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.Hack (pronounced “Dot Hack”) is a series of games, manga, and anime about an MMORPG called "The World". The series has been around for many iterations, was the driving force for “video game” based anime and has become an inspiration for many anime of the same field to come. .Hack usually follows the anomalies and mishaps in the world, as well as the lives of the characters that play the game. .Hack G.U. is a second in the series of games and is chronologically the second installment of the .Hack Conglomerate. .Hack G.U. Rebirth was released for the Playstation 2 in 2006 and is developed by CyberConnect 2.
Rebirth is the first installment of the G.U. series. It begins with Haseo’s entry into “The World”, which is the setting for the games. The .Hack series revolves around a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called “The World”. .Hack//Roots (the anime prequel to the subject of this review) and its sequel, G.U., revolve around “The World R:2” (or The World Revision 2). The World is a fictional online game by CC Corp that has taken the MMO world by storm. It quickly became one of the most popular games on the planet, selling millions upon millions of copies. However, after a fire at CC Corp’s headquarters, they were forced to put the game on hiatus. When it came back, it was no longer “The World R:1”, but now it was “The World R:2”, which was significantly different. Fans were outraged due to the loss of their characters, but that didn’t stop R:2 from becoming vastly successful.
After the game’s intro, which serves as a tutorial, the game skips several months into the future. It is here that I will stop and warn potential players. If you plan on watching the anime “.Hack//Roots” then this may be a bit of a spoiler. Reason being, the beginning of Rebirth covers both the first and second to last episodes of the Roots series. The reasonable question would be, “Do I need to watch Roots to understand the events of the game?” My answer to this is no. The game explains pretty much every crucial event in the Roots series, and to be honest, I’d actually recommend watching Roots after playing the G.U. trilogy. G.U. relishes in being its own entity. It doesn't expect you to have watched Roots, but it does have some little treats for those who did, such as the appearances of characters you may have otherwise not noticed or the significance of places and understanding of characters that would fly over a greenhorn's head. In fact, many of the specific characters and events that occurred in Roots are just vaguely brushed over. Interestingly enough, Roots and Rebirth were both released around the same time. It is likely that the creators did not want to spoil the events of Roots for someone who played Rebirth at the same time as the show’s airing, or simply for someone who played the game first.
The initial cast of Roots, G.U's prequel series
Going back to that, there’s a good reason that I recommend playing the games first. The .Hack series thrives on emotional response. It tries to make its characters memorable so that when something bad happens to them, we, the audience, can feel the pain that they do. Similarly, it also helps to make us feel the shock, and conversely, the joy of the characters. This is the key to having a character-driven story. This is relevant because of something that happens in Roots, something I feel that they should not have put in the show. I won’t reveal what it is, but it will have an effect on the viewer. Having said all of this, I should also mention that Roots can be difficult to get into. Indeed, there is value in watching it after G.U., but it doesn't quite stand up to something like .Hack//SIGN and as a show by itself, it would be difficult for me to recommend. This really is information for another review, but I feel it should be noted here because of its relation to G.U. Also, I have this to say: Do not try to watch the film Dot Hack G.U. Trilogy as a replacement for the games. Dot Hack G.U. trilogy is a movie adaptation of the three G.U. games (Rebirth, Reminisce, and Redemption), and as you can expect, it’s a little rushed. It’s the type of movie that you should watch if you have already played the game, as it isn't the same experience and, again as you can expect, it is difficult to stuff 60 hours of content into a 2 hour film.
Anyway, back to the story. It is around this point that we learn that Haseo has become a far better and much stronger player than he was when he started playing The World. He’s developed so well that he became a notorious Player Killer Killer (PKK) called The Terror of Death. I guess there’s more room for exposition, but if you play MMOs, you’ll probably already know what a PKK is. A Player Killer (PK) is one who kills players, so it should be pretty obvious that a Player Killer Killer functions as one who kills Player Killers. In a sense, they are vigilantes…but not in Haseo’s case. Often times, Haseo will completely disregard those that Player Killers kill without reviving them and, before bringing down his scythe on the murderers, asks the question, “Do you know about Tri-Edge?” If the answer is no, they are as good as dead. If the answer is yes…well, that never happens. It’s not so much that Haseo wants the players to die; it’s just that he’s interested in Tri-Edge and literally nothing else.
