By: Fernando Da Costa
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Available On: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 4, PC, Nintendo Switch
Review Console: Nintendo Switch OLED
WELCOME TO THE WORLD! - Introduction
So, here’s an existential thought; back in 2006, the first entry into the .Hack//G.U. trilogy was released. The preceding two followed in the coming months, with the last one hitting the PlayStation 2 in 2007. I can vividly recall sitting in my bedroom, journeying through these JRPGs as an antsy 17-year-old. Others have preceded this one, though, with franchise beginnings in 2002 with a prequel quadrilogy set well before the G.U. events - and yes, I was also there as a pre-pubescent 12-year-old, not comprehending any of the adult musings interlaced in the dialogue. These games were ahead of their time, arguably breaking down walls. It strives to emulate that MMORPG feels and succeeds. Hell, there’s even a faux desktop where you can check emails and forums. I’m ecstatic to jump in, but the question is, was I blind by those proverbial nostalgia goggles?
WHAT A CHARACTER! - Writing
I’m fascinated by the plot’s premise, and as this is Vol. 1, a mountain of stage set-up front-loads the title. It uses this chance to concentrate on introducing and fleshing out select characters. Relationships begin to slowly bloom, although a few remain surface-level. I assume it’s done in such a manner because of the episodic nature. Rest assured, as it never feels disjointed. .Hack//G.U. Vol.1//Rebirth does fantastic to spotlight the necessary parties for this portion of the story. It’s purposely vague on others to maintain focus on the crucial individuals. It’s well-done, too, because my curiosity has me salivating to continue. To address the elephant in the room, yes, the ending’s a cliffhanger - one must commit to seeing the package through fully. If not, dissatisfaction is inevitable. That isn’t to say the narrative as a singular isn’t delightful, but, unsurprisingly, it’s absent of closure.
A DEVELOPING PROTAGONIST! - Writing
In a trope-crushing inclusion, the Protagonist, Haseo, isn’t mute. Not only can he speak, but he isn’t shy to share his opinions. Throughout his virgin voyage, he’s a knobhead to everyone. Of course, we quickly learn of an incident that led to the birth of such hostility. On his initial log-in into the online utopia known as The World: R2, two players were quick to befriend him. Within minutes of grouping together, however, they reveal themselves as Player Killers, murdering him in cold, well, 1’s and 0’s. It’s because of their actions that Haseo now encases himself in an impenetrable shell of hatred. He actively pushes anyone away that attempts to get close. Point blank, the way he treats others irks me, causing me to want to punch him, and therein lies the genius. It was engrossing, and that’s not easy to accomplish.
Haseo has hands down the most engaging development. It’s a noticeable transformation, helping him feel three-dimensional and layered. As animosity festers in his heart, it feeds into his self-serving ideals. With time, though, maturity and selflessness start sneaking into his soul. These personality traits help humanize him as a breathable entity - both his inner struggles and traversal of the stages of grief especially stand out. He relapses to old habits, with a girl named Atoli bearing the brunt of his vitriol. Throughout the game, she continuously tries to break through, but her efforts are met with nothing. It all climaxes in a wave of frustration as she learns the truth, causing her rage to boil over. Needless to say, I’m enamoured by their rapport thus far.
THAT’S A LOT OF WORDS! - Writing
Well, I hope you’re a fan of reading because, God damn, there’s a healthy amount. In fact, within the first hour or so, I couldn’t help but think it has a knack for dragging on, and you know, that’s a fair assertion. The in-game forums, for instance, are filled to the brim with little tidbits. For those indifferent towards plot heaviness or world-building fluff, this may seem like a strain to would-be sessions. Thankfully, it isn’t, mainly due to the vast tsunami of information being optional. As for the content within the threads themselves, I’m drenched in awe by how realistic they are. Users are playfully teasing one another while some share their fan art; the authenticity of these actions helps to infuse an illusion of community. And hey, checking them is essential because these are excellent for learning the whereabouts of special items.
