For those that have been following my “journey” writing reviews, you may recall that I reviewed .hack//G.U. Rebirth and .hack//G.U. Reminisce. In the first parts of the review for Rebirth, I mentioned that I played through .hack//Infection. This is true, and this review is a culmination of that playthrough from decades ago and of a recent replay. That’s right. A replay. For some reason, the original .hack series has weaseled its way back into my gaming world. I was talking to a friend about the premise of this series and he said it sounded neat on paper. That’s thing about everything .hack; it sounds neat on paper. Experiencing it tends to be a different story. That said, I could not put down Infection. There’s just something about this game, and this series, that keeps me coming back for more.
For me, the biggest draw is the story. The premise of the series is a “game within a game.” In the year 2010, everyone worldwide is obsessed with The World, the latest MMORPG. Your best friend Yasuhiko has been asking you to sign up for it and you finally give in. Step one is making your character. This is Kite, who essentially represents you both in and out of The World. Upon logging into The World for the first time, Kite encounters Orca, who is Yasuhiko’s character. Orca gives Kite the basics of The World. And then, something strange happens. Orca gets killed by a bizarre looking creature that was seen chasing a girl in white. You log off, only to learn that your friend in the real world has fallen into a coma. Clearly, there’s something going on in this game. Kite is the only one that has the tools to be able to get to the bottom of it, but I’ll get into that a little later. Infection isn’t a long game; about 15 hours. During this time short time, the story continues with the pace presented in the introduction. There’s never any filler or fluff. Kite is a likable guy, and you want to see him help his friend. He’s joined by other fun characters that you’ll start to get to know.
The gameplay loop in Infection is straightforward. Despite its basicness, there’s a lot of heart behind everything. Booting up the game takes you to the desktop. Here, you can read the news, adjust your music and background settings, and check email. Emails have two purposes. The first is for getting to know Kite’s friends. The people that he travels with will communicate in email chains. It’s a fun reminder of how the Internet used to be before things like social media and streaming. Second, emails will contain hints about where to go next to move the story along. The desktop is where you log into The World. Oftentimes, there will be new messages posted on the message board. Along with gameplay hints, there will be more clues on what to do next. These message board threads are another nostalgic reminder of simpler times on the Internet. The way BANDAI created little details like this is impressive. Of course, most of your time will be spent in The World proper.
The World is, at a glance, very impressive. It consists of servers that each have a Root Town. You begin Infection in the delta server’s town of Mac Anu. The World feels fully realized because along with the typical shops you’ll find in any RPG, you’ll be seeing other players meandering about the towns, talking about their lives outside of the game. You can chat and trade with these folks. Trading is a quick, fun way for Kite to walk away with better items and gear. Kite’s class is a Twinblade, but for some reason non-Twinblade NPCs tend to have some of the best weapons for him. When you’ve had your fix of shopping and trading, you can form a party with your friends by sending them a flash message. The next step is to head to the Chaos Gate and go exploring in a field and dungeon. You access these by combining three keywords. The combination of words will dictate the difficulty, the elemental environment, the enemy types, and more. This is one of those unique situations where possibilities are almost limitless since you continue to unlock keywords as your story progresses. Luckily, story-focused dungeons are highlighted in a separate menu so you can access them quickly.
Exploration and combat are the two areas of Infection, and perhaps the series as a whole, where folks have the most issues. There’s a lot of repetition and clunkiness. Whether it was an intentional attempt to mimic the MMOs of the time or not is unknown. The process is as follows: Kite and up to two friends will be plopped into a field. The mini-map will show the location of the dungeon. You encounter groups of enemies on the way towards the dungeon. Once inside, your goal is to travel to the end of the dungeon, gathering treasures, battling enemies, breaking objects for items, and seeing story beats. The last room of the dungeon has a treasure in front of a Gott Statue. These treasures give extra special rewards and signify that the dungeon is completed. Gameplay loops like this have been around for years and will continue to be used in the future. The problem with .hack is twofold: basic combat and constant breaks from it due to accessing menus.
Actually, calling combat basic might be generous. It should be noted that I personally don’t mind it, and oftentimes find it relaxing. But looking at it objectively, it’s easy to see the problems. Pressing X does a standard attack. Depending on his equipment, you can unleash skills and magic at the cost of Skill Points. SP slowly regenerates over time. Meanwhile, your party will act based on your commands. Enemies are quick to swarm your party. The unprepared will see them quickly fall. So, it’s best to either go all out on the offensive or have them be ready for healing. At least, at first. As better equipment and higher levels are obtained, things move smoother. But, the amount of time spent in menus, switching gear to take advantage of elemental weaknesses, limited inventory space, and an overall feeling of sloppiness cannot be ignored. Infection shows that the series needs some work. Similarly, the player needs to put in the work to keep things pumping. There are no quick saves. You can’t use item shortcuts. Level grinding takes a while. This is a PlayStation 2 game from 2003 from top to bottom.
One thing that tends to keep Infection from getting too stale is Kite’s Twilight Bracelet. With this, he’ll perform a Data Drain that debilitates an enemy. Additionally, he’ll gain a rare item. The downside to this power is that it can cause random effects; sometimes good and sometimes bad. Still, its encouraged to use this power often since some of the items gained are used to unlock new areas. It’s also used to unlock bonuses on the desktop. I’m not going to lie: there’s a lot of excitement that comes with getting nice rewards from using this. This impressive finishing move brings me to an area that still holds up: presentation. The World is still beautiful. Something about composite cables mixed with a modern TV makes everything look more polished. Seeing new enemies, environments, special attacks, and cut scenes is a constant joy. Along with multilanguage voice acting, Infection has a fantastic collection of music.
It doesn’t take long to finish Infection. After the cliffhanger ending and the credits, there are some bonus quests you can do that add an hour at most to the play the time. The good thing about playing this nowadays is that you have immediate access to the second disc, which I will be reviewing soon. Despite the numerous issues, I’m all in with .hack. There’s a lot of heart behind this project/series/franchise. Dividing this aspect of it into four games wasn’t the best move from a business standpoint, but for those that do find something charming about it like myself, then they’ll hopefully look forward to each new chapter. The story truly has me invested. I’m excited to see what happens next even if the hurdles I need to jump over aren’t groundbreaking.
Overall, 6/10: .hack//Infection sets a shaky yet alluring foundation for what will become one of the most divided RPG series’.