.hack – A Critique From a Fan

The .hack Franchise

.hack (pronounced “dot hack”) is a franchise first popularized in 2002 after it’s release in Japan. It was released internationally two years later, with the PAL version hitting stores in 2004. Since then, the franchise has enjoyed something of a cult following through the years, with games, anime, manga and a series of novels. The franchise is unknown to the wider community, but has a small, somewhat passionate following spread all over the world, making memorabilia somewhat of a collector’s item.

dothackinfection dothackmutation dothackoutbreakQuarantine

The .hack franchise started with the 2002 release of .hack//INFECTION in Japan. It was the first of a four-part series of games (the others being .hack//MUTATION, .hack//OUTBREAK and .hack//QUARANTINE) that spearheaded the innovation of save data from one game affecting the game play of sequels. The games were met with mixed reception, with the original plot being praised and the effect of a simulated MMORPG experience, while repetitive, shallow game play was criticized. With the new innovations in technology since the advent of next generation gaming, it’s not surprising that the cult audience of .hack brays for HD remakes. As both fan of the .hack franchise, and yet one of it’s more critical supporters, I believe the following features could be implemented to create a game that is truly unique and makes full use of today’s gaming tech.

Infections and Quarantines

To give you a brief overview of the .hack plot, the games follow the story of “Kite”, a Twin-Blade character who has joined an MMORPG called “The World” with his real-life classmate Yasuhiko. Yasuhiko is a famous Blademaster within “The World” that goes by the name “Orca”. After teaching Kite how to play for a while, the duo are met by a mysterious girl who gives Orca an item in the form of a giant tome. The girl retreats when a monstrous creature who is pursuing her catches up. Orca fights the creature, only to suffer a crushing defeat. As Orca’s character disintegrates, Kite is barely saved by the efforts of the hacker “Helba”. The item given to Orca transfers to Kite, who learns that in the real-world, Yasuhiko, has fallen into a deep coma. Reports soon emerge of other players of “The World” falling into comas under unusual circumstances, and soon Kite himself is caught in the throes of a war fought in cyberspace, that is having life-and-death ramifications in the real world. To add to the mystery, the item inherited by Kite through Orca’s defeat, turns out to be an item called “The Twilight Bracelet”, which grants Kite use of the same abilities that put Yasuhiko into a coma.

There’s no doubt, it’s an original plot, and the game deals with lots of themes that aren’t regularly explored in media, or at least weren’t until .hack came onto the scene. Yet despite its promising premise, the game suffers from several key flaws, which I will refer to as “Infections” and how they could be fixed/improved upon as “Quarantines.”

Infection 1 – Gameplay:

While initially interesting and fun, the gameplay is incredibly repetitive. Although the game is supposed to simulate an MMORPG, there just isn’t enough player choice to be accurate to the experience, let alone fun. The skills a character can use is determined by what equipment they are using, for example a weapon might have the abilities Staccato and Tiger Claws, and you might learn how to use those to full effect in battle and get quite comfortable with them. Then another weapon which is statistically better will come along but possesses only the ability Thunder Dance, and you will lose the abilities you’ve come to love so much. The same is said of armor. However in an MMORPG, characters generally choose their abilities from a skill tree which is upgraded through points gained on level up.

Combat is repetitive which is generally true to MMORPG fashion, but the thing is, we’re not playing an MMORPG, and even though the skills have a whole host of different names, Tiger Claws and Terror Cyclone are essentially the same animation, with a slight color change. It makes combat uninteresting to look at, especially since attacking regularly consists of attacking in sets of the same two animations. The thing is, combat can often get quite hectic, with quick thinking and micro-managing being a constant necessity, but the lack of variety in the animations and lack of player involvement means that it feels like the player is lagging behind in a chaotic environment.

.hack has a unique feature in the Desktop. This is where the RPG elements of the game come into it. While not playing “The World”, Kite can log out to go to his computer’s desktop. While there, he can catch up on the news, check and send out e-mails and change his desktop image and back ground music. However, there are a few things wrong with this. You can’t go from “The World” straight to the desktop, and having to repeatedly log out of the MMORPG to answer an e-mail, then come back to “The World” to wait for the reply (because people can only send you messages while you’re playing a game), then have to log out to read the e-mail is tedious and makes the game stretch out frustratingly. While News and e-mails add a certain taste of the events of the story being real, the un-intuitiveness of receiving news updates and e-mails just feels bland and at times, outrightly annoying.

