.hack//SIGN Vol. #6 (of 7) (Mania.com)

By:Dani Moure
Review Date: Sunday, January 23, 2005
Release Date: Monday, February 07, 2005

What They Say
Episode 21 // Phantom
Thanks to Helba'sindications, and despite the traps laid along their way, Bear, Mimiru, and Subaru manage to find Harold Huick'sincarnation who tells them about his secret. But the mysterious entity which was using Tsukasa seems determined to keep this information secret...

Episode 22 // TheEve
Helba has sent a message to the various players, arranging to meet them all together. Everyone answers the call except for Sora, who wants to carry on going it alone, and Tsukasa, who is still traumatized by the experience he has just undergone. Will he manage to find within himself the courage he needs to join his companions?

Episode 23 // Net Slum
After going through Helba'sdoor, our little group, joined at last by Tsukasa, find themselves in a strange world in which multicolored replicas of Tsukasa are floating around. Just then,Helbaappears. She explains to the players that they are in the Net Slum, the place where all the data erased from The World is stored…

Episode 24 // Catastrophe
Tsukasa feels the entity's anger rising and persuades the group to log out of the Net Slum as fast as possible. But the entity has not finished with them yet and sends a monster to eliminate them. The players manage to get rid of it by pooling their strength, but as soon as it has gone, three other monsters take its place…

The Review!
The penultimate volume of .hack//SIGN arrives, with revelations and story developments aplenty.

I spot-checked this disc in Japanese with subtitles, 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 in the parts I listened to.

I opted to continue with for the English track for my review watching. I really enjoyed most of the performances, and I think the cast all raised their game a little here. While I thought some of the male characters, mainly Bear and Tsukasa, sounded a little out of it on occasion in previous discs, here I thought they were much better, and the dub overall is really enjoyable. 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 lush transfer. Colours are nice and vibrant throughout, and I noticed only slights amount of artifacting during a couple of very high motion scenes during the warp sequences, though it's not very easy to spot and some people probably never would. 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 again different to the US release, but it's great. The main artwork features Balmung in the forefront with Helba in the background, and although Helba really is pivotal in these episodes, Balmung doesn't appear much, but still they make for a cool image on the cover. The show's logo and disc number appear 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 a lovely light blue, so the whole cover takes on that feel, and looks really nice with a patterned background. 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 great, well-designed cover.

The main menu has a brief animation before launching into the main selection, which features Crim 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.

The extras on this volume are mostly recycled from the previous volumes. First are two "Capsule Station" extras which show 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//QUARANTINE, the fourth and final PlayStation 2 game, 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 more nice to have trailers from the Japanese DVD release, though they don't serve much purpose. Finally, always a nice extra, we get karaoke versions of the openings and endings (which presents the clean opening and ending with karaoke subtitles).

The new extra here is a "Special Promo". It's a little deceptive though, as it's not to do with the series, but rather a set of trailers for three series set to make their way to the UK next year on DVD: Wolf's Rain, Witch Hunter Robin and Cowboy Bebop. It's not really something I'd normally mention, but I do welcome seeing trailers for upcoming shows. It's not the most substantial selection of extras, but it's decent enough, if unvaried.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
As the series draws to a close, the revelations in this volume of .hack come thick and fast. With only one story episode left to go in the next volume, this one has all the setup building towards the ending, and as such the pace picks up (it's still relatively slow compared to some shows, but there is more of a sense of urgency than before) and we even get more action, making this bunch of episodes really interesting. At least to those of us who've enjoyed the series and its mysteries so far. Because once again, if you haven't found anything interesting in earlier episodes, or have been put off by hearing that the series is not action packed and moves at a slow pace with lots of dialogue, then this disc probably won't change your mind, even though it does ramp things up in those areas.

