Reviewed: July 26, 2003
Reviewed by: Bertrand Lemon
Released: February 11, 2003
There’s a word in the Yiddish Language that perhaps you might be familiar with: “Chutzpah”. It’s a word used to describe a person with a particular sense of guts or nerve, a person with metaphoric distended spheroids allowing someone to do something brash and self-assured.
Releasing an RPG in America is, of course, nothing spectacular. Releasing an RPG that does away with the stereotypes and clichés in the genre is admirable. Including a 45 minute anime DVD with your RPG is a nice touch. Making that same RPG a four part epic to be carried out in four separate games released throughout the year? That, my friends, takes "chutzpah".
Yes, Bandai clearly is clearly counting on impressing people with their most recent series, and I’ll say this much – they got my attention. Let’s see if they get yours.
.hack//INFECTION (Part 1) takes place in the not too distant future, December of 2007 to be exact, the CyberConnect Corporation releases an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) called “The World” which becomes an immediate phenomenon. Three years later, the game has earned 20 million subscribers and an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “highest selling game in history”. This is around the time when you start playing.
The first time you log onto the game, you’re greeted by your friend Yasuhiko, an obviously seasoned veteran of “The World” gaming under the alias of Orca. The two of you set out on your first mission and Yasuhiko discovers the game’s one major drawback – “The World” can, in rare cases, cause its players to lapse into a coma. Well, you know what they say about making omelets, you gotta break a couple eggs.
All interfacing with the game has you playing the role of a character in the “real” world, who is in turn playing the role of a character in “The World”. (oh! The layers!) Bandai did a brilliant job of constructing an entire MMORPG façade, complete with e-mail, news server, and a game-related bulletin board. And, in the efforts of realism, game-related functions of these systems are coupled with mindless chatter with 14 year olds asking what your favorite food is, spam advertising self-cleaning litterboxes, and plenty of forum flamers.
You’ll meet a number of non-comatose players throughout the game, some being main characters you can “flash mail” (about the same as IM) to invite into your adventuring parties, some being background characters whose main role to you is vessels with which to trade. These other characters, especially the eight major ones you can add to your parties, all come with their own unique looks and personalities. There’s the pubescent girl who uses a lot of smiley faces and shouts “He he! This is fun! :-)” The middle-aged computer programmer/axe-wielder who plays his Arthurian character up to the Nth degree, even the snobby veteran who has an entire online cult set up around her. Throughout battles, little chat bubbles appear over their heads to reinforce their personalities.
The actual gameplay should bring back memories to anyone who was fortunate enough to play Squaresoft’s Legend of Mana on the PS1. (and give that a look if you haven’t) The combat system, rather than the essentially antiquated turn-based system of standard RPGs, runs in a very smooth combination of real-time swordplay and pause-menu skill selection, giving you both fast-paced combat and simple implementation of special skills. Most skills are reliant on who you’ve got the camera on, and if an enemy isn’t on the screen, there’s a handy little token identifying where each one is.
Because you are (as far as the story is concerned) a single player, and the other characters that make up your party are separate people with separate minds, orchestrating combat means giving commands they can stick to, and make sure you’re following the same agenda. You can give your party general orders, like “everybody attack somebody until I say differently”, or more specific orders, like “everybody heal yourselves”, to actually telling a party member what spell to use, and on whom. It’s all still carried out in a way that fits in line with the idea, though I have yet to run into a party member that absolutely refuses to do what I say. They do whine a lot, though.
Another little twist to the combat system is that, being a game within a game, your character has the ability to “Data Drain” different enemies, meaning your character can attack an enemy by hacking into its code and rewriting it to be something less threatening, like say - a daisy. The Data Drain makes itself a fundamental feature, allowing you to defeat enemies with corrupted datafiles which make them invincible, collect unusual items you wouldn’t otherwise find, and crash the entire gaming network if you overuse it.
.hack also runs parallel to Legend of Mana in its integration of elements into the combat system. Each world, each enemy, each spell and most items embody one of six elements which you can exploit to cause otherwise impossible damage to formidable enemies.
The final Mana parallel is that of feeding “Grunties”; beasts you come across in their infant stage in a town on the Omega server. (the second half of the game) Grunties, when you first encounter them, do little more than look like small pigs and tell you how hungry they are in squeaky voices. However, you can cause baby grunties to morph into larger, useful grunties by feeding them different foods you find scattered throughout the battlefield. I’ll also mention here that the food you feed your grunties (la pumpkins, twilight onions, piney apples and bloody eggs, to name a few) all shout their names to you when you pass by them… as if to remind you that this game is Japanese.
The treatment of grunties, in this chapter anyway, was the only thing I thought this game was really handling too lightly. Based on their diet, you can only raise three different grunties - one with a hackney French accent, one made of metal that keeps yelling “Clang!”, and one who looks and speaks as though he ate the brown acid at Woodstock. The French grunty serves his purpose as a steed you can ride around dangerous areas like a Chocobo, but the other two versions end up just being more people to trade with. If I had to pick a main hope for part two of this series, it would be that I could do more with this whole element of the game.
