In most philosophical point of views, existence stems from either one source – monism – or two sources – dualism. Monists declare that all living matter is derived from a singular point, such as water, or the primordial ooze. Dualists, on the contrary, state that life is composed of two factors: spirituality and the physical origins. The body is undeniably composed of carbon, water, and substances that all suggest a more “scientific” history of life. Within this flesh and blood vessel known as the body, however, is consciousness. Consciousness is the core of every life form, and exists in two forms: a state of awareness and a state of activity that exists only within the individual’s mind (the subconscious). Reality, then, is defined by what is touched, seen, smelt, heard, and felt during consciousness. On the other end of the spectrum, a self-contained “reality” appears during sleep and other states of unconsciousness, which are the result of Rapid Eye Movement, and is generally dismissed as unimportant. With these commonplace beliefs set in place and regarded as such by society, distinctions between what is and isn’t real have always been easily made.
However, in 2007, a game was released that would blur the lines of what is generally accepted as “reality”. It was called “The World”, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game that linked players together in an artificial medieval environment via the Internet. Played through VR Goggles that rest on the head and covers player’s eyes, the game took MMORPGs to a new level of realism by actually placing the player “inside” “The World”. Although this at first seemed absurd, removing people from the known reality and placing them in a simulation, these concerns were soon written off when the creators announced that departure from “The World” was a simple flick of the wrist. Though players would mainly be in “The World”, enough awareness would be left behind so that the VR Goggles could be unplugged, the game exited, or the computer manually shut off. With fears dissolved, “The World” began to sell like nothing else before it, reaching twenty million copies sold within a short while of its release.
The hero, a fifteen-year-old boy known as Kite in “The World”, was introduced to the game by his friend, Yasuhiko (addressed as Orca of the Azure Sea in “The World”). Orca showed Kite the ropes, taking him to what should have been a low-level dungeon for beginners, known as “newbies” in MMORPG lingo. Instead, they discovered an ephemeral young girl who floated by for a brief moment, chased by a bizarre creature toting a massive red cross. The apparition-like girl genuinely puzzled even Orca, a veteran of “The World”. After finishing the remainder of the dungeon, Orca and Kite were transported out of the realm of the dungeon and into an ethereal plane, where the silver-haired girl awaited them. The legendary Orca approached the floating child, talking about a rumor being confirmed and other such nonsense that Kite was na?e to. The girl, Aura, uninterested in Orca’s revelation, instead presented to him the Key of the Twilight – a book – with great urgency. Before he could claim it, however, the enigmatic creature that had chased Aura appeared once more, and assaulted Orca. Pressed up to the mighty red cross it bore, Orca was bombarded by indescribable waves of energy that resulted in the removal of his character from “The World’s” system and put the player, Yasuhiko, into a coma in reality. The Key of the Twilight was instead passed on to Kite, who somehow merged with the book and was given the ability to perform Data Drain, which removes the viral coding from “The World’s” system and stores it as a usable device for Gate Hacking. Together with BlackRose, a female player in “The World”, Kite begins to investigate the girl, Aura, and the cause of his friend’s predicament. During their investigations, the two come across two odd players: Mia and Elk. Mia, mysteriously enough, can see Kite’s bracelet, and seems to be very knowledgeable about the Data Drain ability. She doesn’t relinquish much more information, however, and instead pits Kite up against infected creatures from “The World” in order to test him. He emerges victorious; the power of Data Drain showcased, and once again resumes his investigations, gathering more and more Member Addresses, and, subsequently, allies as he does.
