Updated on September 14, 12:39 p.m. (GMT+8): Added relevant links.
Step aside Sword Art Online, the Solo Leveling manhwa is the new game-based power fantasy in town.
What if video games were your actual reality?
Instead of going to work, you earned your wage by fighting dungeon bosses. Rather than splurging on a US$5,000 pair of Nike Air Jordans, you’re buying your next armor set for the months to come.
And after decapitating a human-sized spider, you enjoy a few snacks with your guild at the nearest convenience store.
This is the story of Solo Leveling, and here’s why gamers need to read it.
Why gamers need to read the Solo Leveling manhwa
A quick summary of the Solo Leveling manhwa
Solo Leveling, written by Chu-Gong and illustrated by Jang “Dubu” Sang-rak of Redice Studio, is a Korean web novel series that takes place in present-day Korea with MMORPG elements.
Humans with magical powers can become hunters who enter gates to another dimension, filled with monsters and bosses. If the hunters can clear out the gate’s dungeon, they can monetize their rewards in the modern world.
The Solo Leveling manhwa follows Sung Jin-woo, a downtrodden young adult who’s known as the world’s weakest hunter. Despite his reputation, he continues to go on dungeon raids as a way to pay for his mother’s hospital bills.
During one double dungeon run, Sung Jin-woo sacrifices himself to ensure the escape of his party. On his last breath, the protagonist accidentally completes a secret quest and becomes a “player”, a special role that allows him to take quests and raise stats by himself through the “system”.
It’s a power fantasy at heart, and that’s a good thing
While the power fantasy genre sees shonen giants like Naruto and Goku from Dragon Ball training for days to get a new overpowered move, the Solo Leveling manhwa shows a more slice-of-life approach to the power grind.
Jin-woo isn’t a Saiyan or a vessel of a demonic creature. He’s really just a scrawny man who just so happened to gain this strange title of a player.
As a more realistic power fantasy, the story highlights Jin-woo’s struggle as a lowly E-rank hunter. Rather than train and follow the system’s orders, Jin-woo would rather just stay at home and sleep in. Definitely relatable.
Punished by the system for not doing his daily commissions, he soon becomes an anxious dungeon explorer who shrieks at his first monster encounter, but the weakling still shows some promise.
Once he’s killed a few packs of these once frightening creatures, he levels up and feels more confident about his dungeon skills.
Jin-woo’s solo progression resonates with me as a gamer. We’ve all had those moments where we’ve doubted ourselves at certain levels and nearly gotten to the point of giving up, but we strive to be better.
Once you finally beat that boss or solve that pesky water puzzle, there’s joy in knowing you triumphed because of your own ability, not because you’re a supernatural being.
The Solo Leveling manhwa shows humanity in gaming
Despite using a game-like system to level up, Jin-woo is very much a human with his own way of interpreting the world.
The stakes are surprisingly real in Solo Leveling. Jin-woo needs to take care of his mom and sister, and party members can betray you and face their demise. Whether or not you like it, reality, unlike games, does not have a restart function that lets you redo things for a better outcome.
Jin-woo may be the protagonist of the story, but his flaws are what make him a likable or hateable character. Sure, he’s leveling up and flexing his skills to newbies in a party-only dungeon, but is there a possibility that amidst such a power trip, he’s lost his way and forgotten what his main goal was in the first place? We’ll have to see.
Solo Leveling’s story is quite simple at face value, but its thoughtful take on an ordinary human committing to a grind-or-die lifestyle could hit closer to your gaming setup than you’d think.
The manhwa’s chapters are fully colored
Manga artists, take note.
The Solo Leveling manhwa steals the show as a series because it has beautifully illustrated, fully colored chapters.
Like the games that you play every day, Solo Leveling uses color to determine the power levels of characters and enemies. Green is easy. Red is hard.
While the illustrators do this as a way to familiarize readers with the dungeon system, they also use it to subvert expectations. There’s a guild member decked out in the best crimson armor? He must be the strongest one here. Don’t mind the E-rank hunter in a black hoodie named Jin-woo.
The story also feels more immersive with a dash of color to differentiate between various scenarios. Jin-woo becomes quite the traveler, going from the warmly-lit streets of his town to the industrial off-white aesthetic of corporate buildings.
The most significant scene changes are hands down, the dungeon raids. The gritty coloring of evil bosses and the striking vignettes of panels will subconsciously make you believe, “yeah, this is probably not Seoul anymore.”
With great artistic direction and game-based storytelling, Solo Leveling speaks to the tryhard gamer in all of us. Jin-woo’s journey acts as both a thrilling grind to the top, and a subtle reflection on what it means to be a real hero, regardless of your level.
If you’d like to see how Jin-woo becomes the best dungeon raider in Korea, you can read the official Solo Leveling manhwa at Tappy Toon.
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