October 22, 2007

I recently worked my way through the final volume of .hack//G.U. I should temper this by pointing out I am a huge .hack fan. I initially bought a PS2 just to play the original games. Ever since seeing .hack//SIGN, I’ve been fascinated by the universe the creators have set up.

In the early 2000’s, a virus known as Pluto’s Kiss cripples the global networks. The only OS that withstood the virus was a little known system called ALTIMIT. Following Pluto’s Kiss, known as the First Network Crisis, world governments heavily restricted network use while standardizing the planet on ALTIMIT. Years later, network restrictions are lifted and the first online game for ALTIMIT is released: a fantasy MMORPG called “The World.” “The World,” then called “Fragment,” was the brainchild of a genius programmer named Harald Hoerwick. Harald based the game’s setting on an epic poem written by Emma Wielant, with whom he was in love. When Emma died tragically, Harald decided that he would create their child from within “Fragment.” He built in an indecipherable black box in the code, without which the game would not function. The purpose of the black box was to gather information about humanity through the players of the game, and use that information to foster the birth of the ultimate A.I. “Aura.” However, the system for fostering Aura’s birth, codenamed Morganna Mode Gone, developed a self preservation instinct and began to go out of control. The resulting effects on the global network became known as the Second Network Crisis. Morganna was defeated through the efforts of a small group of regular players and hackers, allowing the birth of Aura. These are the events of the original .hack series.

For a time, Aura’s influence created a golden age on the Internet, though few people were actually aware of her existence. Sysadmins began to become complacent, thinking that the networks they oversaw would just continue to run flawlessly. A Eventually though, Aura mysteriously disappeared, and network problems began to occur again. Desperate to recover Aura, C.C. Corp began a secret project to recreate her. To do this, they needed the 8 Phases of the Morganna Factor that had been defeated and scattered into The World’s systems by the .hackers. Skeith, Innis, Magus, Fidchell, Gorre, Macha, Tarvos and Corbenik were found and sealed into special PC characters known as Epitaph PC’s. C.C. Corp attempted to use the Epitaph PC’s to resurrect Aura, but something went horribly wrong. A fire broke out in C.C. Corp’s headquarters, destroying The World’s servers and most of its data.

What was left of The World was fused with another game in development to create The World R:2. R:2 was a bit more lawless than the retroactively named R:1, as PK (player killing) was enabled and quite heavily practiced. Meanwhile, rumors are springing up about players falling into comas, much as they did during the events of the Second Network Crisis. One of those players is a young woman named Shino, apparently PKed by the mysterious player known as Tri-Edge and afterward falling comatose in real life. A young man using a PC named Haseo vows vengeance on Tri-Edge, and begins to hunt down PKs in order to gain information. In the process, Haseo becomes a legendary PKK (player killer killer) known as “The Terror of Death.” Eventually Haseo is able to confront Tri-Edge at the very place Shino was PKed, but is easily defeated. To make things worse, Tri-Edge uses a mysterious ability to revert Haseo’s PC back to level 1. However, Haseo does not fall comatose and vows to start his quest anew. Events regarding how Haseo and Shino met, up to the point he fights Tri-Edge are detailed in the anime .hack//ROOTS. The .hack//G.U. games properly begin right after Haseo is reverted to level 1.

As you take on the role of Haseo, you’ll quickly find that there is a lot more going on in the G.U. games than there was in the original series. One big addition is when Haseo is roped into becoming master of a guild called Canard. Through your accomplishments and play data, Canard’s guild rank increases which gives you access to more and more useful features. You gain increased storage space, and the ability to perform numerous functions from platforms in the fields without having to return to town. You also gain the very handy steam bike for getting around. You can take on a number of quests from the local Quest Shops, most of which lead to an ongoing sidequest through the game. There’s also the arena, which is central to the plot of all three volumes, but also good for raising your job levels.

On the topic of jobs, Haseo uses a multiclass PC type known as an Adept Rogue (Multiweapon in the Japanese version). In Haseo’s case, you start with the Twin Blade class, and through Job Extensions gain access to the Edge Punisher and Flick Reaper classes. These can be switched on the fly simply by activating an attack skill from another class. In vol. 3, you also gain an illegal job extension to a unique class called Twin Gunner. In this form, you use two pistols with bayonets. It’s a fun class that strikes a nice balance between Twin Blade’s rapid attacks, Edge Punisher’s high damage, and Flick Reaper’s mobbing ability.

Combat is fast-paced, based on keeping combos going in order to trigger a Rengeki, where you can use an attack skill for extra damage. I found that your A.I. controlled party members aren’t quite as bright or useful as they were in the old games, and you don’t really have the fine control over their actions you did before. It’s not that bad though, they’re really there just to distract a couple enemies for you since you’ll be doing most of the work anyway. Healing, thankfully, is carried out well, almost too well as anyone set to heal will be anal about recovering every last point of everyone’s HP even if it’s not the wisest use of items or SP. During fights, a Morale meter will fill, eventually allowing you to trigger and Awakening attack. Awakenings take one of 4 forms. Originally you have Beast Awakening (increased speed and attack power for a duration) and Demon Awakening (casts a large multi-hit spell on the enemy party). In vol. 2 you gain Divine Awakening, which allows you to do massive damage with an aura weapon depending on your affection with your party members and your timing in a little mini game. Vol. 3 replaces Divine with an illegal Avatar Awakening that allows you to use Haseo’s Avatar to perform Data Drain on enemies.

Use of the Avatar usually happens in special Avatar Battles. At this point, the game almost becomes a Zone of the Enders style mecha shooter, where you as Avatar Skeith square off against another Avatar or one of the entities known as AIDA. When you get the enemy’s HP to zero, you have a chance to attack them with Data Drain to win the battle.

As far as G.U.’s story, it’s a lot more character oriented than the original games. Focus is on relationships between the characters, especially Haseo getting over being a lone wolf and learning to rely on others. There is of course some romantic tension as Haseo develops a relationship with a girl called Atoli, while at the same time struggling with his remaining feelings for the comatose Shino. Each character has an interesting personal angle that you can learn through the game, or through the email exchanges triggered by sending greeting cards. I just wish you got enough greeting cards to send each card to everyone. The overall tone of the story is darker as well, to match the look of the game. I think it did a good job of differentiating itself from the original, while still maintaining its ties as part of the .hack universe. A number of characters return or are hinted to return. Piros the 3rd is back with the same name and an even more tacky PC. It’s heavily hinted that Endrance is Elk and it’s almost flat out said that Yata is Wiseman (he even had a second PC that looked like Wiseman). Zelkova is hinted to have ties to the old cast, and given his hacking prowess he could even be Helba, but that’s purely speculation.

There’s a lot to see and do in the G.U. games. For fans of .hack, these are a no-brainer. For anyone who was a little bored by the original games, give these another look. The story moves on at a brisker pace, and there’s more stuff going on to keep you occupied. While not the best RPGs ever crafted, .hack’s strength is in the universe it weaves. The more you invest into story, delving beyond the games into the other media of this “multimedia project,” the more rewarding the whole experience is.

Link: The .hack Wiki

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