The World is about to change. In the present day, real-world people are spending their time playing a role-playing game in which their personas travel and interact within a fantasy world. But one of the characters, a cipher named Tsukasa, is suddenly locked within the game, and those around him aren't sure why ... or how. While any player should be able to just disconnect or shut off the computer he or she is on, Tsukasa doesn't even see a computer. He is IN The World. And a mysterious cat-like character hovers around the fringes, bending the programming - indeed the very "existence" of The World to his will. And a group of player characters must figure out the truth behind Tsukasa ... while a rash of mysterious game-related incidents in the real world begins to draw the attention of even the most powerful players within the game.
Ever since watching Lain, we at THEM wondered when the next series would come that tackled the virtual world. And though several series have touched upon cyberspace, they have been mostly children's series like Digimon and Mega Man NT, which, while interesting and entertaining, aren't always the most serious of titles. Even Perfect Blue only touched on the effects of the Internet for the briefest of moments, and it seemed that anime in general was destined to be only as Internet-savvy as the average middle-aged salaryman.
And then .hack//SIGN came along. The game world concept is hardly original to those heavily involved in video games. Like EverQuest and Phantasy Star Online, "dot-Hack" is seemingly set as a massive multi-player online role-playing game, where literally thousands of people congregate on servers to play a game. However, unlike EQ and PSO, "dot-Hack" is really an ambitious multimedia project, with the simultaneous release of the video game, manga, and television and video anime. Not only that, but the reality of "The World" itself is literally a game-within-a-game - in "dot-Hack" the game, the console player must solve the mystery of "The World", much like the player characters in the TV series, while still building the strength of the virtual reality role-playing character to move forward. Very complex and intriguing - though for our purposes here, we will only be discussing this first anime incarnation of this new universe.
With excellent art, a sumptuously rich soundtrack, an intriguing plot, and a concept that is half Lain, half Dungeon Master, this series is a feast for the eyes and ears that skillfully melds fantasy and science fiction. In a world where no one is who they seem to be, mysteries abound just beyond the realm of sight. Real-life wallflowers, party-girls, and middle-aged professionals become shifty rogues, wise sorcerers, or brave warriors. And the show sometimes ponders where the line lies between reality and fantasy, and indeed between diversion and obsession.
The one thing about the early part of this series that may put off potential viewers is its pace. dot-Hack takes its time introducing characters and setting up the backdrop that is The World. And much of the perspective comes from the point of view of Tsukasa, a perpetually confused and bewildered spell-casting teenager who seems to be Yet Another Shinji (tm), vaguely nihilistic and aimless. At times, Tsukasa is frustrating and annoying to watch, as a lot of the action seems to merely happen around him (or is it a her?). But as the story goes on and he learns more about his amnesiac self and the world around him, Tsukasa does reveal more of his murky past and his (or her) real-life personality.
Many audience members, especially veterans of games like this, are more likely to relate to the other main characters, including the rather brash and somewhat scatter-brained (if perfectionist) young swordswoman, Mimiru, and the grizzled, pensive veteran warrior, Bear (a favorite of several THEMers). These characters act like anyone you'd actually meet on a game like this. Even the sinister player-killer, Sora, has his own motivations and interests, as do the actual players themselves.
As stated before, the animation is simply gorgeous, with a well-realized, fanciful world of arched cities and floating islands, magical portals and whimsical creatures. If I was let loose in a virtual reality role-playing world like this, I'd probably spend more time there than actually writing anime reviews! And with character designs by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki (Neon Genesis Evangelion), it's safe to say you'd be in good-looking company, too. But the real surprise here is the music. From the intriguing techno opening (with its esoteric trance sound and its almost unrecognizable English) to the sweeping orchestral motifs throughout the episode, the audio is simply incredible. It does cry out, "I am a cool soundtrack!", but without ever being obtrusive or out-of-place.
But after completing the full run of this series, I can confirm a few things for our loyal readers. .hack//SIGN is a very competent series indeed, but while the mystery of Tsukasa is finally revealed, there are still a few nagging problems here and there that keep this from garnering that final star ... and even knock it down a bit.
One of the biggest problems that this series faces is that it's a "talking head" anime -- there's a lot of dialogue, and not much action to speak of. This would suit it fine if it were a more fully-fleshed mystery series, but many of the middle episodes pack a surprising amount of filler. It really shouldn't take fifteen episodes for the plot to finally get going, but that's the way it goes - many viewers will get bored very quickly. It also seems that this is done largely as an animation shortcut, something that which seems to plague virtually every Bee Train production.
The ending is extremely ambiguous and anticlimactic as well. Essentially, to get the true ending of the anime, one must play through the games, which damages this series immensely as a stand-alone project. Also, the English dub fails to be expressive in all the wrong places -- people who only see this series off Cartoon Network will be sorely disappointed, and so far, Bandai's track record on English dialogue has tended towards the horrible. Since this series is so dialogue-driven, a substandard dub (or the constant barrage of amateurish translation work in the prerelease fansubs) serve as a killing blow for any potential audience. If ever there were a solid argument for waiting for the licensed work to be released before reviewing, .hack//SIGN is it.
For those familiar with online gaming (or the now released .hack//INFECTION game and its successors), this series will definitely ring true with the depictions of the characters, from Tsukasa right on down to the guest newbie A-20. The World itself continues to be well realized, though near the end there are distinct "blank spots" that you're supposed to fill in with knowledge from the game. However, if you could care less about online gaming, or find yourself being too nitpicky about the details of that genre, you just may want to give this character piece a skip, and let me hog the PS2 some more.
.hack//SIGN works best as advertised - not as a standalone, but as a complement to the rest of the multimedia project. Even so, this ambitious and interesting experiment in media is a qualified success, and I look forward to reviewing the other series in the franchise. (At least the OAVs, anyway.)
A well-executed, heavily atmospheric, and truly remarkable series that nonetheless requires the rest of the .hack franchise to make enough sense to be understood properly. Those without the patience to deal with the extreme amounts of dialogue and unwilling to explore the other chapters of the story could probably drop this a star or even two. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: No sex, and any innuendo is too mild for us to truly notice (though there's plenty of skimpy outfits). However, adult themes, intensity, and fantasy violence make this out of the range of young children. Recommended for teens and above (primarily the gaming set).
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease fansub; R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (26/26)
.hack//SIGN © 2002 Project .hack
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