Quarantine:

The first thing is simple, simulate an MMORPG. Make weapons and armor contribute only statistics, while skills are selected by the player on a skill tree that levels up with the player, and allow them to select skills/abilities that pertain to their playing style. This can work with the other characters that the player needs to form parties with. Blademasters could focus on fast attacks or heavy attacks. Heavy Blades could be built to either inflict physical damage, or focus on elemental critical damage types. Players could choose whether to focus on statistical advantage, or a variety of attack/defense abilities. The player could evolve themselves and their potential team mates, in order to have a group optimized for every battle at any point, also it would force the player to think analytically, and for battles where the player is forced to take a specific character that isn’t optimized for the kind of quest to be completed, the player will have been forced to make the best of a bad situation. Players want to work for their meal, but not know that they’re doing it.

Second, more animations! When I hear “Tiger Claws” I want the character to rip viciously through the enemy. When I hear “Terror Cyclone”, I want a whirlwind of blackness and skulls lined with blades to shred monsters to bits. When I hear “Thunder Dance” I want elaborate blade work with knives of lightning to blast the enemy. But most of all, I want an ability I have a hand in executing. Simply pausing the game to open the skill menu, selecting the skill then watching a three-second animation is simply not satisfying, especially when battles consist of spamming the same two or three skills over and over again. Give us animations that we activate with the press of a button, then watch a short but effective animation that makes us feel completely awesome (like Dragon Age 2, where even melee abilities felt magical because of the slight colored flashes.).

Also, with today’s modern technology, there’s no reason that players couldn’t gather in three-man teams and have a party composed fully of player characters! Don’t get me wrong, the micromanaging was fun to a control-freak like myself, and kind of innovative for the time it was released. But it would have been so much cooler if my sister could have taken control of the Heavy Blade “Blackrose” and gone questing with me in the game’s many dungeons.

To break up the repetition of gameplay, the game could focus more on the size of the enemies that magic portals in combat areas summon. For example, small enemies could be fought with relative ease, only becoming challenges in large groups that spread your company’s attention. Medium sized enemies would be stronger, and more of a threat, while bigger enemies could consist of large-scale battles, often requiring the use of mini-games to weaken and eventually defeat the colossal foes. It would be an imaginative way to handle the already existing monster size classes, which really only differ in the amount of health they possess. While large enemies do pose more of a threat, their main difficulty lies in their huge hit count, and really, all battles can be navigated fairly simply with a minimum of effort. It betrays the imaginative and varied amount of monster designs that .hack boasts, and a more imaginative battle system similar to the one described above could really add a unique feature to the game.

Finally, the process of logging out/into “The World” could be more streamlined. Maybe when receiving e-mails it should be an option to open the inbox in-game, or pause and minimize the game screen in order to check messages or make changes to the BGM or desktop image.

Also, maybe with this era’s focus on sandbox gameplay, there could be an element that takes place in the real world. This would add another layer to the plot. Making characters meet each other in real life to make plans of attack regarding the events within “The World” would add another level to the story, meaning we didn’t just read the news, but we could witness the effects of corrupt cyberspace first hand. I feel like .hack could play with the reality of the players a lot more than it does, and if a HD remake were to come out, certain missions and things that had to be carried out in the real world would really give it the depth that the developers were going for.

Infection 2: Script

While the plot is interesting, the script opts for a style of unbelievable writing which makes 90% of dialogue flat and cliche` to listen to. There are only about 3, maybe 4 (at a stretch) like-able characters, and even Kite, as the mild-mannered and generally well-meaning pre-teen is kind of irritating as he willingly takes people’s BS and accepts them as a friend. For instance there’s this one character called Gardenia. She has this habit of starting conversations with facts about herself, such as one time her first correspondence to me said “I like cooking” or something to that effect. Similarly, if Gardenia wants to go to an area with you, she will simply send you the name of the area with no greeting, reason for sending you the name of the area, or what her intentions are there. While I understand that these are meant to be real people playing a role, that role should switch off while not in-game, or we should be introduced to the character the person is playing in some way. As is, most of the characters come across as the biggest group of saps and ass-hats ever gathered in a single space.

Not only that, but the writers often make characters leave sentences unfinished at an attempt at depth, and while the plot is deep its rendered nigh unfollowable due to the flat, confusing script. I remember one portion in .hack//OUTBREAK, the third installment to the series, where Kite was forced by his group to give an inspiring speech, in order to commence an operation to work against whatever is causing the infection in the internet. What should have been an awe-inspiring moment was rendered cheap by exaggerated metaphors that no one thinks of on the fly, and a forced reference to something even the character themselves don’t understand at that point in the story.

