.hack//Original Series - Review

In the early 2000s video game developer CyberConnect2 did something the world of video games had never seen before. Rather than creating and releasing a brand new game like one would expect, they decided to launch a massive multimedia project that would stick around for many years to come. Teaming up with other companies such as Bee Train and Gainax, CyberConenct2 went forward with their plan and the .hack (DotHack) series was born. It's been quite some time since the original games were released, and the series has since grown into one that spans multiple anime series, novels, manga series, OVAs, movies, and even multiple games -- but, how about the originals? What were the games like, and how do they hold up today? Well, that's exactly what we're about to dive into.

The original .hack games were released in four parts. The first game in the series was called ".hack//Infection," that was followed up by Mutation, then Outbreak, and finally Quarantine. In total there were four games that made up the first .hack game project, but really these games weren't your typical sequels. Rather than being something new each time, the four parts of .hack actually make up the entire original game. In other words, it's a single game released on four discs released across the years. Everything you do in the first game will carry into the second, everything you do in the second will carry over into the third, and everything you do in the third will be waiting for you at the start of the fourth and final part. It's very similar to playing a standard multi disc game, it's just that all of the discs were not sold together. So, because of this, this review will be quite a bit different as well. Instead of reviewing each game, this review will cover the entire original series, and as such will be intended for those who have never played it before. If you have played any part of the original .hack games, then you already know what to expect going into the next. Each part is basically the "same," but there are some new features across the releases that will be touched on in this review as well. So, with all of that being said, let's get on with the review.

The Story:

.hack isn't your standard game, nor is it your standard series. It's heavily story focused, but it's story does not actually start with the games -- instead, it all starts with the anime series ".hack//SIGN." The story begins with the viewers getting their first look at the MMORPG "The World," and the mysteries that surround it. Although The World is the world's most popular online game (with over 20 million users), not everything is as it seems. There's a lot happening behind the scenes, and one group of lucky players find themselves caught up in something they had never imagined. After hearing rumors of a player who can no longer log out (as in, they are physically stuck in the game), a group begins investigating. As they try to help the player escape, they eventually uncover some of the game's dark secrets, and everything they thought they knew about the game is flipped upside down. While SIGN never dives too deeply into what is actually going on with The World, the show introduces the ultimate AI living within the game (a girl named "Aura"), it provides some background on the game's original creator, it teaches possible future game players about the universe the story is set in, and it also reveals that something evil is living inside the game -- something that is actually causing harm to the real world. All in all, SIGN is an intro to the main story, but it's not completely necessary... Unless you want to fully understand everything that is.

(Don't worry, these guys will be seen again.)
When the game starts up, some time has passed since the ending of .hack//SIGN, and we see a brand new player named Kite logging into The World for the first time. Kite has been invited to play The World by his friend Orca (whom is one of the two legendary players that defeated an event boss called the One Sin -- as seen in the novel AI Buster), and he is quite eager to get started. So upon meeting up with his friend in the game's first Root Town, he quickly sets off to a newbie area to learn the basics, and start his adventure in this new game; however, things do not go quite as planned. Upon entering the area, Kite and Orca make their way to the dungeon and witness something a bit strange. Despite it being a generic low level area, a strange girl (Aura) appears and flies across the screen in front of them, as a giant holding a cross like staff (Skeith) chases after her. Orca mentions how an event shouldn't be in a low level area, as it would be too hard for new players, but the two decide to follow after them anyway.

After finally catching up to Aura and Skeith, things quickly go south. Both Kite and Orca are sent to a strange area that doesn't appear to be a part of the game, Aura hands over an odd looking book, and when Skeith attacks, Orca is unable to take it on. All of his attacks are ineffective, and he is quickly pinned to the creature's staff and hit with some sort of strange looking energy burst -- something that Kite would later learn is called data drain. Soon after Skeith turns his sights to Kite, but he is interrupted by an attack from off screen, and Kite is forced out of the game. Upon returning to the real world Kite learns that his friend has fallen into a coma, and the doctors cannot find a reason for it. Although he's unsure of what had just happened himself, Kite knows that the game had to be responsible, so he logs back in to get to the bottom of things. He soon meets a girl by the name of "BlackRose," whom also decides to join him on his quest (for reasons of her own), and by using the book given to him by Aura he is able to alter his character and play the game outside the system. With the power of Data Drain at his disposal thanks to the book, Kite dives deeper into The World than any other player before him, and sets out on an adventure to save his friend... Although, this is only a small fraction of the true story of .hack.

