A transparent attempt to cash in on the popular tropes and trends of the day, but Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is not without its charms.
Following the death of his beloved grandfather, Bell Cranel, a 14 year-old boy with white hair and red eyes, moves to the city of Orario, which stands atop the Dungeon, a dangerous series of ever-descending caves. With his grandfather’s advice firmly in mind—“The hero’s greatest taste of glory is not from slaying the monsters; it’s meeting the girls”—Bell is adopted by Hestia, a low-level goddess, and begins his adventures in the Dungeon to make his way in the world and find the girl of his dreams. On one fateful trip, Bell is saved from a rampaging monster by Aiz Wallenstein, a beautiful female warrior, and falls in love…
The Good and the Bad
It’s absolutely impossible to get away from the fact that the world of Is it Wrong… is functionally and creatively indebted to RPGs in almost every conceivable way. Monsters in the Dungeon are born from the walls, adventurers blessed by the gods have their Falna (level and stats) scrawled across their backs, and Bell literally makes his living by selling items from the monsters he slays. On its own, this reinterpretation of an RPG world isn’t grating or intrusive. Author Fujino Omori successfully avoids the trap of over-explaining the world, but it is somewhat disappointing to see that Omori is apparently unable to conceive of a fantasy world without quantifiable representations of strength or the tedious tasks of RPG grinding. It’s also strange to see which mechanics Omori re-explains through the world of Oraraio and which he simply chooses to leave in game terminology. None of this information is all that interesting to read—after all, these are standard RPG mechanics framed as part of an organic world—but the digressions into world building are generally short and well-placed so as to not entirely disrupt the action.
The flow of the novel is quite good once the dull first chapter (to which the majority of the exposition and set-up is devoted) ends. Omari isn’t particularly good at describing his settings — often leaving the context of the scenes feeling quite empty — but he keeps the story moving forward at a nice pace, raising, resolving, and considering the implications of each conflict before moving on to the next. The pace of the story rarely drags, if at all, aided by several chapters that take place inside the heads of other characters beside protagonist Bell’s. Although Omari’s style and diction stay consistent throughout the book, rarely reflecting the change in perspective through a change in language, being allowed to hear the priorities and motivations of other characters is a refreshing experience. These chapters also progress chronologically, which means that no events are rehashed from multiple perspectives, another technique keeps the story advancing at all times.
Omari’s dialogue is snappy and clear, although few characters have distinct voices, making the untagged conversations involving more than two characters difficult to follow. Bell’s chapters, which are told in first person, definitely have more personality than the third person POV of the chapters following other characters, making his lines easier to identify than those of the other characters who, aside from the catgirl’s liberal use of “nyaa,” more or less all sound the same.
On a character level, Bell is a likable enough kid, precocious and a little bit rash without ever really being living up to the woman-saving image of himself he maintains. And, in fact, what’s billed as the main gag of the novel — picking up girls in a dungeon — is more or less abandoned after the introductory chapter, with only passing references to it appearing later on. Bell’s trying to build a harem, but Is it Wrong… often seems specifically structured to avoid harem-esque antics.
Bell and Hestia’s relationship is surprisingly intimate in a cozy, mutually affectionate way and, although it becomes clear Hestia is in love with Bell, their relationship stays relatively static in a good way due to Bell’s infatuation with Aiz Wallenstein. Although Bell meets and interacts with a number of other girls who may or may not be starting to fall for him, Is it Wrong… generally feels more like two cases of unrequited love than anything else. The other characters that populate the novel mostly fall into established trope types — an outgoing waitress, an uptight Guild Clerk, the strong silent beauty, etc. While they all play their respective roles well, the lack of individual voices or even well-defined physical features (although Omari never misses a chance to clue you in on the size of a girl’s bust) leaves most of them feeling faceless.
In terms of depth, Is it Wrong… is pretty much as surface entertainment as you can get. Although there are a few impactful and heartwarming scenes, and although both Bell and Hestia have some genuinely good moments involving their relationship and mutual dedication to the other, the book pretty much avoids all pretense towards any sort of thematic weight or emotional substance. There’s certainly some room for Is it Wrong… to explore Bell and Hestia’s relationship on a deeper level, but Bell’s youth and Hestia’s relative immaturity forecast a continuation of the current status quo. There’s also some potential in exploring the politics of the gods who inhabit Oraraio along with the humans, but, in the end, I suspect Is it Wrong… will stick to its action-adventure structure rather than flesh out any particularly compelling character dynamics.
With all that being said, I think it’s necessary to note that I did indeed enjoy reading Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?. In avoiding the potentially distasteful promises of the novel’s title, the story opens up to become an engaging read. As mentioned previously, Bell’s a likable protagonist, and his relative incompetence pairs well with his drive to become stronger, making it easy to root for him. Bell and Hestia’s relationship is cute enough to add a touch of sentimentality to the otherwise action-oriented proceedings, causing the overall effect of Is it Wrong… to be something akin to watching a young kid swinging hard at a baseball—usually just hitting grounders, but sometimes getting a good line drive in.
A few illustrations by Suzuhito Yasuda are scattered throughout the book, including two four-page spreads at the beginning of the book. None of the pictures are particularly detailed and the female characters are, predictably, in attractive and revealing, if somewhat dysfunctional, clothes. They don’t add anything particularly special to the novel, but a few of them are cute.
Very few things about Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? stand out as unique or creative, but the novel dodges most of the more objectionable tropes of the LN harem genre and succeeds at telling a well-paced, if somewhat insubstantial, story. There’s not a lot to love about Is it Wrong… aside from vague likability, but at least there’s nothing to hate about it either.
Final Grade: C+
This review was initially published on The Otaku Review. The original article can be read here.