The .hack series has always been a bit of an underdog. While most US fans would have heard of it via the anime .hack//SIGN that garnered some popularity on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block, the larger series is was an experimental multimedia franchise that told its story across manga, novels, anime, and predominantly, video games. While the games had some financial success, they never gathered much critical success and settled comfortably into a smaller niche. Over time the series faded, with later entries into the series never making it into the West and newer iterations on the concept like Sword Art Online reaching higher levels of success internationally. While the games were never powerhouses, and the first series has aged poorly, the sequel trilogy .hack//G.U. got some attention as a remaster of all three titles, including a new fourth episode, was announced for the series 15th anniversary. With a host of gameplay improvements built on top of a compelling game format, it’s a great time to dive in and see what you missed.
The first question that people ask when they see this remaster is, “do I need to play the first series?” Luckily for those who don’t want to hunt down stupid rare PS2 games, not only is it unnecessary, I’d caution against it. While I have a lot of love for most of this franchise, the first game is a four episode slog through a lot of repetitive dungeons, lackluster combat, and stop-and-go storytelling. Despite its flaws, the game does offer a compelling story. Luckily, the G.U. remaster includes a disc that runs through the entire plot of the first series to set you up for this one. The plot of the G.U. series also stands well on its own, despite having many subtle and direct ties to the original series.
Alright, we’re sold on starting here, but why should you care about the .hack story in the first place?
.hack is a story based around fictional virtual reality MMORPG The World. Throughout the series, The World‘s various versions are home to all kinds of odd phenomena, including players being sent into comas when defeated by rare enemies. The games revolve around the biggest incidents to occur within The World, generally giving your avatar a personal stake in waking those affected from their comas by delving into the MMO and discovering secrets about its creators and the underlying mythology powering the game.
As such, most of your game time is spent inside this simulated MMO. While the basis for the game takes a different path than the traditional World of Warcraft basis we’re used to today, the game does an admirable job of keeping up the illusion of playing an MMO. The characters you meet are primarily other players, including the random characters rushing through the hub towns seeing to their own business buying gear and picking up quests. You can talk to these characters, who offer a range from hardcore grinders to pure role players, trading equipment and hearing how the common player is reacting to the weird events in the world. You’ll also run into a large cast of party members you can invite out when you go dungeon crawling, all of which have their own schedules and lives and might not always be available to party up. Thankfully, they also tend to keep up leveling up on their own.
The more interesting gameplay elements come from when you leave the game. Rather than telling the entire story inside the game, you take control of a player at their computer, jumping from the game to message boards to news stories, piecing together the world’s current state and getting a feel for how the events in The World are impacting the rest of the world. You can email back and forth with party members to raise your friendship levels, watch news videos, download new background music and wallpapers for your desktop, and even mess around with a rudimentary card game. The interplay between the real world and the game world is the most original and interesting concept that .hack offers, and it’s one I haven’t seen other games tackle. The in-game forums offer some great world building as you get to know some of the players you’ll catch in game, and occasionally digging through the forums will lead you to areas required to progress main or side quests.
As your character is an actual presence in the real world, you don’t actually create a character as you would in a standard MMO. Instead, you play as a specific character who has their own existing interpersonal relationships within The World driving them to keep seeking out the weirdness happening in the ill-fated game.
So why didn’t the game reach a lot of critical acclaim despite some really unique ideas? Well, it comes with some caveats. The first thing you’ll notice is that melodrama is the order of the day. While there’s plenty of levity, these are anime trope characters who aren’t afraid to cry because someone in their video game was mean. Player killing is viewed with near the same horror as proper murder, and some of these characters are really caught up in their digital lives. While established anime fans won’t bat much of an eyelash at this over-the-top style, it can grate on those with a lower tolerance.
More importantly, even with all of the improvements G.U. brought to the action gameplay of the series, it’s still a fairly repetitive game. You won’t find your skills pushed outside of a handful of boss battles, dungeon tilesets are reused liberally, and there’s a definitive structure to nearly every story event (go to dungeon, reach bottom, get story, get email, check, repeat). Your tolerance for repetition determines how much you can enjoy 3 games built on the same engine, reusing many of the same assets, in the name of an interesting story.
The remaster seems to be aware of the issues, however, with dozens of changes dedicated to speeding up the game and leaving you with less need to grind items, mastery, levels, or resources. It even includes a cheat mode to max out your level and simply experience the story if that’s your bag. Furthermore, the improvement brought about throughout the original three releases have been back-ported to the first two games, meaning the series feels like a single unified game and going back to volume one feels like less of a step back.
Despite this repetition, I found regular novelty throughout my multiple playthroughs of the G.U. series. There are quite a few achievement-like progress trackers that reward you with equipment, parts for your motorcycle, and aesthetic updates for your desktop, new hub towns and mission types are unlocked throughout the series, new characters are introduced at a regular pace, and your character gets a significant visual upgrade at specific, story-dictated portions of the game that come alongside a new weapon type available to your character. Unlocking all these little extras has always made playthroughs feel novel and given me the feeling of consistent progress that really pulls me through grind-heavy games.
Most interesting is the meta-narrative throughout the series. While the main plotline is told in predictably narrative-heavy anime style, there are a ton of world details that are never completely spelled out for you. Rumors about companies behind the hardware that runs The World, international events, and figuring out who the players behind your party members are all incentivize you to dig into seemingly unnecessary news stories and forum posts. If you’re a long-time series fan, you can even find evidence that certain characters have the same player behind them across versions (and in a few cases, within the same game). There are even hints that not every player character has a human behind it, with the sentience of AI being a regular background storyline throughout the series.
It’s a fun world to invest yourself in, and the more your dig into it, the more you can pull out of it. Ultimately, the games are mid-tier PS2 games, and a remaster is unlikely to completely fix that fact. The combat will still be a bit stiff, the visuals will still feel a bit low budget outside of cutscenes, and it will lack some modern conveniences we expect like autosaving and inventory shortcuts. But the interesting story, the unique method of telling it, and a wonderful audio package make it an experience worth having. It’s one of my all-time favorite games, warts and all, and I’m ecstatic to get a chance to dive into it again.