"Psyren" Review: Dystopia Calling

A handful of teenagers are left in a bleak landscape and set upon by killer robots. Who will survive? Psyren, the newest Shonen Jump manga from Viz, does not shy away from cliche, but the story also has a few twists to keep it interesting.

Right from the beginning, we know Ageha Yoshina is a tough guy with a heart of gold; on page two, he singlehandedly clobbers a guy twice his size who was stalking a friend of his. (He charges a fee, but it's clear he's not in it for the money.) He's a pretty typical Shonen Jump kind of guy, good-hearted, not a deep thinker, henpecked by his older sister but capable of kicking serious ass when the occasion calls for it. "Ageha Yoshina. He's rowdy. but kind," one character says of him. Just the kind of guy you want by your side in a deadly game of survival.

The mystery begins when Ageha hears a pay phone ring and, in his helpful way, picks it up. Some sort of mysterious creature appears, holding a cell phone, then vanishes, and when it is gone, Ageha finds a phone card marked Psyren in the phone booth. Having no idea what to make of this, Ageha pockets the phone card and heads home.

Another mystery presents itself at school in the form of Ageha's old friend Sakurako. Stop me if you have heard this one before—Ageha's mother died when he was a little kid, and Sakurako cheered him up and was kind to him. They have been friends ever since, but lately Sakurako has been quiet and obviously stressed. Now Ageha finds out that Sakurako has a phone card just like the one he has. Then she turns up missing.

A friend from the occult club provides a partial explanation: Psyren is some sort of secret society, and they seem to be behind a recent string of missing persons. According to rumors on the internet, an envoy from Psyren appears to people who are seeking utopia and offers them a red phone card that connects them to Psyren, which whisks them away to parts unknown. A billionaire has offered a reward to anyone who can explain Psyren, so folks have been snapping up the phone cards and then disappearing or dying in mysterious ways.

What's getting to Ageha, of course, is that Sakurako has disappeared. So rather than selling the card to some sucker for five million yen, he goes back to the phone booth and uses it. After being subjected to a long, bizarre phone questionnaire, and mixing it up with some nasty Psyren dudes, he finds himself transported to some sort of a post-nuclear landscape, with rotting buildings and little else.

Well, except for the giant killer centipedes.

It's pretty clear right way that this is a survival game. Sakurako is there, of course, and although she's ill, she tells Ageha "This is a game. If we clear this stage, we can go back to our world." A group of other players appear, and the game is on. Most of the others are greedy fools who are only interested in solving the mystery of Psyren to get the money, but Ageha doesn't care about that; he's in it to save Sakurako. The herd gets thinned pretty quickly, except for one guy who's about as tough as Ageha.

All standard stuff for this type of story, but what makes it interesting is that right off the bat, Ageha rejects the premise and decides to make his own rules. Sakurako has insider knowledge, but Ageha insists on using it to try to save the other survivors. He's a protagonist with a conscience, and he doesn't want to feel that he was responsible for the deaths of others. The second half of the book has a lot of action, as Ageha and the others fight off various monsters on their way to the portal that will allow them to escape back to their world.

The one thing that is odd, and may be an artifact of translation, is that the characters keep referring to Psyren as some sort of utopia, when in fact it is just the opposite. My idea of paradise involves comfy chairs and lots of snacks, not being chased across a desert landscape by a crossbow-weilding humanoid. But maybe that's just me.

Psyren is fast paced, with a lot of story packed into this first volume. The setup is fairly complicated, and it does have a strong gaming aspect to it, especially the random attacks by monsters (who are revealed to have an obvious weak point). While stories of this type can be maddeningly opaque, Psyren is a pretty straightforward read—each piece of the story is explained fairly quickly. The art is nice and clear, so the battles are easy to follow. It's sort of a standard Shonen Jump style, with spiky-haired heroes and anthropomorphic monsters.

The story ends with a nice twist, one that isn't entirely unexpected but sets the characters up to continue their adventures. Psyren ran to 16 volumes in Japan, so there's plenty of story yet to occur. It's definitely worth picking up if you like shonen action stories, and the straightforward art and storytelling make it a good choice for newer readers.

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