Let's get metaphysical.
Do you spend too many hours playing online games? Do you spend more time with raiding buddies you’ve never seen in real life than with your non-virtual friends and family? Have you ever said “LOL” out loud? If so, maybe it’s time to take a break from guild drama and noob-gankers, and switch over to a game that only has pretend guild drama and noob-gankers. And that game, my friends, would be .hack//G.U.
In the second installment of this popular Japanese RPG (well, sixth, if you include the first four-part series), .hack//G.U. Vol. 2: Reminisce takes place in a game within the game: The World, a popular MMPORG. Yes, that’s right, in a mind-bending feat of meta-virtuality, you play Haseo, a character playing a character inside a game. If that’s not confusing enough for you, how about this? The game opens as a bizarre glitch affects The World, fusing all the minds of all of the ‘players’ into their characters. Unable to log out or even step away from the computer, the ‘players’ all huddle in terrified groups, trying to figure out what’s going on.
The crisis is averted when you and some of your cohorts defeat the enemies necessary to transfer the entire game to a mirror server and reboot the system. And that’s when it gets really weird. You ‘log out’ of the game and go to your ‘desktop’, where all your other ‘applications’ are, and you can customize your wallpaper and background music. It’s a truly bizarre feeling to press quit, then check your email or browse news sites, all still in the game. It feels huge and immersive, and quite frankly, awesome.
There’s even a community forum for The World, complete with stupid questions from clueless noobs, snarky elitist responses from prickish 1337 players, and resulting flame wars. If you pay enough attention, you can even find some of these posters running around The World the next time you log in. It’s a nice touch, and makes The World feel less like a game and more like, well, a world.
The World (the game itself, that is) falls squarely in the category of a fantasy Japanese RPG. It’s a lot like Final Fantasy Online or Phantasy Star Universe, only without all those annoying other people. No irritating 12-year-olds spamming your chat window with ridiculous trade offers, no gold beggars, no Leroy Jenkins.
No, the other ‘players’ in this game only speak when spoken to, as it should be. Players you invite to join your party always accept (unlike in some games I could mention), and you and your polite, thoughtful cohorts teleport to the various dungeon levels by heading to a warp gate and inputting a set of key words that sound charmingly like those accidentally poetic spam messages. “Feeble Obsessive Slacker,” for instance, or “Thrilling Fruitless Drama”.
Because the key word combinations are nearly endless, The World at first seems huge. Upon playing for a while, however, you’ll notice the limitations. The background graphics, while beautiful by late-stage PS2 standards, recycle frequently, so the multitude of levels all have the same three or four different looks to them. And while there are some side quests in The World, the game is far more linear than a MMPORG ever would be.
While you can go to random levels to power up your allies and get items, or race around on your super-cool motorcycle for a while, you’ll spend the vast majority of your time following the main thread of the story step by step, even when it takes you out of the ‘game’. Reminisce is not shy about letting you know how to further the plot, and Haseo is always saying realistic things like, “Now that I’m done with that, I should log out and check email” to push you along.
The plot is thorough, complex, and interesting, although it can be a bit overwhelming. There’s a ton of exposition to get through, and the characters are chattier than a gaggle of old ladies on laundry day. The general theory seems to be, why state a plot point once when it can be stated three times? And while the voice acting isn’t grating, it’s not exactly Oscar-winning material either.
But despite the repetition, you may still not have much of a clue as to what’s going on. If you haven’t played the previous games in the series, you’ll spend a lot of time in a state of confusion as you try to figure out all the characters and the relationships. It’s a bit like starting to watch Lost around the middle of the second season. Once you get the gist, you may find yourself using the skip button to get through some of the interminable cut scenes.
If you have played the previous games, however, stay away from that skip button, as the story is more or less the only thing that distinguishes Reminisce
from its predecessor. Sure, there have been some upgrades to the fighting system and the animation, but it’s basically the same car with a new paint job.
If you haven’t played before, however, this game is a treat. The fighting is simple but effective – a combination of basic button mashing for your bread and butter attacks, with special combo moves that pack an extra wallop. This is where the designers spent most of their coolness budget: in true anime fashion the insane power attacks allow you to sit back and enjoy the cinematic tastiness as your character whomps your enemies. It’s fun to watch, and to play. And, true to its RPG base, Reminisce features a robust system of items, equipment, and customizable powerups that let you trick out Haseo and his allies to play up their strengths or balance their weaknesses as you see fit.
If The World were released as a game by itself, it would be fine, but ultimately not that special. But by creating a game outside the game, the makers of .hack//G.U. Vol. 2: Reminisce (a studio called CyberConnect2) have created a world that’s a lot of fun to explore on many levels. That is, unless you’ve already explored it before.