PlayStation Portable
Japanese Import Reviewed: 1/31/2011

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a man forced by the cruel hand of Fate to repeat the same day over and over again; on many of these repeat days, his inability to escape Feb. 2, or change his destiny in any way, drives him completely insane. Such is the feeling of playing .hack//Link.

One might say that all games, to some extent, require repetitive action — especially so with RPGs, including the original PS2 .hack games. But .hack//Link takes this to a whole new level, featuring just a few things the player must constantly endure, with minimal opportunity for diversion or variety in between.

Combat in .hack//Link is perhaps the worst offender of being retardedly repetitive. Like any RPG, Tokio and his partner will use physical attacks at will, and magical attacks which are doable at intervals. Actually killing an enemy with an attack, spell, or special skill, however, is very uncommon, especially in the first 15-20 hours or so.

Generally, in any realtime combat system, all skills factor into finishing an enemy off; one can beat foes without having to resort to the big kill-all spell. Sure, some are more powerful than others, but all can have an impact. But in .hack//Link, character combos, magic spells, and skills do incredibly little damage, even to enemies of far lower level.

There is no equipment changing, so that’s not a factor; this is by design. Every enemy must have its defense broken before it can take serious damage, and this breaking usually takes several consecutive hits and combos. After its defense is broken, the player must hurry to knock it into the air, usually with the final hit of a Tokio combo. Once in the air, there’s a good chance Tokio’s ally will offer to assist in a juggle combo. This juggle is pretty much the only way to beat enemies in anything resembling a timely fashion. Even for weak monsters, who would have difficulty killing Tokio even if the player put the PSP down abruptly to make a sandwich, the player must endure the stupidly long process (for the first half of the game) of not only breaking its defense, but hitting it into the air and performing the juggle combo.

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“Then put your little hand in miiine…”

The juggle interface, sometimes called “the baseball system,” shows a monster head on a meter on the bottom of the screen, which will slide from right to left, from a random position and at a random speed. Hitting O when the monster head is within the specially colored area will make Tokio whack that mofo back into the air. His ally will wail on the baddy while airborne, then it will come flying towards Tokio again as the player repeats the process anywhere from 2-10 times. There’s a big green zone which constitutes a “Nice” hit and a smaller orange strip that grants a “Great” one. Tokio being better buds with a certain character will eventually make these colored strips bigger and add a yellow “Excellent” portion. Missing a hit in the combo damages Tokio, ends the combo, and restores the defense of the once-juggled enemy. Successful hits do huge damage to the enemy (really, it’s the only way to do lethal damage that doesn’t take an eternity) and work towards the ability to perform a “Cross Rengeki,” a cinematic special attack in which Tokio and his partner of the day dole out the most damage possible.

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You’ll see this guy a whole lot

These 30-second unskippable sequences are pretty cool, especially the first 2,983 times you see them. But after a while, the slapstick jokes within them run their course, and the player, being human, gets kinda sick of seeing the same…thing…over…and over again, with no option to simply skip it. True, there are occasionally some hearts which pop up with button presses, but those are hard to care about when you’re watching the same cinema so many times in loop.

Want to build a good relationship and get that “Excellent” meter for juggle combos? Strap in for seeing that character’s cinema to wear out its welcome. That hard work isn’t any sort of strategic battle or level grind in this game, it’s instead a trial of patience involving watching the same cinemas for what adds up to become hours.

Ally AI is once again problematic, just as it was in the very first .hack games. This time around, even without his teammate having problems like low MP or being under a sleep spell, Tokio will find himself acting as a one-man army while said teammate is just hanging out, like, drinking a Big Gulp. All right.

Dungeons in .hack//Link suffer from extremely repetitive, incredibly linear design. Longtime .hack fans will remember that the dungeon lookalike syndrome existed in the PS2 games as well, though it’s now twice as obvious in Link. It doesn’t do much differently than the much-hated Final Fantasy XIII in terms of linearity. Any time a branching path does exist, it’s to a simple, tiny room with a single treasure chest. Get it, turn around, and get back on that path. Need a key for a door? Don’t look too hard, it’s always just in the room right beside the door. Oooh, fun. That’s not real exploration; that’s the illusion of it.

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Same joke! Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh SAME JOKE duh nuh nuh nuh SAME JOKE!

