Reviewed: December 8, 2006
Released: October 24, 2006
The Dot.hack games, a series of four closely linked RPGs telling one long story, came out a few years ago on the PS2. Though critics generally gave the games favorable reviews, one thing left a sour taste in many mouths: it was basically one game split up into four discs. Where less greedy publishers might have simply produced a multiple-disc, single release game, the publishers of Dot.hack effectively forced gamers to shell out nearly $200.00 just to play through their saga to the end.
The newest Dot.hack game, .hack//G.U.: Vol. 1//Rebirth, starts the series over with new characters and a new saga of technology run amok. Fresh new graphics and gameplay elements give this "Rebirth" an update for 2006. But can this new series possibly be good enough to justify getting sucked in to the tune of another $200?
Rebirth follows the saga of Haseo, a PKK in an online game called The World R.2. A PKK is a player-killer-killer, someone who hunts and kills the characters of other players in an online game who spend their time killing new players and looting their bodies ("PKs," or player-killers). He's basically a vigilante in that regard, and an infamous one at that. But we soon find out that there was another chapter in Haseo's online life, one in which he was just another happy adventurer.
What happened to change all that involved a mysterious character known as Tri-Edge, who seems to have powers far beyond those of even a game administrator, and may even be affecting players it interacts with in the real world. Players of the original series will find almost innumerable references to those games, but Rebirth can just as easily be enjoyed by a series newcomer.
The game is played from the perspective of the person playing Haseo online, who shares his voice, thoughts and attitudes. Although familiar to fans of the older Dot.hack games, the mechanic of actually logging out of the "game" and returning to Haseo's player's "desktop" is refreshing and entertaining as it ever was, even if it sometimes wavers into the realm of being gimmicky. Players can log out to check news headlines, websites, community forums and e-mail. E-mail in particular is often vital to the advancement of the story, but useful information (including where to find more dungeons for leveling up) and fun extra interactions between other main characters can be combed from all over the game without too much effort.
It can sometimes be hard to swallow the idea that these are just characters in an online game, even though Dot.hack is set in 2017. That's far enough in the future to have me, as a willing sci-fi buff, swallowing the idea of a game wherein the characters move, emote and speak as easily as we do in real life, possibly due to some sort of neural interface.
However, there are a lot of instances in the game of players apparently typing (emoticons, such as :D, appear in their dialog text) at the same time as they are speaking, which seems to sort of defeat the purpose of speaking aloud in the first place, from the perspective of a player playing a game.
There's also the utter seriousness with which every character seems to take the game world that they're in. As anyone who has actually played online games can attest, there are really very few players on any given server who are dedicated to always staying in character. Most people are in a hurry to say what they have to say, and don't bother to take the time to get into character. Likewise, most players involved in PvP (player-versus-player) combat, such as PKs and PKKs, aren't really afraid to "die," since they view it as a competitive game between themselves and others like them.
In Dot.hack, players treat their characters as though they were real people, which just isn't as believable as I think the game's developers wanted it to be. Nonetheless, having such vibrant characters in a console RPG is helpful to creating an immersive world, even if it doesn't hold up as well as some under scrutiny.
Throughout the game, traveling to different places and returning to the hub city of Mac Anu is the basic pattern. New areas are accessed by combining words from three separate lists, which grow as the game progresses. It amounts to a random dungeon generator, effectively, and the different combinations by the end of the game are nigh endless. Choosing between an open field or a dungeon, a boss objective or an exploration objective, and even which elements dictate the area's enemy types and treasures allows players a lot of freedom to fight what they want to fight and acquire the items they want to acquire, as long as they pay attention and learn the system. Special areas and event areas are book marked in a separate list for easy input when the time comes to advance the story.
Battles are fought in real-time, with field position and timing just as important as spells and equipment. The battle area becomes fenced off by a blue field when entering combat, circumventing the real MMORPG problems of "adds" (additional monsters joining a fight already in progress) and interference from other players. I'm happy to report that the A.I. which governs the actions of other characters in your party is excellent and effectively recreates the feeling of playing with actual other people in an online game. Your companions know what they're doing and usually play intelligently. Very rarely does it ever become apparent that your party members are in fact computer A.I. characters run by various battle algorithms.
Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said of enemy characters encountered in Rebirth. Often, the only difference between them and run-of-the-mill field monsters is a heightened level of aggression, and they are just as easily defeated by the same techniques. Of course, some of this is in the interest of allowing Haseo to advance through the ranks of the other "players" in The World R.2, but it often felt like I was being given a free ride through the PvP battles.
The other half to Rebirth's battles are Avatar fights. Not encountered until several hours into the game, these fights always represent major story events, so there are not very many of them. An Avatar is a Gundam-esque (for anime fans) or Aeon-esque (for the FFX set) entity that can be summoned by a select few players, though most of them do not have any knowledge of how to do so, or even that they have such a capability. These players were predetermined well before the events of Rebirth take place, and are collectively called Epitaph Users by CC Corp., the fictional corporation that developed and published The World R.2. The reason for their being granted powers on the fringe edge of the game's limits remains unclear, at least for this volume of the new saga, but it seems to have something to do with threats such as Tri-Edge.
