Welcome to The World, the most advanced online game ever created. In The World you can be anyone you want to be, act out your adventure fantasies and, through teamwork and determination, you can even become a hero. 14-year-old twins Shugo and Rena just won a contest that lets them play as The World’s legendary ‘.hackers avatars’ “Kite” and “BlackRose” and now they’re ready to take on anything… or so they think. When a high level monster attacks the Level 1 players as soon as they start, the game’s administrators know something is wrong in The World. The monster defeats Shugo, but before he gets a permanent ‘Game Over’ screen the mysterious AI Aura appears and gives him the Twilight Bracelet, a powerful artefact that’s the only thing capable of defeating the new monsters. Now Shugo and Rena’s real adventure begins as they set forth to solve the mystery of “Twilight” and save The World.
Sadly, the overall story in this one isn’t as good as I hoped it would be. The good thing about a game series, particularly one as popular as .hack, means that The World works as a basic storyline out of which many different plots can be explored from as many different perspectives as there are players. Therefore this manga really had potential from the get-go to be yet another layer to The World’s history… but nothing really happens. Especially not in the first volume. There’s no mortal peril such as players falling into comas or having to attack potentially unbeatable glitch bosses – these two players are young, unexperienced and rather under-levelled. You don’t discover the purpose behind this mange until somewhere within the second volume and by then it’s all a bit of a let-down. Turns out that the storyline – the only real storyline holding this manga together – is for Shugo and Rena to deliver a stray AI to Aura. Roll the metaphorical credits.
To be honest, the first volume of this story is less concerned with the plot and its more about setting the scene and landscapes of The World (which, if you’re already familiar with the games, is a little frustrating since we already know all this in substantial detail). What follows is a compilation of shorter stories that are about the core characters of this manga meeting one another and participating in several ‘events’ that MMORPGs tend to have for their users. In this case, these events are Tanabata and cherry blossom festivals and they were actually quite enjoyable to read and make things a bit more light-hearted than the games and light novels (probably because the main characters here are a little bit younger than the original Kite and BlackRose). If this manga series was just a collection of short chapters covering events and festivals within The World, things would be a lot more refreshing rather than just re-hashing old ground. And poorly.
The second and third volumes try to take a serious tone, with the group being hunted down by the CC Corp for illegal possession of a hack tool and harbouring a rogue AI. I can understand the justification for the CC Corp staff hunting them down but, for a manga series, it feels they didn’t let things reach their full potential. It couldn’t decide what kind of story it wanted to be, trying to take in too many elements and thus not really achieving good marks in anything. The .hack games had them battling against a wave of eight phases and an anti-hack tool and .hack//SIGN anime had the characters up against a god of the game, so why have them just cart around an AI for the manga when they could have had these legendary avatars doing so much more, given the initial plot setup? In my opinion, Shugo and Rena didn’t even have to be Kite and BlackRose – they could have been entirely new avatars and achieved the same results.
In terms of design and artwork, Rei Izumi is a great manga artist and her unique designs in the .hack series have contributed to making the franchise what it is today. Once in a while I did tend to notice an uncharacteristically plain background in the panels here and there, but overall everything is well-designed and clear. The quality and consistency of the artwork remains standard throughout all three volumes, but things do seem to rely on those ‘special effect’ backgrounds at times, which is disappointing when you were expecting something a little more… well, more. The character designs are similar to previous .hack media but with a bit of a chibi, cutesy twist to them this time around. It helps to showcase from the beginning that things aren’t as serious as they are in the games, anime or light novels. As a result, the facial expressions are more comical and detailed, which makes things particularly fun when the group are participating in the online events.
The .hack manga is easily one of the weakest mediums in the franchise, but doesn’t mean that it’s a write-off. I would definitely recommend to fans of the .hack universe, and some who don’t know much about The World might find Shugo and Rena’s antics generally light-hearted and enjoyable, but I would suggest that they first look into the light novels or, even better, the .hack video games themselves.