Towards the end of the game, they get even worse as the developers amputate most of the rooms altogether in favor of gondolas and rafts that simply roll along while occasional enemies pop up. After the requisite number of ridiculously easy enemies has been disposed of, the raft or lift will stop as Tokio and his partner exit. It’s like some Bandai Namco intern just said “Hey ah, I noticed these dungeons have basically no purpose other than to put the player through a number of required battles before a boss…can’t we just do that this way?” At least this heroic intern saved players some time and presumably some corporate funds which can be put to better use.

But problems with Link‘s fighting and dungeonplay aren’t limited to repetition. The game’s mandatory companions for such a high number of the missions ends up wasting a lot of the player’s time spent building relationships with characters (to the limited extent it can be done). Players will put hours into this practice, only to find its benefits unavilable at several critical times. Going out with a partner more times brings about more chances to build a relationship with that character, depicted by hearts on the character select screen. A better relationship brings about combat perks, such as a wider hit meter during juggle combos and the eventual addition of an “Excellent” level. Where the game kicks players in the junk is that most of the story missions have a required companion for Tokio. The number of companions Tokio can bring with him is one, down from two NPC comrades in the PS2 titles, making this extra frustrating.

Given that building a character relationship to the point the “Excellent” combo bar becomes available with him/her can take several hours, and that there are dozens of playable characters, it’s clear that most people won’t see this accomplishment with more than a couple of the .hack combatants. So then we get to the aforementioned story dungeons and their frequently pre-determined partnerships. Players might, say, commit a lot of time and effort into building a good relationship with Mimiru to get that Excellent bar, only to get out of .hack//Sign and the optional missions that follow, into some main-story territory and be dismayed to find out they must rid themselves of the perks they’d earned. So it’s either A) players spread themselves thin trying (and probably failing) to bring a whole mess of characters up to par, or B) players do manage to get a few characters to a good relationship level, but…the story picks one — and only one — that can be used in the upcoming dungeon. Head, meet desk.

Many times, this handpicked co-combatant is a relatively new character to Tokio, meaning no previous relationship was even possible. So the player gets nice and used to a certain character and attached perks, then has the carpet yanked out from under them in the vast majority of story-centric dungeons. What then is the point of the non-story dungeons? Dungeons don’t provide any worthwhile rewards, level grinding is never needed, and the battle system is the opposite of fun, so what’s the point? Even when there’s an opportunity to branch off from the main story, the player had little incentive to take it because the battles are so unrewarding and just plain dull after 15 hours.

It gets worse. Link severely lacks non-battle content as well. While towns in previous .hack games might not have had a whole lot going for them, there was generally at least something to be gained or enjoyed by wandering around. But whatever those games lacked, what they had was far more than .hack//Link‘s menu-only “towns” bring to the table. It’s kind of a dick move to get players all hyped up for seeing a new version of Mac Anu only to…not be able to actually see it or run around in it. There’s just no real gameplay other than battle. No distractions. No side stuff other than more of the same “Nice! Great! Great! Great! Nice!” that makes up every single battle of every single dungeon.

Talking to NPCs is useless, backtracking (becomes available to one or two select locations around 25 hours in) yields no reward that can’t be bought with the player’s huge pile of virtually infinite money. There’s no aspect of .hack//Link that a player can truly look at and declare that yes, “I made this awesome.” Rest assured, your experience will be the same as everyone else’s the only difference being what characters you leveled up and/or reach Xth form with. One is better off to simply wait for the story segments to be loaded onto YouTube.
The only tiny bit of redeeming grace for .hack//Link in this department is menu-based, behind-the-scenes customization within the Grand Whale, which takes a while to get good, but becomes kinda fun. Players can set NPCs (some of whome are also potential battle partners) to help move along Tokio’s possible abilities as well as level up the item shop, open new parts of the gallery, and other such bonuses. Some characters will get worn out and become less effective if they stay at one position for too long, especially if they are with people they don’t like (indicated by a smilie above their own portrait). Conversely, characters like Bear, Subaru, and Balmung get along just fine and will work well together.

This assignment shuffling is all done in just a few seconds, but is something the player will likely look forward to after almost every dungeon, once the game really gets rolling. Given how proportionally little time and thought this takes and that one can get by wthout even doing it at all, it’s sad that this is the best part of the gameplay.

Graphics are pretty much par for modern PSP titles, with the character portraits and manga sequences looking especially good. There’s an unfortunate lack of fully animated story scenes for a game whose story is clearly its strength; Link instead goes with what is more like looking at manga pages that slightly alter in real time, with characters and speech bubbles fading in and out of the backgrounds. The approach works out well enough for the game, especially since it’s got a manga tie-in. Within the game, visuals aren’t really a problem, save for the dreadful battle camera.

