.hack//Mutation is the second game in the of .hack saga, a direct continuation of the events portrayed in .hack//INFECTION and a building block for the future segments. Also included with the game is the second disc of .hack//Liminality, a short anime OVA that parallels the game events of Mutation by depicting a separate real-life saga in the same timeframe.
Mutation’s story picks up exactly where Infection ended, adding only a short flashback to help players remember events from the first game. This flashback probably does not contain enough background for .hack newcomers, and it is recommended that players play the first game before starting Mutation, especially since Mutation lacks any sort of tutorial.
Since the storyline is spread out over two more installments, there will not be a sense of closure; indeed, the cliffhanger of an ending is one of the high points of Mutation’s story. Unfortunately, Mutation guards its story revelations as well as the Vestal Virgins were guarded – it is nearly impossible for the player to gain much satisfaction. Too many events within the game are either too mysterious or simply side-plots, leaving players without any real sense of progression.
Kite continues his quest to find how he can revive his friend Orca out of the coma that Orca mysteriously fell into while playing the MMORPG The World. Mutation uses the same combination of in-game revelations, board messages, and player emails as Infection did to reveal story elements.
One of the highlights for this installment is that Kite will meet and recruit several new characters to join him in his quest. Some of these are optional, but one of the coolest is directly tied into the storyline. The downside of more characters is that keeping each character properly outfitted becomes even more tedious; prepare to spend much time in menu-land. Kite also meets the System Administrator and has continued dealings with the mysterious hacker Helba.
Battles are real-time with the exception of menu browsing. General commands can be issued to the AI characters, but it is often necessary to manually issue a specific command for a specific character. The AI of the characters could have used some improvements as they will continually use ineffective magic (despite having fought 20-30 of the same monster on that level) or by attacking when they have been commanded to heal.
Although the game is clearly a continuation – an extension – of the first, there are a few new features to excite veterans. Most of the gameplay, excepting a few excursions to previous servers, takes place on a new server complete with a new Root Town. The role of the Grunties has expanded from mere mount oddity to include a racing mini-game that offers exceptional prizes.
.hack//SIGN fans will be delighted at the inclusion of a few flashbacks from that series as well as some minor references in-game. Careful watchers of the Liminality DVD will also be able to find hidden items, adding extra content to the somewhat short game.
Unfortunately, Mutation does not address most of the issues that Infection possessed. The camera is still completely manual and utterly frustrating. Dungeon layouts are still blocky and uninspired. Difficulty is still unbalanced – it is entirely possible to be wiped within a few seconds by a normal battle but have zero problems taking on the bosses.
The “hacked” levels are more common in Mutation, and the screen frequently flashes a bright white color – frequently enough to give gamers a headache during extended gameplay. Mutation, like Infection, is also short; gamers wanting their money’s worth should complete all of the side-quests in order to break the 20 hour mark.
Mutation also introduces a potential new frustration. Gate hacking requires the usage of virus cores, and some of the story dungeons require virus cores drained from monsters as opposed to ones obtained through story events. To obtain these cores, it is necessary to data drain a large amount of enemies. If a player is unlucky, it is possible to wander for hours trying to find the right enemy to drop the right core and hoping that it can be data drained and will actually grant the core and not a useless item.
Veterans will find the audio-visual elements much unchanged save for the addition of a few new soundtracks and landscapes. The style is still a solid representation of the MMORPG world. Players have the choice between Japanese and English voice acting, both offering solid characterizations.
Despite its shortcomings and lack of replayability, Mutation is another solid title in the .hack series. It can really only be recommended for Infection veterans and those willing to commit themselves to the entire saga. Hopefully the remaining two installments will reward those willing to continue with a good climax to one of the more original RPGs yet.
As a side note, Star Trek fans should look for an appearance by Q – he’s picky about his performances.
.hack//MUTATION is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Mature Sexual Themes, Mild Animated Violence.