Review by Fable12

".hack//MUTATION: A world of wonder for those who give it a chance"

From some of the legends of anime (Kasunori Ito, Koichi Mashimo, and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto) comes an experience that just might change the world of RPGs. That experience is called .hack (or dothack). The world of .hack spans four video games for the PlayStation 2, two anime series, and a four part OVA series. All of the these facets interconnect to tell one epic story that centers mainly around the games.

Now, the game itself should be thought of as a serial - one big continuous story told in four separate parts. Also, released with each part of the game, is one part of an OVA (original video animation) anime. The story of the game interlocks with the story of the OVA. How? Well, I'm going to tell you. The games create an experience where the player signs up to play a massively multi-player online role-playing game (or MMORPG). This game within a game is called ''The World.'' Dothack simulates the MMORPG experience without actually being online. Players of .hack assume the identity of Kite, an eighth grader who is searching for answers to mysterious happenings within the game the world - particularly why his friend Orca (as he is legendarily known within The World) mysteriously entered a coma in the real world. Sound confusing? It might be at first. While .hack the game allows players to experience what is occurring within the game ''The World,'' the OVA gives the story of what is simultaneously occurring outside in the real world.

Let's talk about part two in the video game series: .hack//MUTATION. Okay, this is a continuation of the story introduced in the first game .hack//INFECTION. Why is the game split into four parts like this? Well, it is traditional for Japanese comic books to be set up in four parts - each with a specific purpose. The first volume introduces the story and is followed by a direct sequel - the second volume. This is to get people familiar with the concept. Then by the end of the second volume, or in the third volume, an incident or major conflict is introduced. Then, this conflict is resolved by the final volume, part four. Well, the story in .hack follows this format. And the plot encountered in part 2 MUTATION expands upon the elements found in .hack//INFECTION. The script for the game, penned by Kasunori Ito of ''Ghost in the Shell'' fame, introduces a new root-town for players along with new dungeons and a handful of new characters that players can add to their party. Oh yeah, and the plot still lurks in that ''mysterious happens'' area where the player is kept in the dark as to what's really happening. At the beginning of this volume of the game, there is a summary of the events of the events that happen in part 1 INFECTION. But I recommend actually playing that first game before leaping into the story of MUTATION.

For those who will actually give .hack a chance and can realize what it is doing, the story can be quite engaging. But, one will have to dig through the OVA and other mediums outside of the game to find clues as to what is happening. But enough of that.

Let's talk about gameplay. Since this is part two in a series of four, publisher Bandai made an interesting (and innovative) decision to allow the players of the first game to carry over their save data into the second game. This means that all of their stats, weapons, armor, items, extras, goodies, and that good stuff move to the second game, so they can hit the ground running. If you didn't play the first game, you can start a new game in MUTATION, but you will miss most of the plot that occurred in INFECTION. There are essentially two facets to .hack - playing the game in ''The World'' and crawling through message boards and checking e-mails on your desktop. You can send e-mails to people you have met, and they will respond - sometimes for fun and sometimes with clues as to what to do next. Also, hints and field addresses can be found on the message boards.

What's a field address? A field address is certain sequence of about three words that create a random playing field and dungeon that you and your party of up to three can enter. An Example of this would be Delta Chosen Hopeless Nothingness. The combination of words affects things like the weather, the elemental status of the enemies encountered, the frequency of enemy encounters and how much treasure you will find in the field. The player can either combine certain words manually to create a field, have the game randomly combine words, or enter fields using addresses that you have received either from other players, e-mails, or the message board. But, be careful because each field has different strengths, and you must be prepared if you enter one of the higher level (or harder) fields where enemies are quite tough. If you're not careful, you could end up being dessert for a hungry enemy.

