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The Game(s) You Love to Hate, and Hate to Love
By: Heath Hindman
So here we are, at the end of the four-volume, game-within-a-game saga known as as .hack. Like any good performer, Cyber Connect2 saved the best act for last.
While a few of the flaws from the previous three volumes have been worked out (at least to some degree), many of them just grow more and more irritating over the 95+ hours players will be in "The World." Yes, ally AI is still lacking, several characters still try to drag Kite into the middle of their self-pleasing quests, and the dungeon music is still repetitive and boring. So what in "The World" keeps players coming back? It's got to be the fantastic story.
The entire .hack project tells an excellent tale, and the portion of the plot contained in the video games is perfectly suited for such a medium, as it draws players in and doesn't let go. Even though the gameplay, graphics and music remain the same, this is the volume that .hack fans have been waiting for. Questions are answered, enemies are confronted, and Kite drops the kiddie gloves as he takes on the computer virus known as "Pluto Again." Since part three, this virus has spread into the real world, causing all kinds of problems. In the words of Helba, it's "the second coming of Pluto's Kiss, when computers abandon us and all hell breaks loose."
Unlike past installments, no new mini-game involving the beloved Grunties is present. While the Grunty games are still around, the developers chose to put their attention elsewhere rather than add to the Grunty abilities. Some modifications were made to goblin tag, but it's still pretty much the same, save for a new rule that two other party members can join Kite in a 3-on-3 match rather than the one-player bouts of the past. Instead of further retooling those distractions, the developers chose to add a side project called "Item Completion." This quest entails the finding and registering of as many items as possible. It doesn't sound like much, but it adds a good deal of post-ending play value, and can be dangerously addicting. You'll receive a very coveted little trinket for your successful registration of all items. Also adding continued play value is the presence of bonus characters after Kite does a few certain things folowing the game's ending. Characters that .hack project fans will recognize and love step into the realm of playabilty, giving fans what they've surely always wanted.
It's a good thing these bonuses manifest, because if they didn't, Quarantine would be in trouble. Just like before, certain areas are protected, and must be "gate hacked" for entry, which is done by finding certain "virus cores." Volume 4 takes the virus core-hunting and absolutely drills it into the ground. It seems getting into any locked area will require the player to first go completely out of the way to a dungeon from two volumes previous to obtain some ridiculous collection of these keys. This makes progessing through the game more tedious than any of the previous installments, as a good portion of your time will be spent just looking for the items you need to get into the area you've been told to investigate. It's annoying, and there's too much of it. This tells us that the game wasn't put together very well. All of the puzzle pieces to make a great game are there, but those pieces are mushed together in a very childlike, disorganized manner. Maybe this was done to tack a few hours onto the completion time, as short length brought on some complaints about the other volumes. The sad thing is that there are enough other distractions that the tedious fetching is doubly unnecessary.
On the upside, the included .hack//Liminality DVD adds a massive amount of extra detail to the already deep storyline. In addition to the standard segment of Liminality, there is an episode of .hack//Gift, which takes place four years after the end of the PS2 portion of the project. An extremely detailed (and semi-secret) recap of the entire story is also readable in the extras section.
Like Outbreak before it, Quarantine considerably ups the battle difficulty. "Difficulty" meaning "every enemy will charm Black Rose so that she kills your mage before you know what's up, then comes after you." Seriously, while the enemies have risen in level right along with your party, the bulk of this new "challenge" is seeing if you can get through a dungeon using less than 20 status-curing items/spells. Sorting through all of the menus to use a Restorative every 15 seconds really puts a black mark on the potential fun one could have with the battles. Using the same "have the item sack ready" strategy for nearly every boss battle gets old, too.
Just like its elder brothers, .hack//Quarantine is recommended almost exclusively to those that have already taken a liking to the other titles in the series and proves to be a worthwhile undertaking for said audience. It's quite the interesting little volume because depending on one's perspective, it can either be the best or the worst in the entire .hack collection. It certainly displays the best part of the plot, and contains the most complete conclusion, while also packing the most post-ending play value. But at the same time, many things have worn thin since volume one, and Quarantine's exploitation of virus core fetching can bring one to tears. The story is so good and the .hack series as a whole is so unique, it can actually pull the player through the dark muck of repetitive dungeons and seemingly endless fetch quests. It's the game you love to hate, and hate to love.
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