In William Gibson’s seminal classic Neuromancer, the author posited a vision of cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination,” experienced by millions in an “unthinkably complex” web of data. By the late 90s, science fiction had thoroughly established the concept of virtual reality as a tenet of the genre, popularized by Gibson’s work, tabletop games like Shadowrun, and perhaps culminating in The Wachowski’s megahit film, The Matrix. Virtual reality promised not simply a new technological frontier, but a new form of escapism: a way to leave the doldrums of this world and find solace in a another of our own making. Of course, video games and escapism are forever intertwined, and the first MMORPGs (Ultima Online, Everquest, and other such games) had opened up new avenues for players to communicate and explore these digital landscapes together.
Enter .hack. CyberConnect2’s multimedia franchise first launched in 2002 as a series of four action-RPGs for the PlayStation 2, along with an anime series, a trading card game, and other assorted merchandise. .hack revolved around a fictitious MMORPG called The World,”drawing on the concept of real-life MMOs to tell a unique sci-fi tale. The neat thing about .hack was that each game in the series was a new volume of a continuous story, with player’s save data carrying over between each installment. It was essentially an early form of the kind of episodic gaming we see in today’s industry. While the original tetralogy of .hack games weren’t exactly critical darlings, the franchise did well enough to garner a sequel in 2006: a new trilogy entitled .hack//G.U., which has now been re-released in a single package entitled .hack//G.U. Last Recode. So how does .hack//G.U. hold up, a decade later?
.hack//G.U. once again takes place in the fictional MMO The World, now on its second iteration, The World R:2. Less popular than its original incarnation, The World R:2 has become plagued by rampant player-killing; so much so, in fact, that some players even take it upon themselves to vanquish Player-Killers (PKs), calling themselves “Player-Killer Killers” (PKKs). One such player is Haseo, who after being PKed on his very first time logging into the game, rose to become the “Terror of Death”, one of the most widely feared PKKs. Haseo is driven by revenge, hunting down a legendary PK known as Tri-Edge, whom after killing Haseo’s friend Shino caused her real-life player to become comatose. Following a tip from the enigmatic Ovan, Haseo is able to track down Tri-Edge… only to find himself not only resoundly defeated, but drained of his power and reduced back to Level 1. Haseo now has to continue his hunt for Tri-Edge while regaining his lost power, all while being drawn into a battle with a mysterious anomaly known as AIDA, and a web of conspiracy that extends beyond the digital confines of The World itself.
The story of .hack//G.U. is easily one of its strongest aspects. Spread across three volumes (Rebirth, Reminisce, and Redemption), players step into Haseo’s shoes while he learns to open himself up to others and gradually gain the power he needs to combat Tri-Edge and AIDA. Despite relying a bit too much on timeworn sh?nen tropes and a fair amount of melodrama, Haseo’s tale of personal growth is consistently engrossing, thanks in no small part to a solid voice cast made up of anime industry greats (Yuri Lowenthal, Wendee Lee, Johnny Yong Bosch, Steve Blum; you name it, they’re probably here) that sell their characters. Combined with excellent cinematic direction during the game’s CGI cutscenes and a wonderful score by Chikayo Fukuda, .hack//G.U. often feels like you’re playing through an anime series. The best part, though, are the lengths that the series takes to fully immerse the player in its world. Upon booting up the game, you’ll be greeted by Haseo’s desktop, a fully interactive simulacrum of a computer monitor. You can check emails, read forum posts, even read news articles that inform you of what’s going on in this alternative 2017. Broader themes of identity and the blurred line between the real and virtual are further explored here, as well. It’s impressive world-building that really helps to lend context to Haseo’s story and what other “players” are experiencing.
That’s not to say that there aren’t problems. The aforementioned CGI cutscenes are beautifully rendered and choreographed, but the in-engine work is far less impressive, marred by inexpressive models and pregnant pauses between audio clips. What’s more, the pacing is stunted by the same virtual desktop that initially feels so novel. Whenever a key plot point occurs, Haseo has to log out of The World, exit The World’s title screen, check his email, read whatever message triggers the next event, log back into The World, then complete whatever (singular) task is required before repeating the process all over again. It gets to be a serious drag over the course of the series: while I admire CyberConnect2’s commitment to theme, there surely had to be a less intrusive way to move the story forward.
Gameplay is the area in which .hack//G.U. shows the most age. Once Haseo logs into The World, he’s free to explore one of several hub cities, or enter a variety of keywords to load up an area to visit. These areas, as well as the game’s dungeons, are randomly generated, with cookie-cutter rooms and hallways mashed together haphazardly, but the bland environments and repetitive objectives don’t really entice exploration. There just isn’t a lot to do in these environments, other than fight enemies and kick Chims (tiny, steam-powered critters that serve as a mascot of sorts… or would that dishonor fall upon the Grunties?) around. .hack//G.U. is clearly drawing inspiration from a time before MMOs had World of Warcraft to fall back on, and as a result, The World feels like an awful grind at times. It’s difficult to imagine that clearing the same two dungeons, occupied by the same five or six palette-swapped enemies, would draw as passionate an audience as this fictitious game supposedly has.
