I've played two years of everquest, I've watched hundreds of anime titles. Surely an anime set in a massively multiplayer online game (like everquest) would be right up my alley. After all the merging of two fantasy worlds seems filled with possibilities for telling a good story.
The actual title of this anime is .hack//SIGN, but my script doesn't seem too happy with that. Perhaps I'll fix my script one day so that this essential element of the show can be captured... then again, perhaps I won't. Other products in the series also share the .hack// prefix.
We begin in the belly of a beached monstrosity with a young boy coming awake. He's not exactly sure of what's going on, or how he came to be lying face down in the muck. Indeed he's still taking stock of his possessions, which looks to be little more than a wizards staff, when a young female fighter wanders up. And while at first he runs from her in time they form a tentative connection. Which is something he needs given he's coming to some realizations about his situation.
The first of these is that he's in a virtual world. But he can remember nothing about who he is in the real world, or what he might have been doing that would cause him to forget everything. Even worse he doesn't seem to be able to log out of the game, seemingly a trapped spirit in a virtual world. He has no idea who he truly is, or what is happening to him in the real world. And to make things worse he becomes a focus for the attention of powerful beings in the game who want to use him for their own ends. Some of them are the hero's and defenders of the game, known as "the world", but others exist outside the game... and they tend to cheat.
This is an example of one of the classic paradoxes of writing reviews. How do you write a review of something you don't understand? I could go and read up analysis on the web and perhaps get insight that way, but then it would not be my own perceptions. I could pretend I understood it, I could write about it and just leave it to be assumed that it all made perfect sense to me. Certainly it would be dangerous to say anything too definite, or people might think me shallow or unperceptive, one of the people who didn't get it.
Or, if you're a fool, you could just be honest. And say something like this anime is one of the most slow moving and pointless series I've ever watched. The only truly fascinating aspect was wondering when the real story would start. My only regret is that I didn't go with my initial feelings and give up on it much earlier.
To begin with the "virtual world" in which the anime takes place appears to be one of the most boring games in existence. It's pretty clear that the authors of the anime have not the slightest clue whatever, perhaps they went so far as to read the back of a game box or something, because the whole world just doesn't work. There is no sense of there actually being a game. There certainly isn't any exciting action and adventure for us to watch. There's about 20 minutes in the entire series that concerns the actual game, and it's all very silly. The single "quest" that we get to follow in the series is irredemably dull and illogical at the same time. Sure, people sometimes mention things like "heal potions" and "levelling up" and lots of other game elements, but it never forms a coherent, or even remotely interesting, picture of this virtual world in which we are, like the lead character, stuck.
Okay, so there's a boring static world which mostly consists of islands floating in a sea of clouds. How do the characters spend their time? Well, they do a hell of a lot of nothing whatsoever. Their main occupation appears to be standing around and talking pretentiously to one another. They also like sending each other mail and porting around the game world to talk pretentiously on one of the other sets. I mean this is a world with limitless possibilities and we even have enough time to grow bored of the scenery. Partly because they keep re-using it. Powerful symbolism or just being lazy with backdrops? I know where my money is.
So what do they talk about? Well, given the game is boring beyond words they mostly talk about the amnesiac wizard and the fabled "key of the twilight" that is a rumored item that exists outside the game (as apparently does the wizard). But the problem is that, for the vast majority of the anime, no one actually knows anything or manages to make any progress. Even the lead character doesn't know what his own plans are or what the key is. Basically there's lots of talk, lots of weak dramatics, but no actual story, no progression and not even that much character. It's tedious, repetitive and extremely slow moving. And in the end most of the actual clues come from a poorly developed Dues Ex Machina. Which is fancy talk for a god-like character who comes in and fills in all the gaps the characters hadn't made any progress towards solving by themselves.
I will quickly mention that I did watch it fan-subbed and there was quite some variation in the quality. It's possible that the poetry and mystery was hidden by the failings of the translators. Not like I can speak Japanese to either verify or have a basis to complain. However, given how long it took and how little happened, I'm going to go with my gut feelings that this is an overblown production with little real substance. I'm also aware that this anime is only one part of a whole bunch of media, including games and manga. I don't care, when I'm reviewing a title then that title must stand or fall on its own merits.
The only real fascination is in continuing to watch in the hopes that the story will get moving and the mysteries will come clear. It's quite a thrill when all sorts of subtle clues come together in an exciting finale that gives new meaning to every event that led up to it. And boy do I feel ripped off for waiting. It is only in the last 4-6 episodes that things actually start to move, and even then the revelations are reasonably obvious and the mysteries remain mysteries. If you really feel like filling in the massive gaps in the story feel free, but then why not just make it up from scratch rather than watching this empty shell? The conclusion itself is a huge anti-climax that was a staggering disappointment and clearly just a teaser for more product elsewhere. Sure, I was happy to see two of the characters grow a little, but that was not nearly enough to justify the weaknesses of this title.
The production quality is pretty ordinary. The environment looks pretty drab and uninteresting, the game has no personality and much of the character design is awful. The characters have promise, and it's no surprise I've seen Subaru merchandise around, but they are so underutilised in this threadbare story. The special effects and action are extremely poor, really quite boring to watch. Nor are there many of them, and the camera is quite happy to avoid as much action as it can. One showdown becoming the "fight of two angry dots in the distance" will not easily be forgotten. Music was very forward, often quite dominant, possibly to make up for the lack of meat in the dialogue. It was quite decent in general, opening is catchy, and I noticed rather a lot of it was in English.
This section of the page is being re-worked, so I won't bother to put links in. It also looks like a lot of reviewers gave it a much more positive response than I could manage. Although at least some of those are on incomplete viewings. I'd love to see there faces when the end of the series hits.