"Old characters return, but they're hardly involved. Mia, in fact, only shows up in one mission with a reference to a practical joke from the previous game. Her presence here is token, as is the presence of the majority of the cast. It's quickly becoming evident that the story here is really revolving around Kite and BlackRose."
I wish I could have been in the same room as the people who got together and decided to put aside all false pretenses and unashamedly release a series of four games that has almost no value if you're only going to tune in for one of its units. Whoever did it was a genius and a fool. A genius because, well, getting consumers to buy four titles in a series is something any self-respecting company shoots for. A fool because, well, it's the end of the world if those four games suck.
Fortunately, .hack Part 1: Infection, the first game in the series, didn't suck. And so it is that I went down to the store and bought myself .hack Part 2: Mutation at the very first opportunity. And after playing through it, my general impression is that it doesn't suck, either. Unfortunately, it's not quite everything I had hoped. Let me tell you why.
The first problem here is that this one is actually shorter--quite a bit shorter, actually--than the first one. While the first one kept me going around 20 hours, this one engaged me for closer to 15. This is disappointing and has caused some to rightfully ask why the series wasn't just released as a single unit. That's not my complaint, though. How many games these days last more than 15 or 20 hours, anyway? The answer is 'just about every RPG you care to name,' which again brings us back to one very simple fact: .hack Part 2: Mutation is just too short.
That's not to say it's no fun. Quite the opposite. Nearly everything that made the first one so much fun has returned. At this point, a look back at just what that first one offered is appropriate. If you've played .hack Part 1: Infection, go ahead and skip over the next three paragraphs, as you already know what's up.
When a gamer opened .hack Part 1: Infection, he was greeted first with an anime DVD and under that, the actual game. That's right; Bandai gives more emphasis to the little bonus disc. Like most, I decided I might as well start by watching the cartoon, sort of to feel my way around what the game will be like. That DVD revealed a world a few years in the future, where an online game known as The World is apparently causing a select few players to drop into comas as a result of gaming sessions. The DVD explored this idea pretty well, and it was hard not to be stoked for the game after watching it.
The game itself was a similarly rewarding experience. It puts the player in the role of a boy named Kite who watches his friend Orta--an apparent celebrity in The World--fall victim to a vicious attack by a mysterious monster. The 'real world' Orta falls into a coma, and Kite continues to play the game in hopes that he can get to the root of the problem. He has a mysterious object as his disposal, which grants him powers that just might lead him to the root of the secrets he seeks.
A large part of the .hack series is the mystery and intrigue of the plot, which unravels at a leisure pace, feeding plot twists just often enough to keep the player engaged unawares. There's also a robust battle system and a sometimes wonky camera to consider. Throughout, the game never feels quite as polished as a Square title, but charm makes up for it and in the case of .hack Part 1: Infection, the occasional lack of technical wonder never really mattered.
Now we have .hack Part 2: Mutation. As I've said, it's more of the same. The graphics haven't changed, but I don't suppose any of us really expected that they would. Kite still looks remarkably well-animated, as do his friends. No one looks a single sprite different, no environment has changed. The only difference, then, are the new environments and characters. They're drawn in the same style, animated the same way, and the new areas in which you will sometimes find them really aren't much different from what has come before.
As far as music goes, I was surprised to recently find that people consider the stuff in the .hack universe some of the best in games today. Then I realized I agree. See, music doesn't really matter to me in a game unless it's achingly good, like the stuff in Chrono Cross. While I don't like the scores in .hack Part 2: Mutation as much as I liked what that other title offered, I did find them quite impressive upon a closer listen. None of it is the sort of thing that knocks you off your feet when first you hear it, but in good time you'll find it's a comforting, masterful collection of tunes that sticks in your head even after you turn off the game. For the most part, the stuff here is merely a continuation of what has come before, with only a small sample of new material. But that's fine. I really wouldn't have it any other way.
One thing I would change is the progression of the plot. People complain the first was too slow, that nothing ever happened. I disagree. There was a lot of intrigue there. Each new dungeon was a chance to unravel a new clue. In .hack Part 2: Mutation, that has changed, if only slightly. You still go into a dungeon expecting an encounter and new details at the end, and only half the time do you find it. There's a lot less of the bizarre and unexpected. Most of the plot revolves around Lios, the system administrator. Old characters return, but they're hardly involved. Mia, in fact, only shows up in one mission with a reference to a practical joke from the previous game. Her presence here is token, as is the presence of the majority of the cast. It's quickly becoming evident that the story here is really revolving around Kite and BlackRose.
This isn't entirely bad. When twists do come, they do a lot to expose a deeper thread in the story. We learn a lot more about the company behind The World, a good selection of clues as to why things might be going wrong and why more isn't being done about it. But these little snippets feel much more like teasers than they did the first time around. Any story has a slight lag at some point; .hack Part 2: Mutation consists entirely of that lag.
With that said, the game is still worth playing. It's time for me to reveal a dirty little secret: I made it all the way through the first game without realizing how much control you really have over your teammates. You can shout out tactical orders, have them use items, even take direct control of them, all through use of the 'square' button. I honestly didn't catch that the first time around. This time, there's no way you'll survive without the knowledge. Monsters you meet are nasty, vicious brutes that can cut short your journey even if they're a few levels below you.
Not only that, but there are more of the things. Dungeons have become much longer and your stock of items really hasn't improved. Level-building campaigns will be much more common this time around. The whole experience feels rushed. You have fewer dungeons, but they're longer and more difficult. So you rush through a dungeon, see more story, build yourself up 3 or 4 levels, and head off to the next. It's not quite as satisfying an experience.
Which brings us back to one very important fact: this is the game that likely will make your decision for the whole franchise. The first one was a truly amazing experience because it was the first. The second one is more of the same but without the heart. That leaves us all with the choice of whether or not we're willing to stick it out for the final two installments at $50 a pop. After playing .hack Part 2: Mutation, some might decide it's not for them. If you loved the first, though, chances are you'll like the second enough to commit to the third. In the end, that's all we can really ask.
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 19, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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