Review by Relle

"Starting on part 2, working my way sideways..."

.hack//Sign is one of my favorite anime series, and one of my favorite OSTs by far. Maybe it wasn't as action-packed as other series, but the combination of the music and ethereal story made for some great anime. So the announcement of a .hack game naturally tickles my fancy. There's only one really big problem...

...which I might as well get out of the way. This is probably the first of Japan's many tiny, multi-part game series to be released here (but don't quote me on that, there may be others). Japan does this a lot: makes a sort of episodic game series based on an anime with the release dates being months apart rather than slap it all into one giant game and have it take years. Well, that and they want to make a quick buck. So we're not all that different. Ain't capitalism great?

In this case, it means the .hack series is more or less a single game split up between four discs. All four games are more or less the same, the only real differences being the weapons, items and levels to which you can aspire. They're also meant to be played sequentially, so woe to the poor gamer who comes in at the middle of it all.

Mutation starts where Infection left off. If you saved your clear data at the end of part one you'll be able to load it into part two and retain any weapons, items and unlockables you acquired in Infection. Otherwise, you start at level 30 with some default equipment and a smattering of items that pale in comparison to what you could have collected in part one. So, if you're starting from Mutation, you might want to secure a copy of Infection before playing.

Otherwise, it plays exactly the same as Infection, which makes reviewing all four games sort of pointless. It's really one game, split into four. The whole concept is you are playing a MMORPG called The World, the most popular of its genre with millions of subscribers. The developers do a good job creating the illusion of playing a PC MMORPG, from the log-in screen to the PC desktop where you can change the wallpaper and even the music that plays while you read e-mail, news, and other regular PC stuff. Fortunately, there are no BSODs (only DREs) and you don't have to defrag the hard drive. Score!

Very much like a MMORPG, what you typically do is enter a field (accomplished by entering certain keywords at a portal) go into a dungeon, fight your way to the big treasure chest at the bottom, and warp back to the town server to sell your loot and buy new stuff. You can also trade your swag with fellow MMORPGers, a welcome little feature considering the equipment available in shops is quickly outdated.

Infection was something of an introduction into the world of .hack. With Mutation, the monsters are bigger, meaner and have a whole new bag of tricks. Because the game starts with you at or around level 30 (depending on how strong you were at the end of Infection) the monsters have become tougher as well. Some are immune to magic or physical attacks, prompting you to use the other in order to inflict damage. Some of the more annoying ones change their immunity from physical to magic and vice-versa, back and forth. Combat evolves from a simple hack and slash fest to require a bit more thinking on your electronic feet.

Fortunately, you can recruit up to two other characters into your party to help out. The cast from Infection returns, though not all of them will be available to join you in your monster hunting. They, apparently, have lives, even if you don't. That cast is bolstered by a few new additions to your ranks, which act as alternatives in case your other buddies can't be reached.

Mutation retains several of the collectables from Infection, such as the Ryu books, so if you've been filling those out from Infection, you'll be able to unlock additional bonuses in Mutation.

As I've said, this is part two of a four-part game that is, in essence, one giant game split up. So the story starts right smack in the middle of things, making it confusing if you just came in when Mutation starts, and continues the confusion even if you started from Infection because the ending is just a segue into Outbreak. Even still, it does a great job of getting you hooked, because there are cliffhangers that can annoy the hell out of you. However, the game's only about 15-20 hours in length, depending on how much actual collecting you do. Some of the items you can trade for from other users require rare items in large quantities, and finding said items can eat up some hours. Fortunately, since the price of the games have dropped to about twenty bucks each (less if you get them used) the games are made that much more appealing now that you don't have to pay $200 for the whole set. Plus, each game includes a DVD with an episode of .hack//Liminality, a companion anime to the game series. Groovy.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 09/29/04

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