Publisher: Namco-Bandai Games
Release Date: October 24, 2006
Set in a fictional MMORPG titled "The World," the .hack franchise mixes elements of both single-player and MMORPG titles. I'll be repeating this several times in the review, but it is something that bears repeating – .hack//GU Vol. 1: Rebirth is not the full story. It is volume one. It contains roughly the first one-third of a game, without any of the payoff that comes, both in gameplay and in plot, from the other thirds. If you can be patient enough to wait for the second installment in the series, this isn't an issue, but be forewarned.
It has been seven years since The World, the MMORPG from the original .hack games was destroyed by a mysterious server fire. CCCorp, the company responsible for the original The World, recently released a new sequel, The World R2, one that supposedly fixed all the problems with the original The World, and the sequel quickly became as popular as its predecessor. .hack//GU Vol. 1: Rebirth tells the story of Haseo. When Haseo signs on to The World R2 for the first time, he is tricked and killed by two Player-Killers (PKs), but he is saved at the last minute by Ovan, another player. The story quickly fast-forwards eight months later, to where Haseo is now a famous "Player-Killer-Killer" known as "The Terror of Death." While hunting down an infamous PKer known as "Tri-Edge," Haseo is subjected to a mysterious attack called Data Drain, reducing his level back to one and draining all of his powers.
The biggest problem with Rebirth's story is one that is evident before you even buy the game: It's volume one of three. What this means in the long run is that Rebirth is all introduction; it has countless cut scenes, but nothing ever actually happens in most of them. The plot, as it is, moves along at a glacial pace and ends in an abrupt and unsatisfying fashion. Unsurprisingly, it only feels like the first one-third of a game. With the second segment of the series still months away, this can be very frustrating for .hack fans who were at least hoping for something to whet their appetites for the sequel. It's not a deal breaker, but if you're the kind of person who hates cliffhangers, you've been warned.
The World R2 functions eerily similar to a real MMORPG at times. Before even signing in, you can browse Haseo's computer desktop, watch downloaded movies, browse Internet forums, and even check the current news on the web. While most of this is just there to fill in the backstory of the .hack world, it pays to check it regularly. Forums, like those in the real world, hold a lot of filler, but among them are keywords to find valuable items and hidden areas that would be impossible to find on your own.
The most important thing you can do outside The World is to check your e-mail. You receive messages from players you meet in The World, in addition to announcements from the Admins. The e-mails always point you toward the next plot point, and many of them also allow you to increase your "affection" with that player. Partying with a player with high affection makes things go by a lot smoother and allows you better deals on trades with them. It does, however, get a bit frustrating to have to sign out of The World every time you get a new e-mail, especially when the person you get it from was standing right next to you at the time.
Once you sign into The World, you'll find that there are a lot of things to do. You can trade items with people, although few have anything worthwhile. You can battle in the arena, check your gameplay stats with various Grunties (the cute animal mascot of The World) for bonus items, or shop for new weapons or armor.
Early on, Haseo becomes leader of the Canard guild, a group dedicated to helping newbies. Once he becomes guild leader, a few more options open up. Haseo can then open up a guild shop, where he can sell any five of his inventory items for a profit. He can also store items in the guild's storage and take advantage of their alchemist to power up his weaponry. He also gets access to a Steam Bike, a sort of medieval motorcycle that allows him to travel slightly faster around the game world. While these are not massive changes, the guild shop is a great way to earn money, and the storage space is a godsend later on.
The most important thing in The World is the Chaos Gate, which allows you to transfer to other cities or Areas. While there are only two cities in Rebirth, there are hundreds of fields. As Haseo travels The World, he gathers "words" which can be inputted into the Chaos Gate to create Areas. Different combinations create different fields; some have stronger monsters, better treasure or different elements, and experimenting with fields can lead to some very powerful treasures. Sadly, all of the best fields are generally e-mailed to you or found in forums, so there is very little reason to experiment.
Once you create an Area, Haseo is teleported there. Each Area is different, depending on the combination of words used, although you'll notice a few set archetypes. The rainy plain, the grassy field, the underground cave all show up repeatedly. Although the dungeons are all different, they tend to just be a few short rooms with some monsters and the occasional treasure. A few have special objectives, like "find the beast statue" or "kill the boss," but there's no reason to complete them unless you're on a quest. Occasionally, a few things are randomly generated to liven things up: You'll encounter a PKer trying to kill someone, or a Lucky Animal that grants you a bonus, but for the most part, it's stage after stage of repetitive monster fighting.
There are actually three different kinds of battles in Rebirth: Field Battles, Arena Battles and Avatar Battles. Field Battles are by far the most common; in classic MMO fashion, any time Haseo enters a Dungeon Area, he and his party face the possibility of battle with random monsters.
