Japanese RPGs. The words themselves are enough to cause a distinct wobble in the lower lip of many European PS2 owners; an instinctive reaction to the mention of the single genre which has caused those of us here in PAL-land the most suffering over the past years. The story is familiar to all of us by now, as we've watched the USA receive fantastic RPGs for years while Europe gets little more than Final Fantasy and the occasional drop of gaming nectar which arrives from across the Atlantic, such as the excellent Shadow Hearts or the solid Wild Arms 3. Then, of course, they add insult to injury by depriving us of Xenosaga or Suikoden III, and giving us the diabolically bad Unlimited SaGa instead... The bastards. They do these things to taunt us.
We'd love to be able to say that all of that is about to change, but unfortunately, we can't - although hopefully Namco and Square Enix' recently voiced plans to extend their reach in Europe will move things forward somewhat. However, what we can tell you today is that there's some light on the horizon, because one of the best RPG series of recent years is definitely on its way to Europe - and it's almost more than we'd dared to hope for.
The arrival of Bandai's .hack series of RPGs (there are four in total, starting with the first volume, .hack//INFECTION) in Europe isn't exactly news, since Atari announced that it was set to publish the games in this territory some time ago. However, .hack is not a normal series of games - in fact, it's what might be described as a cross-media experience, featuring not only the four games (each of which runs into the next, so you need to play all four to complete the story) but also an original animation series (.hack//LIMINALITY), a television animation series (.hack//SIGN) and a manga comic (.hack//Legend of Twilight's Bracelet, or .hack//DUSK) which has also recently become a TV series in its own right. Here's the catch - to get the whole story of what's happened, you need to experience all of the separate facets of .hack.
(We've covered the first game in some depth in this preview feature, so we won't bore you by going into details of the game mechanics. Suffice it to say that the game is innovative and entertaining, with a clever hook for an RPG, and well worth playing for any fan of the genre.)
It's a nice idea, but we were a bit dubious about how well it'd translate to Europe - a market that isn't exactly known for embracing anime and manga, never mind sprawling multi-volume RPGs. Quite frankly, we expected Atari and Bandai to roll out the first couple of volumes of the game, witness slow sales (not least because people wouldn't know what the hell it was), and then quietly can the launch of later volumes, leaving those who had played the first couple of games stranded with nothing but US imports to fall back on.
We were, we're glad to say, completely and utterly wrong.
Being wrong never felt so right
First thing's first. Atari is absolutely committed to launching all four volumes of the game, and even has them pencilled into its release schedule - so the first volume arrives in March, with the second game, .hack//MUTATION, due in May, while volumes three and four follow in September and November respectively. That should give most gamers a chance to finish the previous chapter before the next one arrives, without making those who blitz through the game wait too long before the next instalment.
As was the case in Japan and the USA, each volume of the game will be released at full price. Complaints about this being a pretty expensive way to experience a story may be partially silenced, however, by the fact that each game comes bundled with a DVD featuring a chapter of the .hack//LIMINALITY original animation series, which was created by Neon Genesis Evangelion creators Gainax (in fact, the lead character designer from Evangelion, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, also worked on the .hack characters) and tells the story of events that unfold in the real world while you are playing in the game world.
The decision to split .hack into four separate games is often questioned, and Bandai producer Daisuke Uchiyama admitted that this was not the original plan for the game. "In the planning stage, we had no plan to make any animation or to divide the game into four parts," he told us earlier this week. "But after we gathered these three famous creators [character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Evangelion, FLCL), writer Kazunori Ito (Ghost in the Shell) and director Koichi Mashimo (Noir)] the world became larger and deepened, and we could not pack all of this into one game... We saw that there was potential for making more out of what they had created, and we extended the scope of the project."
"Although this isn't what we planned from the outset," he continued, "this was the only solution - dividing the game into four volumes and providing the animation to help to explain what's going on."
.hack your television
Having the games and the Original Video Animation (OVA) series is a great start, and it's good to see the European market being treated with this level of respect where an RPG is concerned - in fact, it's been promised that the European versions of the game will include bonus extras not found elsewhere, although details of these extras have yet to emerge. But what of the other elements of the .hack universe - the TV series and the manga?
Much to our surprise, and delight, it looks like we're getting those as well - with Bandai reportedly in the final stages of negotiations to see the .hack//SIGN TV series actually appearing on television in Europe, as well as on DVD, while the .hack//DUSK manga is also set to be published on these shores (presumably by dedicated manga publisher TokyoPop, which is in the process of establishing operations in the UK).
It seems that Bandai and Atari are taking the European market for the game very seriously indeed - and the importance Atari places on its relationship with Bandai may well be a part of the reason for this. Bandai has provided the publisher with many of its biggest selling titles in recent years, including franchises such as Dragonball Z, Digimon, Beyblade and Gundam, and an Atari spokesperson described Bandai as "one of our most important, if not the most important, of our partnerships."
The same spokesperson pointed out that the exploiting of a cross-media franchise isn't exactly new ground for Atari - since last year's Enter The Matrix is a good example of the same sort of thing in action. And this time around, they've actually got a good game to sell, as well as a cross-media "experience"...
More on the way?
It may seem a bit premature, given that the first volume isn't even out in Europe yet, but we were keen to know whether there's anything further planned for the .hack franchise. All four volumes of the game have been out in Japan for some time, and it's performed extremely well - with Uchiyama-san informing us that sales of all four volumes have been high, with little or no diminishing returns seen between volumes, a fact which has surprised Bandai themselves as much as anyone else by the sounds of it.
"It's very hard to make this sort of game - in fact, the development of it almost had us in tears," he quipped when asked whether the online realm of The World would be revisited by Bandai and developer CyberConnect 2 in future. "But we enjoyed it very much... And yes, we are planning to make a new game in the .hack universe. We can't say what form it will take... It may not even be released, but we are working on it. Someone in top management is probably going to be angry at us for telling you that, actually..."
Of course, the game many .hack fans really want to see is a genuine online version of The World, the fictional MMORPG in which the .hack games take place. Although no comment was forthcoming about whether that might happen, with CyberConnect 2 already having the basics of an MMORPG world implemented in order to create .hack, the question might be asked - why didn't they put .hack online in the first place, rather than creating an offline game?
Welcome to The World
"The .hack project was started four years ago," explains CyberConnect 2 president Hiroshi Mastsuyama, "when online games such as Diablo, Ultima Online and EverQuest were starting to become popular. Being a game developer we play lots of games, and so we played these games and saw the attractiveness of this sort of online play."
"However, then as now, the main group of gamers is teenagers from the ages of 13 to 18, and if you consider this group, they probably did not have a television, a PlayStation 2, a net connection and a credit card - and you need all of those things to play online games. Four years ago that audience didn't exist in Japan, so our solution was to try and keep the attractive features of an online game and create something with the appeal of an offline RPG."
"We wanted to introduce people to the fun of online games," concluded Mastsuyama-san, a comment which does indeed tend to suggest that the creation of online games is on the radar for CyberConnect 2. After all, if you've got your fans slavering to play online with your clever offline realisation of the features of network play - wouldn't it make sense to satisfy that demand?
For now, we're delighted to see Europe getting the full .hack treatment - games, TV series, DVDs, comics and all. But we can't help looking to the future, and wondering how long it'll be before we're running through the strange plains of The World for real...
The first title in the series, .hack//INFECTION, is released in Europe on March 26th.