Quarantine:

The first thing that needs to happen to the script is, it needs a near total re-write. It needs to cut back on hyperbole and metaphor, and simply explore the elements within the plot and capitalize on that. Instead of forcing magical and fruity language, the game just needs a script where the people talk and act like people, and characters that we can relate to.

.hack has a really original story, and an interesting premise, it’s really only the characters that need some working on, and the pseudo-mysterious nature of the script that just comes off as confusing needs to be cleared up.

Infection 3: Mini-Games

So far, mini-games in .hack are restricted to Goblin Tag and Grunty Racing. As you progress through the game, Goblin NPCs will leave messages on the game board challenging you to a game of tag. What this means is, casting a spell to increase running speed, then running around getting in one hit every thirty seconds (I wish), for 45 minutes until the goblin dies leaving behind a piece of rare armor. When you collect all the armors, you will be able to cast a powerful summoning spell, but the armor itself is relatively useless statistically, and to wear it in battle for the sake of the spell would be tantamount to suicide.

Grunties, are adorable pig+dog looking things that you raise on Grunty Food collected in battle zones. Depending on how much of what kind of food you feed your Grunty, you can raise grunties from babies to adults with differing results. For example there is the Noble Grunty, which is dressed like a waiter and calls you “Mon Ami” (“My Friend” in French), and there is the Snakey Grunty that is covered in dreadlocks and happily refers to you as “Chief”. Once you have raised each of a server’s three Grunty breeds, you can participate in Grunty Races, which consist of running through the server’s root town collecting flags, attempting to get the best time for various prizes.

With one mini-game being tedious by nature, and the other being tedious to unlock, there’s very little reason to play them, or even to have them in the first place really. Goblin Tag gets boring after ten minutes of running around in a circle, and frustrating when you finally catch up to the goblin and land a hit that does 0 damage. Higher levels add the frustration of the creature being able to heal itself.Gathering Grunty food is the equivalent of running around for twenty minutes in a small field, waiting for something to shout out its name at you (yes, Grunty food talks, and when you gather it, it squeals).

Quarantine:

More mini-games! Seriously, Dungeons are lacking in any kind of challenge beyond slightly-harder battles. Would it have been so hard to stick a few imaginative (possibly procedurally/randomly generated?) puzzles or mini-games that act as a prerequisite for the player to get to the rare items/boss fights at the bottom floor? Somethingsimilar to Final Fantasy X‘s Trials of the Faith would do extremely well in the .hack games. It would add another dimension to gameplay and make dungeons feel like more than a combat arena.

Infection 4: Equipment

While functional the equipment system is somewhat of a mess. Apart from armor being extremely fickle to work out, it’s unfair that items that are higher in level, can offer stats that are lower in ability. Once I spent several thousand GP on an entire set of armor for one of my lower-level characters that I was taking on a grind-run. When I had bought the armor and gifted it to the character, I had a look at her stats only to find out, the level 50+ armors I had bought for her were actually lowering her defensive statistics from the level 20-30 items she had already had equipped.

Items levels are determined by the levels of the “server” being played in. There are several servers, and each have a range of around 25 or so levels, so the starter server will accommodate players with access to level 1-25 battle areas, the second server might go from 25-40 etc. The armor and weapons native to that area, are scaled to the server’s level, rather than to their usefulness in the entire game, leading to the fiasco where a level 25 hat can increase your defense by 3, and a level 52 hat can increase it by 2.

Not only this but level has little to no bearing on strength. When it comes to stats, as long as you have the best gear, you could have a group of three level 1 characters fighting in a level 5-7 area and be totally fine. This means it takes little to no time to level up (especially since necessary experience to level up doesn’t increase with each level), and when you reach a critical moment in the game, it’s a breeze because you’ve leveled up your health and magic to about 15 levels above the battle area and your equipment is the best available.

Which is one other thing! What’s the point of gear that is rare, if it’s not better or the best in the game? There will be times where, using Kite’s unique abilities you’ll sacrifice experience points to get an incredibly rare weapon, only to find that it lowers your statistics by several points and you sacrificed several hundred (possibly thousand) worth of experience, for a lemon that looks good.

