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h- .hack//Infection [PS2]
Can having one of the more unique settings for a RPG warrant the need of four purchases to complete the journey?
While a recent release in the States, the .hack phenomenon has been a staple in Japan for some time now. As such, the graphics are behind the current Playstation 2 standards and would probably look more complacent on a Dreamcast. This does avoid the issue of break-up though, as everything stays sharp and holds together on the most cluttered of battlefields.
Typical sound effects for clashing weapons and spell-casting are accompanied by a new age/techno soundtrack, which fits the game atmosphere well. The blips for scrolling through menus are standard and won't distract one from their gaming.
After enjoying the English dub for .hack//Sign, I found the dub for the game characters disappointing. While there was little to complain about with the actual acting, the main character and most of the party members came off as little kids, sounding around ages 10-12. While warranted in some cases, the anime series was able to avoid the overuse of high-pitched voices, so I found the abundance here a major letdown.
Lucky for me, .hack//Infection is one of the first games I've played in the genre that kept the Japanese track available. With a simple switch of the audio track, I could read the subtitles of character speech until I felt ready to brave the English track for another run. This is perhaps one of the best features I've seen in some time, and I hope it eventually becomes a staple of future game releases.
The cover shows Aura in the forefront with the major players involved underneath. The simple white background does a good job in making the game stand out on the sales rack, and provides a nice contrast to the black-heavy back cover, which features the typical plot synopsis, review snippets, features, and general game information. While at first glance appearing to be a typical DVD case, the .hack games are packaged with an additional DVD containing part of the Liminality OVA, so there's a flap inside that holds the second disk. It fits snugly into the case itself, but it feels a bit loose, as ripping open the case would cause it to slam onto the left side rather violently. The instruction manual is only a scant fifteen pages, but covers just enough to get one started without too much of a problem.
Straight from the box...
"Who is Aura? What is the Book of Twilight? Why did your friend, Orca, fall into a mysterious coma? As the outlaw player, Kite, you're on a mission of truth. Take a journey into a virtual world where anything is possible, and nothing is as it appears. Fight your way through contaminated levels of cyberspace as you take on and eliminate enemies, and unlock codes that will allow you to gate travel to even more environments - all in a desperate attempt to discover who or what's behind The World."
The player is basically playing the role of a player playing the game. Confused yet?
Every time the game is started, the player finds themself in front of a computer screen. Here you can check your mail, which often gives way to new missions and quests, but also allows one to better "interact" with your party members. There's also a message board that functions similarly, offering help and hints throughout the game. When ready, you enter "The World" through one of the towns, where you can buy/sell armor, weapons, and various items at the shops, or talk to any passerby to obtain information and barter. If you're itching for a fight, you can approach the portal and put in any random keyword combination to be transported to a land overrun with enemies and usually a dungeon, housing a big treasure chest at the bottom. Of course, quest-related locations are blatantly highlighted and stored for easier access.
Combat is real-time, but can be paused whenever to input commands for your party (up to two others can travel with the main character), set up magic, use skills or items, etc. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes, depending upon the environment and level of the land you've entered.
The opening sentence should give away the biggest plus in my book: the concept of .hack//Infection is one of the most unusual I've come across. I have honestly never played anything prior that introduced such a setting for the story, and this uniqueness won me over instantly. While underneath the fancy graphics are the same-old role-playing mechanics, the "feeling" of playing something completely new prevailed. The idea of having to "win over" your allies was also a nice touch. Responding positively to e-mails, inviting and providing adequate backup in battle, and just being generous all boost their appeal rating, which helps in terms of unlocking hidden stuff. There are various side-quests and plenty of requirements available to unlock videos, music, new desktops, and other stuff.
Length has been one of the biggest issues associated with the .hack games. Truthfully, one could probably fly through the story in about 15-20 hours, making it hard to encourage the purchasing of three more volumes, which reportedly have similar gameplay times. If you're committed to unlocking everything, you'll probably be pushing 30 hours, which while respectable still looks paltry compared to other big names in the genre. The battle system has also been heavily criticized, and it's basically a "like it or hate it" situation. There's also a steep learning curve involved in combat, as it took me about an hour and half before I felt confident in what I was doing. Obviously being the first of four parts, the ending will probably leave a sour taste in your mouth, as it can mostly be seen as setup for the next game.
I'd encourage role-playing gamers as well as anyone who has shown remote interest in the genre to at least give .hack//Infection a rental. I've heard that this supposedly follows the events at the end of .hack//Sign, but at the time of playing I had not seen the conclusion of the anime, so most implied continuity went by unnoticed. Either way, I'm sure fans of the anime will feel compelled to check out the game too. As it stands, I'm hooked and can't wait to get my hands on part two, .hack//Mutation.
Grade: 5 of 10 (2 1/2 Stars)
1.) According to the box, this game is rated "T" for Teen due to Mature Sexual Themes, Mild Language, and Violence. I'm baffled as to what caused the first one, as most of what I remember was harmless, but it's best to be advised.
2.) For being berated as such a short game, I went through everything I possibly could, including meeting everyone in "The World", fulfilling all listed requirements for unlockables, and all sidequests available, as well as experimenting with the keyword system and collecting as many rare items as possible. It took me just over 40 hours to officially beat the game and an additional ten hours to complete all the sidequests I could find. I believe I got my bang for the buck, but your mileage may vary.
3.) For a review of .hack//Liminality Volume 1: "In the case of Mai Minase", the OVA packaged with the game, check out XenoSabre's review, also on the Infolink.
Added: November 29th 2003
Related Link: Official Website
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