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“One of these days, I swear to God…”

Which brings us to the dreadful battle camera and the disappointing battle system it worsens. .hack//Link is an action RPG like its series elders, enemies visible before they are engaged. When close enough, Tokio will automatically target an enemy. Players can change targets with the d-pad, though it won’t do much good. In a real fray, the auto-target will take over and lock onto…whatever the hell it feels like. Perhaps there’s a mage in the group Tokio is fighting, and taking it out first is the most efficient battle plan. Players will run up to it, go to the trouble of awkwardly switching targets, and start swingin’, only to find that they’re locked onto the melee fighter again. Is there a treasure chest on the battle field? Stay the hell away, because for no apparent reason, Tokio might decide to target the chest instead of an enemy — even if it’s behind him.

So Tokio will be wailing away, trying to break a foe’s defense so that he can finally get the precious juggle combo, get within a hit or two, only to abruptly…open a treasure chest and get punched in the back of the head. This is not “difficulty,” this is game design failure. Difficulty and a high challenge level are great things in a game. Taking damage because the game doesn’t think you know what you want to target is frustrating and unneccesary. It’s also quite a spectacle when Tokio has an emey directly in front of him, big ol’ target lock resting on that enemy, but the attack button somehow causese him to…do a 180 and take a swing at nothing in particular. The game system may as well say out loud “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”

No battle is a better example of the retarded camera combining with the dreadful targeting system than the penultimate battle. Of course needing to get a juggle combo going, Tokio will be wailing away on one of the four enemies running around on screen, from a fixed camera angle unlike most used throughout the game. Okay? So in the now-almost-2D nature of the battlefield, the target “lock” easily gets confused, and when the enemies get close together, which they will, Tokio just starts hitting everything, unable to actually start the process of breaking an enemy. Again, if it’s hard to break an enemy because of actual difficulty, that’s great. Hard games can be awesome. But when a game is “hard” because of technical slips and amateur mechanics, that’s not game difficulty, that’s developmental failure.

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Now is When I Get All Deep

Even when the player opts for the 860MB data install (no typo this time, that’s eight hundred and sixty), .hack//Link suffers heavy load times; ot necessarily a lot of long singular ones, but a heck of a lot of instances where loading is required. It’s made worse by ridiculously stupid design decisions. For example, every single time Tokio does something in the past that affects the present, his lookalike grunty Delorians him back to the future to show him what’s different. OK, cool, I dig. But the player has to wait while his image slowly fades onto the screen…and then hear him rehearse the same speech every time…followed by loading…followed by the same recycled video clip of the ship flying through time…and then more loading…and then a title screen showing the player that yes, in case you weren’t paying attention, we’re back in 2020 now…and then Tokio reciting his own unchanging one-line speech directing players to the click giant red check mark…and then, finally the conversation between Tokio and the affected character(s) can take place.

Even when mashing the Start button to skip through these repetitive sequences, it all still takes 50 seconds of loading to start up the actual content that the player has been waiting to see — even longer if you count the time from the end of the dungeon clearance screen, after which the player is often already assuming a flash-forward is about to happen. That’s a hell of a long time to just be sitting there looking at loading screen after loading screen, and again, even opting to view everything is simply viewing the same speeches over and over and over and over, so sane people can’t use that as a workaround either. That’s a documented method of torture.

The question with awful design like this is “Why?” Why was it made this way? Could we not have simply sat through all the loading and explanatory speeches the first time or two, then simply use a singular wipe to “Meanwhile in 2020, Mac Anu…”? So at the end of .hack//Link, a player will spend approximtely an hour and a half just on loading up that one little sequence. It hurts because it could have easily been avoided.

.hack//Link’s story can be seen as a reimagining of the whole .hack saga. Tokio begins in the year 2020, but the bulk of his time will be spent in the past, interacting with virtually every character from the series, even ones that hadn’t previously appeared in video games. Not all of them will become playable, but this game features a huge all-star lineup. It’s highly interesting to see Tokio, a newcomer in The World, interacting with familiar faces and getting wrapped up in older .hack storylines of which so many .hackers have fond memories. The only drawback to this is that it makes some parts of the story predictable — less so later on, as the overlying plot starts to take over.

Longtime fans of the .hack project will definitely enjoy the story, seeing old faces again, tying up loose ends, seeing familiar characters take ther first steps into the game portion of the saga, and perhaps even learning a thing or two. The story is definitely .hack//Link‘s strongest aspect, even though series newcomers will not experience any of the delightful nostalgia that fuels us old-timers.

