I was completely taken by surprise by .hack//Sign. I originally thought of the anime just as a way to get people interested in the video games, and while it certainly does that, there’s so much more to it. You’re introduced to plenty of interesting characters, many of whom have their own deep back stories. Questions are asked, and some are actually answered. I guess the depth of it all is what really stands out the most. I was expecting some kind of simple adventure, but instead found some deep philosophical discussion.
.hack//Sign is the story of Tsukasa, a Wavemaster in The World who one day finds he can’t log out. As he begins to spend all of his time in the world he meets other characters who become a part of his life, some friendly and others antagonistic. After mysterious events begin to occur, the party begins to realize that Tsukasa’s fate and the fate of The World are intertwined. Will they be able to unravel the mystery behind Tsukasa and the legendary Key to the Twilight before time runs out?
There’s a lot to love about this series, but one of the first things that strands out, right from the opening credits, is the music. The opening theme, “Obsession” by See-Saw, is a catchy song with a techno feel that really fits the cyber world setting. Throughout the entire series, music is used to enhance the mood of almost every scene, and it always feels just right. Sometimes you barely notice it, and sometimes the characters are silent as the music conveys all the emotion you need. One character even has his own unique theme music, used to give you early notice that he’s about to mix things up again.
Speaking of the characters, that’s an area where .hack//Sign really shines. Love them or hate them, you really get a feel for each character’s personality. These aren’t just static characters, either. Each player, with maybe one or two exceptions, grows and changes throughout the story. For example, at the beginning of the series Tsukasa is really hard to relate to and is actually unlikable at some points. As he begins to connect with people and make friends, his barriers come down and he warms up. It’s really easy to get attached to characters in this anime. Even those I hated or made fun of at the beginning had earned a bit of my respect by the final episode.
I’ll admit the story can be confusing at times, although some of that is by design. You aren’t always supposed to know what’s going on or what just happened. The anime likes to control the release of information, using that to build the tension and mystery. The use of gaming and computer phrases, including made up terms, can also lead to some confusion, and could potentially be a barrier to some viewers, but I personally feel that the ones critical to the plot were explained quite well. If you’re prepared to do some thinking, then there’s a really engaging plot with some deep thoughts behind it. Just what makes you a person? Where’s the line between the real world and the online world? That last point especially has become more relevant in the years since the anime aired, with the rise of social networking and all its positives and negatives. With that plot, .hack//Sign would stand fine on its own. As part of the larger .hack universe, it’s a great jumping off point. The World is given a great introduction and seeds are planted for further plots which leave you begging for more. Those coming in to the series expecting lots of action will probably be disappointed, though. While there are some fight scenes, the focus of the show is definitely the conversations between the characters.
The animation itself is probably the weakest part of the show, but not by much. The character designs look great, the scenery tends to be very unique, and the effects used to simulate digital glitches are creative and work well. There are just a few moments throughout the series when something seems a little off, maybe a face doesn’t look quite right or someone moves in an uneven way. It’s rare, though, and doesn’t take away from the show as a whole.
Overall, I’d say this is a great anime series, .hack universe aside. As a part of that universe, it’s a great jumping off point. I feel I’ve got a really good foundation for what’s to come, and I know I’ve got a desire to keep going and find out what happens. The story really makes this stand out from the crowd, and everything else, from the music to the characters themselves, really serve to draw you in and keep you coming back. Even if you’ve got no interest in going further with the series, I recommend this. It’s just that engaging and thought-provoking. If you’re wanting to explore the rest of The World, or if you already have, consider this required viewing.
Score: 4.5 out of 5