It is explained rather quickly that Tri-Edge is the name of a legendary PK that has the ability to put players in comas upon defeat. There haven’t been many people who fell to his blade, but there was one, and only one person who was killed by Tri-Edge that Haseo cared about, Shino. Haseo finds an old friend named Ovan, who he hasn’t seen in a good while (almost a year). They’re reunion is cut short when Ovan mentions that he knows where to meet Tri-Edge. After Ovan departs, Haseo immediately takes to the scene. When he arrives, he faces Tri-Edge and loses. Bad. He returns to level one, losing every attribute to his character that made him the “Terror of Death”, and he re-initializes.
Haseo's first encounter with Tri-Edge
Haseo returns and finds that he has to start his search over again. He meets Gaspard and Silabus of the Canard guild, a guild for helping beginners. The two mistake Haseo for a "noob" and invite him to the guild. Not long afterwards, he is invited to the guild by the name of Raven by the mysterious Yata and learns of AIDA, or Artificially Intelligent Data Anomaly, which is a threat to the players of the world. Haseo, still with his mind centered on Tri-Edge, disregards this...that is, until Yata tells Haseo that he will help him find Tri-Edge in exchange for his "gift". Haseo doesn't know exactly what gift Yata is talking about, but reluctantly agrees to join his cause.
The game opens with some colorful characters and ends with a plethora of them. Despite what it may seem like, the .Hack series (especially Roots and G.U.) is driven almost completely by its characters, and one of its more notable aspects is that it takes character archetypes and twists them to make interesting characters. For instance, the main character, Haseo, leads the player to believe that he is the cliché, callous, stone-hearted protagonist who cares little about others and thinks that friends will get in his way, when in reality he’s actually far more considerate of others and excludes them from his ventures so that they will not be brought to harm. It is this that helps to make would-be generic characters into characters whose toils you can feel and sympathies you care for.
Now, those of you that watch dubbed anime or play games with anime voice actors in them would probably be delighted to know that Haseo is voiced by Yuri Lowenthal, and that there are other prominent voice actors such as Sam Riegal (Silabus), Johnny Yong Bosch (Kuhn), and Dave Wittenberg (Gaspard), among others, playing major characters in the games. Sadly, as I always say, “even the greatest voice actor can’t make bad writing sound good.” The writing in this game is slightly generic, falling prey to a relatively bad translation. Lines are said awkwardly due to how line-breaks are implemented, the writing can often times be cheesy or just plain generic, and some of the voice actors that are now well known, such as Bridget Hoffman (Atoli) and Erin Fitzgerald (Alkaid) aren’t really fit for their roles and, at this point in their career, are not as good as they later become.
The good news? This only holds true for the first game in the series (the subject of this review), .Hack//G.U. Volume 1: Rebirth. Something happened between this game and Reminisce, the second volume, and the writing and line direction improved dramatically. It saddens me, because if Rebirth were to be remade with new writing and line direction, I believe that it would be a much better game. This is not to say that you shouldn’t play it, I still highly recommend this game, and it would be a mistake to just jump into one of the other games in the trilogy without playing the previous G.U. volumes.
Despite sharing the Action-RPG name with its older brother, .Hack, G.U. is not similar to its predecessor in terms of gameplay. This is because the original game was a member of Project .Hack, which takes place in The World R:1 (I should mention that Project .Hack media, such as .Hack and .Hack Sign, take place in The World R:1, while .Hack Conglomerate media, such as Roots and G.U., take place in The World R:2). As such, there are radical differences between the games, while some standard concepts remain in place. For instance, one can still travel between Dungeons and Field areas. However, rather than wandering around large open fields, in G.U. you are given a slightly more linear set to deal with when playing in Field areas. This may sound like a bad thing on paper, but it works quite well in execution. In .Hack, the fields were open, but there was nothing truly significant other than the dungeon and the enemies roaming the fields. In G.U., there are often people to talk to and trade with, missions to do on the field (either fight a boss or collect symbol fragments), PKers to catch, people to save, and of course, fight monsters. There’s a lot more to do this time around, which makes things less tedious. Also, the Field areas are no longer a simple segue into dungeons, they are now their own areas with their own objectives. Dungeon areas are now their own areas as well, and this split helps to add to the accessibility of the game for those who want a greater or lesser amount of dungeon-crawling in their games. Fields are created by going to a Chaos Gate and then putting three phrases in to create the properties of an area.
