Review by ZillyMonk

"Infectious fun!"

Well, it’s another “save the world” RPG.

Except that this world is not the planet that you live on, but rather an extremely popular massively multiplayer online RPG that just happens to be called “The World.” ;)

.hack: Infection, the first in a series of four .hack games (Three have been released in Japan as of this writing and the fourth is still under development, but this is the first to make it across the Pacific thus far) draws the player into an intricate web of conspiracy and deceit from the outset, when a new player named Kite is invited to the game by his real-life friend Yasuhiko, whose character is named Orca. Both you and Kite are shown the ropes of “The World” in a concise tutorial, but while you are learning the game, you spot a woman being chased by some sort of monster. Kite doesn’t know what to make of it, but Orca is quite surprised to see a monster of that caliber hanging around in a “newbie” dungeon.

Orca himself is an extremely strong character, so he decides to chase down and fight the beast. However, his attacks are completely ineffective, and Orca is quickly dispatched by the monster. Kite is given a bracelet by the woman to ward off the foe, and it is revealed later that it was a “data bug” – a normal monster that has been infected by a virus and no longer plays by the rules of the game. They are invincible, relentless, and deadly, and right after the tutorial you find that Orca’s player collapsed into a coma. You also hear that he is not the first one to suffer these effects; yet no one has ever discussed it on the official boards.

So begins Kite’s mission; to find out what exactly lurks within “The World” and how a game can have such brutal effects on the human body.

Gameplay: Borrowing from action-RPGs such as Secret of Mana and Kingdom Hearts, .hack uses a real-time system for combat and dungeon crawling. You can attack a monster from all sides, or have each party member focus on their own, and even change the formation of the party as needed. However, you personally control only Kite, and the AI will handle up to two other players. While you can influence the other characters’ actions by either giving them a general command (“Strengthen!” “Don’t use skills!” “Use magic!”) or a direct order (“BlackRose, use Hirameki on Water Snake!”), most of the time they will act on their own according to their personalities. Most of the time they're on the ball, but one aspect of the bots that bugs me is the fact that they will never use skills unless you tell them to first. This isn’t so bad with the melee/fighting classes since they can handle themselves on their own, but if you have a Wavemaster in your party they will have to be micromanaged more since if you don’t order them around, they will sit there and do nothing, even if a monster is happily whacking away at them. You’ll also do a lot of menu surfing every time you want to use a skill or item, and it would be nice if there was a way to assign an item or skill to a button, but eventually you should get used to it. Overall, the control is nice, but it could really benefit from some optimization.

What really lends itself well to the sense of immersiveness, though, is the fact that you actually have a limited interaction with the game outside of “The World”. You have a web browser to check up on news, you can read a message board which mimics real online BBSes extremely well in my opinion, and you can talk to your friends in the game through e-mail. It adds a lot to the realism and the concept of a simulated MMORPG, being constantly reminded that you are actually playing Kite’s player, and not Kite himself. I thought this was all a very nice touch, and while it may not have a whole lot of functional impact at first, it ends up being integral to the plot, which is very cool. 8/10

Sound: The music is strong and energizing for battles, and extremely soothing in the towns. Some of it is a little grating, such as Piros’ theme -- but then again, Piros is a very grating character himself! You also have the option of selecting English or Japanese voice tracks. I had not tried the Japanese voices, but the English voices were pretty decent, which by video game standards is a real treat. ;) They fit the characters very well… Kite sounds young and naïve, but determined; Gardenia’s is curt and frank, and Mistral’s is… well, horribly, terribly saccharine cute. A good part of the game is voice acted… pretty much everything except for roaming NPCs in town, so I was glad they put effort into it. 9/10

Graphics: Not bad, not bad. The character models are pretty detailed, although one of my major gripes is that their appearance doesn’t change as you give them armor – but then again, it would change the way that some of them looked from the anime, which I can also understand. The animations are nice and smooth in battle, and while there aren’t any FMVs, there are well-done cutscenes using the game engine. The textures in the dungeons get a little old, but I think that may be more of a product of the random generation and the fact that you spend a LOT of time dungeon crawling in the game, so I don’t think I can hold that against the designers.

While there's a lot of good things to say about the visuals, they're not all pretty; the interface is horribly distracting. For example, when you enter a battle, a huge block of text slides in: “BATTLE MODE ON!”
For the duration of the battle, you have a scrolling flashing marquee across the top of the screen that constantly repeats “BATTLE MODE ON!”
When you’re finished, the same block of text scrolls on that informs you that the battle is, in fact, over. I mean.. is this really necessary? I really like the character animations in the game, but they’re kind of hard to enjoy with so much redundant information on the screen. Not only that, but the game uses some of the ugliest fonts ever to signify a critical or elemental critical hit. I know that this might seem like whining, but I’m sure the auditory cues in the game would be enough for a lot of things, but with so much on screen it’s just difficult to fully enjoy. 7/10

Replay Value: This is not a very long game – the first time I finished it, I clocked in at just over 15 hours. However, everything you do in the game will carry over to the next .hack game, so there’s plenty of stuff to do after you defeat the last boss. The vast number of random dungeons also insures that you’ll always have something to crawl through, there are rare items to find through Data Draining, and there are mini-games such as Grunty raising and tag matches. You also needn’t worry about becoming too powerful and blazing through the next game because you developed yourself too much in this one; the highest level area you’ll see is only about 30, and once you get much higher than that your experience will shrink to +1 per monster, and you always need 1000 for a level up. After awhile, though, you’ll have done pretty much everything you want to do, since random dungeons without plot advancement are only fun for so long. 9/10

Recommendation: It’s really a matter of whether you want to spend the $200 on all four games just to own them. It’s quite possible that you can rent and play each game in succession as they come out, since you will be saving the game to a memory card. It’s also worth buying just to have, since you get a cool extra (a 45 minute anime DVD – very nice) and my gut tells me that it will be advantageous to have the older games on you just in case as the sequels come out. There are good cases for buying and renting, and the choice is ultimately up to you.

Overall: 8/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/23/03, Updated 03/23/03

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