Reviewby Nick Creamer,
DVD - Complete Series
You can be anyone in The World. A sprawling, persistent online universe, it allows you to take on any role, to scale any mountain. But for Tsukasa, The World is not a place of freedom, but confinement - unable to log out, he is trapped in the game, traveling listlessly from server to server as a strange voice urges him to accept his prison. And Tsukasa's situation isn't the only anomaly corrupting the servers, as a diverse group of would-be heroes are about to find. Even if The World is just a game, it is populated by real people, and how you choose to engage with the fantasy can change your whole reality.
In a time when Sword Art Online and Log Horizon have both become relative titans of the “genre,” it's interesting to return to the grandfather of MMO anime. .hack//SIGN is different from those shows - in contrast to Log Horizon's focus on worldbuilding and Sword Art Online's consistent spectacle, .hack is mellow, contemplative. Its game design specifics are thinly defined at best, and there aren't too many exciting fights; instead, the focus here is on atmosphere and character, as a few specific individuals share their shifting thoughts about themselves, their place in The World, and their hypotheses on the strange events that are disrupting their environment.
What this means in immediate terms is that .hack is slow. The central plot concerns the mystery of Tsukasa, a player within The World who has found himself unable to log out. As Tsukasa wanders between servers and gets harassed by a disembodied voice with a cat-person minion, various other characters slowly find themselves entangled in his story, and in the larger shifts in The World his circumstances reflect. The show is essentially a mystery, with the various players all slowly working to uncover the question of what caused Tsukasa's circumstances and what his situation might foretell, but that mystery is uncovered through an endless series of meandering, repetitive conversations. One episode might include a scene of Tsukasa tersely telling off the warrior Mimiru, Mimiru telling the more thoughtful Bear how she feels about that, Bear slowly pondering these feelings and then deciding to question another friend, and then a scene back with Tsukasa pouting by himself.
This could all be very dull, and the show's ultimate answers don't all live up to the sense of gravity placed on them, but fortunately the characters themselves are extremely well-articulated. Every member of .hack's cast has a vivid and understandable personality that comes across in all their exchanges - everyone has different motivations, mannerisms, priorities, and thoughts on the World, and all of these elements shift and clash over time. There's Bear, the philosophically-minded barbarian who sees The World as reflecting fundamental questions of who we are and what we believe in. BT, the standoffish wavemaster (a kind of magic-user) whose belief that actions in The World are reflective of unrealized real-life fantasies ends up clashing with her own sense of self. Sora, an incredibly believable troll brought to life through consistent backstabbing and occasional complaints about his mom. Crim, whose determination to maintain a separation between his physical and digital selves acts as a weirdly appropriate counterpoint to the way he inspires his more emotionally invested friends. And Subaru, the girl whose strange bond with Tsukasa ends up giving both of them the strength to pursue their convictions.
The show drops you into the middle of all these relationships, and though not all of their connections immediately make sense, over time you come to understand the clear underlying logic of all their actions. This can actually work to the show's detriment throughout the first half, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Tsukasa and Subaru - though Subaru's connection with Tsukasa eventually makes sense, for the show's whole first half, she seems to be acting out of some completely incomprehensible compulsion. This slow build is reflective of one of the show's core narrative issues - leaving too much ambiguous for too long. Having a show focus on a central mystery is fine, but when you also leave the character motivations as mysteries, and even keep the consequences of failure obscure, there's not enough for the audience to actively invest in. Audiences need a reason to care beyond “there are things I don't know” - they need to have some stake in the events occurring on-screen.
None of this obscurity is helped by the fact that .hack's dialogue is just not good. Characters repeat each other, lines don't coherently follow others, and sometimes the subtitles and dubbed dialogue convey entirely different meanings. The show is intentionally obscure, but on top of this it adds a level of incoherence in its execution that makes it much harder to invest in the narrative. The writing is a war of extremes - excellent characters in a poorly structured narrative, compelling ideas and yet often incoherent individual conversations. The show eventually reaches a point where it's confidently striking at ideas of what digital identities represent, and how each player of an MMO will bring a unique and valid self and set of priorities to their experience, but it's a rocky road to get there.
Fortunately, the show's aesthetics are dynamite. Though the image quality isn't the best, .hack's underlying art holds up very well. The character designs are distinctive, and the backgrounds in particular are a beautiful, diverse array of inventive MMO landscapes. There's the main city, defined by canals, cobbled streets, and high arches. The main cast's favorite meeting ground, a series of connected mountain peaks filled with scattered farms, rickety bridges, and colorful balloon-kites that rise from the mountains. There's blooming forests and bone-scattered wastelands, vast deserts and upside-down cities. The World can be anything, and .hack makes the most of that. The characters don't often do that much in these environments, as the show is mainly composed of them calling each other to meet in these locations to talk about their feelings or Tsukasa (seriously, this show is ninety percent conversations about how they're feeling or what they're going to do next, and what they're going to do next is almost always “talk to someone else”), but they're beautiful nonetheless.
The animation isn't as strong as the backgrounds, but it's consistent enough, and steps up for the few action-oriented sequences. There's some suitably fluid animation for amorphous monsters, passable fight choreography, and nice visual effects for the more world-shattering events of the story. One issue with the animation, one that seems to slowly fade away over time, is that the characters sometimes make expressions that don't really fit what they're saying or feeling. This is particularly apparent in the first few episodes, when it also seems like the English voice actors are somewhat figuring out their roles. Some of their performances start rocky but improve over time (like Tsukasa), some are consistent throughout, and some, like Crim in particular, pretty much always seem like they're reading lines from a script. Unfortunately, the subtitle script is so much vaguer than the dub that I can't say it's an improvement, so overall the two voice tracks are about equally flawed in their own ways.
But for all that, I have to mention what is clearly .hack's greatest strength - its phenomenal music score. .hack's soundtrack is a bewilderingly diverse collection of strings, synths, drums, horns, flutes, and anything else Yuki Kajiura (also responsible for Madoka Magica, Sword Art Online, and many more soundtracks) could round up and wrangle into a melody. There are some tracks that sound like spanish guitar, and others that swell in orchestral vocal harmonies. There are tracks driven by ominous electronic melodies and synth percussion, and others that dance lightly between piano and woodwinds. There's banjos and trumpets and beautiful strings, a wild cornucopia of sound that ably matches the show's visual diversity, providing an inherently rewarding backdrop to a whole lot of conversations about the same few things.
.hack//SIGN comes in a standard DVD case with no physical extras. There are two OVA episodes included in the collection (largely skippable unless you're desperate to hear a voice actor say “this shindig looks like the bomb diggity”), but no other noteworthy on-disc extras aside from a slideshow of character art. Overall, .hack is a show of extremes, and one whose specific strengths and weaknesses mean it'll likely appeal very strongly to a very specific audience, but not at all to many others. If you like your philosophical inquiry and character work corralled into something resembling a “narrative,” .hack is likely to disappoint - its pacing is glacial, it conceals itself in overbearing mystery for far too long, and it often has difficulty coherently articulating its thoughts. But for all of those debilitating weaknesses, the questions it raises and characters it establishes are definitely compelling ones. It's a story of anxiety and identity and virtual selves, of the beliefs we cling to and the values our chosen selves reflect. Like Tsukasa himself, .hack has a lot of trouble communicating, but something valuable to say.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : A+
+ Vivid soundtrack and lovely digital environments; beneath its narrative quirks lie characters and ideas well worth exploring.
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