Review by Star_Gem

"I wish people would understand dotHack is not a RPG"

Infection is the first volume in the dotHack series... er... actually, dotHack is not really a series but more like a single game which was split into four discs, and sold separately, but I'll refer to this again when I talk about the Value of the game. For the moment, keep in mind that I'll try my best to keep this review "spoiler-free" because I've seen way too many Reviews out there that tell you more than you should know to enjoy the game.

Anyway, before I begin, let me clear something up. dotHack is not a RPG, nor does it have enough RPG elements to be considered a hybrid. Yet, it's true that the game is being advertised as RPG, but don't be fooled by the marketing scheme - dotHack, at its core, is just an Action game with some Adventure elements, and a couple of RPG influences (at best). Unfortunately, the current generation of gamers is unaware of this because they have no idea of what a true RPG is, or how the genre started in the first place. Adding insult to injury, some of today's game designers choose to mislead gamers this way because they know that their game will sell better as a “RPG” then as a simple “Action” title. Anyway, this is not the place to give you people a history lesson, so I'll leave it at that.

That being said, let's begin by the game's plot. You're an ordinary kid, living sometime in the near future, and you like to play Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Recently, a friend of yours asked you to join a new game, called The World, where he usually plays... and you agreed. The catch is that there are things happening in The World which affect not only the characters playing the game but also the players controlling those characters. As expected, the company responsible for making The World does its best to keep whatever is happening hidden from the general public.

Right at the beginning, when you first login The World, your friend will teach you how to play the game in a sort of tutorial dungeon. After the tutorial is over, he becomes one of the victims of The World which will leave you with lots of questions. What happened? Why it happened? Why no one talks about it? How can it be solved? You obviously need to find out, and that's when the game really starts.

Regarding Graphics, dotHack has two very distinct levels of quality. At its best, you get beautiful Anime-style FMVs throughout the game which carry the story along and are definitely worth watching. Sadly, during gameplay, the overall appearance of the game takes a plunge. The backgrounds are bland, have a very short draw distance, and lack detail. It's understandable that, in an Action-based game, a playable frame rate was favoured over great graphics when it comes to the outdoors settings. Yet, I can't find any excuse why the indoors are equally poor since there's not much to see in the dark, simplistic, corridors of most dungeons. In fact, the only time I saw a serious drop in frame rate was inside a dungeon, when 3 monsters were fighting my 3 characters near a corner - not pretty. To make matters worse, the dungeons in this game seem randomly created (they're not, though), because they all look like empty rooms connected by empty corridors - that's because they are - but the theme of these rooms and corridors repeats too often, so it's hard to find a dungeon that doesn't look like another you've played before. To be more specific, there are about 6 different wall texture patterns, one for each element (Fire, Water, Darkness, Thunder, Earth and Wood), about 5 room configurations (tiny room, small room, big room, U-shaped room, and C-shaped room) along with 5 intersections (I-shaped corridor, L-shaped corner, T-shaped intersection, O-shaped crossroad, and X-shaped crossroad). Regarding character models, again there are two levels of quality. Most monsters you fight are deprived of any meaningful detail, and look like first-generation PS2 graphics. However, the hero characters have a bit more detail, though not that much - for instance, new weapons appear in the hand of your characters, but armor doesn't – at least they animate well.

As far as Sound is concerned, the "two levels of quality" theme takes a break and leaves us with just one - a bad one. Music is uninspired and downright forgettable, if you're lucky, but the fact that there are less than 20 tracks in total means that you'll be listening to the same tune over and over far too often, which is just one more reason why this game has so little replay value - you wouldn't want to go through more dungeons where they all look AND sound the same for too long. The voiceovers sound, in some cases, incredibly annoying, while others are passable. To be fair, if dotHack was a true RPG, or Adventure title, this would be a more serious problem since those genres tend to be very dependent on large amounts of dialogue and in-depth plot development. As an Action game, let's just say you can live with the cheesy voices. Sound Effects are pretty basic - you'll hear weapons clinging, spells whooshing, and monsters growling but most environments sound dead otherwise.

Now we get into the meat of the game, Gameplay. Here the "two levels of quality" returns. The problem, I believe, is that dotHack makes a lot of things right, and then ruins it here and there with things that went wrong. For instance, I liked the fact that you can log out of The World to check your character email, or any new forum messages in The World website. Unfortunately, that's all you can do outside of The World. Again, if this was anywhere near a RPG, or Adventure game, you'd probably have the choice to get out of your chair and take actions like visiting your friend at the hospital, talking to other players on the street, calling someone on the phone, etc. Sadly, dotHack focuses on being an Action game from beginning to end so all you're allowed to do is fight in The World, check emails to open up new areas in The World, and then go back to fight in those new areas. Rinse and repeat.

