The central plot of Outer Ragna Volume 1 revolves around a game called Dragon Demon RPG DX or DDRDX for short, a special version of the base Dragon Demon RPG, as played by a streamer by the name of PotatoStarch. The game is what a keen-eyed and video-game-adjacent reader might call the “Dark Souls of open world RPGs,” in that it was designed in such a way as to make clear that it hates players. Besides the race and gender a player’s character starts with, everything else about an avatar—such as age, upbringing, and lot in life—is randomised. Levelling up is hard, killing monsters is harder, materials are scarce, and all of this happens in a world inhabited by three races that violently hate each other: vampires, elves, and humans. The vampires want to brutalize the elves, the elves abhor the brutish vampires, and both races see humanity as dirt beneath their feet because they lack the blessings of a chosen deity.
That’s why, when PotatoStarch rolls up a human serf named Kuroi situated on the Frontier—the edge of the gameworld’s continent and inevitable battleground between the elves and vampires—he bemoans her fate. He grieves prematurely, steels himself for the inevitable, and sees if he can power-level her into something useful. Unbeknownst to him and the game’s NPCs, however, Kuroi is an Apostle: a being capable of advanced magic, blessed by the divine to enact their will. She is a vessel for the commandments of a god of war, of loss, of pure and aching humanity—a god that just so happens to be PotatoStarch. It is through his actions and guidance that humanity, a once godless race with only the barest embers of hope left in its collective breasts, will finally be able to see a future where they can stand up and proclaim their worth.
You are warned now: PotatoStarch as a streamer in the novel’s first half is beyond irritating. Calling him a ninja on a caffeine high is putting it mildly, and if the novel’s translator, Alexander Keller-Nelson, wanted to capture the sheer velocity at which streamers ejaculate words between advertising plugs and mouthfuls of Monster, he’s done an admirable job. PotatoStarch does become much more interesting and less annoying in the book’s second half, but it was hard to celebrate this when his previous “streams” had left such a bitter taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, he is also the mouthpiece for exposition about the mechanics of DDRDX, so slogging through his sections is a necessity to learn how the game actually works. This contributes to the terrible ennui playing the game must inspire, as he walks us through DDRDX’s tedious skill-grinding of repetitive motions, hopelessly grim plot, and needlessly brutal gameplay choices, such as battle events happening in real-time. Without pauses.
Thankfully, he is not the only viewpoint character in the story, as Kasugamaru must have wisely realised that no one could tolerate PotatoStarch for the novel’s full run-time. Instead, each chapter is written from the point of view of one of a few followers of Kuroi within the game itself, as well as the occasional elf or vampire. There is the stalwart knight Agias, or as PotatoStarch dubs him, the handsome knight—a taciturn soldier who is inspired by Kuroi’s vigour in combat to deploy his martial training for good. There is Father Felipo, a priest whose lapsed faith returns at the sight of Kuroi cleaving her way through monstrous hordes, and whose firebrand speeches are used to rouse the population at the Frontier in their belief in her. There is the Sorcerer Odysson, exiled to the Frontier for refining human corpses into fire salt for his magical experiments. And there is the young girl Sira who, as PotatoStarch highlights, is the closest candidate to a second Apostle there is. Time will tell if Volume 2 follows up on that particular plot thread.
Regardless, the viewpoints are … varied. The writing in some sections is more consistent than in others, with my particular preference being Agias’s steady meter, whether he is describing Kuroi as someone who “lived strongly and carefully in this cruel world of ours” or singing a war song in defiance of the elves. There is a gentle rhythm to the way he is written, a soldier’s cadence and strength that flows smoothly for the casual reader. The same cannot be said for Odysson, whose frequent ejaculations of “whoa,” “damn,” or “shit” make him feel too contemporary for a pseudo-medieval fantasy world. The most inconsistently written is Sira, who teeters between haunting waif when speaking of pledging to her deceased father that she will wipe away the tears of God, and someone pretending to be a nine-year-old with descriptions like “They [elves] are like fairies you’d find in a picture book … and really scary.”
