.hack//SIGN Vol. #1: Login Special Edition (of 6) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Release Date: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

What They Say
Login to the most successful online game in history! "The World" is being played by millions of people around the world, making it the most popular game ever. Players can go online and trade items, form parties, and go on quests. But none of that concerns Tsukasa. Trapped within "The World", a virtual prisoner - His journey from the digital world to the real world has just begun.

The Review!
One of the biggest multimedia shows to be released in the last couple of years, .hack//SIGN has finally arrived and is ready to create a new group of love it/hate it fans.

Having seen the first episode previously on Cartoon Network, we skipped the English language track on this release and focused on the Japanese language track. Provided in a solid pro-logic mix, which would have been even more impressive in 5.1, the audio on this release really shines. Throughout the show we had no issues with distortions or dropouts, but rather simply enjoyed the spacious feel provided by the music and the sound effects mix that utilized the rear speakers nicely. The first couple of episodes may seem somewhat off as the music tends to overwhelm the actual dialogue, but I found that to be an interesting device to sort of ratchet up the speed of things.

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and encoded in anamorphic widescreen, there is simply no other way to watch this show than like this. The richness of the transfer that shows up here completely shames the broadcast version. Colors are lush and vivid and the transfer is problem free. No cross coloration, no aliasing, no macroblocking or pixellation anywhere. This is the kind of transfer that you end up losing yourself in with how fantastic it looks.

Probably the weakest part of this release is the DVD packaging which has a fairly lackluster cover that’s heavy on Tsukasa’s image with Mimiru off to the side behind him set against some imagery from the show itself. The best thing to say is that the “Platinum Series” line across the top is not as huge as some of the initial pictures gave fear to. The front cover does score points though with listing the volume number as well as positioning it on the spine. The back cover provides a number of small character headshots around the edges while the rest of the cover goes into details about the show with a few paragraphs of story summary and a good listing of the discs features and extras. The insert provides another shot of the front cover while it opens to provide a small dictionary/glossary of terms for the show which may be useful for gaming newbies. The back cover provides more detailed credits including main bilingual cast credits given to each character/actor, something that Bandai has been working to change towards and something we’re really glad to see.

Special Edition Packaging:
I thought this one should deserve its own segment since there’s enough to comment on here. With the special edition release of the first volume, which managed to sell out in allocations to most online retailers before release, it’s something quite different from other box sets. The box is shaped like an hexagon, almost like you see in most SF shows as storage crates in docking bays. The box is a slick black with the opening side having the shows logo as well as the “left” and “right” sides. There’s artwork on the other long panels of characters from the show. The box is kept closed by an elastic loop around a knob. Inside the box, if you put all the extra goodies elsewhere, is the room to store all six volumes of this series in various ways. Digging into the goodies, there’s an envelope that contains three postcards with great looking artwork on them as well as a sheet of character stickers. The black T-shirt, an XL, has the dot hack logo across the front in shifting white while the back has a large sized image of Mimiru in the foreground with dual logos and the background of a pale white and blue images of other cast members. This is the size images should be on these kinds of shirts. A real nice exclusive for this set is the inclusion of a plushie of a Grunty, one of the strangest and cutest animals to grace an anime. The little guy is really cute and is a great unique extra.

By far the best extra in here though is the inclusion of the first soundtrack to the show. The music is a huge piece of this series and is one of the best soundtracks in ages. Having the soundtrack after watching this show is almost a necessity as so much of it just sticks in your head. Since acquiring this particular soundtrack, I haven’t been without it since, using it for both home, office and gym. I can’t wait to hear more of the upcoming soundtracks.

If there are menus you don’t mind sitting in, these are going to be them. The opening menu is a nice animated piece that has the portal floating in a circle set against a great backdrop as the music from the show plays along. There are very brief transitional animations to the submenus where you get even more of the great music playing, but to more static screens. Access times are nice and fast and the layout works nicely.

The first volume has a few extras on it, but gives most of its space to the five episodes. There’s a textless version of both the opening and ending sequences that are done up in anamorphic widescreen and provide soft subtitles (that stay within the picture). A trailer for the .hack PS2 game is also included here. The final extra is an eight-page character gallery with four pages for Tsukasa and four pages for Mimiru.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
.Hack//SIGN is the latest in a slowly growing trend of shows that’s being released in Japan in a variety of ways. Similar to Production I.G.’s “Blood the Last Vampire”, there’s a game, novels, anime and probably other things as well that allow everything to tie in nicely to each other, giving the viewer/participant a really great immersive experience. The downside is when these things cross the ocean, as we usually only get one aspect of it. But so far, .Hack seems to be faring better as the anime and the games are already on tap, and that’s the two largest pieces right there.

