Developer – CyberConnect2
Publisher – Bandai Games, Namco Bandai Games
Platforms – PS2
The .Hack franchise is one that doesn’t seem to get a lot of publicity. I’ve mentioned it a few times here, but I’d never actually finished the games so I decided it would be worth taking another shot at them. After a fair amount of play-time I’ve been forced to come to an unfortunate conclusion: nostalgia sucks. While the series has some great features it would seem that there was a reason I never finished them that I had blocked from my mind. Weak story delivery and repetitive gameplay are the two major reasons that I can no longer recommend the .Hack//GAMES.
The World is an absolutely massive virtual reality MMORPG with over 20 million players worldwide. With such a huge game, you can expect there to be a few bugs, right? Kite’s first day in The World, however, sees him dragged into a conflict with the lives of all those unsuspecting players at stake. His best friend in a coma, the terrifying data glitch that attacked him and the invisible bracelet of power granted to him by a mysterious girl in white weighing heavily on his mind, Kite does everything he can to discover the secret of the huge MMO. It is a game though, so in this case saving The World means something a little different than normal.
More than with any other type of review, I struggle to decide where to start talking about video games. To my mind .Hack is a very ambitious game, attempting to simulate an MMORPG experience in a single player environment, and it does a lot of that very well. You’ll start off on your computer’s desktop, follow news feeds, read emails from friends, post on forums, form groups and trade with other players in a reasonably solid system. Considering when the series was first released (2002), it does a wonderful job on that particular front. Unfortunately, things start to fall apart a little when it comes to the meat of the gameplay. Randomly generated maps with randomly generated dungeons and monster encounters are fine – nice, even – before you realize that those generators cycle through a very limited number of skins and configurations that you’ll be seeing over and over again for four entire games. I should probably mention that the designs of some of the locations and monsters are wonderfully unique, so it really depends on your own personal tolerance for repetition.
The issues continue when it comes to the combat. There are normal attacks, physical abilities and magic spells available to you in each fight. Despite that you’ll find yourself furiously tapping X to win in most fights, unless you need to take advantage of a particular enemy weakness. You can micromanage the actions of your partners as well but, with the exception of demanding that they heal you, often it’s not worth the time. The system isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that when the vast majority of your time playing is spent in dungeons that look the same, fighting minute variations of the same monsters, hitting the same button over and over again, things start to get a little stale. But that’s what the story is meant to guard against, right?! …right?
Wrong. I’ve mentioned a number of times that I love the concept of virtual reality, so it takes a lot for me to say that .Hack’s story is boring. The concept is absolutely fine and, strictly speaking, the plot itself is also pretty interesting. It’s the delivery that really lets .Hack down. Once the premise is established the games follow a formula that roughly goes Story Dungeon à Boss Fight à Filler Dungeon à Filler Dungeon à Story Dungeon à Boss Fight. Even with my complaints about the gameplay, that doesn’t look too bad, does it? The issue is that the “story” consists of only a few sentences spoken between the characters at the end of a dungeon. For the first three games the plot barely advances at all and you just fight bosses over and over again (I keep using that phrase, don’t I?). For the amount of playing you don’t learn enough about what’s going on to keep things interesting, meaning that running dungeons is more or less what the games are all about (just like MMOs…huh…). Added on to that is the fact that the dialogue itself is pretty poor overall.
Here’s where I have to make a confession. Despite being older, wiser (*cough*) and more patient than my past self I still did not manage to finish the .Hack//GAMES. Even the discovery that the finale features more plot advancement than its predecessors combined was not enough to stir my interest. A game shouldn’t feel like work and that’s exactly what it felt like when I was forcing myself to pick up the controller each day. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned that fact that you have to revisit past areas to grind materials with random drop rates to continue the story yet, or that the game places an artificial limit on how much resource harvesting you can do at any one time, or that the other characters’ AI is horrific, or that the bosses require the exact same strategies as normal enemies for the most part, or…I think I’ll stop there and sum things up by saying that .Hack has a lot of issues.
As mentioned earlier, the games’ visual design can be really nice at times. From the characters to the monsters and dungeons there’s a lot of personality that shines through. Though given when the series was released, I’m not going to comment on the quality of the graphics overall. The voice-work is variable, as English dubs tend to be. I can’t quite take away any points for it but I also can’t describe it as one of .Hack’s good points. Much of the BGM is forgettable. As a final point I can’t help but question why the game was split into 4 instalments, as each one only took about 10 hours to complete including side quests and there was little to no innovation with each new title.
Summary – I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that much of what I’ve said about the .Hack PS2 games in the past can be put down to nostalgia. As an MMO simulator it does a great job in many aspects but fails to be entertaining overall, with repetition and lack of compelling story playing major roles. My opinion of the rest of the .Hack franchise is unchanged for the moment, though this is one series you really don’t have to play.
Score: 5.5/10 – Average