.hack//G.U. - Vol.1//REBIRTH
by Pitchfork

Writing a review for the first installment of the new .hack PS2 trilogy probably isn't even worth the effort. Not only did the game come out more than two months ago, but the .hack is one of those series for which reviews are pretty much irrelevant. It's a lot like an SNK release: nobody who isn't already a fan of the franchise is going give a second thought to G.U., and those who are will have already pre-ordered the game regardless of how badly Gamespot and IGN trash it. (And hey, look at that ? IGN actually didn't bother writing a review.)

But seeing as how .hack is fairly big in Japan, has a cult following here, and that the last PS2 installment tops my least favorite games ever list, I think a look at Rebirth is in order.

.hack//G.U. takes place in a word where technology is evolving faster than people can keep up with it. (This "world" happens to be Japan, so it's pretty much business as usual.) The year is 2015, seven years after the end of .hack//QUARANTINE. Virtually every aspect of life now relies in one way or another upon the Internet. The recent passage of Administration Relations Bill not only ensures the total digitization of the government, but establishes a human numbering system. Parents have begun implanting gsafety chips h in their children to better keep track of them. Cell phones have replaced wallets and licenses; coins and paper money, as well as physical personal identification cards, are being phased out. Video gaming has almost reached the proportions of an epidemic, and computer games are now played with a headset and visor for an unprecedentedly immersive experience.

But this isn't where the actual gameplay takes place. .hack//G.U. is set in "The World R:2," the sequel to the hyperpopular MMORPG depicted in original PS2 series, which went defunct when the servers were wiped out a few years ago by a mysterious fire. You play as Haseo, a regular player of the The World R:2 with a problem on his hands. Six months ago, his girly friend Shino was PK'ed by someone (or something) that goes by the name Tri-Edge and looks an awful lot like Kite (the protagonist of the first four games). When her character was killed, Shino's player collapsed in the real world and has been in a coma ever since. (Sound familiar?) Now Haseo's gotta solve the mystery of Tri-Edge, kick his ass, and figure out how to get Shino back.

The good:
Much improved. There are now several more options available in battle to you than "have allies cast spells and mash X button till enemy is dead." Combat is now much faster than before. The tired old Protect Break/Data-Drain system has been replaced by the more dynamic Rengeki and Awakening commands. There is a lot more to dungeon crawling than breaking barrels, opening boxes, and fighting battle after battle after battle. Plus: NO MORE VIRUS CORES.

The most fun parts of G.U. are the Arena and Avatar battles. Arena battles pit you against other players, and they play out a bit differently (and better) than battles against regular enemies. Avatar battles, on the other hand, are the closest thing G.U. has to major boss fights. When faced with an otherwise insurmountable foe, Haseo transforms into his alter-ego Skeith (yes, THAT Skeith) and kicks its ass all across cyberspace. Avatar battles are by far my favorite aspect of G.U. and I hope they are expanded upon in the sequels.

The bad: Gameplay In G.U. is more enjoyable the previous games', but it's still somewhat lacking in depth. Even if there's a little more precision and timing involved now, combat is still to a large extent comprised of button-mashing. There's not a whole lot of strategy involved: if your guys are at the right levels, you will win. Simple as that. (Not that this is much different from most JRPG's, mind you, but usually there's at least a little more to it.) While there's more to do on your way through a dungeon, it's all still about as simple and mindless as breaking open roomful after roomful of barrels. The over-the-top Avatar battles are fun, but similarly straightforward: avoid enemy's attacks, fire shots to stun enemy, then attack with melee weapon. Point and click. Plus, there aren't nearly enough of them in Rebirth.

It gets worse. I think it'd be a stretch to say there were even twenty-five different types of enemies (including recolors), which is pretty damn bogus. There isn't a whole lot of equipment to collect. Sidequests are barely worth the trouble. Just as before, there is a huge lack of variety when it comes to missions, and all the dungeons are still virtually identical. Rebirth is definitely an improvement over its predecessors, but remains a title that you're playing for its story instead of its gameplay.

The good:
A/V's are top notch. The animation isn't quite as visually impressive as, say, Final Fantasy XII' s, but G.U. gets by purely on style. Shit's just cool in G.U. The character designs are as interesting as ever, and I'm a sucker for cel-shading. Environments often have a kind of almost of eerie beauty to them, especially the glost h locations. The music is probably nothing you'll keep humming to yourself after you stop playing, but it definitely suits the game's atmosphere. G.U. has a markedly darker feel than the first games, and it definitely works.

On the voice acting: the bad news is that there's no longer a language option, so if you're not a fan of dubbing you're SOL. On the plus side, the English voice cast is pretty damn decent.

The bad: Everything looks good, but there are only two dungeon skins: Japanese castle and underground cave. There are three overworld skins: afternoon, night, and overcast. This only contributes to Vol. 1's overall lack of variety and makes doing repeated missions even more redundant.

The good:
when it wants to be, .hack's (the series in general) story is more intriguing and innovative than that of any other JRPG I've played in some time. Honest. Mystery, suspense, and suspicions of conspiracy are the norm, and each answered question raises two more. Rebirth shows that the series has gotten over the lousy narration problems that plagued the first games; now you get to see cool stuff happening instead of just reading emails about it. Not that all the email is a bad thing, mind you. I thought the first series was extremely clever in delivering a huge chunk of its story and background through emails, online forums, and news bulletins, and G.U. executes this concept with even greater effectiveness. Once the story has you hooked, there's no escaping it. The fact that I actually bought Rebirth after //QUARANTINE attests to this; as does the regularity with which I compulsively check to see if there's been any update on Vol. 2's U.S. release.

The bad: When it wants to be, .hack story is more intriguing and innovative than that of any other JRPG I've played in some time. Operative words here: when it wants to be. I'd say only about 20-30% of Rebirth is pertinent to the aforementioned mysterious and suspenseful cool stuff. The rest is either sappy nonsense that's impossible to take seriously or crummy filler that you're forced to plough through for hours at a time in order to get to the cool stuff. gHey, we don't know where Tri-Edge is, h you're told. gIn the meantime, why don't you check your email five or six times and stop the PK'ers who're bullying your spineless nerd friends? h That reminds me ? the characters as a whole are mostly interesting and likable, but Silabus and Gaspard are tools. I hate them. They're like Roxas's loser pals from Kingdom Hearts II, only they don't go away three hours into the game; you have to deal with them from start to finish. It's the first RPG with some sort of "affection" system since Final Fantasy VII in which I've gone out of my way to be a dick to my friends, hoping they'll start hating me and leave me alone.

Also, to really understand a lot of what's going on in G.U. requires you to watch .hack//ROOTS, the anime which acts as a prequel. I watched most of //ROOTS on YouTube over the summer (something I've never admitted to another human being until now), and I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anybody, including .hack fans. Damn Bandai and its insidious marketing.

And occasionally, you get these moments of clarity in which it occurs to you that the story of .hack is sometimes sorta like that World of Warcraft episode of South Park, only it's actually being serious. This usually leads to angst and intense periods of brutal introspection in which you start asking yourself if this is how you imagined yourself at twenty-three years old.

Again, I'm not sure why I took the time to write this. If you were gonna check out .hack//G.U., you already would have by now. I can't really recommend it for anything other than its story, which probably won't impress you much unless you've played the previous games ? something I also wouldn't recommend to most people. But what the hell: maybe you should give it a shot anyway. If I'm not insane for liking it, you should definitely let me know.

There. Now that Rebirth's out of the way, it's time to get started on Final Fantasy XII.


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