.hack//Mutation - Review

Not Quite a Massive Revelation
By: Paul Koehler

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 5
   Interface 7
   Music & Sound 6
   Originality 7
   Story & Plot 8
   Localization 9
   Replay Value 4
   Visuals 5
   Difficulty Easy
   Completion Time 15-25 Hours  

Message Boards.  Can't live with them, can't live without them.
Message Boards. Can't live with them, can't live without them.

   For the relatively small amount of hype that Bandai has given the .hack series, sales were remarkably brisk for its first installment, Infection. However, it was far from the game that many RPG enthusiasts were expecting. The title's flaws included repetitive dungeon fetch-quests, relatively bland graphics, and lackluster music. Perhaps the biggest error of all was the length of the game itself - the title could be easily finished in under 20 hours, which led some people to question the value of paying for a four-part series that could have been packaged into one or two titles. Criticism aside, .hack//Mutation was released to the public in early May. The verdict is a mixed one. This game, like Infection, is a solid title. However, if it weren't for the wonderful plot revelations and extra features, this game could have easily driven the series into the ground.

   Loyal fans of the series are rewarded by having the ability to take their save data from Infection and import it into Mutation, having all their experience and equipment ready for use at the beginning of the game. The majority of gameplay takes place in the Lambda server, where battles are done in the same manner as the first title. It's best described as a real-time hack-and-slash fest, with players accessing the menu quite a few times during battle. One major nuisance in battle is the camera angle. Players must constantly adjust the camera's point of view using the L1 and R1 keys to avoid being attacked in the rear. It's relieving to see that most of the monsters are not palette swaps of models used in Infection, and it's clear that some effort was put into monster design.

   Item hunters will get the thrill of trading for more powerful equipment, as is expected from the environs of the Lambda server. Equipment levels occasionally exceed 50, and a wide array of second-level spells are now available for Kite and his companions. This becomes especially important with the introduction of monsters that are completely resistant to physical attacks, making magic scrolls an essential component of the party's arsenal.

Helba: "1 4m 1337 h4x0r!"

   Kite's infamous Data Drain ability is still used, and in Mutation he can also use "Data Arc", which can drain multiple monsters in a certain radius. The virus cores that are used to hack into protected areas are still around, albeit a different set from those used in Infection.

   E-mail and the BBS of "The World" are still the only ways of finding out information into the real-life of some of the party members. While one could argue this is a way of keeping each character's real-life and online personas separate, it would be nice to find out more than what Mutation provides.

   New to Mutation is the Grunty Flag Race. This is available in the Theta and Lambda servers, and each race can be unlocked by raising three different Grunty types in a particular server. Players then can choose one of their three Grunties and race them through their respective servers' towns, trying to grab flags, all while avoiding random townspeople. Winning races nets some valuable items, and it was a feature showcased at Bandai's E3 booth this year.

   Even with the new toys, Mutation is simply the continuation of the .hack saga, following Kite's first encounter with Cubia. By far the best aspect of the series games so far is the overarching storyline, which is further augmented by Vol. 2 of the .hack OAV series, Liminality. Unlike the first installment, the environment between the anime and the game actually starts to have some relation to each other. Mutation also starts making some references to the original anime series .hack//SIGN, which will be a welcome sight to fans of that series. Even so, it should be noted that the story is still very open-ended and incomplete. Perhaps this is to be expected for a four-part series, but it would have been nice to see more of the plot resolved by this point.

Never underestimate the nonsensical dialogue of NPCs.
Never underestimate the nonsensical dialogue of NPCs.

   It should be repeated that the .hack series deserves credit for giving RPGamers the option of hearing either the English or Japanese voice tracks. Anime fans will love this option, and those not willing to stand the often sub-par English voice-dubbing should appreciate it as well. However, this is as far as the audio capabilities of Mutation go, as the music is the same annoying and repetitive drudge that permeated Infection.

   The graphics leave something to be desired as well. While the story of Mutation is supposed to be set in the latter half of the decade, "The World" shown on the PlayStation 2 surely doesn't reflect it. In fact, many backgrounds in particular areas are extremely blurry. This doesn't detract from the gameplay, but it hurts the overall quality of the game. Additionally, massive swarms of enemies (particularly outside the dungeons in certain areas) will result in slowdown, making for less enjoyable battles.

   So, what now for these games? Bandai's booth at E3 this year was as anime-centric as possible, and the .hack series was its centerpiece. While it had generated a wonderful buzz before Infection's release in February, one must wonder what RPGamers are thinking about the series now. Mutation might be a little better than Infection, if only for the fleshed out story line. Also in this game's favor is its ability to let players new to the series start a brand new data file without playing the first title.

   Is it worth the current $50 asking price? Like Infection before it, it's doubtful that Mutation is worth that much. Nevertheless, it is a small improvement. Fans of the series will gladly consume this and the next two titles, Outbreak and Quarantine, when they are released in August and November, respectively. This game deserves at least a rental, if only for the sake of finding out what all the buzz surrounding this series is about. For true fans, Mutation may not be a massive revelation, but it is enough to whet their appetites for more.

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