Rather than having compelling and nuanced villains, meanwhile, Outer Ragna Volume 1 has cackling caricatures that are far too easy to loathe. The elves are not so bad in this respect, since there is some subtle nuance in the clash of faiths between Kuroi and the elven Apostle, Ten Thousand Bells. However, the odious Sorcerer Arcsem shows his xenophobic colours all too easily, topped with a single viewpoint chapter that reveals he is also a spiteful misogynist that blames all women for his woeful inadequacy to be promoted. The worst offenders are the vampires, who are presented as battle- and rape-hungry sexual deviants with little to no redeeming features. Their mentions of sexual assault threats are infrequent but still present, so consider yourself warned before reading.
The book also runs on contrivances, coincidences, and the ever-present plot device of miracles. Somehow, human beings have developed an increased capacity for fire magic, which just so happens to be the optimal element for slaying vampires! Somehow, PotatoStarch is being paid a magnificent bonus to play games on behalf of his company, with zero consequences! Somehow, Ten Thousand Bells seems to actually like humanity enough to defend them from an onslaught of vampires! Perhaps this is to be expected from a novel so entrenched in the appeasement of the divine, but when coincidence after coincidence is stacked high to ensure that our viewpoint characters don’t die, it begins to border on the ludicrous. Still, there is enough meat in these miracles that I suspect Volume 2 will provide some much needed answers to my lingering questions, including the dominant one: “But why though?”
Despite Outer Ragna Volume 1’s sometimes clumsy prose, its irritating main character, and its one-dimensional villains, the second half of the novel sees the series firmly finding its feet. Human viewpoints are no longer bogged down by characters bemoaning their faith, but instead see them taking their resolve to the fields of battle and creating real change in the world. They find their strengths in cavalry battle and flame magic, two features unique to mankind, and the novel shows that strategic deployment results in monster hordes being devastated en masse. You are rooting for the humans in the same way PotatoStarch roots for them, drunk in the privacy of his room and superbly pissed off at the other races, when he takes upon himself the mantle of battle. And, as in my case, you might cry as Kuroi summons the Einherjar—flaming cavalry composed of the spirits of the dead, rising from the grave to protect those that they love, ruffling Sira’s hair and saluting their comrades as they take to the battlefield once again.
There is also something to be said for Outer Ragna’s dialogues about faith. As a Roman Catholic, I have often found myself at a loss when it comes to faith, particularly in a world where so much suffering and cruelty runs rampant. It is this same crisis of faith, both in one’s world and one’s self, that Kasugamaru seeks to address. Each of our viewpoint characters comes into Outer Ragna Volume 1 without any hope for the future, resigned to what will probably be a miserable and prematurely terminated life. This includes PotatoStarch himself, who declares in the opening prologue that “Life is shit, so I throw myself into super difficult games.” Only Kuroi, who prefaces each chapter with a statement of her duty and belief in her god, is wholly entrenched in her faith. It is she who ignites the spark of faith in the others, and through her Kasugamaru declares that where there is faith, there is hope, and where there is hope, there is change.
One particularly memorable moment sees a merchant named Ange, guilty of selling blood and corpses to satisfy vampiric cravings, making her way to the Frontier. She feeds Kuroi bowl after bowl of udon noodles, telling her of her dead child, and asks her if worshipping the Apostle will bring her closer to God. There is a hush, and then Kuroi declares without any fanfare, “God is here right now.” For a moment Ange stops, basking in the very real presence of PotatoStarch observing the proceedings, and then she begins to pray with shaking hands and teary eyes. To Ange, to be able to feel the presence of a God she had assumed would abandon her or find her actions unforgivable, is to be shown that her life has worth. Regardless of who PotatoStarch is in our reality, the very fact that he is present and loves humanity enough to take interest in their lives demonstrates an omnibenevolence expected of the divine.
Outer Ragna Volume 1 is, at a glance, trend-riding fiction at its finest. It is an isekai based on an uber-hard game, which are a dime a dozen on virtual bookshelves. Diving deeper into it, however, reveals a fuller exploration of the relationship between mankind, our gods, and the power of faith. A god is nothing without their followers, and people are nothing without something to believe in. It proposes a mutually beneficial relationship, one with a god whose divinity lies not in his perfections but in his imperfections; whose followers fight for him not because he is all that they want to be, but because he reflects all that they are: tenacious, passionate, and relentlessly human. Although bogged down by writing inconsistencies, laughably one-dimensional villains, and excessively convenient plot devices, there is enough heart and vigour in this freshman outing to recommend it to those looking for a punchy fantasy fix. Here’s to hoping that Volume 2 is even better.