When .hack first appeared in America in 2003, the concept blew me away. The idea of setting a story within an online roleplaying game (The World) tainted by a rogue AI had so much potential, I was eager to experience all of the multimedia franchise. My first exposure was Bee Train's .hack//Sign on Cartoon Network, which drew me in with striking art design, beautiful backgrounds, and haunting music; to this day, I still occasionally listen to Yuki Kajiura's soundtrack.
After watching all of .hack//Sign, I reflected on the show's major problems: it was agonizingly slow, nothing really happened, and while there was clear talent behind the visuals, they were mainly slow pans across static vistas supported by Kajiura's music. Trying to rationalize that this was only the start of an epic storyline, I absorbed all other parts of the franchise: the core videogames, OVAs, manga series, and supplementary novels.
These failed to fulfill my expectations. The concept was still brilliant, but the games were extremely padded -- essentially one game stretched across four discs at four times the price -- and ill-executed to the point of boredom. None of the other parts gave me the depth I desired. When the .hack//G.U. era began, I watched .hack//Roots, finding it to be marginally better than .hack//Sign, but still leaning entirely on its backgrounds and music. Realizing I wasn't going to get what I wanted, I gave up on the franchise, shaking my head at the wasted potential.
We are now in the third era of .hack. Bandai seems disinterested in the franchise's future outside of Japan, never localizing the game .hack//Link. In this current environment, what does the three-episode .hack//Quantum offer?
.hack//Quantum (BD/DVD combo pack)
During their free time, schoolmates Asumi, Eri, and Iori enjoy playing The World R:X, an immersive MMORPG with a virtual reality visor. Assuming the online identities of Sakuya, Mary, and Tobias, the three go on adventures, fight monsters, and gather loot, just like other gamers. While trying to escape some players out for revenge over a botched boss fight, they are transported to a strange, unknown area. An unusual monster attacks the players, and only Sakuya, Tobias, and a few other players manage to escape its touch. Logging out of the game, they discover that Eri has become comatose and must find out why. Their only clue is a small cat player named Hermit...
Yes, this is another .hack story where people's minds become disconnected from their bodies, causing them to become hospitalized in real-life. The difference here lies in who is behind the attacks and what they plan to do with all the minds they've captured. There are a few interesting ideas, such as distinctive background elements of areas being utilized by players, but sadly, the majority of the story is just echoes of past .hack anime. It's still a fun watch, and those who haven't seen the past anime may find it more interesting. However, their lack of past knowledge will hamper their enjoyment.
.hack//Quantum presumes that the viewer has already seen some of the franchise, giving no introduction to the game world and its history other than the fact that it is a popular MMO that everyone plays. While the basic concepts of an MMO are almost common knowledge these days, The World R:X has tons of history, both inside and outside of the game. The story assumes that the viewer is familiar with certain elements, most notably the real-world person behind a certain in-game ally. Because all the characters know the game, there's no reason for exposition on the viewer's behalf. The basic narrative is simple, but all the flourishes that make it a .hack story will confuse unexperienced viewers. They'll ask questions that aren't answered: "If this part of the game is so dangerous, why don't they just take off their visor?"
Part of the problem comes from the pacing chosen by director Masaki Tachibana (Tokyo Magnitude 8.0). With only three episodes, there's not much room to waste time on exposition. Most of the first episode is paced well enough, introducing the game and the main characters that inhabit it. However, it soon becomes clear that the story could have used more time to expand upon events, perhaps as a 12-episode series. Each scene feels rushed, never fully explaining why some things are happening, too concerned with moving on to the next plot point. Annoyingly, the story ends with a hint that someone else is pulling the strings. If this OVA was a lead-in to a new major story like .hack//Sign or .hack//Roots were meant to be, I'd understand. Instead .hack//Quantum just feels unfinished.
The characters are entertaining enough, if kind of lacking memorability. Asumi is an energetic lead who you do want to root for, despite her occasional ditzy behavior. Iori is unique as one of the few girls in anime who not only looks and acts maturely, but isn't defined as "mature" by a gigantic bust. Eri is the least interesting, possibly because we spend the least amount of time with her, but the contrast between her regular personality and her online persona gives her a bit more depth. (Iori has a similar dichotomy.) There was a good opportunity here to say something about how we represent ourselves online, but it's ultimately not explored beyond providing minor characterization.
Since this is the first .hack anime not produced by Bee Train, comparisons between the two productions are inevitable. Kinema Citrus's visuals are mostly well done, with some exceptions. .hack//Quantum has much more action and movement than Bee Train ever attempted, avoiding scenes made up entirely of pans and talking heads. Instead, we get to see characters get in lots of fights and fully emote. The smooth animation is supported by an attractive art style that matches previous .hack anime in its vibrancy and design.
Unfortunately, .hack//Quantum is still relying on modified ten-year-old character designs made by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. I understand that Kite and company are recognizable, and I liked the designs, but almost everyone in this anime looks like a rehash. There's not even an explanation as to why the three main characters look like legendary hackers; is the character creator in The World R:X really that limited?
Worse still are the times when CGI is used for the monsters. As you may guessed from a more action-packed version of .hack, CGI rears its very ugly head often, even with background characters, and it seriously impairs the quality of a scene. The movement is too smooth and the details too dissimilar to mesh well with 2D. Anime studios love to save money by using CGI, I get that, but artistically, it just does not work. Unless you are part of the 1% of studios that knows how to do it well (and even then, it requires some suspension of aesthetic disbelief), either don't use CGI or paint it over with 2D. I'd rather have a pan over a still image than have CGI elements look pasted on to a shot.
There are a few other minor complaints about Kinema Citrus's work. There is no opening, with episodes beginning unceremoniously with just the episode title and a logo. Similarly, there are no ending visuals beyond some sketches after the third episode. These things aren't necessary for OVAs, but I still missed their presence. Finally, the soundtrack by Kow Otani (Shadow of the Colossus) is perfectly fine, if unmemorable. It is merely unlucky enough to have to go up against Yuki Kajiura's impressive past work on the franchise.
FUNimation does a good job on the localization, with lively subtitles and a generally solid dub that mixes in a touch more lingo used by U.S. gamers. Sakuya's English voice sounds less ditzy and more brain-damaged, but other characters are at least functional, if occasionally not emotionally syncing the characters' animation. The disc is packed with several omake segments, trailers, and even a cooking class. The only other thing missing from the disc is an overview of the important parts of the .hack universe, both for newbies and lapsed fans.
.hack//Quantum sits in an odd position. The .hack fanbase has shrunk to a core following, and the franchise seems to be waiting for someone to come up with the next big thing for The World. This is not the anime to solve these problems, but what's here is still worth a watch if you're looking for a modern-fantasy tale. This is a promising first entry from Kinema Citrus; hopefully they'll get another chance to work with the .hack universe.
6.5 – Okay. 6s are flawed, but still enjoyable. These titles may not have attempted to do anything special or interesting, but they are nonetheless enjoyable. These typically make great rental fodder or a bargain grab.
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