.hack Part 2: Mutation Review
Even if you really liked the first .hack game, you probably won't like the second installment as much, since it's just like the first, minus the originality.
Just three months ago, Bandai released the first installment in a four-part episodic action RPG series called .hack (pronounced "dot hack"), which was nothing to write home about in terms of gameplay but featured a distinctive premise. The series is set in a near future in which millions around the world are addicted to a massively multiplayer online role-playing game called The World. When one young player learns that a friend of his has fallen into a coma after they experience a bizarre in-game event, he takes it upon himself to investigate by continuing to play The World as his alter ego, a character named Kite. He soon finds evidence of what appears to be a massive conspiracy surrounding The World, but by the end of the first installment, he's made little real progress toward solving the mystery. And the gameplay of .hack, taking place almost entirely within the randomly generated battlefields of The World, was much more straightforward than the concept. Now the second chapter is here, and it provides an experience that is very similar to the first. In fact, not only does it bring you exactly the same sort of repetitive hack-and-slash gameplay, but it's also similarly short and simple and once again offers little in the way of plot or character development.
Mutation (the title of the second .hack episode) is a full-priced product, but it's a continuation rather than a conventional sequel--it uses most of the same graphics, sounds, and gameplay elements as Infection, the first installment, and it picks up right where that game left off. Mutation does loosely attempt to summarize the first game if, by some chance, someone decided to play it without playing through the original first. But Mutation was clearly designed for those who did finish Infection, as it allows them to import their character data into the new game and continue with Kite's adventures. In Infection, Kite started off as a first-level newbie character, though he could reach approximately level 30 by the end of that game. Even if you don't import your data, Kite will still start at a high level here and will grow to about level 50 before the conclusion of Mutation. This second game offers another 15 to 20 hours of gameplay, like the first.
If Infection was guilty of being overly repetitive, then Mutation is even guiltier--in short, it's a lot more of the same. It has only one small new town (though the two towns from Infection are also accessible), a handful of new environments, several throwaway new characters, and some new enemies and items. The minigame from Infection, in which you raised piglike creatures called grunties by feeding them various types of food, has also been expanded on slightly. As if to make up for the relative lack of substance, Mutation, like Infection, also comes packaged with an anime DVD that shows the unusual world of .hack from another angle. At any rate, considering that two more such games are apparently coming soon, you'll probably come to the conclusion by the end of Mutation that the concept of .hack would have been much better served by a single excitingly paced game rather than four potentially uneventful installments. The gameplay here just isn't nearly interesting enough to carry four games in nine months, though on its own merits, the gameplay isn't bad.
You'll always control Kite directly, though he can travel with up to two companions at a time. You'll have many to choose from, but with the exception of those who belong to the magic-wielding wavemaster class, they're all roughly the same in practice. The game is easy to play. You view the action from a third-person perspective, and you use the left analog stick to move your character around, the right stick to control the camera, and the R1 button to quickly reset the camera at your back. Should an enemy move offscreen in the middle of a battle, a convenient indicator along the edge of the screen will point you toward it, and there's always a minimap to keep you from getting lost. Some convoluted interface screens and an infuriating limit on the number of items you can carry bog down the pace of the game, but that's exactly as it was in Infection.
The gameplay again essentially boils down to traveling to a series of randomly generated battlefields, each of which features a randomly generated dungeon that is filled with monsters and treasure chests. Though there are a number of different "skins" for the battlefields and dungeons, and though the makeup of these areas is always somewhat different, they all become effectively identical after a while. Even the plot-critical areas of the game feel like they were randomly slapped together--because they were. In between slogging through battlefields and dungeons, you return to town to buy or trade for new equipment, especially healing items.