Unfortunately, the story told in .hack//INFECTION doesn’t expand any further than that simple premise. As interesting as the opening to this review was, nothing of that sort is covered in this installment, but rather mentioned subtly in random news stories that appear on the player’s desktop, as well as faintly in the OVA. A twenty-five hour long game, it is nothing more than a massive introduction for what hopefully will be story-filled sequels. This benefit of the doubt aside, .hack//INFECTION is nothing more than the basic plot foundation found in the instruction manual. Kite and his recruited companions go on a witch-hunt for the strange creature responsible for Yasuhiko’s comatose. They scavenge dungeons, follow random clues that appeared on the BBS (a sort of Message Board), trying to find the location of either the girl, Aura, or the creature that sought her. By the end the game, both Aura and the creature that sought her are found, but no change in the story took place, just one big dungeon hacking fest of dungeon after dungeon after dungeon. However, in those last brief moments, occurrences that invoke intrigue transpire that will undoubtedly frustrate the player as they are left unanswered and unexplained, merely images to ponder. Now it’s just a matter of killing three months or so before the next game is released and actual plot may be discovered and enjoyed?Despite the game’s obvious lack of a self-contained plot and substantial events to keep the player interested, it does give way to a lot of promise for the future installments. Giving the game the benefit of the doubt, .hack//INFECTION could be just a long-winded introduction for great things to come. Considering the man responsible for the story to .hack is none other than Kazunori Ito, the genius behind Ghost in the Shell, nothing less should be expected. The OVA that comes bundled with the game provides some enjoyment, however. Nevertheless, it is the game that people purchased .hack for, and although watching the detective work of Mai Minase as she tries to uncover the truth about her own friend who lapsed into a comatose is entertaining, it nevertheless falls short in contributing any benefits to .hack//INFECTION.
In terms of graphics, .hack//INFECTION boasts impressively anime-comparable models that each sport stylish designs. Responsible for this is the renowned character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, whose resume shines with such past successes as Neon Genesis Evangelion and “FLCL”. Remarkably enough, the characters look almost identical on paper as they did rendered in 3-D, making the game all the more believable in terms of feel and all the more enjoyable from a visual standpoint, as it was like actually playing an anime. It’s amazing what a little smooth texturing will do for a guy. Even facial expressions such as the bubbly “^_^” face make an appearance in the game. Attention to detail is tight, and noteworthy. The dungeon designs are slick and interesting enough to keep the player from lapsing into a deep slumber. This is especially surprising, considering the enormous amount of dungeons able to be generated. It goes without saying, however, that many dungeons share the same design and textures that others do.
However, where .hack//INFECTION excels visually, it falls short where it counts in two instances: the aforementioned lack of story and battling. Although the idea behind .hack is innovative and new, Bandai seemed to miss a step when it came to designing a fluid battle system. Despite its MMORPG-like feel, the game definitely falls under the category of “Action RPG” when battles ensue. However, the game’s simplified controls don’t allow for any enjoyment, but rather sustained annoyance and aggravation. The only button for attacking is “X”, which the player must hammer down on repeatedly to keep Kite attacking continuously. Two other buttons are allotted for your party’s controls and the general menu. The window for party controls has a list of simple commands that your group will perform, such as “First-Aid!” which has them use any curative items or spells they might have on each other and Kite. Other commands have them use their special skills, or attack, or use magic only, etc. Although this is the most common type of control over assisting characters in a real-time battle engine, the gameplay would have benefited greatly had the characters been manually controllable. As with most “MMORPGs”, each character in .hack has his or her own job class equivalent to commonplace roles gamers are used to (such as the knight, or the mage). Unfortunately, the characters exhibit no unique traits outside of their own special melee attacks. Had said unique traits existed, and the characters been playable via a toggle button, the gameplay would have been vastly more diverse and therefore exceedingly more enjoyable. This would also make dealing with Kite dying more tolerable, as the player could simply switch over to one of the remaining two party members and cast a revival spell or item to bring back the dual-wielding leader, instead of simply opening the command menu for the other members and hammering “First Aid!” in hopes that one of them will throw an item the player’s way.
In the main menu, all of Kite’s skills and items can be found and selected from to perform, such as whatever attack skill your current weapon gives you, or a list of magic scrolls in your inventory. When one of the aforementioned menus is opened, gameplay freezes, as if turn-based, and allows you to take your time while navigating these menus. While that can often save you in a near-death situation, it takes away from the fluidity of the game. Especially when you must use multiple instances of, say, a healing item, and you pop the window open and close several times in a row.
