Fun fact: .hack//G.U. takes place in the year 2017.
Spooky, right? Of course, then, it makes sense for CyberConnect 2 and Bandai Namco to bring this VRMMORPG (brace yourself for this – virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game) influenced video game series back for its fifteenth anniversary. Sporting quite a few quality-of-life improvements, ranging from graphical and frame rate fidelity to adding a cheat mode that maxes out player levels and equipment, and even a brand new fourth chapter, Last Recode offers a great deal of JRPG bang for your buck. This remastered collection of PlayStation 2 games isn’t without its blemishes, however.
First and foremost, each of the three games in this .hack//G.U. collection is set within the confines of a virtual reality role-playing game – Sword Art Online is another property that follows a similar premise. Last Recode has the player shifting between exploring towns and dungeons via the in-game world, aptly named The World, and perusing through emails and the game’s news and forum sections through a computer desktop interface. There’s something to be admired about CyberConnect2’s commitment to making the game operate as a real online game would, and it adds a unique flair in that regard that is not seen in games these days. Rarely is the next objective hard to identify, as finishing a quest usually triggers an on-screen prompt indicating new mail in your inbox. Much of the game follows a similar pattern: receive a new objective, complete a dungeon or fulfil a task of some sort, and log-out to check your email to receive your next objective.
While I found this rinse-and-repeat formula a bit taxing after my first ten hours or so, Last Recode’s gorgeously animated cutscenes kept me committed for many hours more. What I found most impressive were the almost seamless transitions between in-game cutscenes and these stylish (and surprisingly frequent) animations. These often took me by surprise, as some only appear for a brief moment to display a character’s expression in greater detail than what the in-game character models can muster. While in-game character models have seen some definite improvements in this remaster, static facial expressions and a lack of mouth movement during cutscenes feel dated by comparison.
If you’re willing to look past this in favour of the narrative, then you’ll be pleased to learn that .hack//G.U. is rewarding in this regard. The first game, Vol. 1//Rebirth, follows the rogue character Haseo as he searches for Tri-Edge, a player killer character who defeated his friend Shino, inexplicably sending her into a coma in the real world. Determined to save her, Haseo joins the guild G.U. to track down Tri-Edge and learn more about AIDA, a mysterious anomaly responsible for Shino’s comatose state.
Known as the Terror of Death, Haseo is abrasive and downright rude, focused only on getting stronger at the cost of pushing others away. Throughout the series, however, Haseo reluctantly starts to rely on others for support and it helps him to come to terms with past events. Watching his transformation is genuinely satisfying and it’s a significant part of what makes the narrative so worthwhile. Observing his growth feels like a natural process, largely due to the diverse range of interactions and relationships he undergoes with the enjoyable supporting cast.
As with the characters in many PS2-era games, don’t expect to love their voice acting. While I had no problem with the Japanese audio, some of the characters in the English dub are absolutely grating – Atoli and Gaspard being some of the worst offenders. Voices aside, Last Recode’s soundtrack features charming, upbeat melodies that feel right at home in a series that simulates another video game.
Much of your time hearing said music will be in dungeons, where action-based combat takes the forefront. Getting too close to an enemy on the map will trigger battles that take place in circular arenas. Regular attacks are performed by mashing a single button, and repeatedly hitting an enemy enough times sends them into a vulnerable state. Activating a battle skill in this moment triggers a Rengeki, which increases damage output and yields a small amount of bonus experience post-battle. New equipment can be found in dungeons or bought from shops in one of many shops, and further customisation can refine weapons to acquire higher stats and new properties. Overall, combat is largely standard fare for the genre, neither introducing anything too remarkable nor forcing anything too imposing on the player. Avatar Battles serve to introduce some variety throughout the series in the form of arcade shooter-esque encounters, and these are welcome additions to help shake up the repetition.
While this is mostly a remastered collection, CyberConnect2 also packed in a completely new Episode – Vol. 4//Reconnection. This takes place over a year after the events of Vol. 3//Redemption, and Haseo has retired from playing The World. Without spoiling anything, Haseo receives a mysterious email that brings him back to the game one last time, before the developers of the game shut down the server. Vol. 4//Reconnection feels like familiar territory, as much of the progression takes place in a similar fashion to the rest of the series, but its storyline manages to offer a satisfying conclusion to some loose threads and a satisfying conclusion to the series as a whole.
While .hack//G.U. Last Recode’s story still find ways to convey freshness and exuberance, its formulaic dungeon structure and repetitive progression sequences feel dated almost right from the get-go. That’s really unfortunate, considering the endearing highs of Haseo’s journey from an angsty noob to a seasoned veteran player with a genuine compassion for The World and those he met within it. Story is at the centre of the .hack//G.U. series, and those able to look past its gameplay issues are likely to find a lot to love while logged in to The World. While it may not have the most polish, it certainly has a lot of heart.