.hack//SIGN

.hack//SIGN

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People are increasingly spending their time playing RPGs as character personas that travel around a virtual world, fighting monsters and interacting with one another. In a particularly popular one, entitled The World, Tsukasa suddenly finds himself locked within the game, and nobody knows exactly why. He’s not at a computer… he’s actually in the game. That’s when he sees a cat-like character – one that shouldn’t exist. This cat-character is bending the programming, the very digital fabric of The World to their own will. While a group of players band together to held discover the truth about Tsukasa’s predicament, the outbreak of oddities and mysterious incidents occurring within the game begin to draw the attention of The World‘s strongest players.

We’ve had Sword Art Online and Log Horizon, but before them came the .hack franchise – an ambition multimedia project that spanned a series of computer games, light novels and manga. Portrayed as a game within a game, you had to solve the mysteries behind The World while building up a team of role-playing characters to go forward. And then it edged itself into the anime realm.

In typical .hack style, the artwork and character design is fantastic with a great soundtrack. This anime also has an intriguing plot. It is certainly a treat for the eyes and ears, and the way that it melds fantasy and science fiction truly impressed me when I first encountered the franchise. It focuses on the fact that no one is who they seem to be and the mysteries that always hover just out of sight. Whatever your personality, whatever walk of life you come from, the playing field is levelled as you choose whether to be a heavy blade, a twin blade or a wavemaster. The show makes the viewer think about where the line between reality and fantasy lies and the difference between diversion and obsession when it comes to gaming.

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Having said that, the pace may put some viewers off. .hack has always taken its time to introduce characters and give background information about The World. It’s also limiting that most of this anime’s perspective is from Tsukasa’s POV – a perpetually confused and bewildered spell-casting teenager who seems to be one of those vaguely nihilistic and aimless archetype characters – not unlike Shinji from a certain Neon Genesis Evangelion. And like Shinji, Tsukasa is frustrating to watch as a lot of the action seems to merely happen around him. But as the story goes on and he learns more about his amnesiac self and his environment, the young wavemaster does reveal more of his murky past and his real life.

It’s certainly easier to relate to the main characters and their plights if you’re familiar with the games, including the brash swordsman Mimiru and gaming veteran Bear. They serve as traditional MMORPG character archetypes without coming across as too stereotypical. Even Sora, the player-killer, has his own motives. Though it certainly helps if you have prior knowledge of The World and its variety of players, it’s certainly not required in order to enjoy the anime overall.

The animation is an absolute treat with some really well-realised aspects of the virtual world: arching city structures, floating islands, magic portals and an army of fantastical creatures big and small. The character designs were done by the talented Sadamoto Yoshiyuki (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame), so you know that they are of a consistently high quality. And so is the music. A variety of styles are explored throughout, from techno, esoteric trance to full-on orchestral accompaniment, and it always seems to suit the atmosphere, never overdone or obtrusive.

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However, one of the biggest issues I found with the .hack anime is that there’s quite a lot of standing around and talking. A lot of dialogue and not enough action to balance it out is not uncommon with anime, and of course the producers have to let enough information flow through in order for some people to understand what’s going on. This is linked to the slow-moving plot, of course, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers became disengaged with all the intricacies and get bored.

Overall, The World itself continues to be well-realised and continue to develop from where the computer games began, but do expect the odd scene where you’re supposed to have some knowledge of the game in order to fully understand why some characters are acting the way they are.

In a nutshell, .hack//SIGN is not meant to be a standalone anime, but as a complement to the rest of the franchise. That doesn’t mean that it should be cast aside completely by those yet to experience The World, though. It’s an ambitious experiment of animation (especially for its time) and it always succeeds in making me feel nostalgic for the days when I was utterly consumed by The World myself.