It’s not very often a gamer can go to his or her favorite store in search of the latest, greatest game and find it for less than $50. Most gamers have no problem with paying that amount of money for a spankin’ new game, especially if it’s made by one of their favorite companies or is a continuation of one of their favorite series. I know that I rarely purchase games on a whim when they’re new and fully priced, but just a few months ago I did just that. Despite reading reviews that passed the game off as being mediocre, I purchased .hack//infection, thanks to hearing great things about it from some friends whom I usually share common gaming interests with. The idea of playing a game that simulates a MMORPG was very interesting to me, although it wasn’t to everyone.

You see, some people who purchased this game are huge anime fans. I’ve watched a bit of anime, but I’m not nearly as hardcore as some people are. Apparently, the idea of a game inside a game has been done before in a few animes, one of them being .hack//sign. The series of games is based on that anime (more than loosely, but not entirely), as well as a novel (which was only released in Japan) and manga. So, there are naysayers out there who thrive simply on the fact that the game is supposedly a copycat. Chances are that there are more people who haven’t seen the animes that the game supposedly rips ideas from, and the idea still seems very fresh to the majority of gamers.

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“The World” simulates a MMORPG, complete with a message board and in-game E-Mail.

So, I paid $50 for a game that supposedly ripped its major selling point from another source. This game is also made by Bandai, a company that I honestly don’t think too highly of. I mean, what games have they made in the U.S. prior to this, and how many were RPGs? But I took my chances. And I’m glad I did. There’s nothing overly complicated about the game, but it was refreshing nonetheless. The keyword system makes the dungeons you can explore almost infinite, and the promise of three more installments to be released within a few months of each other gave me a reason to press on. The saved game from the end of infection can be used to start the next game, .hack//outbreak. Of course, you can start a new game if you haven’t played the first installment, but you’ll surely be lost as far as plot goes.

Yep, there are three more installments to .hack. No, they’re not four separate games…they’re four parts to one game. Here’s where most people shake their heads in disbelief. In order to play the entire game, they’ll have to shell out around $200 total. Factor in that each installment takes anywhere from 15-25 hours to complete, and you could possibly end up with $200 gaming experience that lasts only as long as a $50 game. However, much of .hack is what you make of it. If you rush through the game from plot point to plot point without taking the time to trade with the other characters, visit random areas/dungeons, uncover hidden characters, raise grunties (think chocobos, only fatter, featherless, and with wisecracking attitudes), fill out the Ryu Books, complete all the E-Mail chains, play all the rounds of Goblin Tag, and conquer the Ziet Statue challenge, then sure, you’re not going to have much fun. I admit that I didn’t partake in every sidequest, but I covered the majority of them, and the game lasted me about 25 hours. Not too shabby, by any means, considering how many other games I wanted to play at the time. It’s nice not having to devote a huge chunk of time to a game to enjoy it…at least to me.

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Your party members act just as real players would, allowing you only a certain amount of control over their actions.

For those of you who still aren’t convinced (and I assume that to be the majority of you), consider this: each game comes with an anime DVD from the .hack//liminality series, which was made to coincide with the games moreso than the other aspects of the .hack universe. I find them to be highly enjoyable, with great plots, surprisingly good voice-acting, absolutely mesmerizing music, and quite a few extra features. It’s neat to be able to read character profiles, see interviews with the game’s creators, and find hidden sets of keywords to use within the game.

There is a method to Bandai’s madness with the whole four installment thing. Sure, part of the reason is the bottom line (if you could split one game up into four parts, convince people to buy it, and make huge profits, you’d do it, too), but there’s a more traditional reason. In Japan, it’s customary to release stories as diverse as .hack in four installments. Each installment serves a certain purpose in moving the story along, which is why part one does nothing more than merely set up the plot. Part two builds up the plot and brings more of the major players into the story. So, in Japan this sort of thing is commonplace, though I’m not aware of any other instance when it’s been used with a video game. And I’m not sure if it would work with any other game.

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Each volume comes with its own anime DVD, showing what effect “The World” is having on the real world.

Maybe I’m jumping the gun in writing this little piece. I’m only halfway through the second installment, but so far I’ve been completely floored. I’ve never wanted to play a game this badly for as long as I can remember. The last RPG to truly pique my interest like this was Chrono Trigger, and that’s saying a lot coming from me. If you’re a fan of RPGs, give .hack//infection a try. If you don’t like it, don’t buy the rest. If you do, buy them if you want to. It’s as simple as that. “.hack//ripoff”? Not by a long shot.