There are two types of RPG gamers: those who only play RPGs (and usually only J-RPGs) and those who also play other types of games as well. Considering the investment of time required by any typical example of the genre, gamers really only have two options. They can either stick to only the best RPG titles (nowadays, most Final Fantasy games, Elder Scrolls, Kingdom Hearts and a few Dragon Quests) and steer clear of the crap; or they can shun every quality action-adventure, FPS and survival horror game just to play each repetitive “western-themed” foray into Filgaia (Wild Arms, we’re looking at you) and mostly anything with the words “Tales”, “Shin Megami Tensei” or “SaGa” in it.
Due to the fact that I’m a proud member of the former group who was once traumatized as a hardcore example of the latter (yes, I fully played through Beyond the Beyond, SaGa Frontier, and even the dreaded Super NES title Lagoon), I must caution you against the .hack series, as it has the potential to be a viral drain on your time and money. I tried to jump in during the first PS2 “epic” set of volumes, which began with .hack//Infection back in 2003, and stopped playing after about three hours. The combat was mindlessly repetitive, the melodramatic story couldn’t hook me beyond the nifty premise and the production values of the music and graphics kind of, well, sucked. Unfortunately, I must report that after three to four years and an anime series in the interim, my return to the series hasn’t shown me that much has changed.
For noobs to the series, the .hack odyssey is set in a fictional MMORPG setting called “The World”. If you’ve played anything like World of Warcraft or Everquest, imagine a fake version of that experience, where all the perks of the genre are neutered, like playing with your friends in real-time simulated by half-baked artificial intelligence and completely nonlinear gameplay blocked by bogus “server” restrictions. The gameplay of .hack suffers from a major flaw in design: it emulates a different genre but takes away the only things that make that genre fun to being with. In real MMORPGs, we tolerate hopelessly derivative fetch quests and mindless hack-and-slash gameplay because we’re playing with real people and have a huge degree of customizability within our character choice. To facsimile these flaccid mechanics without the complexity doesn’t make any sense.
In this second volume of the G.U. series, we’re still playing as Haseo, the “Terror of Death”, as he is referred to in “The World” for his reputation as a legendary killer of “player-killers” (PKs). Want to relinquish that title? Try out a different career path and try your hand in healing magic? Maybe join a thief’s guild and leave the PK-K-ing to the paladin hero-types? Sorry! this isn’t your MMORPG gaming experience, it’s Haseo’s!
In .hack//G.U. Volume 1: Rebirth, Haseo sought out a nasty Player-Killer known as Tri-Edge, whose victims can’t return to “The World” once they’ve been killed. Haseo encounters a figure known as Azure Kite, who data-drains Haseo’s level from 133 to 1 and removes all his items, weapons and abilities, so players are forced to find them all again (again, I ask why Haseo hasn’t turned to the less buggy World of Warcraft experience?). This time, in Volume 2: Reminisce (without spoiling what happened in Rebirth), Haseo and friends find themselves trapped inside “The World”, unable to log out from the interface. This admittedly gives the title significantly more dramatic stakes then previous incarnations, giving players some motivation to investigate this substandard virtual realm.
Our heroes beat the Hell out of the Vulture.
Like all other incarnations of the .hack series, the overly obtuse plot takes place entirely in Haseo’s virtual world, only barely affecting players in Haseo’s real world (with inexplicable comas and the like). Mind you, we never actually experience the “real world” that contextualizes Haseo’s gaming experience, we only hear of it in the banal web-lingo dialogue between the “virtual world” players. The only exception is the Operating System portal that exists as a pared-down computer desktop, where players can read message boards, check emails (to which only a few can be replied) and play lame mini-games like “Crimson VS.”. Unfortunately. even this doesn’t feel complete enough—where are the word processing programs and other computer games?
We’re so isolated from the actual plot of .hack//G.U., it’s difficult to care about any of it. It’s like trying to care for who wins between Itchy and Scratchy or cheering for a Weird Sisters concert in Harry Potter. Maybe if we could explore a faux Tokyo and see the dorms of comatose players, the gaming world would be better framed and we’d actually care about entering the “virtual world” to save Haseo’s friends and himself. In Reminisce, we’re trapped in “The World”, so this isn’t even possible, but framing the real world a bit would make a landslide of a difference in having us accept the ugly parameters of the online “World”.
The art design and animation of the series are certainly a step up from the first .hack PS2 series, but Reminisce is more of a lateral movement from Rebirth. Not that this should concern fans of the games, but the dungeons are still flat, blandly constructed and very repetitive. The music is still largely unimpressive, but also shouldn’t offend the ears like the Shin Megami titles tend to do. Voice acting is largely wooden and feels more like it’s generated by an automated voice program than by real people speaking into PC microphones (which presumably explains why most cutscenes are accompanied by dialogue in this faux virtual world), but again, nothing different from previous titles.
That is kinda badass.
In terms of new additions since Volume 1, you can expect a few changes, but they’re barely noticeable. New upgrades for the motorcycle (which allows you to move around dungeons with ease), the ability to equip scythes and the “Crimson VS.” playing card mini-game are amongst the changes, but for the most part, Reminisce plays the same as its recent forebear. Combat and exploration are still more a chore than actual fun, and you still can’t control any of the other players that join your party. If they were actually played by real people, and not fed very limited A.I. scripts by you, this might be forgivable.
I still don’t understand the popularity of the .hack soap opera in general. Somehow Namco Bandai justifies spreading one essential title over three-four volumes without lowering the price of each adventure, and the fans keep buying. The plot of Reminisce is surprisingly more engaging than the series standard, but it’s still so free of dramatic tension that it’s difficult to engage for long. The gameplay is certainly the nail in the coffin for serious gamers, however, with simplistic hack-and-slash combat that simulates MMORPG but removes the customizable depth and most of the challenge. Exploration is a chore, which would be a cardinal sin in its true-online cousin, and is therefore unforgivable here.
If you’re a .hack fanboy, though, you don’t need a reason to purchase this volume, and you probably already have Volume 3 as well. For everybody else, just remember what curiosity did to the cat.