To its credit, combat in .hack//G.U. is actually pretty fun, if a bit simplistic. Haseo’s in-game character class is the versatile Adept Rogue: he starts with just twin swords, but is eventually able to upgrade his class and gain access to a variety of weapon types, including scythes, broadswords, and even guns. Each weapon type has its own standard attack combo, as well as a powered-up charge attack that can be executed by holding down the attack button. Should Haseo be knocked down in battle, he can choose between a quick recovery with the block button, or press the attack button a few seconds later for a counterattack. Haseo also has special skills that can be accessed by pressing the right shoulder button: by dealing enough damage to enemies, the player can also take the opportunity to perform a deadly Rengeki attack by using one of Haseo’s skills. Lastly, once a Morale gauge has been filled by landing successful combo attacks, Haseo and his party can enter an “Awakening” state that allows them to devastate their foes. If I had one major gripe with combat, at least early on, it’s that switching weapons is very cumbersome: Haseo does gain access to a quick select eventually (in Volume 2), but in Rebirth, opening a menu every time you want to change equipment is tedious.
There is a fair amount of side content to partake in: the Crimson VS. card game, which is kind of like an automated version of Triple Triad, opens up in Reminisce. Players build a deck by selecting one of many General cards and three additional Unit cards (the cost of which is determined by the General’s charisma stat) with abilities that supplement the General’s abilities. This is even called Junctioning, so eat your heart out, Final Fantasy VIII. Once a deck has been made, a Crimson VS. game automatically takes place in the background while players finish other tasks, allowing them to check in later and see how effective their specific combination of cards turned out to be. There’s a strangely addictive metagame aspect to Crimson VS., requiring you to adjust your setup depending on what other players start doing to counter you. My deck initially used Haseo, the Terror of Death as its General, with Unit cards that boosted damage output at the cost of HP, effectively turning the deck into a glass cannon. Once that stopped working for me, I switched to a more defense-oriented deck with abilities that healed and reduced damage dealt to my General. Crimson VS. may not be the most robust minigame on the RPG market, but it’s certainly a worthwhile distraction.
There are plentiful sidequests to undertake, although they suffer from taking place in the same recycled environments as the rest of the game. Haseo can also help manage a merchant’s guild, as well as tool around on a motorbike in between quests, which is a fun way to get around and has more use as the series goes on. Once Volume 2 rolls around, Haseo can start customizing his bike with various parts to improve its performance, and even take on timed missions using the bike. There are also Arena battles, special team battles versus other parties of players that put a unique spin on combat and are the centerpiece of large chunks of its story (.hack//G.U. really likes the tournament arc trope). One highlight of the experience are Avatar battles. After a certain point in the story, Haseo gains access to the power of an Avatar, a Persona-esque entity that grants him unique powers and the ability to combat AIDA. These battles play out like mini-Panzer Dragoon or Zone of the Enders segments, where players must circle strafe around enemies to dodge their attacks while firing lasers and going in for close-quarters combat when necessary. They’re fast-paced, energetic, and easily one of the best parts of the game. So, while it’s a shame that .hack//G.U.’s gameplay barely even approaches serviceable most of the time, at least you’ll be having some fun while you wait for the next cinematic to begin.
Last Recode does come with a few extras that should please series fans. All of the Terminal Disc files, previously available as limited pack-in bonuses with each game, have been included here, and they’re an excellent way to refresh yourself on the plot of the original .hack quadrilogy and gain further insight into whats going on behind-the-scenes in the main story. There’s also Parody Mode, which is a series of… “humorous” skits that poke fun at the game’s generally self-serious tone. I personally didn’t find these to be terribly amusing, but it’s an interesting inclusion nonetheless. For players who just want to stick around for the story and don’t really want to be bothered with combat, Last Recode offers a “cheat mode” that also boosts Haseo’s stats to absurd proportions: be warned, however, that using cheat mode will lock you out of a few Trophies. Lastly, there’s an entirely new fourth Volume that has been added to the G.U. experience: Reconnection, which serves as an extended epilogue for the series as Haseo strives to save Ovan before The World’s servers are shut down. While brief, it’s a worthwhile addition and a nice cap to the .hack//G.U. storyline, and might even foretell interest in continuing the series.
When you consider how prohibitively expensive the .hack//G.U. games became over time, something like Last Recode is certainly welcome as a definitive way to experience these games. .hack//G.U. definitely shows its age in a lot of areas, but its fun combat and engrossing story (not to mention that phenomenal soundtrack) make this collection a great value for anybody who has ever wondered what all of the fuss was about. While I certainly wish the gameplay was a little more robust to match the engaging storyline, I enjoyed my time with Last Recode and hope to explore The World again someday.
In the interest of timeliness, the reviewer played through Part 1, some of Part 2 and all of the additional content before finishing this review.