tl;dr – A non-spoiler review of Euphoria Online
The following review is also available as a podcast
Welcome to book reviews by Digital Amrit! This episode covers the soon to be released Euphoria Online trilogy by Phil Tucker. We had the opportunity to read the advance reader copies of the three books in the series – Death March, Nightmare Keep & Killer Dungeon – and here’s our almost spoiler free review of it.
Now, we are huge fans of Phil Tucker ever since we read his ‘Chronicles of the Black Gate’. On a side-note, you should check that series out if you like epic fantasy which explores some complex themes. Phil’s books tend to be action heavy with great characters and world building while delving into weighty topics.
And Euphoria Online, his new trilogy, is no exception.
At its core, the story revolves around Chris Meadows who must literally put his life on the line by playing Euphoria Online to save his brother from death. Euphoria Online is a fantasy MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) like World of Warcraft or Ultima Online except that it has been created by the first sentient AI for reasons unknown. Oh, and the fact that there is a literal Death Match mode which is called Death March, where you die in real life if you die online. Any player who manages to spend 6 months in game time on the ‘Death March’ mode gets a boon from this all-powerful AI. Chris, who is a savvy video gamer caught in a dead-end job, wants to use this boon to save his little brother from being sentenced to death for reasons that are not really important to the story. Of course, life is not just that simple. In addition to fighting for his life, Chris has to deal with other complicating factors like a conniving ex-girlfriend and a potential world-changing conspiracy which gets murkier the more he plays the game.
Euphoria Online is part of a genre called LitRPG where the conventions of a MMORPG are mixed with novels. In addition, there is a clear demarcation between the game world & real life with characters in both settings and being aware of the differences. Tron, while not a LitRPG, is pretty close to being one. The other examples that come to mind are Tad Williams’ four-part series -‘Otherland’ as well as the now popular ‘Ready Player One’. So, if you ever played a MMORPG (or single player RPGs like we have) and love fantasy, this genre provides a perfect blend of both. Books like Will Wight’s Cradle series or Andrew Rowe’s Arcane Ascension, while good on their own, are not LitRPG even though they have complex magic systems with levels because the characters are not aware of their reality.
Of course, a book does not become interesting just due to mashups. It needs to have a great storyline, memorable characters and good pacing to be worth reading. Euphoria Online has all these elements and that is why you should read it.
The Magic System
No conversation about LitRPG can be complete without discussing its magic system. Euphoria Online’s magic system is as follows (and my apologies in advance if I have made a mistake). When the player joins the game as a new character, the character model as well as class have to be chosen. The character starts at level 1 with some basic stats and abilities/spells. The character gains XP (experience points) for completing quests. These quests include your standard stuff like talking, escaping or defeating Player Characters, Non-Playing Characters and monsters or just surviving encounters amongst others. Every so often, the gains in XP leads to an increase in level where the player can choose abilities and spells specific to their class as well as get some health, mana and stat increases. In addition, there are skills that upgrade automatically based on how often the player used that skill during that level upgrade. And like in every other RPG out there, items provide boosts to stats, health, mana, special abilities etc. The important difference here is that there is no concept of level or class requirements for using these items. I found it to be a mix of Morrowind’s skill system combined with 2nd edition D&D rules but please take this with a pinch of salt since it has been a while since we played them.
The Great Things
As we have mentioned before, this series has all of Phil Tucker’s strong points. Let us discuss some of them.
The world building is good with a good mix of familiar as well as unfamiliar elements. The setting is the future, about 30-40 years from now, where climate change & other issues have made the world more hellish than it is today. The world comes together to create an AI to solve humanity’s problem for them. And for some mysterious purpose, the AI has created Euphoria Online. The game itself builds upon the standard D&D fare with a few unique touches. My favourite portion is the one where the AI does something to the game (which I won’t spoil now) to learn from it as well some references to our home town.
The books are focused on various aspects of role playing. While Death Match focuses on a single player experience, Nightmare Keep focuses on building a guild and Killer Dungeon focuses on clearing out a high-level dungeon. We have made these descriptions necessarily vague but the great thing is how different aspects of role playing are seamlessly weaved into the story.
The characters in these books, including the supporting ones, are excellent. The main characters go through a reasonable character arc with some kind of self-awareness and learning. In addition, the story telling draws the reader in due to a couple of reasons. The first is the set of relatable characters with quirks that make humans, well, human. Chris is sort of a loser, but this is balanced by the love he has for his brother. Brianna is the typical clingy ex but, later, we find out why she is the way she is. This is the case for most other characters. Each and every one of them comes across as a person. The other reason for this immersion is that Chris goes into the game to save his brother while not knowing whether he will survive or not. He is not trying to save the world or something equally grandiose. This personal connection makes all the difference.
As always, the action gets your heart pumping at its maximum. Let us just say this – you have not encountered action until you have read one of Phil’s action sequences especially the ones with multiple characters.
And to round it off, the books never get dull, they are fast paced, and something always keeps happening.
The Not So Great Thing
But, there is one complaint we have, which is also a hallmark of his writing. Basically, the great worlds that Phil creates and then leaves behind makes us hungry for more. Chronicles of the Black Gate alludes at so much history and myth as well as such great characters, that any other author would have milked it for its monies worth. And Euphoria Online is no different. There is so much material that we would love to read about. We wouldn’t mind reading another trilogy set in the same universe.
In conclusion, you might think that the story seems like Ready Player One. Well, there are a few similarities but there is a big difference too. When we try to remember what was cool about Ready Player One (the book and the movie), what comes to mind are the pop culture references.
But, when we think of Euphoria Online what comes to mind are the story & characters. And that is a mighty big difference.
Thanks for listening to this episode! We look forward to your feedback. Please like and share on your podcast application of choice if you liked it and subscribe to Digital Amrit. And don’t forget to read the Euphoria Online trilogy. Ciao!
Also published on Medium.