Over a year ago, I had the chance to speak with Hiroshi Matsuyama, creator of the .hack series. It was at E3 2005 that .hack//G.U. was first announced and details were circulated. I had enjoyed the original .hack game series, but like so many fans, I agreed that spreading one basic plot over four games was a bad idea. Matsuyama told us at RPGFan two things about the G.U. series: first, that G.U.’s three games would each be a separate game, not three parts of the same game; second, that the size of the first G.U. title was larger than all four of the original games combined.
That’s what we were told. Unfortunately, I’m not sure either statement is true. At the very least, I doubt the veracity of the latter statement since I completed this game in under 30 hours.
Despite CyberConnect2’s lofty goals, which were apparently not met, I still think there’s hope for the G.U. series to be a greater success than the first .hack series. Here’s why…
Seven years after the events of the original .hack, seven years after Kite had championed (and indeed saved) the MMORPG known as “The World,” a lot has changed. The backstory, presented progressively during the early scenes of Rebirth, goes as follows:
In 2010, Kite and his crew take care of some business, and “The World” continues to sell well internationally.
In 2015, an unexplained fire breaks out at CC Corp. (CyberConnect Corporation) headquarters. As a result, all character data is lost for the game “The World.” People assume that this could spell the end for CC Corp.
In 2017, CC Corp. returns to the scene with “The World: R2.” It’s a revised version of The World, and in this version, Player-Killing (PKing) is allowed without any form of mutual consent. This gives the MMORPG a much darker feel than the previous version (now referred to as “R1”).
Of course, the same problems from last time return. People are inexplicably going into comas while playing The World: R2, and CC Corp. doesn’t offer any valid explanation. Rumors are going around about fuzzy black dots appearing in the game, some evil player named Tri-Edge, and the rumors say that these anomalies could have some correlation to players going into comas.
You play the role of Haseo, a new character who chooses the class “Adept Rogue” and begins his adventure in The World. Some seemingly nice players take Haseo under their wing and show him the ropes, but at the end of the first dungeon, they mercilessly PK the guy, because he’s a “stupid n00b.” This apparently guides Haseo’s course in the game, and he creates a personal Vendetta against all PKers. He himself is now the ultimate PKKer, and people have nicknamed him “The Terror of Death.”
Flash forward almost a year. Haseo has become extremely powerful, and he’s also lost one of his companions to the infamous “Tri-Edge.” Yeah, the girl never logged back into the game after being PKed, and there’s reason to believe that she may also be in a coma. Haseo is led down a rabbit trail by a creepy old guy named Ovan (think Auron from FFX, but a little more enigmatic) all the way to Hulle Granz Cathedral, the site where Haseo witnessed Shino (his loved one) being PKed by Tri-Edge.
Haseo arrives at the cathedral, fights Tri-Edge, and loses. Oh, if you haven’t looked at the screenshots, our buddy Tri-Edge looks a fair bit like Kite (the previous series’ protagonist) on drugs. Tri-Edge performs the classic “Data Drain” on Haseo, and after the PKing ensues, Haseo logs back in to discover that he’s lost all his levels and equipment. The poor chump is back at square one. This is where the game’s “prologue” ends and the real story of Volume 1: Rebirth really begins.
It’s an interesting premise, if a little self-important. Sometimes it’s hard to swallow just how seriously the players within “The World” take the game, particularly in regards to PKing (a parody of such online melodrama can be found in the South Park episode “Make Love Not Warcraft”). The situation, of course, is exacerbated by the idea that playing “The World” can lead to real-life negative consequences (a coma), so it’s fair to consider Haseo’s motives reasonable.
What I appreciate most about the storyline in G.U. is the realism and honesty found within the “news” and “community forums” sections of the game. Like the original .hack games, you are able to log out of “The World” and check your email, among other things. The news bytes (which include a few anime sequences) and forums include excellent information that help paint a broader picture of our future world. And honestly, much of it seems like reasonable conjecture on the part of CyberConnect2. Since the game that you, the player, are playing is technically offline and single-player, the developers seemed to have no qualms in tackling the issue of MMO addiction, along with a new disease they call “doll syndrome” where young children fail to develop normal physical and social skills in the real world. This accompanies other, less relevant stories about the Japanese government, the environment, and space exploration.
The community forums are also great because of the way each person on the boards has a distinct personality. Just the idea of choosing to write/simulate a fictional message board is fairly clever; in the case of G.U., the execution is just as wonderful as the planned concept. The “outside-of-the-game” details are what I really found myself enjoying.
Within the game, things are eerily and disappointingly similar to the last go-around. Haseo learns that he, too, has the ability to execute “data drain,” and he then continues his quest to confront Tri-Edge. Now, he’s better-informed and receives the aid of different players to get his way. These players, of course, have their own agendas, and the plot thickens nicely in this regard.
Possibly because of Haseo’s previous experiences with the game, the man is a jerk. Seriously, you play the role of one stuck-up, selfish, angry, lone-ranger kind of player. As is to be expected, plenty of character interaction revolves around Haseo being taught what it means to be a normal, caring person. Among the various interpretations of what “G.U.” stands for, most agree that its official meaning is “grow up.” This is certainly what Haseo needs to do.
Just like last time around, the experience of playing a game within a game can be a little disconcerting; it’s like a frame novel, only a little more existential since you control a player. Characters speak openly about the nature of MMOs and use net-friendly terms like “n00b” and “The question begs to be answered: who is Haseo outside of “The World?” Who knows if the series will give the answer, as this point may actually be irrelevant to the story.
What is relevant to the story is a lot of the same stuff from last time around. Rumors, players in comas, “The World” and its mythology, that sort of thing, it’s all back. The black spots, AIDA, and Tri-Edge are all sort of new, though they may just be “updated” problems from the original series. Time will tell.