The fighting has also vastly changed, and it has become far more streamlined. When one engages with an enemy, rather being able to run around the field, a barrier is put up to restrict the fighting area. No need to worry, though, because the barrier is quite large, and won’t feel restrictive. In the beginning, the battles feel a little slow, but they quickly pick up as you gain more weapons and learn more skills. Initially you have Dual Blades, which are fast and are great for dodging. Later you come across another weapon-type (won’t spoil it here), which makes combat much more varied (Reminisce and Redemption also add more weapon-types).
There isn’t much in the way of button combinations in this game; only one button is used to attack. It would make this game seem very simple if it didn’t stress strategy. If one simply mashes the attack button, they will die. A lot. The game uses a Save System and Game Overs, so do not take the gameplay lightly. Heck, even the weapons themselves emphasize being careful with your button use. For instance, some weapons have combos that lead into a button-holding attack, while others may have one rapidly press the attack button. As such, one should really be careful about how they go into combos, lest they be dealt a severe amount of damage. You can also guard and use the Skill Trigger (explained below) to avoid getting hurt, so there are creative ways to go about fighting enemies.
There are several different types of skills, and to streamline the use of skills, they created the Skill Trigger. The Skill Trigger is a quick and easy way to access one of four skills mid-combat without interrupting the flow or pacing of combat, which remedies a large problem I had with the original .Hack. Now, the skills that you use can only be those of your current weapon-type, and you cannot use magic as a part of the Skill Trigger. Magic can be accessed via the “Skills” menu, so don’t worry about being restricted in that area. If one hits an enemy enough, the enemy will start flashing and the word “Rengeki Finish” will show up over Haseo’s head. If Haseo uses a Skill Trigger during this time, they activate “Rengeki”, which not only deals increased damage, but it also gives increased EXP and puts points in the Morale Gauge that can be used for a special attack called an Awakening. Points can be added to the Morale Gauge in several ways, such as party members healing each other, Rengeki, and reviving party members. Awakenings can become a godsend, especially in sticky situations and higher-level areas. There are two types of Awakenings: The Beast Awakening, which immobilizes the enemy and increases your strength, and The Demon Awakening, which rains several elements of magic on the enemy as you mash the attack button.
The beginning of a Demon Awakening
Finally, there are the Avatar Battles. Avatars are large entities that various characters use for different purposes, and one of the most prominent purposes is battling anomalies and other avatars. In these battles, the player can dodge, shoot, and attack. To win, one needs to bring down the enemies health, and when it is down low enough, they need to charge an attack called a “Data Drain” to finish the enemy off. Avatar Battles are rather simple and can range in difficulty. After shooting the enemy a certain amount of times, one must close in while they are stunned to deal extra damage. The Avatar battles are spread out enough that they don’t become tedious, though it would have been nice there was more too them.
Other than fighting, there is quite a bit to do in the game. You can play outside The World by logging out. This takes you to the Desktop, where you can engage in a plethora of activities. There is a Community Forum, which is probably one of the most well done features of the game. In the Forum, one can see (and even take part in) many of the conversations of others who use the Altimit OS (which is an Operating System like Windows or Linux). Despite what I said about the writing, the forums are among the most realistic and contemporary pieces of writing I’ve ever seen in a game, and it is also very interesting. I’m surprised CC2 went out of their way to put as much effort into this part of the game as they did, because it is, for the most part, insignificant, as far as the story is concerned. The characters in the forums recur, and you can even meet them in The World (with the same names, I assume one’s Altimit account is tied to their The World account). They have relationships with each other, they have inside jokes, and they have their own individual personalities with their own views and opinions. They feel like real people and, if you've spent any number of time on forums, you've probably met the types of people you will see here. If you do play this game, I highly recommend reading through the threads.
