It first burst onto the scene with its ambitious goal of revolutionizing the RPG world. It's been nearly a year since the first .hack game was released, and now it's three down and one to go. Did it spread like a virus or is it just a fad soon to be erased? The journey so far ...
First, to straighten things out, it's "dot hack (whatever)", not "dot hack slash slash (whatever)". Now that that's out of the way, when I first heard of the concept, my reaction was the same as just about everyone else's: "Okay, cool!" An offline RPG set in an MMORPG, with all of the surrealistically stylish characters actually nerdy gamers like us? (/lame joke) Four parts out in rapid-fire release, AND an anime? Who could resist? .hack was truly a project that created a lot of hype not only because of its unique premise, but also because it had such huge expectations for itself. The high-profile names associated with the project (Yoshiyuki Sadamato, Kazunori Ito, and Koichi Mashimo, all renowned for their work in various successful anime titles) only raised the anticipation for what would surely be a top-notch series - or at the very least, something different.
Fans and critics alike, it certainly wasn't quite what anybody expected.
Phase I: the whole package (and then some)
Bandai really pulled out all the stops when it came to this pet project, which turned out to be much, much more than just an innovative RPG series. That was only part of a larger, more ambitious picture, and the story goes beyond what occurs in INFECTION, MUTATION, OUTBREAK and the soon-to-come QUARANTINE. You can certainly enjoy the games on their own, but it's next to impossible to accurately evaluate the .hack experience as a whole without at least considering its extensions (game, anime and otherwise). All of them focus and expand on "The World", the unusual MMORPG that lies at the heart of .hack. Thus, we begin with a brief look at the other components of the .hack project and where they figure into the chronology of the story.
It all really "begins" with the .hack//SIGN anime, the prequel that has already found its way to an American audience. A number of scenes and characters from the anime also show up in the games. Directly following .hack//SIGN is .hack//Udeden, also known as .hack//DUSK, a manga that takes place after the events of the games and has also made the transition to the telly in the form of .hack//Tasogare no Udewa Densetsu (.hack//Legend of the Twilight Bracelet).
Novels .hack//AI BUSTER (taking place before the .hack series) and .hack//ZERO (taking place between the .hack//SIGN and the games) round out the universe currently available on the Japanese market. And last but not least, there is the upcoming Japanese release of .hack//INTEGRATION, comprised of all the LIMINALITY DVDs, the special episode 28 of .hack//SIGN: Unison (bringing together all the characters from the anime and the videogame), and the .hack//Tasogare no Udewa Densetsu audio drama. Phew!
Phase II: story & characters
The story of the .hack games takes place in the near-future, when Internet technology is at a productivity never seen before and the MMORPG "The World" enjoys incredible international attention. This World, however, is more than it seems. Strange events have occurred that leave gamers in comas, but CC Corp., the creator, will take no responsibility for it. When one experienced and well-known player by the username of Orca falls comatose as a result of a game encounter, his friend - Kite - is entrusted with a mysterious data-altering bracelet from an enigmatic girl known only as Aura. Kite dedicates himself to uncovering the truth behind the nature of The World, despite being labelled a dangerous hacker as a result of his actions.
Each part of .hack comes bundled with a companion DVD: the .hack//LIMINALITY anime OAV, with a corresponding episode for each game. They follow several individuals in the real world and how they are affected by the events in The World, even as Kite is madly dashing to accomplish tasks in the game (I recommend that you watch them after you beat the game, however, as game FMV scenes - including ones from the ending - are used to create the opening sequences).
The simultaneous real-life/online dual world focus of .hack winds itself through Internet news bulletins, email conversations and message board posts. It can get quite convoluted and difficult to follow at times, but is fascinating nevertheless. Each installment of the game starts off with a brief summary of the current situation, so you're not completely in the dark if you just picked up a later title. But I do advise people to finish one game before moving on to the next, otherwise you will be wondering what an email is talking about, or where a character popped out from.
Complementing the complex tale is an engaging set of characters. The cast of .hack is by far one of the most personable, quirky, intriguing and amusing. Some are more interesting than others, but each one you meet has a distinctive personality, and you really feel like you're playing an MMORPG (oh yeah, and trying to save the world) with some of those weird-but-funny people you just met online. The games' setup allows a level of interaction that is rare to find, and I grew quite attached to all of the characters. One of the most enjoyable things about .hack is learning more about the "real-life" personas of these online friends by chatting through email about their interests and other unrelated activities. It definitely creates a personal bridge from which you can relate to each of the characters.
Phase III: gameplay & presentation
All parts of the .hack series were produced at the same time, so gameplay and presentation is extremely consistent between them. The positive side is that once you've beaten one, you're instantly familiar with the major options and abilities, so the comfort level is extremely high - but on the other hand, there is little change/improvement in graphics or system, and the whole thing can start to feel a bit repetitive.
The game always begins at your desktop. From here, you can customize your computer space all nice and pretty, access News, Email, The World (game and message board), and save. In The World, .hack plays like - what else? - an MMORPG, and is just about as addictive. The simulation is quite good, even down to the other online players. Even the threads in the forum use Internet slang and smilies, and the lingo just gets more accurate with every game. (I watched one player progress from coherence to complete l4m3r 1337!)
There are various servers to explore, with additional ones available in successive games. The heart of a server is the Root town, where players are automatically healed and can save (of course), as well as purchase, store or trade items. A mirror-like Chaos Gate is located in every Root town, and from it you can combine keywords to generate dungeons for exploring. Story/significant keywords can be found in emails, on the boards, and even in the LIMINALITY episodes.