The story of Rebirth is essentially told over the course of one major event: an arena tournament. This tournament is used to pace the story; in most games, something like an arena tournament would be used to mark out one part of the game. In Rebirth, it spans the whole game, which is something of a letdown in my eyes. I only hope the other two volumes have better events to keep the story moving forward.
The brownie points go to the surrounding details that bring “The World” and all of the year 2017 to life; the character development is sparse, not enough to call the storyline the game’s selling point. I give Rebirth’s story a 75%.
If the cut-up storyline wasn’t what killed the .hack franchise last time around, the mindlessly-repetitive gameplay would have to be the true culprit. There’s a bit of that in G.U., but not where you would think…
My complaint with G.U.’s gameplay is not in battles, but in progressing through the game. Here’s the pattern, in a nutshell: get an email, log in to “The World,” talk to some characters, get another email (log out), log back in to “The World,” talk to more characters, go through a dungeon, watch a cutscene, and get some more email. Where’s the problem? The problem is, in my opinion, the email. In particular, the fact that the email client exists only outside of “the World,” forcing you to go through two or three loading screens just to read some text and trigger a new event. It makes the game feel disconnected, especially when Haseo says “I think I’ll log out and check my email.” If the player was forced to save and quit for awhile at this point, it may feel right, but as it is, the feeling of logging out just to log back in felt way too forced.
Everything else about gameplay in G.U. is a massive improvement over the original .hack series. I loved battles in this game, even if they weren’t too challenging. The time-based nature of special attacks and “Rengeki” attacks made every battle fun and interesting. The big challenge in the game was the arena battles, though this challenge could generally be overcome through level-grinding and some advanced knowledge of the battle system. Level-grinding in this game is thankfully a quick and painless experience, unlike the soul-sucking feeling of leveling in a real MMORPG.
In towns and fields, Haseo gets to ride on a “steam bike.” Yup, your mount is a motorcycle. You can enter battles by crashing your motorcycle into enemies, and I made a habit of doing things this way. It’s unfortunate that the steam bike couldn’t be used in the dungeons (of which there were only two types, a problem I’ll address in the graphics section).
Managing items, spells, and equipment is a hassle. Since you’re technically only in control of Haseo, the other members that you can invite into your party (up to three including yourself) have their own inventory and equipment that you cannot access. You can “trade” and offer gifts, but you can’t work through the regular menu to do that. It takes some getting used to.
Hopefully the game won’t become repetitive over the next two volumes. Again, we won’t know until they come. As for Volume 1, I give gameplay an 85%.
I ran into a few minor issues with the control. As an Action RPG, things like button sensitivity and user interface are fairly important. I found that the steam bike handled in a somewhat clunky way; then again, it’s more realistic to make the bike turn slowly than to make it the equivalent of a “run” feature.
As I said earlier, handling the equipment of your party members is a bit of an awkward challenge. In my opinion, it should all take place seamlessly through the main menu; instead, you have to go through different channels to give a piece of equipment to another character. Customizing that equipment becomes even more frustrating.
The camera functions very well, and is always at the discretion of the player. In battle, controls handle very well, and I think the game would be a disaster if they hadn’t taken the time to really tighten up these controls. In this regard, I am well pleased.
G.U. Vol.1 Rebirth earns an 80% in the “control” category.
Here’s a place of major improvement from the old series to the present G.U. games. This game looks beautiful! Character design and animation are spectacular, and the environments are excellent. Battle animation looks great, and the movie-like cutscenes are a real sight to behold. I have nothing but praise for the work the animators did.
My only issue was that there were essentially three environments for standard gameplay: the field, the cave dungeon, and what I like to call the “Asian courtyard” dungeon. That’s it for the randomly generated areas. I feel like a little bit of added effort could have led to a decent number of area designs. Realistically, if a game like “The World” ever would become popular, the designers would have to create a lot more graphic diversity in the environments!
The smoothness and attention to detail in the graphics department ought to sell the game to a lot of casual gamers. The graphics are, in my opinion, the game’s greatest strength, and I award the graphics department a solid 90%.
I was a big fan of Chikayo Fukuda’s work last time around, and I personally preordered the import soundtrack for .hack//G.U. in anticipation of the music. The style of the music is hard to describe, for two reasons: first, there are a lot of different genres of music represented with varying types of synths used; second, many of the songs lack a distinct melody, so they don’t necessarily stick with you after you’re done listening (or playing the game). That doesn’t stop me from handing the music high marks. I also appreciated the humorous songs, such as the Mecha Grunty jingle, or Piros the 3rd’s theme “Slow Doberman.”
The voice acting, on the other hand, could have used some better direction. That, and the female character Atoli was way too whiny. I’ll just leave it at that. I doubt many will disagree with my assessment.
Sound would have received the same grade as the graphics, but the voice acting led me to knock off a few points. I give Rebirth’s sound an 87%.
The future of the .hack franchise is in a precarious position. There are plenty of skeptics out there, believing G.U. to be an attempt to milk the last drops of a dying series. The developers seemed very optimistic about their product all through development, and while I want to share their optimism, I have to say that this opening chapter seemed to make a setup so similar to .hack//INFECTION that I can only see the next two games being less-than-whole, especially considering the brevity of this first title’s plotline. I will continue to hope for great things from CyberConnect2, and hopefully they can make good on their promises with Volumes 2 and 3.
But regardless of how the series pans out, as a stand-alone title “.hack//G.U. Vol.1//Rebirth” is a fun title to play, especially if you’re stuck with a PS2 while everyone else spends big money on the next-gen consoles. At the end of the day, G.U.’s first title was more enjoyable than the original “INFECTION,” and I’m willing to let my grade reflect that. Rebirth gets an 82% from me, a decent grade for such a short game.