However, it is nice to have as many people to trade with as possible. Other than spoils of war, trading is basically your only way to get items of any real worth. Shops, and the money to spend in them, are essentially useless in this game. You can sell every item you pick up along the way, but since you won’t be spending money at shops unless you’re running low on potions, you end up with a pretty big bank account and nothing to do with it. After a while, I got pretty hesitant about selling anything, which is when I ran into the bane of most role-playing gamers – the item limit.
The item limit seems fairly generous on paper – you can hold up to 40 different types of items, to a limit of 99 (meaning, you could have 30 healing potions, 20 resurrection vials, and 99 antidotes and still have room for 37 more item types) but with such a wide array of items to be collected along the way, it ends up a fairly painful process getting rid of things which you’re sure could be helpful some day.
However, there are two saving graces – the first being an storage shed where you can keep an additional 99 item types, and the second being 4 different items used especially for trade. They have no actual use in combat, but they serve as all-purpose “euros”, which every trader will recognize as valuable currency. So this means you only have to take four different types of currency around, rather than 20 different pieces of armor and try to find the person who actually wants it.
The protocol for the game works like so – There are two servers, Delta and Omega, each of which has a town. In the town, you can save your game, get new objectives, buy, sell, trade or store items. You can also warp to the fields on that server. Here’s the fun part: As well as the fields which are part of the actual game’s storyline, you can warp to a randomly created maps based on different keywords – I won’t go into how these keywords work, that would take far too long, but rest assured that it does give you an impressive array of level options.
Being a game reviewer, I tend to make notes about little facts in the game, in case they come in handy later on. From the current version number of “The World” (ver 2.75), to the default name for your avatar (Kite), to the last MMORPG that ended in disaster, (which was called “Twilight of the New Gods” – details beyond that are sketchy) I want to make sure that I could give an informed opinion, and that’s what my notes are for.
However, as I look at my notes now, I see pages and pages of notes that are in no way review-related. I see that if I put “fort walls” as the third warp word, I’ll most likely be able to find root vegetables. I see that Omega Soft Solitary Tripansy is a good place for piney apples, sap and invisible eggs. I see that Alicia wants 25 well waters and Teria wants 25 sports drinks and a couple good possible locations for each. This all just points me to believe that for the duration of me playing this game, I was living it pretty seriously.
If it were possible, I’d give the gameplay here a 9.9. It’s so close to perfect it physically hurts me to call it anything but. Unfortunately, the game does have slight camera issues, although they’re not the annoying kind that I’ve been used to struggling with in games lately. Basically the only problem is that the camera remains in a fixed relation to your character, and so you will need to snap the camera behind you, (there is a button for it) although not that often, and basically only in dungeons. So, that’s a small theoretical deduction, which we still round up to 10.
The graphics in this game, although not its main selling point, are certainly nothing to sneeze at. The vibrant colors and smooth textures make you feel you’re witnessing the lovechild of Soul Caliber and Pokémon.
The graphics tighten up even more in the game’s cutscenes, awash in color and given forth in artful displays. They go from looking like something out of Hellraiser (when your friend Orca is taken into a coma by an enemy with a corrupted datafile and there’s heavy religious and S&M imagery abound) to looking like something out of the Matrix (when you hack through sealed gates or Data Drain monsters).
The latter Matrix-style imagery does bring two minor graphical issues. Firstly, the default setting has you seeing a ten second animation every time you Data Drain (which happens a lot) and since it’s the same animation, it gets a little tiring. This is fixed, however, by being able to turn that specific animation off and it will still show Data Drain animation if it’s cooler than usual.
The other, and I know this is very nitpicky, is the gate-hacking sequence, which looks absolutely awesome each time you see it (four times, if I remember correctly), but gets a little choppy at the end. Nothing you won’t forget about immediately, but I did need to mention it, just to be thorough.
I’m particularly fond of the attention they paid to the graphics of the game going along with the idea of an ongoing online role-playing game. From the simulated computer desktop (complete with changeable wallpaper) to the imaginary company CyberConnect’s logo coming up as the disc loads, to the chat bubbles that pop over peoples’ heads as they talk to each other, they went for making it solid.
Of course, that does bring up a technical issue of why there would be cutscene dialogue in a MMORPG, but hey – it takes place in the year 2010, I’m willing to have some suspension of disbelief.
The music in this game is slightly above par for an RPG, which still ends up a tad grating. There’s different types of music for different types of situations, of course, and a surprising number of situations where there’s no music at all, but what you end up with in the bulk of this game is a sort of Dust Brothers remix of the music from Final Fantasy 3. The grooves are nice to hear, even dancey at times, but the loops are unforgivably short and get repetitive fast.