A BIT OF HUMOUR! - Writing
The sense of humour in Rebirth is entertaining. I wouldn’t say it’s laugh-out-loud, but it manages a smile. Everyone is a mixture of silly and serious, with some typically falling into either one with no overlap. As a whole, there’s a nice balance amidst the carnage, thanks to the lighthearted quips. There’s a particular duo dripping in sheer innocence. Their desires are very cut-and-dry, wanting nothing more than to help newcomers to The World: R2. From the first meet-up, they had me in a vice. Whenever the youngest broke down, I felt awful and wanted to offer them comfort and reassurance. Then, on the opposite spectrum, a flirt tries to swoon every girl he meets. Everyone’s personality varies and, despite them all being stereotypical, are perfect encapsulations of the anime-like atmosphere. Nothing compares to Haseo and Atoli’s relationship, though.
WORDS ARE THE KEY! - Gameplay
Due to sporting a faux MMORPG facade, there are many differences in mechanics to traditional JRPGs. Dungeons, for example, come to fruition uniquely. See, The World: R2 comprises many small areas and isn’t just a giant cohesive one. Keywords are used to access each one, and by stringing three together, it unlocks a random locale: a cave, a Japanese-inspired castle, and a field. The potency of enemies and the quality of treasure within depend on the combinations. At the start, choices will naturally be sparse, but with continuous play, newer ones unlock. Another method of obtaining a Keyword is by ranking high. Every level has tiny objectives, and by meeting them, a letter grade is given to you. Sadly, the issues begin to expose themselves in combat.
OPI ARIGATO, MR. ROBOTO! - Gameplay
I’m not going to label Rebirth as unplayable trash because it’s far from that, but it retains past-era clunkiness. The battle system, for instance, is supposedly a fast-paced hack-and-slash. However, instead of fluent movements, it’s robotic. Haseo is incapable of dodging, meaning guarding is the only way to defend. The hiccups begin bubbling up as I execute a multi-hit combo. If I were to see an incoming attack, I can’t cancel out mid-strike. Such an implementation makes blocking feel cumbersome, primarily when facing several targets at once. I’d eventually revert to kamikaze tactics, lunging into battle and ignoring consequences. Luckily, companion AI is efficient at fighting and healing, making aggression a viable strategy.
ANOTHER WAY OF FIGHTING! - Gameplay
While encounters happen within an adequately sized enclosure, there exists another form. In an effort to mitigate repetition, about midway through, another methodology reveals itself. It’s refreshing, breaking up the monotony the default system brings. The only catch is it’s intrinsically tied to scripted story beats, so the occurrences are sporadic. It’s also going to be a massive shift compared to what we’ve now grown accustomed to, but I welcome the change of scenery. In the new style, you’re jumping straight into a 3D space with the enemy. As they blast you, you must weave left and right, attempting to dodge each shot. One thing is for sure; this kept my engagement solid. My only qualm is that sometimes, I couldn’t smack back projectiles. The 3D battlefield isn’t functional, causing me to mistime deflections. Luckily, because the damage is minimal, lousy depth perception never cost me.
I OFFER YOU A POTION! - Gameplay
Side-quests go hand-in-hand with the majority of JRPGs, though, surprisingly, there isn’t a considerable amount in Rebirth. It’s minuscule in comparison to others. I can’t help but think that’s a byproduct of being from a trilogy. Regardless, beating them unlocks NPCs that ask you to finish tasks like bounty hunting or kicking animals - activities that give rare pieces of equipment. Others outright award weapons and armour, but it isn't the best way to get these. That’s relegated to trading, something only possible thanks to the MMORPG motif. It actively encourages you to speak to other “players” before initiating an exchange of goods. I have mixed feelings on this facet since there’s never a guarantee of a better sword or mail. It’s a total crap shoot, usually resulting in nothing. The idea is great on paper but falters in practice. Besides, powerful gear can typically be found elsewhere.
Simply put, trading as a mechanic is inconvenient. It turns an otherwise uncomplicated process and adds a pointless step. Essentially, assigning equipment to someone isn’t concise. Typically, when purchasing something from a shop, you’re asked if you’d like to equip it. Yeah, not in Rebirth. After getting, say, a helmet, I must first trade with my ally. The goal’s to get it into their inventory. From there, I can put it on them. If I discover a more potent version, that’s right; I must repeat the entire friggin process. I appreciate the commitment to the online theme. While nitpicky, having to do this song and dance every damn time is a chore. It may not take hours, but it remains tedious and adds up fast. Comparing the new and old is, mercifully, straightforward. Trading does help build affection, too, though I’m unsure what that achieves.