The thing about .hack's story is that it actually has a lot of layers to it. During actual gameplay, the story will be told in short quick cutscenes with very few lines of dialogue. There's really not a whole lot said in game during these scenes, but it's enough for you to have a basic idea of what is going on. The real story and character development actually comes from the E-mail section of Kite's desktop, and the official "The World" Message Boards. Here you'll be able to read what other "players" are posting about the world, and it's where you'll be able to learn a lot of the game's background, and find out about all of the strange things happening. Typically someone will post about an area that has been locked by the game's staff, Kite will break into it, small scenes will happen within said area (again, with little to no dialogue), and then either the Message Board post or E-mail will follow it up. As for the E-mails themselves though, here's where most of the character development will take place, and it'll allow Kite to learn about the other character's personal lives. On top of the E-mail and Message Boards, News articles can also be read to give you an idea of what is happening in the real world. Often these posts will be about advances in technology, or strange happenings, but other times they'll give you insight on how The World is actually impacting the outside. It's not quite clear at first just what is all going on, but as the series progresses more and more comes into light. Even so, all of this actually only makes up 1/3rd of the original story line.

While the games follow Kite's story, there's a lot more to this world. Sure, the News and Message Boards do show some things, but to completely understand the story you have to dive into the other forms of media related to this series -- luckily one of the most important parts is actually included with the games. With each .hack game also comes an Anime OVA for the series ".hack//Liminality" and it serves as the second side to the story. As Kite tackles the mystery from within the game, Liminality follows the story of a girl named Mai after she and her boyfriend fall unconscious from playing The World. Although she wakes up shortly after, her boyfriend (a character who actually goes on to play an important role in the series) remains in a coma. Throughout the four part series, Mai teams up with others in the real world, and they begin uncovering parts of the mystery Kite is unable to. While Kite's actions in game impact the real world, the events of the real world also have an impact on the game, and that's what Liminality is there to show. Of course you can continue to play the games without seeing the Anime OVA side, but things make a lot more sense when you've seen the entire story, and the OVAs also reveal some in game secrets as well.

The third and final part of the story is actually one that was released after the game series, but it also provides more insight on what was happening -- this side is none other than the novel series .hack//Another Birth. Like how the games follow Kite, and the OVAs follow Mai, Another Birth follows the story of BlackRose during the events of the game. Released as four novels, the series shows both the personal and in game life of Akira Hayami as she enters the game to save her little brother.

Although it's possible to go through the games without ever looking at the other tie in stories, by skipping them you will miss out on a lot, and never truly understand the full story. The series also has a large focus on each character themselves, and a lot of the time even minor characters you think nothing of will end up playing a major role in the overall plot. Again, there is a lot to this story, and the game's story line is just a small part of it.

The Gameplay:

The original .hack games are classic dungeon crawlers released in the early 2000s, and by today's standards it does show it's age. Of course this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it also means the original series isn't for everyone.

When you first start up the game, or when you turn it on in general, .hack will open with a view of Kite's desktop. Here you'll be able to check E-mails, read the news, change your desktop's background and background music, or you can access the "The World" page where you can read Message Board posts. This is where most of the actual story progression will take place, as many of the game's cutscenes and dungeons will be unlocked upon either reading a specific E-mail, or finding out about something on the Message Boards. It's a nice touch that helps simulate the whole "playing a game about a game" thing .hack has going for it, and once you log into The World and begin playing even more MMORPG simulation aspects appear.

Once you're actually playing the game (as in, The World), you'll find yourself in what is known as a "Root Town." Root Towns are the hub cities in the game, and they are where you'll also find shops, "other players," and the gate to the game's dungeons. While shops will provide you with items you need, such as healing items, other players walking around will have items on them that they may or may not be willing to trade to you. This trading feature is actually one of the key elements in .hack, and is how you'll receive most of your equipment and stat increasing items. Of course you'll also be able to gain such resources by playing dungeons, but if you get something you want or not actually comes down to luck.

After you've readied yourself in the town, you can invite up to two other main characters to join your party, and set off for a dungeon. To access these dungeons you simply walk up to what is known as a "Chaos Gate" and select a combination of three key words from the gate's menu. Different key words will change the type of area you'll be heading into, and at first it is a bit of a guessing game on what words will actually do. For example, some words will change what type of elemental enemies you'll face in an area, others will change the level the enemies will be, and some words will even change what type of items you'll find. There is a chart that will help show what your selected words will change, but you will not be able to see the chart until you've tested out the words yourself. Either way, once you've entered the key words and warped to the dungeon, things will play out similarly no matter what you choose.

Shortly after warping to a dungeon, you'll at first find yourself standing in a field. These fields are typically flat land that constantly loops around no matter which direction you run in, and they often have enemies running around as well. While some enemies will simply be out in the wild for you to kill, others will spawn from giant floating circles called "Magic Portals" when you get close to them. Once enemies are within the area though, a battle will be triggered and you will enter "battle mode."

