Reviewby Theron Martin,
Based on an obscure Web novel, The World is an online virtual reality fantasy game that has become the most popular MMORPG that the real world has ever seen. Run by the C.C. Corporation, it has expanded to such a degree that even the company personnel behind the game can no longer see the complete picture. Such complexity occasionally generates bugs, and it falls to the system administrators and their Cobalt Knights to deal with both those problems and with cheaters. Vagrant AIs pose the greatest threat, as they have the potential to upset the game's balance. When one escapes being deleted, however, it poses a great concern for Watarai, one of the system administrators. Before he can track it down, however, a high-level player named Albireo encounters a strange girl named Lycoris who latches onto him. Though she seems to be one of the game's special events, some things about her are disturbing. Albireo eventually comes to realize that she holds a dangerous secret, one that could, in time, shake The World to its foundations.
The story of .hack was designed to be a unique multimedia integration of anime, manga, video games, card games, and novels, but not until the end of August did a translation of one of the latter finally make its way to the States. Thanks to Tokyopop, we now have AI Buster, the first of the .hack novels, available in English. It serves as a prequel to the .hack//SIGN anime, as it is set shortly before the TV series and foreshadows events which happen in the series. None of the main characters from SIGN make an appearance here, but several significant peripheral characters – most notably Balmung of the Azure Sky – do. As an added bonus, fans of the TV series get to see exactly why Balmung and Orca are legendary heroes within the game. They didn't earn that designation for nothing!
AI Buster explains itself well enough and makes a good enough story on its own that a reader need have no prior knowledge of the .hack franchise to appreciate it. Such a reader will be left at the end with the sense that a lot more story is yet to be told, so the novel could serve as a springboard for new fans. Those who are already fans of the franchise will enjoy the background and structural details it provides about The World and its origins and operations. It does, in fact, fill in some gaps about elements of The World which are not adequately explained in the anime, such as the meaning of the tattoos each character has and how characters are able to perform actions like sitting, laying down, or changing facial expressions in a game where the player is just handling a controller at a home terminal. It also posits the scary notion that a single cleverly-designed virus could virtually shut down the Internet and the calamity that would ensue from such an event given how integrated the Internet is into modern society. Although probably not intended as anything but flavor, the idea that the patchwork nature of the Internet's evolution could leave it vulnerable to such an occurrence is disturbing indeed.
The story of the loner Pole Arm Albireo, the young witch Hokuto who connives her way into his party, and the odd NPC Lycoris alternates with chapters focusing on Watarai, a CC Corporation systems administrator charged with deleting bugs in the system. All of it is told in first-person perspective, which can make the transitions a little confusing. Although sections which are just story move along at a brisk pace, the writing frequently stops to explain game concepts and background information to the reader. The device of explaining things to newbie characters or interns in order to convey details to the reader is used heavily to lessen the feel of “information dumping,” an effort which still sometimes results in the story being bogged down by the need to elucidate on issues such as the origin of Albireo's name or the functionality of Whisper (person-to-person) vs. Party (group) vs. Talk (general to anyone) communication modes within the game. There are smoother ways to handle this, as evidenced by Piers Anthony's Killobyte (an American novel about players trapped in an online VR-based MMORPG which predates the .hack franchise by several years), but none of the information conveyed is filler. Providing all this explanation and background info now also gets it out of the way so that future novels can flow more freely. What little story there actually is does offer a few exciting scenes and a couple of major plot twists which should hold the interest of new and old fans alike.
AI Buster clocks in at a modest 230 pages, but the generous text spacing and top and bottom margins, combined with the illustrations and blank pages at chapter breaks, make it feel much shorter. The dialogue-heavy writing and minimalist descriptiveness also lessen the amount of text, so a moderately fast reader could finish the whole thing in a bit over two hours. The reading level is low enough that the book would easily fall into the Young Adult category, making it a good choice for a young reader just getting into anime or online gaming. A four-page postscript by the original Japanese author has also been included. The book has the same physical dimensions and cover markings as a typical manga release, offering the possibility that it might be found in the manga section of a bookstore alongside other Tokyopop releases.
While not a top-caliber example of sci-fi/fantasy storytelling, AI Buster fares well enough to be worth a look. Fans of the .hack franchise, especially those of a completist bent, should find it appealing for its details on the background of The World and how it works, while newcomers should find it to be an intriguing gateway story into a broad and involved franchise.
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Lots of background details, a couple of major plot twists
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