In the fields and dungeons, magic portals dot the landscape, and once you come close they dissipate to reveal either treasure or monsters. In the field it's entirely possible to run away, but in the dungeons the doors to each chamber are locked until you defeat the enemy. Battles occur in the same screen, allowing straight button-mashing attacks, while special skills and magic spells are accessible through a menu. You can change equipment in the midst of battle as well. Whenever a menu is opened, the game pauses, allowing you to take your time - good since things happen fairly quickly. A key ability in the game is the bracelet power "Data Drain", which allows you to weaken monsters and acquire items and Virus Cores (the latter of which are used to hack your way into story dungeons). Sounds like an easy way out, but if you get too Data Drain-happy you will make The World unstable, resulting in backlashes like cursing yourself, losing EXP or even Game Over. Only Kite is fully controllable, but you can influence the other characters' actions with party commands such as Operation Wonder Battle, which calls everyone to attack the nearest monster. It is also possible to boss individual characters around, like making them change equipment, use something more effective or recover other players' HP.
Outside of Kite's control, however, the character AIs could use a little work - they tend not to follow their own advice. There's nothing I love more than having my party members scream, "This monster has Physical Tolerance! Use magic spells!" at me as they continue to gleefully attack without effect, but that DOES eventually lead to them getting pummelled to death. As well, the auto-party commands are biased towards fighters - they usually order characters to not use skills/magic. If you're not paying attention and don't redesignate your party members' actions, the results can be devastating, especially when your healer-mages run off by themselves to chase high-level enemies. As a result, you usually end up having to be Amazing Multitasking Babysitter Kite. Be careful, because when you die, it's just like any normal RPG - restarting from your last save and losing all your previous work. Another issue is the lag that can occur when there are a large number of monsters or players on the screen. Once I was stuck in a dungeon room with a swarm of self-resurrecting, thundermagic-happy Gold Menhirs, and I felt like I was trying to play RagnarokOnline on a busy day with my old dinosaur of a computer. Fortunately it isn't frequent, but sometimes it gets so that I wonder if this wasn't an intentional "feature" used to simulate the MMORPG experience even more accurately! (Although it's a little scary to think that the world might be doomed because the saviour was stuck on dialup.)
The graphics, while not the best on the PS2, are still pleasing. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's extremely cool and original designs make a smooth transition to the expressive, well-animated FMVs. The monster designs are interesting and, at times, downright freaky. A number of them are merely colour-swapped versions of each other (understandable considering how many there are). The towns and dungeons convey the atmosphere well enough, but are a bit lackluster.
In terms of the games' sound, this is quality stuff. The music was composed by Yuki Kajiura, famous for her work in Noir and the .hack//SIGN anime. Even with the repetition of the dungeon pieces, it doesn't dull the fact that the soundtrack is fantastic, setting the mood perfectly with haunting, ethereal melodies and edgey, cyberpunk battle themes that send chills up your spine. The game also boasts full voice-acting which is done quite well. You can switch to the original Japanese if you wish, which many people are ecstatic about, knowing the RPG genre's history with English dubbed voice acting. But I actually found myself preferring the American voice actors for certain characters - they were that good. It is still a win-some-lose-some situation, however, as we missed out on the hilarious omake gag track that the original Japanese game had instead of a second language.
Truth be told, the .hack games are very short. INFECTION is hands-down the most guilty of the three, as it serves primarily as an introduction. The bosses themselves are not that difficult either, even if you meet them unprepared (a good number of the normal monsters are tougher). If you follow directions to the letter like a good little gamer, you'll soon be watching the credits roll and wondering where the game went. But while following the storyline is straightforward, the actual gameplay is very non-linear. You can ignore the story at just about any time and go exploring dungeons of your own, or do some of the minigames/side quests.
Therein lies the real allure of .hack - replayability in extras. As mentioned earlier, there are email conversations with your party members with various replies to choose from. You can also raise chubby little ox-like (or pig-like, as the characters seem to think) creatures known as Grunties. They have great items to trade for, and later on you can even race them or use them to help you search for things in the fields. Key Items known as the Books of Ryu allow you to track your progress in practically every aspect of the game, from players you've met to how many magic portals you've cleared. Every time you reach a particular checkpoint (ie. 10 portals cleared) you are rewarded with goodies for your desktop in the form of wallpapers, music files and movie clips. Additionally, after completing the game, you can save and create a Data Flag file - and keep playing and exploring. The Data Flag file can be imported to the next game at any time, carrying over all of your progress and all the items you've collected.
Phase IV: .hack//OBSESSION?
Too short, too repetitive and too costly are the main arguments against the series, and the whole project is often derided for being nothing more than a mass-produced money machine. But even the most severe critic has to admit that, in spite of its imperfections, .hack is something unique in the genre. At a time when most anticipated games are continuations, extensions or rehashes of popular/old/familiar/"safe" titles, .hack is a gamble that works exactly because of its unconventional direction. It is focused on creating its own modern mythology - one that many will find intriguing and appealing because it gives knowing winks and nods to this industry and community. As a result of its massive multimedia approach, it has built up a fanbase that simply can't be ignored. For those who are interested and want more, it gives the option of extending the experience beyond the games. If you're looking for something fresh and original, you should definitely give .hack a try. You just might catch what's going around ... and if not, at least you'll know what the fuss is about. After all, there are only a few months left till QUARANTINE arrives!
Platform: Playstation 2
Release: Feb. 3, 2003
Release: May 6, 2003
Release: Sept. 10, 2003
Release: Jan. 13, 2004