The only thing you can do besides fighting is, when you first login The World, you always appear in the small base town of the server you last played in (there are only two in the whole game). In these towns, you can buy items, save the game, or talk to the 8 or 10 NPC's running around. Sadly, this is even shallower than it sounds. Buying stuff is a rare event because most items you'll use in the game are found in dungeons, and talking to the small handful of NPCs is pretty much pointless. You can trade items with them but, other than that, they're useless, usually having two or three lines to say to you about how their cat is so cute and other “Out of Character” issues. Supposedly it's meant to give you a similar experience to what you might find in a true online game, but it fails due to the small number of people present, the limited amount of things they have to say, and the fact none of them help move the plot, let alone give you any sort of side quest.

That's pretty much how dotHack works. As I said before, there are only two towns in the whole game, one for each server. The starting town belongs to the Delta server, and is the only place you can access at the beginning of the game. Later, when the story progresses, the Theta server opens up allowing you to visit the second town, which is just like the first, but has a Grunty shop - in case you're wondering, Grunties are dotHack's equivalent to Chocobos (the famous Final Fantasy mascot). If you raise a Grunty you can then trade items with it when you're in town, just like any other NPC. When in the field, you can also call your Grunty which will allow you to ride it without being attacked by monsters - they can't go inside the dungeon, though, and they only work in the server you raised them, which means you can't use them in the Delta server.

Eventually, you'll have to get out of town and into a "zone" of the game. This, I like. The concept goes like this: you are presented with a table which is filled with words. These words are divided into 3 sections (Part A, Part B, and Part C) and have to be combined to form a full password (sentence). Once you activate that password, you are warped to the zone those words create. You don't have a big list of words when you start the game, but later you are given more which will allow you to visit other zones. Obviously, this prevents you from visiting the plot-specific zones before you are supposed to. Anyway, the idea of combining words to create a "zone" to explore is fun and I, for one, enjoyed playing with all the words and see where they would lead. Unfortunately, and due to the graphical and sound problems I referred early in this review, all the places start to look and sound the same and the only difference is in the difficulty of the monsters present. In other words, after you played the game for a few hours, your only concern will be whether the monsters are too tough for you or not. It doesn't help that there's only one dungeon per zone, and that there's nothing to do, see or visit other than killing all the monsters present and explore the dungeon. An exception to this rule is the Myst Spring. In some zones, you can find a small lake, called the Myst Spring, that will upgrade your weapons or armor, or downgrade them, according to the weather conditions, but that's it.

Hacking and Slashing defines this game well when you start the game and are playing solo, but there's an interesting twist once you get an ally, or more. You can give them simple orders, just like in Kingdom Hearts (another Action game advertised as RPG), but in dotHack this actually works. You see, in Kingdom Hearts, if you send your partners to attack, they'll take incredible amounts of damage, unless you do something to cover their behinds. Often, it would be best to leave them behind and take care of the enemies yourself. Here, on the other hand, your team is a bit more effective and I found that the best way to beat the game, without much effort, is to leave the fighting to your allies while you cast offensive spells from a distance, healing spells when needed, or the occasional item when you run out of Magic (which doesn't happen that often since your magic bar regenerates with time).

This brings me to the Value of this game. When you're still learning how to play the game, and the plot is thickening, the game looks promising. The password system used to create game zones by itself looks like it has endless possibilities. However, this only lasts for the first few hours. Once your team is formed, your equipment is maxed out, and the story specifically tells you where to go next, you have no other choice than to do it. Sure you could waste time going to random dungeons, to collect treasure and sell it back in town, but that's just what it is - a waste of time. Following the linear storyline, will quickly lead you to the end boss which, once beaten, will leave you hanging until you play the next volume in the dotHack game. Frankly, if dotHack 1 through 4 were all in the same package, I'd give this game an 8 but, as it stands, I feel this is just a fourth of a game. I have no doubt that dotHack was meant to be a cheap and blatant attempt to cash in on one game. By splitting the game into 4 discs and selling them separately they would, in theory, get 4 times the profit. The only redeeming factor here is that both the NTSC and PAL versions of this game bring a second disc with a 30-minute episode of the dotHack anime mini-series specially made for this game, which increases the value of the package a bit, though not by much.

Overall, dotHack is a great concept that falls short due to misleading marketing, and a lack of substance. The story and characters are interesting, graphics and sound are acceptable, if a bit cheap, and gameplay has an incredible amount of potential. Unfortunately, the biggest disappointment comes from the fact this was meant to be a single game, not a four volume rip-off. Definitely rent before you buy, or look for it in the bargain bin.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 10/19/06

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