Dot Hack Infection

At the turn of the millennium massively multiplayer online roleplaying games would find their place in the gaming community, allowing players across the world to participate in epic RPG experiences. Many popular franchises such as Warcraft and Final Fantasy would receive online entries, and MMORPGs would find a home in popular culture, with an anime coming out in Japan and North America called Dot Hack Sign focused on the subgenre, and after that would come the Dot Hack tetralogy of online RPG simulations, its first installment being Dot Hack Infection, which proves to be a solid online gaming experience without an internet connection being necessary.

Before experiencing the gameplay of the fictional MMORPG The World, the player experiences a simulation of an operating system where they can browse email messages, news updates of what’s happening in the outside world, and peruse the online game’s message board. When the player logs into The World, they control the chief protagonist, Kite, with the first entry of the tetralogy rooted in a pair of hub towns where he can trade items and equipment with other player characters and up to two allies that fight alongside him in enemy-infested fields and accompanying dungeons.

Combat commences whenever the player approaches swirling yellow portals that either reveal a treasure chest, trapped or not (with Fortune Wires being necessary to disarm trapped boxes), or a few enemies against which the player controls Kite, while the A.I. controls his two allies, with a number of menu-based options dictating things such as whether his confederates attack different enemies or the foe that he’s currently attacking, the menu also allowing the player to execute SP-using commands, with elemental weaknesses adding some degree of strategy, and thus it’s a good idea to keep equipment on hand allowing the player to use skills of any of the six elements.

Kite also gets the ability early on to “Data Drain” enemies to gain a piece of equipment or Virus Core needed to hack into locked addresses, with excessive use bearing penalties for the player’s party and an eventual Game Over and trip back to the title screen in case of overuse, with the death of the entire party also resulting in conveyance back to the game’s initial screen. That the game is harsh on players when they die is a main write-off to combat, alongside the constant need to reselect A.I. commands to make Kite’s allies do as he desires, although the game is definitely beatable so long as the player gives his friends plenty of healing items usable through the execution of the First Aid order, and ultimately, battle helps the game more than hurts.

The game interface could have been better, however, with character management being somewhat burdensome given the inability to view ally stats or equipment unless they’re actually in Kite’s party, with this player, for instance, needing to keep a written chart of all party members’ equipment levels to determine which new pieces of gear to acquire through trading with player characters, with his confederates automatically equipping weapons and armor of higher levels once they’re given as gifts or traded to them. A brighter spot is a general linear structure that keeps the player moving in the right direction, although the first entry in general could have definitely been more user-friendly.

While news updates and emails from Kite’s allies provide for a decent MMORPG simulation, that the game’s events remain entirely confined to The World somewhat detriments the narrative, and while the anime disc included with the first entry gives some idea of what’s going on concurrently with the events of Infection, some actual scenes in the real world within the game itself would have certainly been welcome. Granted, trading equipment and items with allies sometimes causes them to email Kite to discuss their various interests and selves, but the main goal of bringing Kite’s friend Orca out of his game-induced coma never seems urgent.

The translation, though, is largely above average, with believable dialogue and the rare grammar errors being somewhat excusable since the game is a simulation of MMORPGs where users don’t always use proper grammar. There is, however, some minor censorship regarding the chief antagonist’s weapon, and ultimately, while the plot has its flaws, it certainly isn’t bad, the localization largely redeeming it.

The soundtrack is decent for the most part, the high point being a piano-based “sad” theme that plays during certain events, although many tracks, particularly on the field and in dungeons are somewhat forgettable and too ambient, although there is decent diversity in terms of the battle themes, which are somewhat faster versions of the tracks that play when the player is exploring and not in combat. The voice acting is top-notch, with performances available in both English and Japanese, and overall, Infection is largely easy on the ears.

The first entry is no eyesore, either, with beautiful environments sometimes stained with binary digits and simulated screen glitches that really give the experience of an unstable MMORPG, the character models looking believable as well in spite of no lip movement or expression during voiced dialogue outside the FMVs, which are the graphical highlights. There are some pixilated portions, but the visuals definitely help the first game more than hurt.

Finally, the primary entry is fairly short, lasting from ten to fifteen hours, with plenty to boost playing time such as a postgame dungeon and the endless keyword combinations leading to diverse battlefields and dungeons.

Overall, Dot Hack Infection is for the most part a solid simulation of MMORPGs, with plenty going for it such as its enjoyable gameplay, good localization, great voice acting, pretty graphics, and a good deal of lasting appeal. There are some flaws, however, such as the inability to save on battlefields or in their respective dungeons, taxing inventory management, a weakly-narrated storyline, minor censorship, and the ambient or absent soundtrack at times, although those yearning for a good online RPG experience without the need to connect their consoles to the internet will be in for a fun experience.

The Good:
+Great online RPG simulation.
+Solid localization.
+Good voicework.
+Pretty visuals.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-No saving on fields and in dungeons.
-Inventory management can be taxing.
-Story is somewhat weakly-told.
-Some minor Bowdlerization.
-Music can be absent or too ambient at times.

The Bottom Line:
A nice start to the Dot Hack series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 5/10
Story: 6/10
Localization: 8/10
Music/Sound: 7/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 9/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 10-15 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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