.hack//G.U. - Vol.2//REMINISCE
by Pitchfork

Okay. If writing a review for the first volume of .hack//G.U. was pointless, then writing a review for Volume 2 is unabashed self-indulgence. Again, .hack is one of those series that doesn't need to be reviewed. It has a firmly established fanbase (that's probably bigger than you think) who will happily shell out fifty bucks for the newest installment no matter how many 5's and 6's IGN, Gamespot, and EGM give it. (Notice how on virtually every game ranking site, //Reminisce's average reviewer rating is rarely higher than 5, and its average reader rating is rarely less than 9.) Bandai Namco's got a hell of a racket going on, and //Reminisce, for once, makes me glad to be their blithe little consumer whore.

//Reminisce kicks off moments after the cliffhanger on which //Rebirth ended. A.I.D.A. (Artificially Intelligent Data Anomaly) is growing stronger and more omnipresent, having gained the ability to take over and replicate servers, and "infect" players. After being attacked by A.I.D.A., Atoli's real-life self has been afflicted by a degenerative paralysis. Tri-Edge isn't dead, and now he's backed by haggard clones of Orca and Balmung (Kite's lengendary counterparts from the first games). More and more players of The World are falling into comas or contracting a mysterious condition called "doll syndrome," a state of near-catatonia interposed with violent bouts of psychosis. (Do I smell social commentary?) And still nobody has any idea what the hell is going on with Ovan. Yes, I am aware that none of this will make a lick of sense to someone who hasn't played //Rebirth. Fortunately, //Reminisce begins with a lengthy recap, which is every bit as ineffectual at bringing new players up to speed. I'm not sure why they would bother; of all the sold copies of //Reminisce, I'd say only 10% -- at most -- were bought by people who hadn't played //Rebirth.

The Good: //Reminisce's combat system is nearly identical to that of //Rebirth, and yet, it inexplicably feels improved. Not only is Haseo now able to equip Twin Blades, Heavy Swords, and Scythes, but can switch between them on the fly with Skill Trigger. You're given a little extra control over your allies in battle by being able to call them towards you with the L1 button, prompting them to flee from the massive attack that boss is winding up with instead of dumbly standing next to him, kicking him in the shins, and waiting to get killed. The ultra-flashy battles still consist of mostly button-mashing, but now it's probably slightly less feasible to close your eyes and mash the X button until you hear the victory theme.

The first time I sat down to play //Reminisce, I made what I thought was a terrifying discovery: the return of the Virus Cores. Once again, certain areas have been sealed off and must be hacked to be accessed. The Virus Cores were one of the most hateful aspects of the original games, and I couldn't imagine why they'd bring them back. The answer? To let you get into more Avatar Battles, which were one of the most endearing parts of G.U.'s first volume. Virus Cores are now acquired by battling A.I.D.A. as Skeith, which came as a pleasant surprise and a great relief.

Oh, and there's a card game now. I'm sure it's great, but I kinda didn't bother playing it. It's probably not the next Triple Triad or anything, but I'm sure it's a better mini-game than Blitzball...and that's all that matters.

The Bad: It's still simplistic and repetitive as it ever was. Vol. 3 will undoubtedly address this by adding more improvements, more options, more whistles, and more bells, but the big question with .hack//G.U., "why didn't they do this from the get-go and make the first two volumes better than they are?" Answer: because Bandai Namco loves your money. The trailer for Vol. 3 shows Haseo equipped with Twin Blades that -- get this -- are also guns. I bet it's gonna be awesome and will gladly give Bandai Namco another fifty bucks to let me try it out.

The Good: Still top notch. It looks better than before, thanks to the dungeon skins and a whole slew of beautiful new "Lost" areas. The anime-styled characters and animation are still a little jagged, but stylish enough that it's a non-issue. The battles are flashier than ever, and the Avatar fights are bigger and more colorful. The FMV cutscenes never cease to dazzle, and the soundtrack ranges from poppy to goofy to deeply haunting.

The Bad: Yes, there are new dungeon skins: a whole two of them. That means there are now three types of dungeons and two types of overworld areas. Also, maybe it's just my imagination, but the voice-acting feels a less effective than in //Rebirth. About halfway through //Reminisce I really began wishing that they'd included a Japanese language option like in the first series. I sometimes wonder about the English voice actors -- //Reminisce is full of moments where the actor must have stopped reading the script, stomped out of the recording booth, and demanded the director tell him just what the hell he's supposed to be talking about.

The Good: Again: .hack has one of the most complex, innovative, and intriguing storylines of any video game series. //Rebirth started out slowly and tended to drag on a bit, but //Reminisce can be very difficult to stop playing because there's rarely a lull in the action. As per usual, the answers to G.U.'s mysteries come in the forms of more questions. The characters are interesting as ever, especially Endrance and Atoli. Endrance is amusing because he's an over-the-top parody of the flowing-haired, sword-welding girlyman badass, complete with goopy psuedo-poetic dialogue and rose-petal accentuated attacks. (At least, I hope to god that he's a parody.) Atoli, meanwhile, gets to star in some of the most disturbing cutscenes I've seen since Final Fantasy VII. Also: Silabus and Gaspard -- the losers that Haseo's forced to hang out with throughout most of //Rebirth -- finally start leaving him the hell alone.

Let me just say this about the story: it's good enough to have made me feel compelled to play a unapologetically imperfect RPG until two in the morning every night for a straight week, knowing full well I had to wake up at 6:40 and was going to be miserable the next day -- and completely believing it was worth it. On the other hand, I was only able put thirteen hours or so Final Fantasy XII -- a technically superior game in virtually every other way -- before realizing that I could care less about about the characters, Ivalice, or what happened to them, and then just sticking to 2-D fighters again for another few months.

The Bad: Expect a lot of melodrama and hokiness in addition to all the intrigue and plot twists. Not that it should come as any surprise, though: .hack has always been essentially an anime/RPG crossbreed, and finding an instance of either genre without any melodrama is very rare. Often, you'll want to smack some of these characters across the face and shout "CHILL THE FUCK OUT, IT'S ONLY A GAME!" But then you remember that there really are people who take video games that seriously. I can't decide how much credit to give Bandai: might I actually be detecting some irony on their part?

Volume 3 supposedly comes out in October. Now I gotta figure out what the hell I'm gonna do to keep myself busy for the next five months. It's a credit to //Reminisce's improvements over //Rebirth that I actually find myself wanting to do a few post-game sidequests in the meantime instead of just chucking it into the closet. I'm still not sure if I could fully recommend //Reminisce to somebody who's not willing to first watch .hack//SIGN, .hack//ROOTS, and .hack//LIMINALITY, and play through the first four-game PS2 series in addition to to //Rebirth (or at least spent a few hours reading a slew of .hack articles on Wikipedia). Still, if there was a single .hack game I could ever recommend to anyone, //Reminisce would definitely be it -- until //Redemption comes out, that is. Here's hoping it's not a repeat of //QUARANTINE.


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