For the past two weeks I’ve been replaying .Hack//G.U nonstop, thanks to the PC re-release, .Hack//G.U. Last Recode, which in addition of bringing back the original game and upscaling it, adds a new episode at the end. I can’t really comment on this last episode as I’m still playing through the three original ones.
But as I’ve slipped back into the shoes of the Terror of Death, Haseo, I’ve noticed things now that I never did on the original release years ago, things that when you’re going through the games you don’t really care about or notice unless everything is fresh in your mind, from either taking copious notes, having good memory or binge-playing through the volumes as I am.
.Hack//G.U. is an episodic game, but not like the episodes we get in today’s version of this release structure. It’s more akin to the old Doom episodes, where each of them is a full campaign that builds upon the previous episodes, adding new elements, continuing the overall plot but having their own stories to tell. An episode of .Hack//G.U. is a full JRPG experience, each of them long enough to satisfy players. It had to be since the volumes often released years after one another, so they had to be long and satisfying enough on their own to tide players over.
And don’t get me wrong, despite noticing some failing on this second playthrough, each volume of .Hack//G.U. has a ton of things for you to do, even beyond the main story, easily reaching the 25 hours of game time.
But there are failings, not so many mechanical, but more thematic, in the storytelling or overall plot and event structure. But let’s get into it.
Atoli – The Eternal Doormat
I don’t remember hating Atoli the first time I played .Hack//G.U. as I have now. I despise every aspect of her character, especially her weak personality and lack of backbone. Atoli is a character whose role is to be abused, manipulated or dismissed by everyone around her without it having any impact on her, without it helping her to grow. No matter who it is, she’s always back like a loyal puppy.
It’s not an unheard of archetype, especially in Japanese media, the wallflower character who cares too much about others and what they think and their opinion of themselves and their sense of self-worth is skewed and depends too much on others.
But the thing is, Atoli attaches herself to Haseo and has this pathological need to please him from the beginning of the first volume, at which point Haseo is a raging a-hole, a personality that doesn’t even begin to change until nearly the end of the episode. Haseo is rude and unlikeable and generally treats Atoli like dirt and she’s always coming back, not just for more, but always apologising to him, as if it was her fault that he mistreats her.
.Hack//G.U. women fall very much into typical tropes in Japanese media (which we often call anime tropes, despite them being predominant across all media in Japan), but even considering the tsundere Yoko and Pi’s unhealthy obsession and devotion to Yata, the two are strong women. They take charge of situations and aren’t afraid of letting others know their minds, while Atoli stumbles and mumbles and lets others walk all over her. Part of it is explained in her upbringing, with her parents telling her that good girls don’t stand out and should be quiet, but it’s hard to see a character let herself be so verbally abused without it leading to any significant character growth.
While Atoli does show some backbone later on in the game, even stating that she cannot back down anymore, that she needs to take charge, she never truly does and is ever dependent on those around her, Haseo especially, though I suppose it’s inevitable considering she’s a secondary character, only relevant in a scene as long as she’s in the party. Yet, by the same coin, Yoko and Pi’s strength comes through even in the same position, so maybe it’s just Atoli’s horrendous characterisation.
The writers for .Hack//G.U. want Atoli to be a tragic figure, a woman we want to care about and protect, yet I found her excessive weakness and lack of self-respect and dignity thoroughly unappealing, having the opposite reaction in me than what the writers intended.
Unnecessary and Inconsistent Localisation
I’m no stranger to JRPG localisation and its many crimes. After all, I’m the one still complaining they localised Xenoblade Chronicles X’s mechas from Dolls to Skells and am now complaining just as much at the many name changes present in Xenoblade 2.
But localisation in .Hack//G.U. is perhaps one of the strangest examples of naming changes I’ve ever seen in a video game, with some names receiving wild translations and others staying identical.
.Hack//G.U.’s localisation team loves changing the more Japanese names to alternate ones, especially those that might hold a secondary meaning. The clearest example is Yōkō, localised as Alkaid. The reason? Yōkō is the traditional name for the star Eta Ursae Majoris, whose other name is Alkaid. The star has no relevance in the plot or any conversation, yet someone felt that having Yōkō as her name would be too bizarre for western audiences. What is bizarre is hearing the Japanese voice actors speak out her name and seeing Alkaid appear on the conversations.
