What They Say:
Tsukasa awakens inside The World, an immense online RPG filled with monsters, magic, and mayhem. When he discovers he’s unable to log out of this mysterious game, he joins forces with a colorful group of characters and begins a desperate quest to find his way back to real life.
The audio presentation for this release comes with the original Japanese language track as well as the previously created English language dub, both of which are encoded at 192kbps. The series is one that has its moments of action to be sure, but they’re brief and punctuated events. The majority of the series is dialogue based, though the quiet incidental music moments gives it a run for its money. That’s not exactly a bad thing as the music here certainly is a strong part of the shows appeal and it comes across well through the forward soundstage. It has a good, warm feeling to it overall and it’s matched by the dialogue side of it. There’s not a lot of real emphasis to be had here as it’s a kind of flat series of performances overall, mandated by the story, but it comes across clean and clear with both tracks. The mix is one that does create a certain atmosphere and it hits the right notes, but outside of the music itself there’s not much memorable here.
Originally airing in 2002, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. The twenty-six episodes and two OVAs are spread across four DVDs with seven on each one. Animated by Bee Train, the show at the time certainly established a look and color tone that drew fans in and the detail to the backgrounds and settings is still very much there. The transfer here captures the look of the show pretty well, though it’s also showing its age and the materials itself. Colors are generally solid, though there are gradients to be had at times with some of the backgrounds. The show works the grainy digital feeling fairly well, but again there’s a visible element to it in many scenes, though not anywhere near to the point of distraction. The smoothness of the animation works well and without any cross coloration to be had here, it’s a solid little package overall, though one that does leave you wishing for a high definition version just to see if it could possibly pop more.
The packaging for this release comes in a standard sized clear DVD case that holds the four discs on hinges. We also get an o-card for it that replicates the artwork on the case itself which gives it a little more pop. The front of it keeps the logo to the upper right in a minimal kind of way that works, while the rest is given over to the character artwork of Subaru, Tsukasa and Aura. Not that Tsukasa looks good, but this is one of the more familiar pieces of promotional artwork that we’ve seen over the years. With a black/purple hued background, it’s not the most engaging there either. The back cover carries these colors around in a bit better of a way as the purples stand out more, which has a selection of shots from the show along it as well. The right side brings us the logo again and a clean look at the extras as well as a solid and straightforward breakdown of the premise. The rest is given over to the minimal technical grid and the production credits. With the case mirroring the card, we also get artwork on the reverse side where the left has a great look at Subaru with the disc breakdown of episodes and titles while the right side brings together a good pairing of Tsukasa and Mimiru. The artwork here is much better than the main cover itself.
The menu design for this release is very simple and straightforward as we get the same static screen across all four volumes with just the volume number changing. The main layout has a decent yin and yang image where the left side has the brighter image of Subaru in her usual outfit and the right side has Tsukasa, albeit upside down. The navigation is through the center with the standard selections along with the logo, which is quick to load and easy to access with no problems to be had at all. I would have preferred to have different artwork with each disc, but it’s a decent enough design to use across all of them.
The extras for this release brings us what we had before and spreads them across all four of the discs. These come in the form of the promo and commercials as well as the original trailers for it. Add in the character art pieces and the clean opening and closing sequences and there’s a decent selection. The packaging does list the OVAs as extras as well, but I always treat that as actual content unless they’re just the bonus shorts.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Part of the larger multimedia plan that was the .hack universe with the games, TV series and the manga, .hack//SIGN was the first and biggest part of the anime side of the franchise. The show was one that garnered a lot of attention when it arrived due to its music and that the games themselves were popular, making it something that had a lot of people checking it out. I still have and fondly remember the original limited editions that came out with the hexagon boxes that had the little stuffed Grunty’s in them, so just having that in mind revisiting the series put me in the right frame of mind. Having grown up playing pen and paper role playing games, and then the text based ones, I’ve got a fair bit of an RPG background, though ones like this was never something I got into.
The series takes place largely within the game setting known as The World, a place where twenty million people play across the world. It’s an expansive world with many servers that has a lengthy in-game history that provides for some beautiful settings and backgrounds to take in. That’s a big part of the appeal here in seeing The World and its dungeons as there is a sense of history and ruin to a lot of it, and seeing those mysteries become part of it along the way adds some good weight to it all. Within the game, it’s something that’s kept painfully simple though as all we get are human race characters that have various classes and standard designs with mild modifications that engage in all the usual MMORPG kinds of actions, from a bit of player versus player, dungeon crawling and just hanging out. it’s familiar, though it hasn’t aged well in a sense since this particular type of show has been done just a few times since then.
