Imagine you’ve been hearing your best friend talk about this great online game he’s been playing for months now. He’s really building it up, begging you to play it with him. Finally you give in. You buy the game, create your character, log in and meet up with him. He takes you to a beginner’s dungeon, teaches you the ropes, then all of a sudden he’s attacked by a crazy monster and ends up in a coma, while you’re given mysterious hacking abilities. That’s the first 15 minutes of .hack//INFECTION.
.hack//INFECTION is the first in a series of four video games in the .hack universe, taking place after .hack//SIGN. You’re a fresh character just starting out in The World, and you find yourself at the center of mysterious glitches and disappearances in the game world. Through dungeon crawling, trading, reading email, and checking the messages boards you gather strength and information to try and take down the monster who put your friend in the hospital. Along the way you meet other players who team up with you, each for their own reasons. Some want to aid your righteous quest, some want to collect rare items, and some are just mysterious cat women.
The game is best described as an action RPG, along the lines of a Kingdom Hearts game. There are no turn-based battles. Fighting essentially happens in real time, with the action pausing as you open menus to use skills or items, or to direct your party. To get stronger you level up, equip better weapons and armor, and use the occasionally stat boosting items you come across. Your skills change depending on the equipment you wear. This adds a level of customization to the game, but I found it to be a bit frustrating when having to decide between higher defense or a better healing spell.
Being part one of an episodic game release, .hack//INFECTION seems to get the short end of the stick in a few cases. The most noticeable of these is the story. Since this is your introduction to the game’s system, .hack//INFECTION is saddled with the tutorial moments. These are necessary, but pretty tedious. You also get the slow build-up of the plot. Most of what’s going on is still seen as just rumors, so you get few moments of out-and-out craziness. And of course, there’s the ending. You make it through a huge boss fight, all for about 5 minutes of story that leaves you hanging. You still don’t know much of what’s going on, you’re not sure what just happened, although you’re fairly sure it’s not good. If you go into this game without watching .hack//Sign, you’re going to be even more lost.
The battle system also suffers a bit from the episodic release structure. Yes, you get some nice abilities, and it definitely keeps you engaged, but I constantly felt like they were holding back the really good stuff. After all, they can’t give me the top-tier abilities now, when I’ve got 3 more games to play through. It really comes across as an artificial limit that’s put on the game, especially when you consider that many of the skills you learn are essentially the same thing, just with a different elemental strength. Considering how short this game is, I see no reason why it can’t have more variety.
Honestly, the lack of variety seems to be the biggest weakness of the game. Lack of unique skills, lack of unique events, and lack of unique environments. Don’t get me wrong, some of this stuff is creative, but exploring a dungeon that exists inside of a giant creature gets old after the fourth or fifth time. To me, if you’re making a dungeon crawler, you should make plenty of different dungeons to crawl through. After all, that’s where players will be spending the most time. On the positive side, there does seem to be a wide variety of enemies. Goblins and ogres are right at home fighting alongside scorpion tanks and a baby worm the size of a house.
So far, the characters have been one of the biggest selling points of the .hack universe. The characters of this game are pretty hit or miss. Kite suffers from RPG-main-character-itis. In trying to help the players really feel they’re controlling him, he comes across as lacking in personality. He’s got plenty of time to change, though. Mistral just gets on my nerves. End of story. BlackRose is full of personality, and seems to be the driving force in advancing the plot most of the time. Mia is the character the became the center of my attention. She has the most unique look, and her personality is mysterious enough to make me want to learn more.
When the game first came out, the graphics might have looked amazing. Unfortunately, I didn’t play it then, so I can’t speak for that. They just don’t stand the test of time. It’s especially jarring coming from the great animation of the OVA. I can understand the gameplay not being at that level, but it would have been nice to see a few animated cut scenes. Still, the action is pretty easy to follow, and the computer glitches are simulated very well. I was a bit disappointed in the music in the game, as well. While it’s not horrible, it definitely doesn’t match the level of music from the anime.
I know it seems I didn’t enjoy the game, but that’s not true at all. I had a good time playing through this game. My biggest problem was how much more I was hoping it could be. These games are linchpins of the .hack universe, and that alone makes them enjoyable. Luckily, the game does manage to be a pleasant thing to play through. It gives you hands on time in The World, furthering the connection you feel for the game and its players. Despite my complaints about the story, I can tell the mystery is slowly being built upon, and I was definitely left wanting more. I just wish the game had come closer to living up to the expectations created in .hack//Sign.
Score: 3 out of 5