Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and in an era where most games are gutted and sold back to gamers piecemeal, people are more than happy to take a $60 trip back in time to when the consumer was catered to and developers earned their money at the point of sale, not through micro-transactions. The difference now is that unlike the last decade where all the remakes were pooled from NES, SNES, and Genesis titles, today’s retreads are dug up from the PS1 and PS2 eras.
Which brings us to the .hack series. A game that was made purposely simplistic so at to recreate the online RPGs of its own age. A game that led with its story and made its gameplay a secondary priority. How can such a title make a reasonable transition to the modern age? The answer depends on how you feel about philosophy and repetitive combat zones.
Having played both PlayStation 2 .hack stories (The four chapter originals starring Kite and their sequels, the G.U. series), I remember having enjoyed the incidental features of those games far more than the top-layer content I had expected would be my motivation for finishing them. This is mostly how everyone who is a fan of .hack sees the series, since the impetus for moving forward isn’t gaining more power or building an unstoppable character roster, but rather, solving the mystery of the game’s online world and why it affects the offline reality as well.
.hack//G.U. Last Recode
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed)
Release Date: November 3rd, 2017
Those who’ve played .hack understand what I mean. For those who never did, well, a crash course in the game’s philosophy is the best way to start.
In much the same way the first .hack series toyed with the idea that man is the new god and technology is its child, G.U. explores the relationship between technology and human emotion and how one force can alter the other and even change its nature. Heady stuff for a simple “anime RPG”, but as anyone who played through all of the games can tell you, story lines don’t get any better than what .hack gave the world in the early 2000s.
And the best part is it was all wrapped up in what was essentially one giant tongue-in-cheek parody of online game communities.
What was so unique about .hack was that it cast you, the player, as another player within another game. Inception jokes aside, .hack did this before internet memes and sci-fi writers made the idea mainstream; creating a story that was one part Matrix and two parts World of Warcraft forum fan-fiction.
It was a formula that paid off, with the game becoming popular enough to hold the late night Toonami audience’s attention when the dubbed version of .hack’s anime hit American airwaves. All said, it was a moderate success that earned a hardcore following that still pours over the series’ lore to this day.
The clever twist with .hack is that it lodges every aspect of the narrative in its “You are a guy playing in an MMO” framework. Which means rather than simply navigating a dungeon and fighting a boss at the end, you “navigate” message forums and unlock the location of your adversary through posts left by other players.
These players, who all have their own distinct (and sometimes stereotypical) personalities, are the biggest draw of the game. Whether it’s the angry game art designer Piros and his constant need to remain “in-character” or the naive Atoli and her noobish, casual attitude towards gaming, every character you meet is brilliantly written and well acted.
If anything makes .hack worth getting into, it’s that fact alone. In no other RPG, and that goes for both console or PC platforms, will you ever find such a varied and believable group of NPC personalities than what you’ll find here.
Developing feelings for certain characters (Like the fondness I have for the original .hack’s pregnant middle-aged gamer girl Mistral) and sending them invites to join your party just to see their funny in-fight reactions is a huge part of the game’s appeal. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?
The problem the game had back then is the same one it has now: And it’s that the combat in between those delightfully colorful conversations with NPCs ends up dragging the rest of the game down.
As I said earlier, some games don’t show their age when the inevitable HD remake hits our modern, over-priced, quad core powered consoles. Unfortunately, some do…and the combat in .hack, which was rather basic and simplistic even for its time, looks absolutely fossilized in comparison to today’s action RPGs.
Even the “Tales of” series, which this game’s combat mostly resembles, now has a much more complex and robust system than it had two generations ago…even after factoring in Berseria’s recent downgrade in elaborateness.
Now to be fair, the game does give you new techniques to use and more crafting options as the chapters progress, but it’s a slow trickle that doesn’t do much to help the game’s laboriously slow initial 10-15 hours.
The first of the game’s three chapters can be beaten by doing nothing but basic attacks and the occasional “rengeki”, which is partly the fault of the weak enemy A.I. and further hindered by the horrible level scaling. Which brings me to another of the game’s sins: You gain levels too fast.
If you want to have fun and not bore yourself to tears, you had better ignore every single side quest and optional dungeon until you beat each chapter. I say this because you can easily hit the level cap through a couple hours of casual play in random dungeons, causing the actual main quest missions (which don’t scale to your level) to become effortless affairs where enemies die in one or two hits and you experience no fear of failure. This fact, combined with the already anemic combat, can make .hack a hard series to get into.
Another problem is that the game’s usability hasn’t been upgraded to modern standards. Although I hate to bring up Square’s Final Fantasy XII remake, I have to give it credit for adding “quality of life” enhancements like an improved map overlay and a speed-up option. This level of care should have been shown to .hack, since its sometimes three floors deep, 40 minute long dungeons could have benefited from a quick save feature and a re-balancing of the level system.
To be honest, I found this to be a very lazy remake. Sure, the frame rate is better, some of the cinema scenes are redone, and there’s a nice filter applied to the visuals that smooths everything out, but that’s about it.
Unlike (here we go again) Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, there are no new textures, no usability enhancements, and no item or gameplay re-balancing. As much as I love the series, and this handy repackaging of GU in one disc, I feel like Bandai Namco pushed it out too quickly and with very little effort in order to cash in on the 6th generation console remake craze that’s going on at the moment.
Regardless, I do believe that anyone who enjoyed .hack on the PlayStation 2 will be well served by replaying it again in this remake. Speaking as someone who played through G.U. on an emulator in 4x native resolution a few years back, I can tell you that what you get in this “remake” is roughly on par, visual-wise, with what you’d get by playing the games on PCSX2 on a decent desktop PC.
This version is probably a bit better since unlike the emulator, you won’t have to switch discs, have three 8GB ISOs on your hard drive, or deal with having to switch to the directx9 renderer to avoid glitching of light shafts and shadows. And that bit of convenience is worth the price.
Though this review may not sound convincing enough to those still on the fence about whether or not to buy the game, I feel that anyone who enjoys the PlayStation 2 aesthetic, a good story, and some calm/comfy action RPG gaming will be pleased with the remake.
Sure, it mainly relies on nostalgia – which may make people who never played the original a bit harder to win over – but the sheer amount of content available on disc and the intriguing story that ties it all together does an admirable job of making up for its lack of modern features.
.hack//G.U. Last Recode was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy received from Bandai Namco. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 7.5
- Engaging, original story
- Colorful NPCs and party members
- Lots of content to play through
- Great soundtrack and voice-over work
- A somewhat lazy “HD” port, lacking in crucial upgrades
- Combat can be boring, takes too long to become challenging
- Far too easy to accidentally out-level enemies