Back in high school I was pretty conservative, and one of the things you do when you're conservative is that you read Tom Clancy novels. I read Red Storm Rising, like, twice in a year. It enthralled me because it was about giant armies getting together for the most bloodthirsty picnic party ever. Individuals drove the story but there was a big emphasis on talking strategy and treating tens of thousands of people as mere assets in a short but vicious war on the European continent. I was reminded of that while reading Erfworld, because while the two books are vastly different, they are, at their core, stories about what generals do when they find themselves with nothing better to do but send legions of average joes to their deaths. Written by Rob Balder and illustrated by Jamie Noguchi, Erfworld is the story of a kid named Parson. His life is going nowhere and so he finds solace in strategy gaming, pitting his friends against brilliantly designed role-play scenarios involving armies attacking strongholds and whatnot. Just before he's about to start his newest game with his concerned friends, he gets magically teleported into the exact scenario he designed. Seems a little bit of a Disney-esque deus ex machina, but it doesn't really matter. Once he enters the gaming world, he finds himself being forced into the role of a general commanding cutesy units and meme-based weapons. It becomes his job to find a way to save a morally dubious kingdom from the most adorable annihilation in war-fighting history. And he can't swear.
It's been out for a few years now, first as webcomic and now print, but I got a free copy from Jamie and I felt it deserved its own review. I found it really engrossing. The amount of detail Balder put into the writing is admirable; he needed to flesh out rules for this gaming universe, then use those to build a chain of events that wouldn't confuse the reader or lead to gaping plot holes. Everyone and everything, from main characters to factions to even the generic combat units, has their own style and character that feels interesting. I like Parson especially because he's not a fish out of water in this new world. He's not flipping his lid and shouting about just how cuh-raaazy it is, finding yourself teleported into an alternate dimension. He gets his bearings, he's very analytical. He only flips out when he discovers something that he didn't figure out himself. It's cool to see something new like this, where the protagonist spends less time bumping into walls and more time test-driving his new universe.
It's funny, but also suspenseful, because events are like a fast-paced game of one-potato-two-potato. The situation changes so fast and the pendulum of strategic advantage swings so violently that you can never be sure what the outcome will be, especially since Parson is fighting for the bad guy. That's another cool thing about the plot- you get to see plot twists from the villain's standpoint, and Parson has to figure out which is more important- the morals of the game system or his sense of professionalism. His motivations are very gray and he's still figuring them out, but he's also still a sympathetic character.
The other characters are interesting too, though of course based on more classic archetypes. Still, dialogue is great and realistic. He even gives different factions distinct speech differences, which is a nice subtle addition, and he's good at keeping dialogue concise enough that he doesn't have to worry about word clouds obscuring the art.
The art, ostensibly, is great. Noguchi's pegged it perfectly as if we were looking at a cel-shaded free-to-play web browser strategy game. Everything is smooth and sleek, and whether his colors are bright and bold or dark and gloomy it still looks impeccable. The Eastern influence reminds me of stuff like Maple Story. Characters have normally proportioned bodies but giant heads, which makes them kind of adorable and goofy, like a murderous Animal Crossing game. Or Wii Slaughterhouse or something. There are a lot of great designs on display. He even has like, lens flare and motion blur and stuff! Okay, it's not lens flare obviously, but he put in a lot of really good special effects. Panel layout is clean and orderly, and pacing gets to take a breather in the form of page long diary entries by Parson that help flesh out the world and show us more about the protagonist. It's polished and vibrant.
I will never forgive these two for making this because I almost missed an appointment I had thanks solely to how much attention I paid to this book. It's enjoyable because it taps directly into a core interest of mine- analysis and strategy. It thrilled me to read each page because of how deep and complicated it felt. I used to spend hours doing what Parson did when I was a kid, thinking of every way to beat a level of Starcraft or something. Well, I ended up using the strategy guide, but whatever. Point is, strategy's cool, even if I don't care about Tom Clancy novels anymore.
TL;DR: Erfworld is a cool, unique and humorous bit of nerd-lit that is actually pretty deep. I suggest you at least read the webcomic.