.hack//SIGN Vol. #4 (of 7) (Mania.com)

By:Dani Moure
Review Date: Monday, September 27, 2004
Release Date: Monday, September 27, 2004

What They Say
After the battle at the upside-down castle, everyone but Tsukasa is returned to a regular field in 'The World'. Did Tsukasa die? What happened to him? Captured by a previously friendly unseen force, Tsukasa reappears with parts of his memories, thoughts, and feelings "missing". Is this really Tsukasa or just a copy of the character's data? The other players have their own problems as well - Subaru discovers that the Silver Knight have been hiding messages from her with the latest request by the System Administrator threatening to end with disastrous results!

The Review!
Following on from the release of the .hack PlayStation 2 games comes the prequel TV series. But how does the UK release fair?

I listened to the first episode on this disc in Japanese, as I've heard the entire Japanese version in the past. I really enjoy the performances from the Japanese actors, and noticed no dropouts or distortions on the episode I listened to.

Having never listened to the dub before (and since I'm currently playing the games dubbed), I opted to listen to the English track for the last three episodes. I really enjoyed most of the performances, though I have to say while pretty much all the female characters nailed it, while a couple of the characters seemed a little out of place. For me, it was mainly Bear and Tsukasa who sounded a little off at times, but that may just be because I'm so familiar with the Japanese track for the TV series. I noticed no dropouts or distortions during regular playback. The stereo track on both languages is pretty good, and the music comes off particularly well.

Presented in anamorphic widescreen, this is a pretty lush transfer. Colours are nice and vibrant throughout, and I noticed no artifacting even during the high motion scenes in the opening sequence. There's also no noticeable aliasing, which is always a big plus in newer shows. It really does look very good and on par with the US release. The openings and endings are left in their original Japanese kanji forms, but unfortunately the English language credit roll that is featured on the US release after the final episode on the disc is nowhere to be found here. I always find it disappointing when there's no credit translation on a disc.

The English subtitles are white, in a clearly readable font, and thankfully contain very few spelling errors and conjoined words.

The cover design is different to the US release, but I like it a lot. The main artwork features Bear, Mimiru and Tsukasa in a nice party pose, with the show's logo and disc number at the top of the cover. The bottom of the cover has the various logos and the website address. The theme for this volume is yellow, so the whole cover takes on that yellow feel, but it looks nice rather than garish. The back cover contains a brief synopsis of the show itself, as well as a clear episode listing and synopsis for each episode. Extras are clearly listed, and there's a nice information box towards the bottom of the back cover listing the languages, video format and so on. Overall this is a really nice and well-designed cover.

The main menu has a brief animation before launching into the main selection, which features Silver Knight standing to the side and an animated cube that revolves with various video clips from the show on each side. The ending theme plays over the main menu. The sub-menus are all static, but selections are clear and access times fast, and each features a different piece of music from the soundtrack. Overall the menus are quite nice and fit the show's theme well.

There's an interesting bunch of extras on this volume. First is a "Capsule Station" extra which shows some pictures of capsule stations from which you can buy some miniature figures of each of the characters, and the extra shows an image of each. It's intriguing but pretty much a commercial. Next up is a trailer for the .hack//MUTATION PlayStation 2 game (the second of four), which really will only be of interest to those that have a PS2 and have any remote interest in buying the game. We also get two nice to have trailers from the Japanese DVD release, though unfortunately they're not subtitled. Finally, always a nice extra, we get karaoke versions of the openings and endings (which presents the clean opening and ending with karaoke subtitles). It's not the most substantial selection of extras, but it's decent enough.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
.hack//SIGN hit Japanese airwaves in 2002 as part of the multimedia onslaught of the .hack franchise, which consists of four PlayStation 2 games, a manga series, two TV series and an array of merchandise including card games and toys. This TV series acts as a prequel to the games, as the story in those follow on from the events that take place in //SIGN. A lot has been said about this series, and it tends to cause quite a divide, mainly because it is quite slow-paced. In fact, it often suffers from talking head syndrome, where minutes and minutes of on-screen action purely consists of the various characters talking. It's also from the animation studio that produced Noir, so there is a definite passing resemblance in certain styles. Despite the relative lack of action, I definitely consider myself a fan of the TV series, as I simply find the plot engaging and very intriguing.

Since I was inadvertently sent the wrong language copy of the first volume, I'm jumping in to reviewing this fourth and latest volume of the release first. Fortunately, I have seen the entire series before so I have the background knowledge to jump in and start here.