Avatars float in cyberspace, invisible to non-Epitaph Users. They move freely and nimbly, and have various attacks. During Haseo's avatar battles, one button is used to shoot at the oppsing Avatar, while another is used to perform an evasive dash (which is probably a little more useful than it should be). Once Haseo's Avatar hits his opponent with enough gun blasts, the opponent becomes stunned and the player can close in to do massive damage with his melee weapon, an energy scythe.
Once the enemy's armor gauge is depleted, the battle mode switches. Players have about a minute to perform a three-second charge on a special gun and then fire it at the enemy. If they manage to hit it, all of the vital data from that enemy is drained into Haseo's avatar and the battle ends. These fights are actually fairly well done, allowing room for mistakes but not for mindless button mashing. Despite how active they are, a good amount of strategy and attention to enemy fight patterns are required to ensure a victory.
Other than that, there are numerous side-quests that can be undertaken throughout the game, involving Chim Chims (little bulbous animals that drop items needed to open doors and activate machinery), Lucky Animals (animals that give blessings to players who can catch them), and more. None of them take a lot of extra effort, and often the rewards are well worth it. The main story clips along at a fast pace and rarely becomes dull, though it isn't as flawless as some other games I've seen.
Unfortunately, some of the main characters are such anime cliches that I already know them before they're done speaking their first sentence: Atoli, the well-meaning, clutzy and overly emotional girly girl (who for some reason stays interesting to Haseo even as most players are paying more attention to the fiery, stern Pi); Ovan, the battle-scarred, reticent man with a mysterious past and unclear motivations. However, while run-of-the-mill, there aren't any characters who don't at least fit their roles well. Overall, playing Rebirth is rewarding and entertaining enough to overlook its sometimes-shaky production.
As I understand it, the shaded 3D graphics of Rebirth are a massive step up in terms of raw quality from its predecessors. Certainly, the game looks excellent. Colors and lines are clear and vibrant, shadows and light fall realistically, and characters' facial expressions and body language are plucked straight from an anime series. The backgrounds are occasionally pretty enough to make even an old hand like me stop just to take it in.
However, that doesn't mean the game's got perfect looks. I noticed consistent pop-in, usually from an acceptably long distance but occasionally from far too close. There are also jaggies evident in both the normal game and in the rendered cutscenes. The cutscenes at least should have been a relatively easy problem to fix.
Character design is pretty good, though I have to admit I've always been stymied by the "skinny girl in ridiculously large, poofy round hat" thing that always seems to pop up in these anime-influenced games. Who told the character designer that a floppy cloth cap the size of a kiddie pool was an acceptable fashion statement? The same guy who was consulted for Tales of Legendia's characters, I guess.
A lot of the other characters have outlandish designs, but within the parameters of an online game they're okay, and some are even pretty fun to look at, such as Pi and Ovan. Haseo himself starts off looking all right, if a bit effeminately dressed, and changing to a more ornate (and much cooler-looking) outfit around halfway through the game.
Rebirth has a great game soundtrack, with lots of magical sounding songs and (miracle of miracles!) no particularly annoying songs at all. A few are fairly forgettable, but that's to be expected. How many movies have soundtracks you can still remember by heart?
The voice acting represents a rogues' gallery of standard anime talent. Attentive listeners will spot the voice actors of Cowboy Bebops' Spike Spiegel, Fushigi Yuugi's Miaka and more. On the plus side, most of the voices have good, even delivery and are believable. On the minus side, the couple that don't range from mildly annoying (Pi and Kuhn) to downright aggravating (Atoli). As with most things in the gaming world, it could have been done better, but it could also have been a lot worse.
Ay, here's the rub. It's not that Rebirth is a bad game by any standard. The problem is this: is 35 hours of good game worth getting into a storyline that will eventually cost you the price of four separate games? Frankly, no, it is not. We're not talking about Super Mario Bros., DOOM, or Final Fantasy VII here. Rebirth is fun, but it isn't the defining game for a generation of its genre. And let's face it: that'd be about the only way it might be worth paying hundreds of dollars to play a regular console game through to the end.
As a stand-alone game, Rebirth ends at about 30 to 35 hours of normal play, and completely peters out of interesting things to do at about 40. That's a fair hour to dollar ratio, but it's nothing like the hundred-plus hours many PS2 RPG’s offer for the price of a single disc. Is it worth playing? For RPG fans I'd say yes, but be mindful that Rebirth is only the beginning, and it's a spendy road indeed you'll be traveling down if you choose to take the plunge.
Rebirth is a good solid game with an interesting premise, memorable characters and fairly high production values. However, its position as the first piece of a four-part sales gimmick casts it in an unpleasant light. I suppose that as long as the formula worked for them the last time around, I can't exactly blame Bandai Namco Games for wanting to milk a property for all it's worth, but that doesn't mean I like it as a gamer.
It's fun to follow Haseo and company on their adventures in The World R.2, even if some of the stuff that happens seems to have been lifted from a page of The Big Book of Anime Cliches. A nice graphical overhaul and fun battles make Rebirth a worthy, if unfortunately short, addition to the RP gamer's library, at least on its own.
But as far as sound investments go, buying up Final Fantasy XII, Suikoden V, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Dragon Quest VIII will get you a lot more bang for considerably less money -- you might even have enough left over to go grab one of the oft-overlooked Shadow Hearts games. And each of those titles is a self-contained experience, requiring only a one-time purchase on the gamer's part. In light of such games, the Dot.hack series, quite frankly, still can't quite hack it.