The story over the course of the four episodes on the disc is continuous, as it has been throughout the series, following the large cast of characters as they reach the destination they've been searching for. Bear, Mimiru and Subaru finally manage to find their way to the realm of Harald Huick, the creator of The World, after a few run-ins with unbeatable monsters. There, they find out that he wanted to give birth to Aura, but someone has interfered and is using Tsukasa to warp his vision, and give birth to Dark Aura. Silver Knight continues on his way with Sora, having teamed up because of BT, even though she stays out of events. He soon realises he shouldn't be taking this path once he encounters Crim though. But once alone, Sora spots Macha, and jumps on it as it's warping to the realm of Dark Aura.

Shortly after these events, Helba calls everyone together to urge them on their final journey. Some of the characters have they final long scene together, with Crim helping Subaru out, and BT and Bear having a heart to heart. Everyone finally gathers and warp to Helba's location, though Subaru decides to stay behind because she wants to wait for Tsukasa. It's a really nice way of showing their bond, and we see how much they have grown, and in many ways rely on each other now, as the story continues in the episode "Net Slum". The group all speak with Helba, and the series takes something of a dramatic twist, as we discover the true goal of the enemies, and who they are targeting to get it. Tsukasa's role is also interesting, and not quite what perhaps most people would be expecting. And then, the final battle begins.

If you've been following the series so far, and enjoying it, then the episodes here really are great, with some excellent character interactions and story developments that had me really hooked. What I really liked is that, rather than consistently beating around the bush even at the end, the story revelations provide a lot of clarity into what has been going on up until now, and why things are the way they are. While it's still quite complex in some ways, you can go back and piece things together from earlier episodes that really help build the big picture here. The revelations from Harald and Helba serve this purpose especially well throughout the disc. The Dark Aura story is somewhat surprising and yet very interesting, and also (for those that are playing) ties in with the PlayStation 2 games as well as the follow-up manga series.

But the way the characters have changed with the events around them are what really make the episodes here shine, and it's not just Subaru and Tsukasa. While their relationship has reached the point now where Tsukasa is keen to meet with Subaru in the real world when he logs out, just as she is with him, Crim also gets some really good scenes that flesh out his character, showing his caring side with Tsukasa and Mimiru in particular. Likewise, bear and BT clear a few things up, though in some respects they're still stumbling along (and she is still a bit of an oddball, as she seems undecided on where her loyalties lie). While Mimiru gets relatively little screen time with respect to some of the characters, she does get a couple of great opportunities to shine and show how much of a friend she has become with Tsukasa. And with Bear, there's one particularly poignant moment in the final episode on the disc with Tsukasa that I thought was really nice.

The twist with Sora and his role in the final was very interesting and it's nice to give his character something meaty to do in the build-up to the finale. Even Macha, the cat-like character who's never spoken but has been at Tsukasa's side as he's been manipulated from the beginning makes some bold and unexpected moves. They may not have been the most enticing bunch of characters at times, but the creators get credit for taking them to some unexpected and interesting places.

But it's harsh that this disc ends where it does, as there's only one episode of the actual story left to go on the final disc ("Return", with the other three episodes being a recap and two specials). It's extremely frustrating simply because it ends in a bitch of a place, as the finale is literally right around the corner. But at this point, all the characters have made their decisions, and things have fallen into place, with us left to see exactly how it will all play out. For those who've enjoyed the ride so far, you'll be really anxious for the final volume!

The presentation continues to be solid, as with the previous volume, and is the best work from Beez so far. 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:
The action, story and character development is all ramped up a notch for this almost final batch of episodes, and the world of .hack//SIGN is turned upside down with the finale looming ahead. While it probably won't win over anyone who's already decided they don't like the series, it's got some great developments for those that do and it had me really eager to see where things would go, and left me eagerly anticipating the final episode. The cast of characters really begins to shine through here, and the wait has definitely been worth it. The penultimate volume is hugely entertaining, and with an interesting story and cast that has only got better as the series continued, I have no trouble giving it a thumbs up and a recommendation. I'm really glad that Beez are releasing this series in the UK.

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

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: 12 & 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