There’s a few different takes on video gaming as a hobby out there and a lot of them depend on how involved you are. I’d maintain that the mainstream majority still sees video games as toys for children, so there’s that. From there, you’ve got your gamer outrage people, your games-as-art people and numerous other perspectives. It’s the chance to see video games from a different point of view that made the .hack franchise (and the later franchises that spawned from it, like Sword Art Online) so interesting – what if video games became a matter of life and death? What if doing well meant more than just “gitting gud,” instead becoming necessary to save a dying friend?
That’s the idea that the .hack//G.U. series toyed with back when it launched, and players who haven’t checked it out have another shot with .hack//G.U. Last Recode, a compilation of the series on current-gen consoles and PC.
After the events of the original game, in which a virus in a virtual reality MMORPG left dozens of people in comas, said MMORPG has been shut down…only to be replaced years later with a new version. The World R:2, the sequel to the original game The World, promises a coma-free experience to all players looking for their next gaming fix. Well, sometimes promises aren’t always kept, as Haseo finds out when his friend Shino falls unconscious after encountering a mysterious player-killer called Tri-Edge. Haseo becomes a feared player-killer himself and hunts down Tri-Edge, only to be soundly defeated and have his character reformatted. Reduced to Level 1, Haseo begins his journey to uncover the mystery of Tri-Edge once more, but his newly reduced status leads him to rely a bit more on the help of others – and that might be just what he needs to figure out what’s going on in The World R:2.
The original G.U. series was met with lukewarm reviews for numerous reasons, but I’d personally place many of those on the series’ release timing and episodic format rather than any critical flaws in the gameplay. Not only was 2006 the beginning of the end for the PlayStation 2, what with the launch of the PlayStation 3, but Japanese RPGs in general were the scapegoats of the Western gaming media in the mid to late 2000s and often saw uncharacteristically poor receptions as a result. What’s more, G.U. was released in three volumes, each of which containing around 15-20 hours of gameplay. This was a less, uh, tumultuous time in the gaming landscape, and business models other than “pay once for a full game” hadn’t met the wide acceptance that they have today, so players and critics alike were turned off much as they were with the original .hack series’ take on episodic gaming.
In other words, it’s probably to be expected that many potential players haven’t had the chance to give these games a shot, so Last Recode is a great way to re-introduce the G.U. series to both the old and new generations. This collection includes the three original episodes – Rebirth, Reminisce and Redemption – and adds a fourth called Reconnection. These games are updated to run at a nice, comfortable 60FPS on whichever platform you’d like. As in the original releases, your save data will carry over in its entirety between episodes, so ideally you’ll start from Rebirth and play through each in order from there; this will amount to around 50-70 total hours of content depending on how much sidequesting and exploration you do outside of the main story. The new fourth episode may be enough to draw in returning players, but note that it’s fairly short and very story-focused compared to the other episodes.
As with the original .hack series, G.U. aims to simulate an MMORPG, and as with those games it fails completely by staying far removed from the toxic culture that gaming’s become known for over the years. G.U.’s take on the hobby and the people involved in it is incredibly optimistic, almost to the point of parody, which is particularly entertaining given that it takes place in 2017. Characters form significant, meaningful friendships with one another, rivalries and antagonism are handled with some degree of class, nobody tells anyone to kill themselves, doxxes anyone, spouts racial slurs or sends any death threats to the game’s developers…yeah, no, this isn’t remotely what playing an MMORPG or interacting with other gamers is like the majority of the time.
It’s more of a standard action-RPG where characters throw around gamer jargon. One assumes that this is what the developers thought video games would be like back in the early 2000s when it was initially developed; oh, those sweet summer children. While it might be completely inaccurate, this framing device does make for some interesting touches, such as an in-universe forum and Internet to browse and, in later episodes, an optional card-based minigame.
Gameplay-wise G.U. is notable for making some significant advances to the barebones combat system from the original series; it’s likewise notable for updating that combat system from episode to episode, explained in-universe as patches to the MMORPG. Combat is weighty and significant from the start, with powerful attacks sending enemies crashing into one another for bonus damage. Successful combo attacks will render enemies vulnerable to Rengeki attacks, improved versions of combat skills that generate energy that powers a super mode called Awakening. There’s an absolute ton of combat so it’s nice that it’s passable at the very least; said updates also make the system even more tolerable, as oversights like Haseo’s twin blade attacks being as slow as his attacks with a giant broadsword are addressed.
Boss battles, meanwhile, use both this combat system and a different style of battle where giant mech-like Avatars are summoned to wage war. Avatar combat is a little awkward, but it’s there largely to be visually stunning and manages that much; the fact that it’s fairly uncommon and easy to get through helps as well.
Given that these games were released toward the end of the PS2’s lifespan, they look surprisingly decent and probably wouldn’t have been out of place on the PS3. Last Recode’s take on the series doesn’t completely revamp a presentation that was pretty damn good, but everything is cleaner and smoother overall. The anime style used here means that there didn’t need to be a lot of work making things look better. On the audio side of things there are few complaints aside from Haseo’s incessant screaming during combat – something must be said for how that’s subtitled, by the way.
Perhaps the best way to wrap this up is to mention that the MMORPG as it’s presented in G.U., optimistically or otherwise, isn’t the powerhouse genre that it was when these games were conceptualized. You’ve got your World of Warcraft and your Final Fantasy XIV, as well as a few holdouts here and there, but aside from those the industry seems to be moving on to new fads, new business models (hello, lootboxes!) and new horizons altogether. VR didn’t even take off the way G.U. hoped it would. From that perspective, .hack//G.U. Last Recode serves as a nostalgic look back not just at a franchise whose time has come and gone but as a time when the world of gaming was a very different place indeed.