It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since the .hack franchise began. It was a franchise with a really unique setting – you were put in the shoes of someone playing a fictional MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) called The World. As well as being able to play in The World, you could also log out and check your emails as well as read news articles and reply to forum posts. There was an impressive amount of detail put into all aspects of its ‘game within a game’ setting. Unfortunately, aside from a few mobile titles released only in Japan, not a lot seems to have happened with the .hack franchise in recent years, so it’s great to see it finally make a reappearance.
There were two separate series of .hack games on the PlayStation 2 and .hack//G.U. Last Recode is a PlayStation 4 remastered collection of the second series of games, also known as the G.U. trilogy (Rebirth, Reminisce, and Redemption). Even if you haven’t played the first quadrilogy of .hack games, you can catch up on what happened previously by watching the Terminal Disk, which is available from the title menu. It consists of a selection of movies that tell the story of what happened in the first game series, as well as helping to bridge the gap between the two sets of games.
Our protagonist is an infamous player called Haseo, who likes to hunt down and kill other players. He’s very specific about who he goes after, though, only killing those who like to attack others. He’s built up quite a reputation within The World, and is even nicknamed the “Terror of Death”. After a bizarre series of events, Haseo is sent down a path of revenge: his friend Shino is attacked in-game, which leaves her lying in a coma in the real world. This event traumatises Haseo and he becomes determined to hunt down the player responsible.
Haseo is a great character who develops quite a bit throughout the included games. At the beginning he’s rude to pretty much everyone he talks to, and at times can be downright cruel towards others. Through his friendship with various players he gradually begins to change and grow, and it’s his transformation from jerk to hero which makes the narrative of the game really gripping.
The actual gameplay follows a fairly simple structure. Haseo will receive an email which prompts him to log into The World, from there he’ll go and fight through a dungeon or complete some other task, before logging out to check his emails and receive the next objective. It’s a simple enough rhythm which manages to mostly keep things flowing, although it can at times feel a little bit too formulaic.
You’ll be spending a lot of time trekking through the game’s dungeons, where you’ll come across groups of enemies to battle. Most of the time you’ll just be mashing the X button to perform regular attacks but you'll also be throwing out the odd battle skill here and there. By working together with your party, you can also build up your moral gauge and perform special awakening attacks. It’s quite a basic battle system but there are new attacks and types of weapons introduced in each volume, which helps to keep things reasonably interesting.
While the combat in .hack was never particularly difficult, this remaster has streamlined things. Your attacks now do more damage, battle tempo has been increased, and you’ll receive more XP. While some could argue that these changes reduce the overall challenge, it undoubtedly makes the experience more user-friendly by removing some of the grind and speeding up combat. There’s also the option to play using the remaster's cheat mode, which maxes out your characters' stats from the outset. This is a useful mode if you just want to rush through and see the story, but it’s a bit of a missed trick that the developer didn’t also include some harder difficulty options for those looking to put their skills to the test.
There are plenty of side quests available to sink your teeth into, ranging from hunting player killers to racing bikes and arena battles. All of these things will keep you busy while adventuring in The World, but there’s also a lot to do when you're not actually logged in. As mentioned, logging out will lead you to a simulated computer desktop where you can read through emails from party members as well as immerse yourself in forums and news posts. There's a huge amount of content to read through -- there are even animated news clips and a fictional online web-series to watch. It’s remarkable just how much content there is here, and more of it becomes available as you get further through the games. It’s always exciting to log out of The World and see what's new as it really helps to make The World feel like a genuine MMORPG with a dedicated fandom surrounding it.
Moving on, the visuals in Last Recode have seen a big graphical enhancement over the PlayStation 2 originals. There’s still a bit of pop-in when walking around outside, but now the backgrounds are far less muddy and blurred. The biggest improvements can definitely be seen in the main cast’s character models, and the many cutscenes are way better looking. While Last Recode still shows its last-last-gen roots, the new coat of paint really helps to adequately modernise things.
But what makes this remaster really exciting is that as well as touching up the old games, it also includes a brand new, never before seen volume called Reconnection. It’s set just over a year after the conclusion of Redemption, and sees Haseo return to The World to complete one final task before the servers are shut down. However, Reconnection is more of an epilogue than a full entry in the series, with a runtime of only around four to five hours. Thankfully, in that short amount of time it does manage to give a satisfying conclusion to the G.U. series, and shows off some absolutely gorgeous new cutscenes. It’s a bit of a shame that this new volume isn’t longer, but hopefully it’s a sign that the .hack franchise will be making a comeback in the future.
Featuring improved graphics and more polished gameplay, .hack//G.U. Last Recode offers a fascinating look back at a classic JRPG series. While repetition can sometimes bog things down, the story and characters will keep you coming back to The World, determined to see Haseo’s journey through to the end.