I find myself very conflicted writing this review. Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs does so many things right, and seems to want to do something creative with the tired tropes of dating sim games and isekai stories. But at the same time, it often revels in the very same tropes it lampoons, and cannot help but fall into many of the same issues that these stories have to begin with.
Let's start with what the series has going for it. I will admit that I'm not terribly well-versed in light novels; I've only really started reading them since I joined ANN. As I've stated in those prior reviews, I personally prefer prose that is a bit denser, with more descriptive language and stretches of introspective monologues. Because of this, I tend to find most light novels well, uh, light and a bit too breezy when it comes to describing events, reading more like a screenplay than a book. While I wouldn't say that Trapped in a Dating Sim goes full Tolkien and spends two pages describing how white the snow is, it certainly has a lot more descriptive language than the other light novels I've read. Personally this was a breath of fresh air, as I felt I had a much better mental image for how certain scenes were supposed to look. This also helped in the combat sections which – while infrequent – certainly were important enough that the extra vividness is much appreciated.
Similarly, the dialogue generally feels satisfying to read. Obviously, the scenarios these characters find themselves in are often so alien that it would be hard to know what people would “really” say in such situations, but the conversations felt genuine and there was solid banter between the cast. One of my tests for whether dialogue feels realistic is whether you can read it aloud and it actually sounds like a phrase that another human being might say, and sadly some works I've read don't pass even that low bar. Trapped in a Dating Sim does not have this problem for the most part, and the cast members seem well-realized and varied, which is commendable given the sizable cast of students. The real standouts are probably Leon, who is somewhat selfish, and the sassy skeptic Luxion, and their banter feels far and away the most human.
The plot is equally well thought out. There are quite a few plot points to juggle, and events unfold at a satisfying pace. Leon moves from one event to the next without too many absurd jumps in logic, and even those are often waved off as contrivances of the game world or school life. Leon's early success in the dungeon and the rewards he yields require some suspension of disbelief, but he spends the rest of the story either facing people who are incredulous at his success or having to find creative ways to utilize those benefits. Given that one of his first thoughts in his new world was to take care of his new family in the countryside as well, readers may find him sympathetic enough to not begrudge the absurd luck of his fortunes.
For myself, where Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs excels is in how it captures youthful frustration. The primary antagonist could be said to be unfair social norms and expectations of its fantasy world. Whether it is the vast sums expected just to participate in mandatory events, the strange political manipulations of those who have power, or the imbalance of gender roles in the society, there is a sense of the constant stress placed on young people coming of age in this world. Many of their struggles stem from completely arbitrary rules devoid of rhyme or reason and which exist just because that's the way things have always been. The sense of exasperation and desperation is palpable, and it is reflected across the entire cast from Leon and his buddies stressing over finding a spouse to Angelica doing everything the “right” way only to find her life unraveling anyway. If you have ever suffered under the weight of intense social pressures, then the frustration of these characters will feel all too real despite the fantastical setting.
Trapped in a Dating Sim is not without its flaws, however. Most egregious, for me at least, is the fuzziness with which it handles the tropes it employs. There are times when the author actively subverts the cliches and expectations of dating sims, isekai stories, and predictable game worlds. Leon is constantly using his knowledge of the game world and its characters to get ahead, which is expected, but then an interesting twist is introduced in the form of a new challenger who also begins manipulating the world and sending it into new “game states” that do not match the prescribed paths Leon knows so well. In another example, characters try and figure out why a dungeon full of ants would have treasure chests in it at all: who put them here, and why?
But on the flip side, it often falls into the same rhythms we know all too well. Olivia is a great example of a non-character that is all too common in harem stories: the quiet, unassuming girl who thinks the lead is amazing and intelligent and brave. Despite being the apparent co-lead (she is on the cover after all), Olivia doesn't have much of a personality besides being docile and soft-spoken, and other than rooting for Leon in a duel and performing healing magic once she… does not do a whole lot. She is very much a wish-fulfilment significant other figure for Leon played straight, which is a stark contrast with most of the rest of the cast who have more personality and depth. Olivia's shallowness feels even more egregious given that Angelica is also something of a co-lead, and she has probably the most engaging character arc of anyone in the novel.
