Case Number 03072

.HACK//SIGN VER. 02: OUTCAST

Bandai // 2002 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // July 3rd, 2003

The Charge

"Is it okay if I leave now?" -- Tsukasa

Opening Statement

Outcast is the second DVD in the .hack//SIGN series. .hack is more of a multimedia empire than a series, encompassing novels, manga, anime, and video games. All of them work together but .hack//SIGN is the entry point. The story revolves around a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) set in 2007. .hack//SIGN portrays the avatars of the real life characters within "The World." As such, it contains funky looking heroes who sit around talking about people in the real world. The whole thing is multilayered, which appeals to fans and drives others away. If you have ever participated in an online role-playing game, .hack//SIGN will seem very familiar to you.

I gather that .hack//SIGN is the type of series you either love or hate. I didn't love it.

Facts of the Case

I defer to this explanation posited by Steve T. Power, since I know little of the backstory:
."hack is actually a single player adventure/RPG for ps2 broken up into four chapters released quarterly. The game focuses on a MMORPG called "The World" and also the people who play the game. It seems that when a person dies in the game, they enter a coma in the real world (kinda matrix-y). The anime .hack/SIGN is based on the game, and takes place entirely in "The World." There's another .hack series called .hack/LIMINALITY, which focuses on the real world and the players of this game called "The World." Confused yet?"

Thanks, Steve, and yes I am confused. But I know enough to add this. The episodes in the second volume deal with a character called Tsukasa, an anomaly in The World. Tsukasa has abilities that no one else can match, and lives completely within The World. His abilities have generated some buzz, sending the characters of The World into hushed meetings and conniving schemes. Most of the speculation revolves around the Key of Twilight, a powerful artifact that can reshape The World.

The Evidence

Before I set in, let me qualify the proceedings. I have not seen the first DVD, nor anything else related to this series. I am only responding to what I saw in this second DVD. Undoubtedly, those who watch from the beginning will have a different experience.

The first thing I noticed about .hack//SIGN was the beautiful artistic feel. The characters are easily distinguishable, with unique styles and flair: body paintings, face tattoos, unusual jewelry, et cetera. Backgrounds are detailed and innovative, from the painted rock outcroppings to the delicate naturalistic environments. The transportation gates spin lazily, giving The World an otherworldly vibe. I wasn't sure exactly what was going on, but it looked incredible.

The visual appeal is outmatched by the fantastic soundtrack. I was swept away by the sophisticated variety of sonic effects and music. The ethereal strains draw you in, capturing you in the mood of the moment. I've never been tempted to listen to a music only track until now.

It is no wonder that the production values are so high: .hack//SIGN has major anime talent behind it. The series is written by Kazunori Itô, who penned Ghost in the Shell. The characters were designed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the man responsible for the characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Executive producer Ken Iyadomi was behind such efforts as Ninja Scroll, Escaflowne, and Ghost in the Shell. This creative team has been around the block and produced high quality stuff.

I sat back and prepared to be enchanted by this mystical World and its unique characters. The trouble began.

Admittedly, I missed the first episodes, but I could gather what was happening easily enough. The World was astir over Tsukasa, a young boy with unusual powers. These powers must be quite subtle, because over the span of these five episodes, all he did was pout and huddle. I saw nothing remarkable in Tsukasa. He was abjectly withdrawn, catatonic, and dismissed everyone with deadpan brevity. Lest I be crucified by fans of the series, I get why his character is that way. But the whole thing smacked of middle school. He is supposed to be tragic, but is really weak as a central character. I simply didn't care.

Minor misstep. How about the rest? I'd love to report that some, any, character grabbed me with unique charm and personality, but no such luck. After viewing this handful of episodes, I know about as much as I did before. Essentially, not much happened. The preferred pastime in The World seems to be sitting on rocks and gossiping. Who betrayed who, what so-and-so does for a living in the real world, why people play the game, "ooh, you look tired," stuff like that. One episode was devoted entirely to pondering what Bear does for a living. Another episode was devoted (I kid you not) to warrior girl Mimiru sitting on a dock waiting for Tsukasa to appear. The whole episode consisted of people walking up and chatting with her while she sat on the dock. Fans of .hack//SIGN are quick to defend the dialogue-heavy plots as "deep philosophical focus." I might be able to buy that if the conversations weren't so bland, particularly given that the whole thing is a game. People don't actually live or die depending on character actions. The worst thing that can possibly happen is you get killed and have to log back in. High stakes, indeed.

I could almost appreciate the complete lack of action if the rare (I mean rare) snatches of combat weren't so lame. In one painful instance, Mimiru and a newbie are slogging through a high level dungeon where they have no business walking. You'd think they were in mortal danger (again, not actual mortal danger) by the nervous tremor in their voices. They shouldn't have worried. There don't seem to be any traps, and the dungeon consists of long, straight passageways. Monsters are handily indicated by enormous glowing spheres, so they have plenty of time to run. And when the monsters do engage in battle, they fight like prehistoric clods of dirt. A green newbie was able to tiptoe around the back of one of these "high level" monsters without detection. Clearly, the emphasis is on inane dialogue over realistic action. As such, the characters that seem to possess badass skills are likely as soft as jelly doughnuts, which makes them less impressive.

The lame conversations aren't the only contributors to the aura of lethargy. The animation is a culprit as well. Many of the animated sequences were static characters with slightly moving lips. Few eye movements, no major muscle groups, just those two lips flapping. If you recall how much of the series is conversation, you can begin to appreciate the problem. Once I noticed the recycled animations, my esteem for the visuals tanked.

As a DVD package, .hack//SIGN is mediocre. We have the standard character gallery and anime previews. There is a textless version of the credits, which is somewhat amusing. It would be great if the animators would hide something clever behind the words for fans to unearth in the textless credits. The dub is antiseptic and uninspired. Of course, watching it with subtitles you'd better be prepared for lots of reading. It is a tradeoff either way.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

MMORPGs are fun. This anime captures the essence of the online role playing game. We have several layers to consider: the real world, the dynamics of The World, and the actual combat and such between the avatars. There is complexity to build on. The plot is deep, it's just that the depth is about mundane things. Why is it so slooowwwww? And ultimately, wouldn't your time be better spent playing Everquest?

Allow me to reiterate that the music is fantastic. The static art is nice too.

Closing Statement

.hack//SIGN has generated a devoted fan base. There is talent at the helm. Perhaps if you were to invest in the entire series, these early episodes wouldn't seem quite so painful. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to find out. If I ever see the rest of the series, I will naturally revisit this review with an update. Until then, buyer beware. I strongly recommend rental before purchase.

The Verdict

zzz...ZZZ...zzzz !SNORT! I'm sorry, councilor, can you repeat your closing argument?

Review content copyright © 2003 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 87
Audio: 92
Extras: 45
Acting: 73
Story: 70
Judgment: 71

Perp Profile
Studio: Bandai
Video Formats:
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Music Only)

Subtitles:
* English

Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Textless Opening/Ending
* Character Gallery
* .hack//INFECTION Trailer
* Bandai Previews
* Music-Only Audio Track

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0361140/combined

* Official Site
http://www.dothack.com/

* Another Geek Site With "Dot" In Its Name
http://slashdot.org/