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By: Michael Beckett
Itís difficult to review a game that is as similar to its predecessor as .hack// Mutation is. Of course, it makes complete sense Ė Mutation is only the second of four games that make up an entire story arc Ė but it means that itís going to be difficult to discuss. Players who liked .hack//Infection are practically required to pick up .hack//Mutation, while those who disliked the first in the series have ample reason to avoid it; very little has changed. .hack still feels very much like a dungeon crawler, which may or may not be a bad thing.
The combat system is real-time, broken up by intensive use of menus to constantly modify and keep track of your tactics. However, unlike Infection, combat can be downright frantic at times. The interface can be something of a hindrance with the menu control being as floaty as it is, but a bit of caution goes a long way. The length of battles and the kind of tactics the player is required to use makes Mutation a somewhat more difficult, and ultimately more satisfying game.
One of the biggest problems with .hack//Infection was that while itís plot was far from horrible, it left one feeling a bit cheated. Nothing was really resolved or truly dealt with, as the player was meant to be getting a handle on the game basics. In .hack//Mutation, there are some interesting revelations, but for the most part, Mutation only deepens the mysteries first hinted at in Infection. Characters become more interesting, or in some cases, more bizarre. With all the seemingly obscure references flying around, I would encourage anyone who is playing the .hack series to do at least a little research into the universe Mr. Kazunori Ito created for .hack. Its speculations about the direction the modern world could be taking are both highly imaginative and frighteningly plausible. I would have to say that, because of the lack of any resolution in Mutation, the ultimate quality of the series is riding on .hack//Outbreak, due out in August.
As with Infection, voice acting is spotty. At times decent, at times downright cheesy, I was really expecting something better after hearing some of the names involved in the dub. Still, the option to switch between English and Japanese voice-overs goes some way towards remedying this.
As for the music, I have to admit to having softened a bit on the themes of .hack. In my review of .hack//Infection, I said the music was too background. This is basically true Ė battle always comes first, and since the combat themes are simply remixes of the field music that slides into place when a monster appears, the normal field music seems incomplete and even a little boring. However, when listened to by themselves, the music shows good, solid composition, and may even warrant the purchase of a soundtrack for those of us who enjoy techno and trance music.
Translation, as with Infection, is fairly good. There arenít any noticeable errors, and character dialogue comes off as highly unique. In fact, one of the best parts of the .hack series so far has been the characters Ė from Tsukasaís immaturity and confusion to Black Roseís headstrong nature and often humorous dialogue, .hackís best points come through in itís characters.
The design for the .hack series is quite good, with the overall style being very Nordic / Celtic in nature. The monsters are a bit more modern, but everything fits together fairly well. The graphics themselves seem a bit dated, but they donít distract a great deal from the game play. There are a couple of basic errors Ė a little breakthrough here and there, mostly Ė but the visuals are generally good, and the wonderful character design certainly improves matters.
Time to complete is only 15 to 20 hours, but as with Infection, there are a number of extra side quests and things to be completed after the game has ended. Itís a little unlikely that anyone is going to feel the need to play through .hack//Mutation more than once through before the release of Outbreak. The next two game releases should up the replay value a bit, though, by adding on new characters, extra side quests and mini-games (I hope). Iím not entirely sure that such a game is worth the $50 price tag, but the .hack//Liminality OVA and rebate offers for Infection and Outbreak that are included go some way towards softening the blow to your wallet.
.hack//Mutation is only a little more difficult than .hack//Infection, owing largely to new monster types with nasty status effects and more violent and volatile bosses. This is a trend I wouldnít mind seeing continue, as Kiteís quest drags on and the forces arrayed against him and his band of PCs become more and more desperate to stop him.
In conclusion, I canít help but feel that a review of .hack//Mutation is somewhat pointless Ė almost everyone who played and liked .hack//Infection is going to play part 2, if only to see what happens next. So instead, Iíll recommend the entire .hack series to those gamers who enjoy sci-fi speculation, strange psychological ruminations, and characters as the driving force in an RPG. Those who look more for straight action in our anime and RPGs should probably steer clear.
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