Picking straight up from the events in the last volume, Bear has decided to go in search of the Key of Twilight, as he believes that it will enable Tsukasa to log out. He has reason to believe that Tsukasa is actually a girl who is comatose in the real world, and confides in BT. She proceeds to tell just about everyone, and word gets back to Mimiru, who is less than happy that he kept the information from her. Nevertheless, alliances are forged and everyone races to open the Twilight Eye in search of the Key, and BT succeeds but it is far from what anyone is expecting.

With the Twilight Eye open, the whole group eventually ends up entering the gateway created, but trouble isn't far behind. Mimiru almost falls off a crumbling ledge leading her to contemplate what would happen if she fell and the character died. Meanwhile Crim and BT are racing to reach the Key before everyone else, but Crim believes they're being followed, so allows BT to race ahead. He eventually faces off with Sora, who reveals he was actually in cohorts with BT herself. Crim isn't shocked, though, and reveals that he knew what was happening all along.

But things don't go well and before anyone can get to the Key, the Cat non-player character comes out of nowhere, along with Tsukasa's guardian, and seemingly attempts to kill Mimiru. But Tsukasa steps in and his character vanishes, and he's not found in the world for some time. Everyone reassesses the situation, and Tsukasa does eventually reappear, but he doesn't seem to be his usual self, and doesn't remember anything before his "death".

With this volume of .hack, events really start to unravel and the characters and their allegiances shift several times. BT is really the key in a lot of these shifts, as you can never truly be sure who she is with or what she wants. She seems to like Bear but never really wants to get too involved with him, Mimiru and Tsukasa as she's far more concerned about finding out what exactly is going on with The World and how it's changing. But she does have a soft spot for Crim which is brought to the fore, but before that she betrays him to Sora. Sora himself clearly is out only for number one, as he wants whatever is valuable.

With the core group of Tsukasa, Bear and Mimiru, the events in this volume really seem to solidify them as a group, and how they feel about each other. The level of trust between Bear and Mimiru is still there, and he seems to want to protect her a lot. But he also becomes very protective of Tsukasa, as Mimiru has been, only now Tsukasa seems to reciprocate a level of trust, but he still has that essence of unpredictability about him simply because you never know what he will do next or how he will react if something he doesn't like happens. There's also the aspect of the other characters he interacts with - the woman and the Cat, as well as his guardian, which makes his actions all the more intriguing.

But it's definitely the character interactions that really make this volume enjoyable. As events transpire we see new insights into each character, like BT through how she feels about Crim, and then when she opens up a bit to Tsukasa. The only character we see a bit less of here is Subaru, although she does have a couple of key appearances relating to the mythology and of course, she pops up to show her concern about Tsukasa.

When the action comes in .hack, it's pretty intense and good to watch, but it really doesn't last that long. It is very much a talking heads kind of show, but I can't help but be drawn to these characters and their stories, and the whole mystery of The World. I also really like the character designs, and of course the music from Yuki Kajiura is fantastic, although occasionally it's a little over-bearing with the sound level in comparison to the dialogue.

The presentation here is also a huge step up from the Gundam Wing. You still select the language at start-up, but that just determines the language of the menu. Other than that, openings and endings are left untouched, as on the US release, and all episode titles and things are left untouched. Once into the actual show, it's basically a copy of the US release. The only difference is the lack of English translated credits (which rolled at the end of the last episode on the US release), which is very disappointing.

In Summary:
.hack//SIGN is definitely not a series for everyone. It's relatively low on action and heavy on plot and dialogue, so if you're looking for an action show you're far better off looking elsewhere. But if you're looking for a show that can immerse you in the mysteries of its world and what's happening, then .hack is great. It's atmospheric, interesting and enjoyable. It's also a great way to get immersed in the whole .hack multimedia extravaganza if you're looking to go that way. With good characters and an enticing story, I'd definitely recommend .hack//SIGN.

Japanese Language,English Language,French Language,English Subtitles,French Subtitles,Dutch Subtitles,.hack//MUTATION Trailer,Capsule Station 1,Opening & Ending Karaoke,2 Japanese DVD release trailers

Review Equipment
Philips 28" Pure Flat Widescreen TV, Pioneer DV-464 code free DVD player, JVC gold-plated RGB SCART cable, standard stereo sound.

Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: A-
Packaging Rating: A-
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: B
Age Rating: 3 & Up
Region: 2 - Europe
Released By: Beez
MSRP: £19.99
Running time: 100
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: .hack//SIGN