In MUTATION, you can travel among three servers - each one being one root town. The two from the first game are there, along with a new server Carmina Gadelica. In these towns, you can talk to random ''players'' running about, asking about life or trading for different items just like you would do in an MMORPG. There are also shops of all kinds including items, weapons, armor, and magic shops where you can purchase various upgrades for your characters. However, the real loot can only be found by traveling to various fields and fighting enemies or crawling through multi-floor dungeons to find treasure. Players of older RPGs and games like Dungeons and Dragons will appreciate the high emphasis on dungeon-crawling elements in the .hack series. There is also the choice of a third-person view, where you watch the action from afar, or a first-person view where you can experience everything through Kite's eyes. An added bonus is a sort of mini-game where you can raise creatures called Grunties and race them for valuable items - a fun distraction.

Combat is a rather interest hybrid of real time action and turn-based style. You can only control Kite throughout the entire game, but you can issue commands and battle formations to the two other members of your party. You can tell them what skills or magic spells to use, what enemies to attack, etc. Regular combat (just attacking an enemy with a weapon) can be done by actually running up to the enemy and repeatedly smashing the (X) button. You can only attack enemies that you can see on the screen at any given time. Each time that you wish to execute a Skill or a Magical Attack, you must open up a menu of options. While doing this, the frenetic action will pause and allow you make your selection. This is where the ''turn-based'' aspect comes to light because the game waits for you to make a decision. However, this hybrid of action and turn-based combat can still be fun and rather exciting. A feature that the renegade player Kite has is the ability to ''Data Drain'' enemies. This weakens certain enemies, giving you items and sometimes rare equipment. This is quite useful, especially in boss fights, where it is a necessity.

The graphics in .hack//MUTATION are not improved from the first game INFECTION. In fact, it uses the same graphics engine. But this acceptable, considering Bandai is trying to create one seamless, coherent playing experience. The graphics shine mostly in the superbly detailed character designs of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame). Subtle details like detailed facial expressions and highly detailed textures on the character models make them resemble, quite well, anime characters. Also, some of the movie sequences in the game can be astonishing. However, the fact that the graphics are not up par with some other graphical masterpieces like XenoSaga or Final Fantasy X might be a disappointing to some - especially since this is the second game in the series. I, however, found no problem with this. While not groundbreaking, the graphics of this game are quite good. Since the game is trying to emulate MMORPGs, the graphics can be considered great. Just stack it up against earlier renditions of EverQuest to see what I mean.

The voice-acting in .hack is some of the best I've heard in games - and the same is true for MUTATION. Also, the game come with a nice assortment of ambient sounds like footsteps crunching on sand (in a desert), birds, and wind. The music in this volume of the game is certainly an improvement over that found in INFECTION. The selections seem more varied, with a sweeping orchestral opening, to ambient and ethereal field music, and creepy dungeon tunes. The music is worth listening to.

Some goodies are offered in this volume as well. All of it is unlocked by completing certain tasks within the game. Some of the extras offered are background concept art for your desktop, all movie cutscenes from this volume of the game, and all the music as well. And, if you played the first volume, INFECTION, then all of the goodies unlocked in that part (including movie cutscenes from INFECTION) carry over to MUTATION in your save data - a neat thing.

In terms of replay value, that really depends on the player. Unlocking the extras and goodies will keep most busy for a time. The game is structured so the player can pretty much do anything they want. For instance, they can, if they choose, go crawling through endless dungeons, and leveling up their character for fifty hours before even touching the plot of the game. Sometimes, you might get so consumed by the MMORPG nature of the game that you forget there's actually a whole other story within the game. So, that's where the replay value rests. Once you complete the plot of MUTATION, you are offered a few bonus dungeons. You can continue endlessly dungeon-crawling, searching for treasure and better items, and level up your characters. However, the hardest dungeon is a level 50 dungeon, so you might find it hard to strengthen your character beyond level 60. So, with that in mind, the game really does simulate an MMORPG where the goal is to get better equipment and party with other players.

Is the game worth getting? If you are a fan of traditional RPGs and are looking for something a bit different, definitely try this game, as it might very well be a pioneer in storytelling of RPGs. However, if you are new to traditional RPGs, you might want to gather some more information on the world of .hack and .hack//MUTATION before shelling out full price. The price might turn some players off, as it is a lot to pay for about 20 hours of plot, but the experience is priceless for those who give it a chance.

Total: 8

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/25/03, Updated 05/25/03

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