And at least so far, it doesn’t seem like you really have to do both to enjoy the other. The SIGN series here takes place prior to events in the game, so it should be something that can be viewed as a standalone item, but will likely flesh out things should you jump into the game as well.

The set up of the series here is one that I find interesting, particularly with my own background in running online MUD’s in the past. We’re brought into The World, a “universe” of servers that provide a truly immersive role playing game experience in the virtual sense for those who become addicted to such games. The World is a fantasy setting wherein Player Characters go searching through dungeons, fight monsters and gain experience and strength that allow them to go onto bigger and more dangerous sponsored quests and events. Some people go for that route, others go for the more character driven things such as town merchants, gossips and more. But those roles also tend to be filled out by Non Player Characters, but in a world like this, it’s often hard to tell the difference.

We’re introduced to a somewhat confused young man named Tsukasa who has awoken with a nagging small loss of memory as he wonders where he is and how he got there, though there’s a tug in his mind of something familiar about it all, as well as the image of a small humanoid shaped cat. Tsukasa tries to figure out just what’s going on, but intends to keeping to himself as he prefers the solitude of The World, but ends up continually running into another character named Mimiru. She’s one of the regular players who’s working her way to strength and experience, usually able to handle things herself. She’s curious about Tsukasa since he’s cryptic about things and generally just takes off as soon as he comes across someone.

Through his quick jaunts, we end up being introduced to the rest of the early cast, such as Bear, an older player who finds his pleasure in The World by helping newbies, such as the young woman named BT he’s been escorting into various areas. Tsukasa’s trek is also being watched by the Crimson Knights, a player group whose managed to gain some real power in The World by helping support the system and those who are integral to the structure, such as Lady Subaru who can deal directly with the Sys Admin, though it’s difficult to do even for her.

The Crimson Knights and Lady Subaru are searching for Tsukasa since he’d been seen with a player who illegally altered his character image to that of a cat-like humanoid. Though they simply want to talk to him, he ends up retreating each time. The Knights only get slightly agitated, but it’s not until later on when Tsukasa ends up gaining a new power that ends up in the death of the lead Knight, as well as ramifications in the Real World, that the Knights begin to take him seriously, as well as those who have been looking for him.

Tsukasa, it turns out, has a problem. He’s been in the system for ten days without logging out, and it’s looking like he can’t logout. This sets a large number of problems for those controlling the system as well as for those playing, and sets into motion the events of different people trying to figure out ways of capturing him to deal with it. With his being able to do this, there’s also belief that he may have gained a “hidden item” that helps with this, which brings in a new set of people who want to find him as well.

For most of the five episodes, the series really plays out as a mystery show that’s introducing the basics like locale, characters, background and so forth. Unlike a lot of other shows that do the same though, it doesn’t dress it up with frenetic action sequences to push things forward, but rather takes a casual stroll so to say, giving the characters time to simply sit along a ledge and talk out what may be going on, or just to sit there and stare into the distance with the thoughts being obvious.

Suffice to say, that irks a lot of viewers.

This change in pace isn’t continual though, as there are a number of very well done action sequences, though a bit brief in general, they’re quite fun to watch and feel more exciting since they’re not constantly happening. It’s this aspect that really appeals to me because it’s very reminiscent of the campaigns I ran for my own players, where people were generally more interested in interaction and discussion than hack and slash. What also works to make this work well is that gorgeous soundtrack that accompanies the show. It’s the kind where you almost feel that the show doesn’t deserve such a rich piece of music, but the two are exquisitely married to each other and there are so many sequences where they mesh so beautifully that I can’t imagine this soundtrack with any other show.

When all is said and done with this first volume, the show has done a masterful job of really getting me intrigued to see what they intend to do. They’ve set the foundation of an interesting world that can be fleshed out in multiple series without losing its allure and many varied stories. The shows animation is gorgeous, putting the broadcast version to shame and reminding me why I shouldn’t even bother with them and the music will make most people who pick up the DVD-only versions regret not getting the special editions with the CDs. I’m already hating the fact that I don’t have a CD to pop in and enjoy the music more.

With a closing like that, all I can say is very recommended.

Japanese Language,English Language,English Subtitles,Textless Opening,Textless Ending,Game Trailer,Character Gallery

Review Equipment
Toshiba TW40X81 40" HDTV, Panasonic RP-82 Progressive Scan codefree DVD player, Sony STR-DE835 DD/DTS receiver, Monster component cable and Sony speakers.

Mania Grade: A-
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: A+
Packaging Rating: A+
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: B
Age Rating: 13 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Bandai Entertainment
MSRP: 64.98
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: .hack//SIGN