This annoyance could have been averted had the game adopted a quick-key system like Phantasy Star Online’s or Kingdom Hearts. As L2 is useless in the game (it switches the view to first-person, just to emulate an MMORPG, serving no actual purpose), surely it could have been set so that when you press and hold L2, the triangle, square, and circle buttons become quick keys for assigned items, magic, or skills. This would have kept battling fun, easy, and quick. Unfortunately, with the absence of quick launching, battles become long and drawn out, as you can only do so much damage so fast, as with non-playable teammates. This is particularly noticeable in boss fights They offer little to no challenge, but consume a massive amount of player’s time while they hack away at them, waiting for the Protect Break to occur so that Data Drain can be used.
Positive things can be said about the Keyword system, though. By combining three different words, random dungeons are created. Each word determines the environment of the dungeon, the strength of the monsters, and other random factors. This allows for a sort of limitless exploration to the world of .hack, where you can continue to make up new and more challenging dungeons in order to level the characters’ up and obtain riches and treasures to aid the quest. Talking to other players in “The World” is one approach to learning key words, or sometimes whole phrases are posted on the BBS or sent to you in an e-mail. Usually they mark the progression of plot (or whatever you want to call the game’s movement from beginning to end) when posted.
Generally, the concept of the “MMORPG” is interesting. Often enough e-mail is received that requires the player to “log out” of the game and check his or her desktop for new mail, perhaps a news update, or a post on the BBS. As the game progresses and items are discovered, more availabilities appear on the desktop, such as movies to watch from cut scenes in the game, music to play while the desktop is active, and wallpaper to set to one’s liking. However, there isn’t much contribution to gameplay with the desktop interface, more like an interesting take on plot progression. Although this is uncommon, it is nothing spectacular. The game would have been much more interesting and conversely deeper had it exhibited a balance like in Mega Man Battle Network, where the game is split between the online world and reality, mysteries being solved in both which eventually blend together. Although this is kind of done through the OVA, there is an undeniable absence of “gameplay” present in watching an anime. In the game, the NPC’s respond similarly to that of a normal response given on an actual MMORPG. “I’m lagging” or “Hi how are you doing?! : ) ” (yes, including the goofy smiley) are commonplace responses. Characters join the party by giving over their Member Address, so that they can be flash mailed and invited to join the party.
The game’s controls are also relatively fine. The character model is responsive to the commands of the controller, movement and menus aren’t delayed, and so navigating the endless amount of dungeons isn’t too much of a hassle. Sometimes it becomes difficult to select a target on the fly, as turning the direction of the character determines what he targets. So in some instances, when you wanted to just attack the vase, you instead find yourself giving one of your comrades a curative item or two. Targeting can also be shuffled using the D-Pad, but that proves to be less than efficient when needed on the fly.
The music in .hack//INFECTION, like most of the other elements to the game, is plain. The game doesn’t sport any noticeably mentionable songs, just a series of variations to a handful of themes that carry into the different dungeon styles, etc. One thing that can be complimented, however, is how seamlessly the dungeon music and battle music flow from one another. When an enemy encounter begins, the battle music integrates itself as part of the dungeon’s music, upping the beat and adding a few extra instruments, but not outright changing. Everything fits the mood it should, although a few of the field themes are questionably silly. Sound effects in the game are also rather goofy, the slashing and shattering sounds definitely not reminiscent of any bladed weapon known to mankind. Furthering its anime-like feel, .hack offers two forms to its voice acting: English in Japanese. For all those “otaku” out there, there’s the Japanese, which is coupled with English subtitles. Those who don’t care can leave the game on its default English settings and endure less than top-of-the-line, but decent, voice acting. Voice acting can also be cut short when the dialogue is scrolled to the next box.
So is .hack//INFECTION worth a go? It’s a double-edged sword, really. In one hand, it is something to play and does offer a lot of possibilities in its future games. On the other hand, it leaves players very unsatisfied and is not a self-contained game. For the best experience, imaginably, the games should all be played in succession of one another. As the data can be carried over from previous games, playing .hack//INFECTION now would serve only to have a leveled character for .hack//MUTATION when it arrives. There’s the verdict. Albeit it a pretty and promising game, alone .hack//INFECTION lacks substance in terms of plot of its own and an engrossing storyline to keep players interested. Hopefully its successors will give new life to the game and put it back in the hype its premise deserves.