Going back to the grunties, when you mount your faux-French companion to ride around the battlefield, the music is fast and fun, like Cibo Matto doing the theme song to “Bonanza”, and it made me smile widely at first. But that smile went away quickly when I found out the music loop is only about 45 seconds long and then repeats abruptly.
At a certain point in the game, I was starting to feel like an ice cream truck driver having to hear “Camptown Races” repeatedly for an eight hour shift, and turned just the music off, a feature which should be a legal requirement in games by now, so I could still hear the dialogue and sound effects while trying to see how many Heatmiser songs it would take to drive that grunty song out of my head. (it took four)
Music out of the way, I find myself at a loss for words on the sound effects of the game, because really – there’s not much I can say about it. What sort of sound would you expect when you hit a giant with a sword? When you hurl a flaming meteorite at a walking tree? When you send evil spectres after a giant fish? Well, that’s basically what you get. Doesn’t blow you away, doesn’t sound tinny or distracting – it’s there and it gets the job done.
The voicework on the other hand, is extremely well done. Dialogue between characters is on par with bigger anime titles you’ll find out there, and in fact better than most. The healer’s voice is giggly and perky, the swordsman’s is gruff and confrontational, the axe-handler’s is regal yet nerdy, and the amazon’s always has that faint hint of sex. It’s the sort of dialogue that always sounds melodramatic to American audiences, but they’re going for anime fans, and the voices certainly reflect it.
I should also mention here that the dialogue in this game is available in both English and Japanese. A fine feature, although a little useless to me since I’m not planning on matching voice dialogue to dialogue boxes to learn a new language. Nevertheless, I did listen to the Japanese dialogue for a bit and the inflections I heard made me assume it was decent acting.
Here’s the toughest consideration, because deciding that you’re going to play .hack means you’re planning a serious commitment. Let me say this so nobody is confused.
You will not play .hack//infection and not play the rest of the series. Such a feat would simply be impossible. When you get to the end of this game, nothing is solved. You know little more about “The World” than you did when you started. You meet a number of characters who have storylines you know essentially nothing about. Hints of mystery and intrigue are introduced, and then never expounded on. You’ve got a whole bunch of new cool items and nobody to use them on. The final boss in this game (well, next to final – they give you a “bonus boss” after you win who has nothing to do with anything) does not feel like a final boss, and when the credits start rolling, expect a somewhat empty feeling inside.
Playing .hack//infection is not the simple act of playing a game. It is playing a great game while simultaneously signing a promissory note to play the next three games in the series.
That said, I looked on Amazon, and I found they’re still selling this for 50 bucks, although I saw it at Toys R Us today for $30. Both places are currently selling the second game, .hack//mutation for $50. So, granted you might stumble across some deals, but simple arithmetic shows us that 50x4 = $200, which is more than Playstation2’s are going for these days.
The question of whether or not you can rent it is a sticky one, although it would be possible. As of this review, I’ve clocked 31 hours 25 minutes in this game, and I plan on at least another two hours to bulk my characters up before I move on to the next installment. You could feasibly win this game and get your party prepped (although perhaps a little ill-equipped) for .hack//mutation in about 27 hours, which is still a considerable amount of time if you have a short rental period and a job.
Replay value is the exact same as it is for every other RPG out there. Right now, my characters are so powerful that there’s little they couldn’t take out in this game with a light slap. I could restart my characters anew and try other ideas, which I very well might if I get bored.
The last thing I need to mention in this section is the 45 minute anime DVD, .hack//liminality, which comes packaged with the game. This has been left out until now because it’s more a bonus feature than anything else. It’s a serious project (the back the box credits the DVD to the creators of “Ghost In The Shell” and “Evangelion”) and except for a shoddy opening credit sequence comprised of video clips from the game, it’s an artfully done and well-animated featurette, but – although it follows characters completely separate from the game who are running into the same problems with “The World” – it makes for little more than a resource for the game’s backstory. And, just like the game, part one of this DVD solves absolutely nothing.
I was in a tattoo shop a couple years ago and I heard the tattoo artist give a prospective new customer advice that could be applied in many situations; “You better make damn sure you want to get the first one, cause you’re gonna end up getting more after that.” And just like you can be sure that every punk rocker covered head to toe in thousands of dollars worth of ink started with just a small tattoo on their upper arm, your possible debt-inducing addiction to .hack starts with this game.
It’s well produced, it’s inventive, it’s engaging and yeah I’ll say it – It’s brilliant. But it’s also a commitment you should be sure about.
I have read, I should add, that it’s possible to bypass the first installment of .hack and skip straight to part two. But won’t that cripple your character? Wouldn’t the story be confusing? I haven’t played part two yet, so I don’t know for certain, but I will make sure to tell you in my next review.
And so, learning from the game, which drove me to write this, the end of this review has yet to be written.