When I first decided that I wanted to write this article (somewhere back in May/June), I knew it would be difficult. A quick flick through my rants section will show how easy I find it to rip certain series to shreds, but when it comes to unashamed praise, it becomes that much harder to write something positive without sounding like a witless and incoherent idiot. Nonetheless, if only for an excuse to include the grunty section at the end, I knew that no matter how long it took, I would have to create this article eventually.
.hack was a franchise I initially delayed exposing myself to; on the surface, it looked interesting, but all the mixed reviews I read froze me into a state of indecision for months. In time, however, I came to rent the SIGN anime, and from there a fresh obsession was born, one that led inevitably to the first four games (at the time, GU and the horrors of Roots were barely more than rumour). It was perhaps fortunate that I waited so long, however, since by that time I could pick up all four games for only a fraction of their retail price.
Although it falls into the RPG category, .hack is a game unlike any other- a completely offline simulation of an online MMORPG, in which players take on the role of an unseen person using the avatar Kite in the popular online game The World. Kite’s journey begins when his best friend ends up in a coma after his avatar is Data Drained, leading him on a quest to uncover the mysteries at the heart of the game itself.
Pointless as it may seem to recreate the MMORPG experience in an offline situation, it is actually quite an interesting move- and if nothing else, it gives people who don’t normally play online a chance to see vaguely how it works without investing in network adaptors or monthly subscriptions. As limited as it ultimately proves, there is something oddly enjoyable about checking Kite’s email, reading the bulletin boards and of course entering The World to tackle dungeons and meet other players.
Nonetheless, the actual gameplay itself is where .hack receives the most criticism; in all honesty, I cannot deny that the game is basically a highly repetitive dungeon crawler, but where most find that dull, for me it is nothing less than incredibly addictive. The reason for this is the different levels at which you can immerse yourself in the game; when I first started, I just hacked and slashed my way through with brute force, but as I became more appreciative of advanced skills, I learned how to tailor and Kite and his AI-controlled party members to best face the oncoming threat. Elemental attributes, so often a pointless gimmick in other RPGs, now became useful as my spell-casting Wavemaster brought down rampaging Dark element monsters with a single casting of a Light spell. Even status effects actually had some use, with sleep and paralysis putting a stop to monsters otherwise too swift to hit. By the latter parts of the game, I had my party outfitted with a range of equipment sufficient to easily brush off any threat.
Beyond the compulsory parts of the game, however, there lies no shortage of optional quests to tackle, from raising grunties and fighting hidden bosses to what must perhaps rank as the longest and most tedious of side-quests in gaming history- the Item Completion Challenge. A task that can take as long as completing the main game itself, Item Completion requires the player to acquire and register the 758 non-rare items in the game- a task made doubly hard by the fact that your item inventory and storeroom can only handle a maximum of 139 items (some of which you will definitely not want to discard to make room for more). As long and boring as it sounds, I spent several months making daily trips to The World in an attempt to track down every last sword, spear and piece of armour. There were many times when the frustration and the futility of the task threatened to overwhelm me, but my masochistic streak ensured that I kept at it, in the hopes that the prize for finishing the quest was nothing less than a real grunty.
It would hardly be surprising if the long hours spent on the Item Completion Quest (around sixty) made me loathe the very sight of the .hack games, but if anything, they left me more of a fangirl than ever before. I now knew how to get the desired results from the weapon-upgrading Springs of Myst, who to trade with to get that sword I wanted and other bits and pieces of information that had no purpose whatsoever outside of this set of four games.
Even the game agrees that people who achieve Item Completion probably need to get out more.
More than that, however, I developed a keen appreciation for the presentation of the game itself. Despite relying on a limited number of skins, each Root Town and dungeon offered an immersive and generally aesthetically pleasing world. From the grunty-filled walkways of Dun Loireag to the pulsating walls and protruding eyes of the flesh-walled dungeons, the game exhibited a keen attention to detail even for locations that the player would barely glance at as they rushed to complete whatever quest they were on. This effect is only heightened by the atmospheric soundtrack, which features a selection of themes so strong that they make for worthy listening even on their own.
Whilst few will share my love of the gameplay, most .hack players should nonetheless agree that the story itself is strong enough to justify playing through all those dungeons. Despite Bandai’s questionable decision to divide a sixty hour game into four parts, the tale that .hack weaves is a reasonably compelling one, involving the realisation that many complex, enigmatic and even horrific things lie in the depths of this seemingly straightforward online game. What can be more eerie than fighting your way to the bottom of a dungeon only to discover a mysterious white room at the bottom, or watching an area’s data crumbling away before your very eyes?