This trend continues with characters like Tenrou, renamed Sirius in the western release, for the exact same reasons. Tenrou is the Japanese name for the binary star Sirius. Antares is the same thing, from the Japanese original of Taika.
Keyaki, the leader of the Moon Tree guild, is the name of a type of tree found in Japan, which is known in the west as Zelkova serrata, so of course, his name becomes Zelkova, even though it completely breaks with the theme of his guild, which is ultra-Japanese in design and has leaders with Japanese names. It’s an instance where localisation ruins a bit of the theme going in the game.
And while these names change, Taihaku remains the same, even if his name is that of a planet, Venus. I’m guessing Venus didn’t fit the male character and so they left the original. But why did they need to change in the first place? The star element of their names is an easter egg at best. It doesn’t play into any subplot nor in any conversation. It’s just a theme among Arena winners.
Other characters like Sakaki, Matsu and Kaede, members of Moon Tree follow the same pattern as Zelkova, their names being types of trees like Maple or Pine, and yet, their names stay in the Japanese originally, probably because having a character called Pine wouldn’t sound as cool as Matsu.
Yet the question remains as to why it was necessary to change these characters’ names when it has no impact on the narrative or your understanding of the plot. It’s localisation without reason.
But it doesn’t just end with characters, it even extends to The World’s game elements (The World being the MMO you’re playing in the .hack series). Almost every class got renamed or had a word added to it, such as Warlocks becoming Shadow Warlocks. Most have simple changes, but Haseo’s class, Adept Rogue is completely made up as the original, Multi-Weapon, not only doesn’t have any of those words in it but is even much more accurate and follows the general theme of physical class names relating to the weapons they use, such as Grapplers, Blade Brandiers and Steam Gunners—incidentally, this last one is the only class name to remain unchanged.
But, if I have to name the strangest kind of localisation on in-game mechanics, it has to be the arena highest title. In the Japanese version, it’s Champion. After all, it’s an arena—even called Arena in Japanese—and you win by defeating the reigning champion at the end of a tournament. In the English version, that person is the Emperor.
One Trick Pony
.Hack//G.U. is in total a very long game, but it’s broken up into multiple parts, which I can now say are completely identical. The volumes are fun and the plot is great—save for one part of the last volume I still find completely nonsensical—but the game’s designers didn’t look past the design document for the first volume, instead using the same beats and elements throughout the rest of the game.
I realised this the moment I noticed that in every episode I had to fight my way through the arena in some cockamamie tournament to defeat a champion who’s been corrupted by AIDA. The way the fight happens is also identical, with the first part using the regular combat mechanics and then switching to the Avatar combat.
Before and after every arena battle, you get emails from other characters to either go on a quest or to level up for the next arena fight.
The main conflict of the volume doesn’t start and isn’t resolving until after you’ve cleared the arena and become its new champion.
This pattern repeats across the entire experience. The first volume becomes the roadmap for the rest of .Hack//G.U. which in turn makes a few things predictable, because you know when things will happen and from there to predicting how doesn’t take much because, much like Volume 1, you get hints dropped throughout the arena tournament.
With how vast The World is, how many Lost Grounds you visit and so many individual zones you visit, you would think there would be other ways to tell the story. But the way it plays out, the big threat of AIDA, of this anomaly in the system, only ever presents itself in the arena and on random maps when your boss NPC tells you about them.
With how the narrative treats AIDA and the dangers it poses, I would’ve loved to see some wide-spread contamination happening, more story elements, major ones, happening on regular maps. Perhaps moving away from the Arena and into other areas of The World.
But in what is surely a testament on how much fun these games are, even these shortcomings don’t diminish how much I love .Hack//G.U., from its raging a-hole turned hero Haseo—whose arc feels forced and incomplete unless you’ve seen the .Hack//Roots anime, but that’s a common issue with multi-media projects—to the incredibly annoying Ovan and Yata, who’ve taken the concept of cryptic character and crossed the line into obtuse.