Quarantine:

Well the first thing that would need to be done would be to make equipment’s levels valid across the ENTIRE GAME, and not relative to their position within the server of “The World”. If there is a level 50 item, that item should ALWAYS be better than a level 20 item, plain and simple.

Second, items that are rare, need to be rare for a reason. Their stats either need to be off-the-scale, or they need to have some kind of ability that DOMINATES on the field of battle, to make up for slightly lack-luster statistics.

Third, equipment should not determine the outcome of battle. Weapon and armor stats should only ever assist with your character’s natural growth, not replace it entirely, otherwise leveling up is meaningless.

Infection 5: Devastation?

What makes the plot of .hack so interesting is that the effects that the virus is having on “The World” eventually makes its way into real life. People fall into comas, building emergency systems start without reason, computers disable at the stock market causing huge economy crashes, public transport systems experience devastating delays. And what are the reflections of this within “The World”? Some orange spots of coding where textures should be, lines of data streaking across the sky, and occasional visual flashes. It seems dramatic the first few times, but it really doesn’t reflect the chaos going on in the real world because of the virus. Also the fact that there are no ill-effects displayed on the character’s desktop makes it feel like we’re somehow immune from the virus, which works against the news reports and e-mail conversations with friends reflecting the real-world chaos.

Quarantine:

The game Goat Simulator was critically acclaimed because of it’s hilarious use of bugs. With some careful programming, bugs could be implemented into .hack to make the desktop short out, the game’s textures stretch and not render properly. “The World” could at times just log out for no reason, and characters could lag. The possibilities are endless, and it would make the game a bit infuriating, but in the end it would just be another challenge, one that would be rewarding when successfully navigated. Not only that, but it would add the sense that the drama is real. If the developers were intent on ignoring the potential that real-world segments would bring to the game and focussed on the character being strapped to their computers 24/7, emulating the bugs and destruction of the real world’s computer systems by various glitches on the desktop and in “The World” could be really amazing, and it would mean the narrative is affecting the gameplay.

Why Bother?

With the amount of criticism I’ve given .hack, I can imagine it’s difficult for someone reading this to imagine why anyone would bother playing through four full-length games. Well, there are several reasons.

The first and, admittedly most least practical (though most nerdy) reason, is that it’s fun to have. I was introduced to .hack in High School by borrowing a friend’s copy. Two years ago in 2014, I bought all four games for around $200-$250 dollars total (I have seen mint-condition PAL complete sets go for around $500). The fact is, with a game that was only released in limited supply in Australia, it’s somewhat of a collector’s item. I can’t say how much longer it’ll fetch that kind of price for, but for now, it’s a nice collector’s item that I’m quite proud of owning. I like seeing them all stacked next to each other, I like looking at the covers and I like being able to play through the complete story within a matter of a month or so. It’s just fun to own.

Second, I’ve praised it a few times, but the story is great. While not necessarily like-able, the characters are definitely intriguing to watch, and entertaining to hate. I have fond memories of shouting at Piros to shut the f$*& up and calling Gardenia and up herself bitch. And really, the story is so wide, so incredibly spread out it’s rendered totally unpredictable. There is just no one thing in the story that can be anticipated, and it’s chilling. Game mechanics, sure, you’ll know exactly when you need to fight an “impromptu” boss, but the plot itself unravels at its own pace. It’s unpredictable and there have been many times that I’ve been shocked at the way it’s developed. The fact is, .hack is a story that you can get emotionally involved in because while unrealistic, it’s something that you can easily go “imagine if that happened to me.” And you bloody well do! You imagine if you and your younger sibling were playing a game, and your sibling dies in-game but in the real world, you watch them fall into a coma and you’re powerless to save them. It’s a story you can sink your teeth into and really live, and looking past the game play the story is simply amazing.

Third, it can be genuinely fun. While not necessarily reflective of the real world, traveling on the scarred virtual reality of “The World” is a constant reminder that things are getting steadily worse, and it’s not really evident when, if at all, they will get better. I just finished the third game in the series last night, and due to home commitments I haven’t been able to play the fourth and final part yet. It’s been killing me. I can’t describe the violence of my desire to find out what happens.

The point of this article is; If a HD remake were to emerge of the .hack series, then there’s definitely a TON of room for improvement and new features. But the fact is, .hack has a special place within my heart – and if you’re patient with it, look past its flaws and let yourself become involved in the story, it’ll make a special place within your heart too. If you’ve got the spare cash, a working PS2, and a desire to travel back to the gaming age of the early 2000’s, then the .hack series should be your next port of call.

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