The messaging of the story comes across as similarly muddled. The arbitrary ills of the matriarchal society get a lot of page time in the book, with Leon and many of the other male cast members lamenting how restrictive and unfair these gender rules are for them. Author Yomu Mishima appears to want to make a statement about how arbitrary societal norms can hurt real people, with Leon even mentioning at one point that these rules are very similar to modern Japan. At the same time, many of the scenes lamenting the power of women just read like shallow frustration, like Leon just wishes things were tilted in his favor. Perhaps it is just meant to imply that Leon is still a young man, and even though he recognizes injustice he is not mature enough to desire a selfless sort of equality. Still, there is a lot of time dedicated to him being upset at his sister, women's power, fujoshi, etc. that it can be hard to tell what the author's intent is.
The next section contains spoilers you may wish to avoid
Another example along these lines would be the harems. At one point, a female student begins to assemble a harem of handsome boys who she manipulates to serve her every whim and please her. Leon sees this manipulation and feels disgusted, wondering if this is this how women feel when they see men with a harem. But by the end of the novel, Leon gets his own growing harem with Olivia and Angelica who spend their time bathing together and talking about how great Leon is – with accompanying bath scene fan service art – while comparing breast sizes. This, to me, feels like mixed messaging.
Trapped in a Dating Sim also cannot decide how seriously it wants to deal with real-world themes, which does more harm than good. Beyond the aforementioned mixed messages about gender roles and matriarchy/patriarchy, there also seems to be an underlying theme of treating those who were once NPCs in a game as fellow human beings. But by the same token, there is a lot of real casual slavery going on in the world. Many of the female students have elf slaves they use as servants and sex objects, and it is even pointed out that they can have as much sex with them as they want without fear of getting pregnant. Unlike with the matriarchal society, the slavery element is never addressed critically. In fact, most of the female cast members are elated to have slaves, and the male cast is upset they don't have a similar slave system for themselves. The elf slaves are also basically perfect companions who never question their roles and the whole thing is mostly shrugged off as “the way things are.”
For myself, this was a huge sore spot while reading. Obviously, not all works have to reflect my own personal moral code, and I understand that slavery as a concept has a lot of different connotations throughout the world and across history. Still, it's baffling that the work seemingly wants to engage with the ethics of matriarchy and arbitrary power structures, only to turn around and shrug off such an egregious form of oppression as slavery. There is even a moment when characters go “Hey, let's go to the slave market that'll be fun” and it gets no commentary at all. Slavery is a significant, constant presence throughout the book, and the fact that it is given a free pass while the injustices of matriarchy are highlighted feels contradictory.
I think this thematic waffling is what pulls down an otherwise solid read. I enjoy works that challenge norms, and I also enjoy works that lean into the tried and true formulas. But Trapped in a Dating Sim is trying to do both, which creates a disjointed experience for the reader. Are we flipping tropes on their head and doing something new, or are we revelling in the familiar comforts of an expected power fantasy? I could not get a read on which direction the work was trying to go thematically, and as a reader it gave me a bit of whiplash.
The art is nice but unremarkable. It mostly serves to show off the character designs, which make the cast look like school kids in a fantasy school setting. The best pieces to my mind are those featuring the Armor/mobile suits, and Leon's Arroganz is a particular standout. It's huge and wields a shovel, which makes for a distinctive workman-like look that took me back to my days playing Mechwarrior: Dark Age when we pushed agricultural mechs around alongside the standard hulking war machines.
In sum, Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs Volume 1 is a strong start to the series. It has a great cast, an interesting hook, and plenty of meaty plot threads that could lead to all sorts of interesting places. But it is often held back by its own inability to commit, and for every cliche it attempts to subvert or social issue it attempts to address it just as quickly turns around and leans on absurd tropes or is completely blase about obvious societal injustices. I do think there is a lot of promise in this one though and on the whole enjoyed my time with it. I think that if future volumes are more consistent in their messaging or themes, this could be a really stellar series overall.