When in a battle the game plays out a lot like a standard classic rogue like dungeon crawler. By pressing the square button you'll be able to command your party to use specific attacks or skills, and by pressing the triangle button you'll be able to bring up your own menu of skills, abilities, and items. While there is also a generic single strike attack that can be used by pressing the X button, often this is only effective against weaker enemies, and it also puts you in harms way. .hack is actually a very unforgiving game at first, with many battles actually being impossible unless you come completely prepared. When you are hit with an attack you will be unable to move, and if you run out of resources you may find yourself stuck in a room with no escape other than the game over screen. Of course such situations can also be overcome by warping to higher leveled areas and over leveling your character, there are still some enemies that require strategy to take down, and unless you can overcome them you will die. This becomes prevalent during the later parts of Part 1 Infection, and throughout the rest of the series. Rather than focusing on attacking, there are many times where you as Kite must take on a full support role (healing), while the other two party members focus on DPS (damage per second). It forces you to play the game in ways you normally wouldn't, and until you realize what you must do you may find some battles to be "impossible."

As for the dungeons themselves, they are once again a classic dungeon crawling experience from start to finish. You'll enter a dungeon, a mini map will pop up with nothing uncovered, and you'll move from room to room as you fill in the map and make your way to the bottom floor. Along the way Magic Portals will spawn enemies for you to deal with, and you'll be unable to progress to the next room until every enemy in the area is dead. You'll also come across treasure chests with randomly dropped loot (which can range from new equipment to support items), you'll find objects that can be broken and have a chance of dropping items, and you'll also find strange items such as the "Bloody Egg" or "Oh No Mellon" which serve as food for the in game virtual pet like "Grunty." This is a pattern which will repeat throughout the entire .hack series, with the only differences being harder and stronger enemies to face, and slightly different looking maps. Typically at the end of each dungeon will also be a special treasure chest with a rare item, but most story related dungeons will take you back to the Root Town before having a chance to open it -- as most of the time a boss will be blocking your path.
The final main aspect of dungeons and fighting comes from Kite's ability to use Data Drain. By weakening an enemy enough, Kite is able to preform the very same attack that put Orca into a coma at the start of the game. Doing this will turn your target enemy into a weaker mini enemy, and it will also give Kite some sort of reward. Sometimes this reward is a rare item, but other times it's an item called a "Virus Core" that allows Kite to gain access to restricted areas in the game (aka, story dungeons). Of course this power also comes with a risk, as using the power too often without killing enemies normally can eventually kill Kite, or it may even give you negative status effects that can really damper you in battle. It's really a high risk high reward system, and it's actually key if you want to progress through the main plot. The only real down side to this is that only specific Virus Cores can be found from set level enemies, and once you become too strong for an area it does become difficult to get a core from an enemy without killing it first. The good news is, this mainly doesn't become an issue until the later entries, so you do have a chance to collect as many Virus Cores as possible before transferring your data to the next game.

While the main gameplay of .hack is almost fully a dungeon crawler, there are some side activities you can play around with. There's goblins who will challenge you to a game of tag on the Message Boards, you can feed food to the pig like creatures called Grunties, and when they become an adult you'll be able to trade items with them and even ride them in fields. In later volumes (starting with Mutation) there's also other side content like Grunty racing, but the main focus of the game will always be the story and the dungeon crawling.

The Good and the Bad:

When looking back at the .hack games, it's not really easy to point out the game's good points, nor is it easy to point out it's flaws. On one hand, the games are a part of a really interesting series that has a pretty well thought out story line, and is easy to get invested in; however on the other, it's a game which doesn't present it's story as well as many games of today. In game dialogue may cause you to cringe from time to time, and a lot of the time nothing important is really said. It's not until you get to the few major parts in each release that the cutscenes really matter, and for the most part nearly all character development is tied to the E-mail system. Of course this is a nice feature and all, but one cant help but wonder if they could have included more of it during the course of the main story as well. Even so, the game's story is one well worth seeing, and when it's experienced along side the other forms of media (such as the anime, novels, and manga) it is even better.

As for the gameplay, .hack is a pure dungeon crawler. You'll enter dungeons, run through rooms slowly killing enemy after enemy, and you'll continue to manage your resources from start to finish. Healing yourself when you're hurt, using skills to buff yourself or debuff enemies, curing status ailments such as poison, and keeping your team alive in general is a huge part of the game -- if you're not a fan of playing the support role it may get tiring after awhile. This is what combat mostly comes down to in the original series, but commanding your allies to attack and using special skills yourself can be a lot of fun once you get used to it. The Data Drain feature is also pretty nice, with different abilities for it unlocking later on.

Overall .hack isn't a bad game. By today's standards it can be seen as being very outdated, but back in the day it was something that was pretty impressive. It was the first game to make use of the PlayStation 2's DVD playing capability, and it was a series that both gamers and non games alike could get into -- this is actually something that hasn't changed over the years. As the .hack series continued to grow, it's story only got better and better, and still to this day it is something well worth looking into. As for the game itself, for some it may be a challenge going back to it, but for others it may just be the classic dungeon crawling experience they have been looking for. Either way, these games marked the start of an amazing series, and that's something that will never change.

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