IN AND OUT, IN AND OUT! - Gameplay
The following paragraph may potentially turn some away from Rebirth. Emails play a vital role in that they’re closely linked to the plot. The speed at which you get one is insanely quick, too. As such, there are instances of bouncing back and forth to your desktop to check them. The constant need to do so, while not egregious, is troublesome. Rapid load times help negate the wait from being a significant length, but patience will undoubtedly be a virtue. For those hungering for action-oriented stimulation, I can see the lawls being a deterrent. Something else that may elicit a negative response is the side-quests. Only one can be done at a time, although it’s probably this way to prevent congestion since, upon accepting, a cutscene initiates. Having one, two, or even three queued up simultaneously could cause technical mishaps.
I’VE ASCENDED! - Gameplay
During my session, I took the time to build up my strength. That’s when I noticed how breezy it is to become an overpowering behemoth. For half my total playtime, I was annihilating monsters with a single swipe. The unbridled devastation at my disposal was intoxicating. The thing is, being so Goddamn strong undermines the fun. Being capable of dispatching monsters in mere seconds gets boring. CyberConnect2 must be privy to this notion as there’s a level cap. I assume it will be much the same in Vol. 2, and I’m curious to know if keeping on pace with the game’s self-scaling will positively affect my pleasure in The World: R2. Whatever the case, the last few hours have confrontations at the cap of 50. In other words, it retains a semblance of a challenge at the tail end; just don’t get overzealous until then.
OLD SCHOOL VISUALS - Performance/Presentation
As a title from the PS2-era, Rebirth has the anticipated lacklustre environments that won’t be winning awards. Nothing about them screams beauty and, to be frank, could have used an immense degree of touch-ups. That’s not a problem with the actual character models, however, because they’ve gotten quite a bit of polish. I looked up the differences, and there are clearly a vast array of additional details to the face and clothing. Also, a silver lining of being a port of a 16-year-old game is the frame rate is buttery. It runs like an absolute dream, and I never came face-to-face with a crash. The only gripe I have is that lip-syncing is slightly off. There are moments when the mouth moves with the dialect, but then other times, it refuses to.
A BIT OF HOT AND COLD! - Sound Design
Music and voice performances are an anomaly. When I began, I was witness to awful chopped voice-acting. Sentences were oddly cut at abnormal spots, creating awkward-sounding speech. Strangely, that occurs only within the cold open, with anything beyond it ranging from serviceable to good. Hell, there are a handful of examples when it manages to delve into pretty damn great territory. Atoli is especially noteworthy, and the moments she’d exhibit emotion were always visceral and raw. I’d sense the anguish and hopelessness that manifested inside her heart. Haseo, Gaspard, and a couple of others are also exceptionally well-done. I can’t say the score is superb across the board, although there are phenomenal tracks in the mix, ready to bless your ear holes. Town themes are generally generic, while set-piece BGMs with vocals are regular class acts beautifully composed.
AND THE REBORN VERDICT IS…
.Hack//G.U. Vol.1//Rebirth was ahead of its time back then and holds up now. Even news articles in-game are weirdly accurate to current-day happenings. In contrast, the actual art of combat is clunky with a momentum-breaking guard mechanic. Fortunately, the excellent AI is enough to blanket that, allowing you to toss caution into the wind as you carelessly charge forward. The mystery the narrative introduces is intriguing, leaving me enthralled. For anime fans, the familiarity with that median is apparent. While we’re on the topic, the entire structure of the story felt like one itself, which is apt, considering there are adaptations in existence. The game does explore online dangers, but given the discrepancy between 2022 and 2006, the comedic take on predatory behaviour may dirty the experience for those with modern sensibilities.
I’m eager to jump into Vol. 2 to see how it resolves that cliffhanger. As is, .Hack//G.U. Vol.1//Rebirth is starting this collection on the right foot.
Special thanks to Bandai Namco for providing the code used for this coverage.