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Review: ".hack//QUANTUM" (UK Edition): Hate the Game, Not the Player

I’ve never quite gotten into online gaming. Maybe it’s a side effect of growing up in the 16-bit era, but you’re more likely to find me enjoying a good solo storyline driven game than putting the time and bandwidth into leveling up a character. Definitely more Elder Scrolls than World of Warcraft. Though maybe if that World was like THE World in .hack//, that would change.

.hack// has been a fixture on the anime scene for roughly the last decade. The focus is on Earth 20 minutes into the future, where microchip implants have become the next step in computer ID security. The chips also mean greater interaction between people and their computers, with the flagship project being an immersive online RPG titled The World, where players are mentally linked into a very lifelike medieval fantasy game.
Despite this advanced technology, it’s important to stress that the setting is quite familiar and comfortable. The chips themselves are essentially similar to advancements such as Bluetooth headsets, unlike the darker and scarier cases of human cybernetics seen in series such as Ghost in the Shell.
The story focuses on a trio of Japanese high school girls, who course through school life while pulling late night dungeon crawls in The World. The first of the three episodes introduces us to both their lives and the game itself. The creators show a keen awareness of online culture here, as The World is governed by a mantra of ‘serious business’. After the trio accidentally wreck another party’s attempt at defeating a nigh invincible boss, a forum post bounty is issued for them. The events around this nicely straddle drama and parody as a group of internet tough guys harass the girls over the bounty whilst others label such behaviour as harassment and try to save them. In many ways the internet is an ever evolving social experiment that oddly combines a wild frontier with familiar comfort, and seeing that explored here shows just how much of a subculture it has become.

Of course, as with any story about humans directly linked to computers, it doesn’t take long for things to stop being fun in more ways than one. An accident sends the girls and their pursuers to a dead zone where players are seized by a shadowy spectre, and one of the trio becomes a victim. This results in her real self falling into a deep coma, and her friends resolve to find out what exactly is going on as they start to find signs of a hidden history to the creation and intent of The World.
 There’s really no way to avoid realizing that this kind of plot has been done so many times before, be it The Matrix or Tron or Summer Wars or any of the other countless cases you could list. Even .hack// itself used the idea of a player trapped in the game as their body lay in a coma in its very first series. This of course means success or failure lies in how exactly QUANTUM explores this story.

Quite thankfully, the characters are genuinely likeable enough that you can overlook some of the repetition and want to go on a journey with them. The main trio might be made up of the archetype ditz, nerd and cool tomboy, but the series has enough tact to not massively overplay these starting points into annoying or pandering.
Less enjoyable is Hermit, a catboy who serves as the driving force for the plot. There’s an attempt to provide the character with an air of mystery as he runs around The World on some self-driven quest, but it becomes quite easy to guess what is happening with the first few clues. The friendship he starts to build with the ditzy but kind-hearted Sakuya is sweet, but it sadly slides into awkwardly preachiness when he starts taking offence at players who brag about how many Player Kills they have.
A somewhat intentional oddity is a female investigator whose own investigation converges with that of the girls. Whilst this character holds up in this story, it’s implied that this is someone long-term fans should know from one of the earlier series, and this does leave her motivations a little murky for the uninformed. Likewise, the series ends on a certain lack of closure and with the firm hint this is but one story in a larger tapestry. This partly works, but there’s also the clear feeling the characters haven’t really changed in any way from their experience, other then seemingly to join the investigator in returning as meaningful cameos in later .hack// works.

Being an OVA, the animation is of a high standard and holds up well. Both voice casts do a good job, with the dub cast offering a mildly different take on the characters which subtly shaves off some of the more Japanese-familiar elements of their personality to make them more comfortable to Westerners. I’m not generally a fan of translation changes, but this is a nice solution which appeases the needs of lip flaps whilst making the characters that tiny bit easier to digest in English.

There’s an amusing range of extras, starting off with three “Go, Our Chim-Chims!!” shorts–cell-shaded animations that present the girls as low level enemies from the game as they discuss quantum physics. The mix of silly humour and education works well, and you may walk away appreciating some subtle parts of the production you didn’t before.
Less entertaining are three videos focused on Yui Ogura, Hermit’s voice actresses, as she goes on quests to make the likes of lunchboxes and flipbooks. These really do seem aimed at the domestic Japanese idol fanatics, complete with forced attempts at cuteness. At the very least it’s kind of interesting to learn the technique for Japanese lunchbox art.
The remaining extras are a series of promotional trailers both for QUANTUM and other titles, and this is where a curiosity of the disc emerges. It’s a straight port from the American release, which means it contains various trailers (including a skippable one that plays before the main menu) for US FUNimation releases, including one for FUNimation’s online video service which the UK is currently blocked from. Their inclusion here is very odd and may mislead some.

.hack//QUANTUM is a rare thing. A lot of producers talk about wanting to make a work in an established franchise which is both rewarding to existing fans and welcoming to unfamiliar new ones, but QUANTUM seems to achieve this. There’s enough going on to clearly give the feel it’s part of a larger story, but it also works well for complete novices such as myself, providing a decent and easy to comprehend story that can be enjoyed as a standalone or a starting point for the franchise. Some elements could be better, but at least at three episodes the failings won’t annoy you as much should you find them in a standard-length series.

.hack//QUANTUM (UK edition) is available through Amazon.co.uk.

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