Within the show, we’re introduced to the main catalyst for what’s going on with Tsukasa, a young man of the Wavemaster class who for some reason has gained a reputation as being someone who can’t log out. He’s drawn the attention of some such as the Crimson Knights and their leader, Lady Subaru, and they’re trying to figure out the truth of it in case it’s a glitch or something far more serious. Because of this, Tsukasa largely keeps to himself, but also because he’s managed to gain special access to a secret location where he spends time with a young girl that’s in a sleep state for almost the entire series, named Aura, that he essentially cares for. This is all orchestrated by Macha, a cat in human form of sorts that really causes concern from the Crimson Knights because of what he represents. This provides the main struggle that occurs throughout the series, albeit it’s done very lightly for the most part outside of a couple of trap moments laid out by the Knights.
Tsukasa isn’t without friends though, but it takes almost the entire series in a way before he really understands this. We get introduced to these characters through their own stories as players within the game, such as the teenaged Mimiru and her fight character, the cautious Bear that’s nearly fifty outside of the game, the loner woman BT who is close to Bear and Sora, the player killer type that’s drawn to BT and helps out everyone at times for his own purposes, largely to amuse himself more than anything else. The various connections between them weave back and forth over it and as they learn more about Tsukasa, they each become invested in different ways. There’s a few other characters that come into the mix as well, with Crim, one of the founders of the Crimson Knights that left, and the main Crimson Knight himself who is slavishly devoted to Subaru until she begins to move away from leading the way that he wants her to.
With this series, it’s one that has a larger story to tell about the way the game of The World is about to go through a change, but it’s done in such a way that it’s very, very drawn out and it’s really not until the final few episodes that it’s made clear exactly what’s going on. Part of that is because there’s so many red herrings along the way about what’s going on that you can’t be sure, but also because it does its best to not be drawn to anything in particular. Tsukasa’s situation is the main driver at first, but it shifts to a background concern about his not being able to logout after awhile. Curiosity about how he can survive like this comes into play briefly, but the show really doesn’t want to delve into anything too deep. But the various issues it wants to present gives it the feeling that it’s actually covering a wide range of emotions and issues.
But it’s all just so superficial. Having invested a good chunk of my youth in online role playing games, there’s so many missed opportunities here to delve into things that it’s disappointing. The characters for the most part keep their real world selves to themselves, but we get flashes of it from time to time as there’s curiosities among some of them and we get the whole issue with what’s going on with Tsukasa on the outside since he can’t logout. But even here, it makes up at most what feels like maybe ten minutes of material over the course of the whole thing. And while you can be fully invested in these online personalities and not the offline ones, there’s nothing strong with either side, which makes it feel all the weaker. Part of it is just me in that I know that I want to know fully what’s going on with the offline side and who they are. That would be less important for me though if the online characters were more engaging.
The actual gaming side to the show itself is something that’s not really given a lot of attention overall either, unfortunately. With there being some twenty million players across multiple servers, there’s maybe what feels like two dozen characters in the show in total that we see. The place really feels like a ghost town most of the time and that takes you out of it because it’s done with too minimal of an approach. The same can be said with the dungeon crawling, as there’s not much of it going on and there’s a light touch to the monsters they have to fight for the most part and there’s only an occasional nod to non-combat oriented quests that come into it. Again, there’s so much that could be done to really make the whole world of .hack seem amazing, but it’s like it’s all kept at a distance as we interact with the lone wolf characters that exist along the fringes of the world.
.hack//SIGN is a series that I was definitely intrigued by when I first saw it over a decade ago and the mystery that was built across that run with its single volume releases made it easy to digest it in small pieces and try to figure it all out. When taking it in marathon session over two days, it’s something that paints it in a much more superficial way because of the way it draws it out and never feels like it sinks its teeth into anything to really be something of significance. There are some really good sequences to be had and it evokes a great tone and atmosphere throughout a lot of it, but the characters are what your casual lay person may think online gaming is like in that there’s no depth there. Which is unfortunate, because these are some fascinating worlds that you can invest in fully and deeply. This release brings the show back into the market after several years out of print and it’s definitely worth it to see it out there again and expose people more to a bit of the subgenres history with one of its bigger hits at the time. It’s an interesting series to revisit as there’s some great nostalgia when it comes to the music and the sweeping movements of it all, but the story itself is one that I wish was tighter and more interesting.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Character Art Reel, Textless Opening and Closing, Promo Video, Commercial Collection, Japanese Trailers
Content Grade: B-
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: B
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: B
Released By: FUNimation
Release Date: February 24th, 2015
Running Time: 700 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.