Unlike the original .hack games, combat in Rebirth is a much more action-based experience. Players attack with X, block with O and can combo attacks and special skills together with a "Skill Trigger." Skill Trigger is activated by pressing R1 and allows the player to activate any of Haseo's special attacks at any moment. These can be used to simply do more damage or to stop a powerful enemy attack; careful use of them allows players to go through combat without taking damage. Beyond that, repeated combos allow players to transform their Skill Trigger attack into a "Rengeki," or combo finisher. When an enemy is staggered, activating a Skill Trigger attack on that enemy performs a Rengeki, which does double damage, increases party morale and grants a significant EXP bonus at the end of combat.
Combat is initially fun, but as you start to grind through the title, it quickly grows tedious. The same extremely few enemy types appear over and over, and none provide even the smallest of threats. Most enemies can be defeated by pounding wildly on the X button and only using the Skill Trigger to perform Rengeki, so the deeper mechanics evident in the system rarely come into play. There are few boss fights, and most of them are simply regular enemies who do a little more damage and have a lot more HP. Like so much of the rest of the game, Rebirth feels like only the beginning of something.
While you only control Haseo in Field Battles, you can bring up to two allies with you at a time. Unfortunately, these enemies are always controlled by the AI, and you can only barely edit their combat actions. In the long run, the AI is passable for Field Battles, as they fight and heal with reasonable proficiency, but Haseo is still going to have to do most of the work in order to prevent them from dying horribly. Luckily, ally battles have something else going for them: awakening. By raising ally morale in combat, players can activate Awakening mode, a sort of brief super mode. Beast Awakening gives all allies a massive boost in attack and speed, while Demon Awakening allows the party to fire a massive burst of magical energy at all attacks. You'll find that Beast Awakening far surpasses Demon Awakening, however, so there is no reason to switch between the two.
Arena Battles are naturally fought in the arena. In essence, they are slightly modified Field Battles, but the most obvious difference is that, instead of fighting monsters, you're fighting teams of other players. Like your own party, they can perform Rengeki and Awakenings if you give them a chance. Luckily, Counterattack gives you the ability to counter another player's ability by using a Skill Trigger on him. Doing so gives you an instant Rengeki, counters their attack and lowers their morale while raising your party's. This ability in particular is so incredibly overpowered that it makes Arena Battles a snap. It feels so unbalanced that it makes the Arena Battles far more tedious then they need to be, since you rarely feel threatened.
Avatar Battles constitute the only really significantly different kind of gameplay. Midway through the game, Haseo gains the ability to summon his person avatar, Skeith, a puppet personification of one of the major bosses from the last .hack offerings. When Haseo activates his avatar, gameplay switches to something resembling Zone of the Enders. Players can shoot blasts of energy with Square, slash with Skeith's scythe with X and dash around with O.
Repeatedly shooting an enemy stuns them, allowing you to move in and hit them with the scythe for massive damage. Hit them enough, and they enter "Protect Break" mode, at which point Skeith can Data Drain them for the victory. While interesting in concept, Avatar Battles are far too easy to be any fun. For every attack the enemy does, the game tells you specifically on-screen how to avoid it. Even if Skeith does get hit, attacks do such minimal damage that as long as you occasionally dodge, you can finish battles with more than half of your health bar intact.
Compared to most recent PS2 titles, Rebirth is a bit lacking. The character models are pretty simple, and most of the graphical detail is done via shading. When it works, it looks pretty good, but frequently it adds an off-putting touch to the character style that really hurts more than it helps. The city and Area graphics are notably better than the character models, but there is so little variation that the design prowess is lost the 90th time you see it. The battle animations are passable but often very plain. There is very little shine or sparkle to the special attacks, and the canned regular attack animations get repeated so often that battles become boring to watch.
Rebirth's soundtrack is generally good. The music fits the tone of scenes well, and the Area and Town music is fairly peppy and upbeat – generally what you'd expect to hear from an MMO. It doesn't get very annoying and that's good, since you'll hear it a whole lot. The same can't be said for the voice acting; while there are a few standout voices, the voice work is, for the most part, annoying and poorly acted. Characters frequently put strange and unnatural emphasis on words, and whenever a character is "cut off" while speaking, they sound like they just finished their sentence, so it really comes off like all of the cut scenes are being read off cue cards. Most of the prominent characters, especially the game's heroine Atoli, have loud squeaky voices that just made me reach for the mute button every time they spoke.
.hack//GU Vol. 1: Rebirth is one-third of a complete game, and it really feels like it. Despite the fairly large variety in things to do, all of it feels like setup for something that is going to happen later on. Even if you max out your weaponry and complete all of the quests, it ends up feeling empty. If you wait until the release of the second and third installments in the series, this could be much less of an issue, but for the moment, you're better off buying a full game.