Central to this story is .hack’s extensive cast of characters, most of whom become playable over the course of the game. The only character who you can directly control is Kite (fortunately a versatile enough character to take away the sting of not being given control of anyone else), but a wealth of AI-controlled PCs will readily join you; admittedly, one sword-user is much the same as another, but to compensate for their lack of skill variation, each character has a distinct and well-defined personality. Better yet, you don’t have to spend hours levelling up with them all- even if you don’t use a character they will level up over time, just as if they were undertaking quests with another party somewhere. Nonetheless, having a character spend time in your party isn’t a complete waste- the more attention you give them, the more cooperative they become in battle.
As if all that weren’t enough, .hack has one last card to play- the oft-mentioned grunty. The preferred mode of transport in The World, the grunty may seem like an odd mutant to some, but to those who worship it, its bizarre form is actually appealing. Better still, it can even be obtained in a huggable plush form.
.hack is not a game series that will appeal to everyone, but for those ensnared in its web, it is a highly addictive experience filled with complexities beyond the broad strokes I’ve managed to cover here. Even now, in an era where I do not care much for gaming, I will always regard the first four .hack games with fondness.
Extra 01: Simple(?) improvements that could have made the game even better
- More individuality for characters and classes; many of the usable characters are pretty interchangeable in terms of skills and stats so it usually falls to personal preference.
- Easier way to locate and/or contact specific NPCs who you want to trade with (current method involves warping to different servers until they appear online).
- Grunty farm sub-game enabling unlimited grunty breeding.
- All SIGN characters playable.
- Wider variation of commands to issue to AI-controlled players; for example, commanding them to attack with a specific element, or have them repeatedly use the specified skill instead of just enacting it once.
- Increase number of items player can carry.
- Star Ocean type system where you can swap a character from AI to human control, and vice versa (although since this would compromise the MMORPG simulator feel, greater customisability of main character could be a good alternative).
- Make the original Lia Fail Root Town available at the end of the game.
Extra 02: Grunty types, tastes and uses
The immature form of the grunty will immediately cleave to anyone who offers it food, ensuring a loyal friend, a tasty snack, or both.
Tastes like: lamb or veal
The default beige grunty, generally surly and uncooperative.
Tastes like: beef
A grunty with a taste for the finer things in life, the Noble Grunty is generally vain and shallow. It has to be said, however, that his nose for fine cuisine is unmatched in the grunty world.
Tastes like: pork
With his hard steel armour, there is little that can penetrate the defences of the Iron Grunty. Whether you’re out on the road or navigating the packed aisles at the shopping centre, the Iron Grunty will easily clear a path for you. Make sure to keep him well-oiled, however, or he will rust.
Tastes like: gammon
Poor mutant Poison Grunty; his cyclopean visage and brightly coloured hide have scared off more people than he cares to remember. Nonetheless, he remains confident that one day someone will come along who appreciates his inner qualities.
Tastes like: no one has yet survived eating a Poison Grunty, although licking the skin can cause interesting effects.
Due to its skeletal form, the Bony Grunty is a somewhat uncomfortable mount if ridden bareback, but the large ribcage provides ample storage for shopping and luggage. The preferred grunty for Halloween.
Tastes like: spare rib
The supple skin of a Snaky Grunty is oddly comfortable, but whilst this grunty is a hard worker, his reptilian attributes mean that he needs to constantly stick close to an external heat source. Be sure not to leave him out in the cold.
Tastes like: snake meat
The bizarre creature that is the Aqua Grunty is essentially a water-filled membrane in the shape of a grunty. Despite the risk of seasickness, the Aqua Grunty is a comfortable mount; be warned, however, if you puncture your grunty it will leak away.
Tastes like: mineral water
This vocal and affectionate grunty may overwhelm some, but never underestimate her loyalty. She is also the only known source of grunty milk, a particularly enriching drink that is far more tasty and nutritious than cow’s milk.
Tastes like: Milky Way chocolate
The Rocker Grunty may aspire to be Elvis reborn in grunty form, but he is nonetheless the grunty of choice for boy racers or those wishing to revive the rock n’ roll era. His shades and flaming speed stripes ensure that riders will look good right up to the point where they are caught for speeding. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to hang the furry dice.
Tastes like: rubber
He may be an old man, but if you believe that slow and steady wins the race, then the Woody Grunty is for you. His moss-covered back ensures that he is more comfortable than you may anticipate, although it is important to use some kind of varnish or wood preserver on his skin lest he rot away.
Tastes like: wood-smoked ham