There is a News application that mirrors news websites and newscasts in real life. A segment called Online Jack, which continues through all three games, can be found in the news application. Online Jack is a show about a reporter that is investigating the mysterious Doll Syndrome, and is a very interesting addition that ties into the events of the game. What makes Online Jack interesting is that it plays in the form of a series of webisodes as you progress through and across the games, and as such, it is fully animated. They're relatively brief and , as the story progresses, one uncover interesting correlations between the events of the game and the web series. Varies other news features have short animated videos as well that mirror online news features rather well. News is pretty similar to the forums in that, again, it is mostly optional (I would even say completely optional) and it only exists for the sake of side entertainment and world building. Browsing through the application, one can find periodically updated information on world entertainment, technology, political affairs, and of course, The World. What makes the news truly interesting, however, is how cohesively integrated into the game it is. While it is in no way plot important, current events will be talked about on the forums and even referenced and discussed in The World itself. Apart from this, there is also an art corner (called Apakallu), found in the forums that allows you to download new backgrounds for your desktop. Finally, you can check your mail and have e-mail conversations with those who have given you their member address (which is the same as “friending” someone). The Mail is actually a vital part of the game, as it is often where you go to advance the story. Apart from that, it serves as a way to better understan the character, should the player choose to interact with them in the form of e-mail replies and greeting cards (which also raise their affection for you).
On the graphical side, this is a very beautiful game. G.U. is clearly held back by the limited power of the Playstation 2, and it shows. The game is notable for its pristine environments and detailed backgrounds, a huge step from .Hack’s 2D backgrounds. The game prides itself in its aesthetic beauty and presentation, and boy does it work. It’s not up there with, say, Metal Gear Solid or Shadow of the Colossus, but it is still a very pretty game.
Rebirth's opening movie
Notable aspects of the graphic direction are the in-game movies. Aside from the movies being gorgeous, they are also a key example of what G.U. does well: presenting power and emotion in a scene. Aside from the music, which I will talk about later, the direction for the movies is what makes them shine, and this really carries through in every cutscene and mini-cutscene (which are small cut-ins that take place during various conversations and cutscenes) in the game. The game does a great job of using camera angles to magnify the impact of a scene, as well as incredibly well placed shading and camera effects. G.U. definitely has some of the better screen direction you’ll find in a PS2 game.
Now, The World is an MMO that is very surreal. So surreal, in fact, that it’s difficult to pinpoint an area that it takes its bearings from. Usually, a game will base its setting off of a place that can be found in the real world. G.U. does, it has German naming schemes, but other than that, it seems to be mostly original. The music is difficult to pin a location on as well. Indeed, it’s Eastern with Western European seasoning, but it feels more fantastical and majestic than realistic and really works to make the player more immersed in its setting.
The music fits in the places that they are used, often relying on a chorus to present a place as being divine or historical, using flutes and drums for peaceful environments as well as for the dark dungeons, and so on and so forth. The music is very good, too. In some places, like the dungeons, it can get repetitive, but for the most part it is varied and likable. Of course, the game also has songs that are meant to evoke emotion; The Desktop theme, if I am to single one out, is probably one of the, if not the, most peaceful and calming songs I've heard in a game.
The initial desktop theme
.Hack G.U. is a one-of-a-kind game, a rare breed. Its voice acting can be hokey, but it doesn't detract from the experience, especially when you still have the treat of a star cast. The music is very fitting, emotional, and eerily mysterious, making for a very unique soundtrack and, as such, a unique experience. Fighting is quick and strategic, and Avatar battles are a nice break from the normal battles. The game will last the player as long as the player wants it to as the pacing depends on how much the player puts into the game. There’s not much after the end of the game other than to pop in the sequel, Reminisce, but if one hasn't taken advantage of what the game has to offer during the game, it would be best to in the post-game, and there is a lot to do. As far as Action RPGs go, .Hack//G.U. is one of the more unique, and certainly one of the better ARPGs out there. If you are looking for something new that offers more than simply gameplay, something with a great story that goes the extra mile in its presentation and its content, .Hack//G.U. is definitely a title worth checking out.