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Funny as Haseo with an afro may be, it doesn’t add much to this 50-hour demo disc parading as a “game.”

The plot moves on rails for several hours before suddenly giving the player a bevy of side quests. Players can continue with the main plot or earn more possible companions and gain levels by taking on optional missions in the realms of .hack//Another Birth, .hack//Cell, .hack//AI Buster, .hack//Zero, .hack//Legend of the Twilight, and others. This sounds great, and seeing the new characters — especially those Tokio can team with — is wicked fun at first, but goes right back to painfully annoying when the player realizes that little changes with each character or .hack subsaga.

It’s still the same enemies, beaten by the exact same juggle combos, sitting in the same dungeons with, most of the time, the same boss fight at the end. It’s a constant battle of priorities, as the player will likely want to see these interesting moments of story, but the prospect of more time trudging through the awful battle system only to fight Giant Tongue Guy or Strong Arms Guy for the 50th time is discouraging.

Yes, even boss battles are recycled. While there are a small number of special bosses, three or four that even have — get this — unique attacks, most dungeons are punctuated by a fight with one of four bosses. It’s odd and jarring because often times, there will even be a big speech from a real character beforehand. For a purely hypothetical example, perhaps Tokio and Albireo are trying to talk Orca out of smoking PCP. For some odd reason, this story sequence requires yet another spelunk through the volocano dungeon. Then, Orca then might say “No! You’ll have to beat me up to get me to stop!” Fade to white aaaand…we’re fighting the same monster we’ve killed a dozen times already? Not even color-swapped? Huh?

Even special bosses are generally beaten with the same strategy: Mash O, mash O, mash O, special move, *Break*, mash O till the juggle combo begins, juggle as much as possible, repeat, repeat, repeat ad nauseum. That’s the one and only working strategy for every boss. It’s also the same strategy that beats every single enemy. Really, a monkey could play this. Perhaps a monkey designed it?

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These are wicked cool until you see them every 5 minutes for hours and hours

The gameplay as a whole is best embodied in the final dungeon. So ready, so excited for this game to finally end, I defeated some enemies in a room and hit the teleportation switch to go to the next one. I found myself in a hallway that looked exactly like the 15 others I’d just run through. I got to the end of it and saw another teleportation device just like the one I’d hit previously. This hall had no items…no enemies…no cutscenes…so save point…no recovery statue…no purpose. And I thought to myself, “This is it. This is the game, in a nutshell.”

No. No, Namco Bandai, no. You do not just torture a person in a questionable mental state due to just spending 30-50 hours slogging through the sewers of BS that make up .hack//Link‘s dungeonplay by just adding an extra corridor for the hell of it. Not cool.

The .hack series has always had nice music, and fortunately, that’s an area where Link is neither outstanding nor awful. Story boss battles will often use themes from anime installments, which longtime vets will appreciate. The dungeon and menu tracks are decent enough, if bland, and the Grand Whale theme becomes grating over time. Remember: simply using a choir does not automatically mean a soundtrack is good. Though part of that may simply be other frustrations with the game coming out in the form of getting fed up with that overplayed music track.

.hack//Link‘s strong story is something series fans should enjoy. It ties up many loose ends while adding a bit more info and detail to the world of The World. Moreover, it does so while managing to give a shout out to practically every major .hack side project and providing a great mix of fan service and real quality work. The game was clearly not made with the intent of gaining new fans, but pleasing old ones exclusively; those who know nothing about .hack would not do well to start with this game.

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At least someone still loves you

That said, it’s not a good game to end with, either. Namco Bandai has called this the last .hack game, and truly, the series desrved a better sendoff than this. As a .hack fan, I was personally looking forward to this as much as any game I’ve played in years. I leave not just disappointed, but infuriated and a little insulted. It has a story to satisfy, but the gameplay is some of the most wretched of the whole generation. My words can’t even do justice to how sickening this game feels to play. It’s at odds with itself being somehow both stupidly easy, yet mind-blowingly frustrating. This does not bode well when considering the dungeons are a level of boring I hadn’t known to exist, the battles are like playing a demo on loop, the boss fights are obvious signs of corners being cut, and some technical aspects could have (and have been) better programmed by students and indy developers. Its great story can’t save .hack//Link. It’s just a horrible game.

-Heath Hindman

Score Breakdown
Out of 10
See our Review Criteria
Gameplay Offensive
Story Great
Graphics Average
Sound/Music Average
Replay Value Offensive
The Verdict: Horrible