Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 2nd 2007
DVDs 1 and 2
In 2016 newcomer Haseo joins the newest version of The World, a virtual reality MMORPG, and attracts attention almost immediately. PKs (Player-Killers) jump on anyone who seems vulnerable, but more vexing is the attention he draws from members of the Twilight Brigade, a small guild dedicated to the search for a mythical item known as the Key of the Twilight, and the attention he draws from everyone else as a result of the interest of the Twilight Brigade. Leader Ovan and second-in-command Shino eventually convince the loner Haseo to join them, upon which he also gets to meet veteran member Sakisaka and the enthusiastic newbie cat lady Tabby. Soon he gets involved in the Brigade's search for clues to the Key of the Twilight and the unknown items called Virus Cores, but rival guild TaN has an unusual interest in the activities of Ovan and the guild that may eventually pose a threat. Meanwhile, strange bugs begin to crop up in the game.
As with the previous two TV series installments in the massive multimedia peculiarity that is the .hack// franchise, this one stands well enough on its own that a viewer does not need to have any prior experience with the franchise to make sense of it, as long as one is at least generally familiar with online RPGs. (Newcomers will, however, miss references to elements which play prominent roles in earlier content, such as Aura, Key of the Twilight, and Black Rose.) If you are such a person, then you should be aware of what the series is and isn't: despite how its blurb might sound, it is not truly an action series, or really an adventure series, either. It is, instead, a series about how players interact within a MMORPG. The schemes they cook up, how they relate to one other, their motivations, the style of play they choose to take – these are the essence of .hack//Roots. A bit of a plot does play out through these first ten episodes, one primarily focused on the grand plans of the schemer Naobi and field agent Ender of the guild TaN and how they relate to what the Twilight Brigade is doing, but for the most part the first two volumes deal with the play of the game more than the story. That is an approach which may bore people not used to this style from the original .hack//SIGN anime.
And that is the main knock against the first two volumes of this series, especially the first: it can be boring if not approached with the right mindset. The pacing is so leisurely at the beginning, and so much time is spent establishing characters and setting and just having characters talk to each other, that very little actually happens through the first few episodes. Viewers may find themselves at the end of episode four scratching their heads and saying, “okay, when is the story actually going to start?” Because of that, this series, more than most, cries out to be watched in big chunks rather than the episode-a-week format Cartoon Network has been using with it.
The first two volumes also spend entirely too much time trying to completely obfuscate what is actually going on. A substantial portion of the dialogue consists of characters speaking in vagaries about grand schemes (and my, there certainly are a couple in play here) and hidden motivations. Fortunately characters like Tabby, whose not-always-welcome forthrightness, youthful enthusiasm, and unshakable optimism even in the face of being PKed stand as a welcome counterpoint to the drudgery elsewhere in the content. The way her reluctant in-game mentor Sakisaka gradually warms up to her, and the way the initially moribund Haseo finally finds his own motivations within the game (but not until the second volume) offer some of the most appealing content so far. Most other characters fit fairly common archetypes: the older player who seems more interested in conversing with, and giving advice to, those who come to meet him than actually going out adventuring; the enigmatic leaders who live for spinning schemes; the player entirely motivated by bettering another player; the merchant player; the aggressive “do the dirty work” type; and the solemn motherly player. And unlike the previous two TV series, PKs (player-killers, i.e. players who focus on killing weaker players to collect their loot) are almost ubiquitous in this one.
For those familiar with the franchise, .hack//Roots takes place six years after the events of .hack//SIGN and four years after .hack//Legend of the Twilight in a revamped version of The World, but some of the same issues seen in the previous games – i.e. dangerous random bugs, aspects of the game which act outside of the control of system administrators – remain. The storytelling style (thankfully) returns to the more serious format and visual styles seen in the original series rather than the sillier, kiddified feel of Twilight, so those who liked the original will probably have little trouble getting into this one, too. So far Roots has not delved as much into the real-world activities of its characters as the previous two series, and it has not shown a single real-world shot of anyone; by the end of volume two we only know that two of the characters know each other in the real world, one is apparently a hacker, another lives in a bachelor pad, and another is convalescing for some unspecified reason. It is still early, however, and most of the big real-world revelations in SIGN did come later in the series. Like the original, this series also serves as a prequel to the most recent batch of affiliated video games, in this case the .hack//G.U. games for the PS2.
The first two volumes of Roots maintain the artistic style established in SIGN, albeit with slight improvements to the technical merits borne of the four-year real-time gap between the series. Detailed and inventive displays of fantastic fantasy/sci fi settings form a core of excellent background art complemented by nice CG effects, and character designs conform to basic game archetypes while still retaining enough individual distinctiveness to make each character easily distinguishable. The buxom humanoid feline (her features are too specifically catlike to call her a “catgirl” in the anime sense) Tabby and the PKer Ender are the most visually appealing characters, although more because of their expressiveness and the styling of their overall look than their generous figures. Geeky-looking Sakisaka also sticks out because the goggles he always wears allow him all sorts of interesting visual gimmicks with his eyes. The quality of the character renderings is a little lower than that of the background art, but usually not enough so to make the contrast readily noticeable. Because the series is more about people talking than doing, comparatively little effort gets put into the animation; shortcuts are taken wherever possible, characters often talk at length where mouth flaps aren't visible, you never see more than one set of characters moving in any given scene and very little of the few action scenes actually gets shown.
This time around Yuki Kajiura only directly contributes to the musical score by crafting and performing the J-rock opener “Silly-Go-Round” as part of FictionJunction YUUKA, but the influence of her .hack//SIGN soundtrack pervades the score produced by Yoshimoto Ishikawa (RahXephon, sCRYed, GITS:SAC, Jin-Roh). Although the musical themes are entirely new, they still feature a similar-sounding mix of arias, insert songs, quirky electronica bits, string numbers, and synthesized orchestral pieces before closing out with a lively number by Ali Project. The music takes the foreground a bit too often, does not use character-specific themes like SIGN did, and the (untranslated but subtitled) insert songs do not achieve the quality of those in the original, nor are they as memorable; nothing in this soundtrack is as memorable as Suburu's theme “Fake Wings,” for instance. (It was the one that started “shine, bright morning light. . .”) Evaluated independently it is a good soundtrack that would probably make a worthy separate purchase, but it is not quite on the level of SIGN's soundtrack.
The English dub, produced by Ocean Group and cast by Interpacific Productions, primarily uses veterans of Inuyasha, DBZ, and Gundam titles. Although unlikely to excite, it does sound competent and should be acceptable for anyone who isn't a diehard sub fan. Amongst notable performances, Andrew “Dilandau from Escaflowne” Francis initially sounds too flat as he struggles to find the right way to express the blasé Haseo, but his improves a bit in the second volume as Haseo develops more character. Balancing him out is Maryke Hendrikse's peppy but not over-the-top performance as Tabby, the second strong effort for her this year. (She also scores as Revy in Black Lagoon.) The English script does not vary too much from the original, although inconsistencies do exist between the dub and the subtitles over whether the fat merchant's name is Tawalaya or Tawaraya.
Since both volumes pack five episodes each, neither is heavy on Extras. The first volume has only a clean opener and Japanese TV spots, while the second volume has only a clean closer and a promotional trailer.
As long as you can handle the languid pacing, the first two volumes of the most recent animated installment in the .hack// franchises offer a solid, if usually unexciting, continuation of the franchise. It is not something you probably want to watch to help stay awake, but it does provide a good feel for the spirit of online character interactions in MMORPGs.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : C+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Imaginative background artistry, good musical score.
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