The .hack (pronounced dot hack) franchise is one that I would really love to see someone do a complete retrospective of since there is so much of it and it's really hard to tell what's worth seeing and what isn't. So I did the next best thing, asked my friends if any of them really knew anything about the franchise or could at least give me a timeline of it. One of my friends did (I actually reposted it in a thread over on ANN) so now I at least have a basic idea of how the story all fits together. I've actually wanted to try out the shows for a long time now (I remember reading a bit about them in the readers corner in the magazine Cricket which I haven't gotten since I was 15 or so) but never had the chance until I found out that my current roommate had all the dvds for Sign. So they very nicely loaned them to me and even pointed out that the letters on the spines of the DVDs spell out "Log Out" which I thought was pretty neat.
Summary: In an alternate future there is an online video game played by millions across the globe called "The World." It's an RPG where the players immerse themselves using special headsets to interact and can immediately disconnect if something goes wrong. But something has gone wrong and the character known as Tsukasa is stuck in The World. Already a withdrawn person, Tsukasa is broken and it's only due to the intervention of several other characters, some of whom think that Tsukasa's impossible condition is connected to another impossible event, the The Key of the Twilight, that he manages to keep from withdrawing from the world all together.
The Good: Some stories that have the characters in or playing a video game like to be coy about it and reveal that it's only a game as a big twist, .hack//SIGN does not do that and I really liked that it didn't take that route. The fact that this is just a game, a game that has gotten terribly real for one person, is an interesting juxtaposition and I also liked how some of the characters were doing more research into the behind the scenes events outside of the game. There's also a lot of interesting background information about the story itself (the DVDs come with a pretty interesting timeline, detailing from when this world split from ours, right up to 2007 when The World was released), although it almost makes me wish that the show had been able to focus more on that instead of some of it's filler episodes.
The Bad: I've seen a number of stories that involve people getting stuck in video games (both physically and mentally like here) so the idea doesn't feel as fresh anymore, I feel like I would have enjoyed this story much more if I had seen it when I was younger and wasn't as jaded about the philosophical conversations that many characters had. There were also a few small things about the story that bugged me (such as the fact that this was supposed to be one of the series that showed the characters outside the game yet barely did so and the whole deal with Balmug*). Tsukasa was also very hard to like, there were several times when I wondered why some of the characters still bothered to put up with him, and I thought that the way he eventually got out of the game was a bit of a cop-out, it was just so simple, basically an accident, that it bothered me after all the build-up that was one of the main points of the series.
The Audio: I had heard about people talking about the music for this series for years but I was still blown away by the soundtrack. There is tons and tons of music for this show, some only instrumental and some background insert songs (in surprisingly good English too) and the opening and ending songs were both great as well. I almost feel like it's a shame that it's a rather average show like this that gets such a gorgeous score, I'll be sure to see what other works the composer has done.
The Visuals: The visuals however aren't nearly as impressive as the music. The visuals aren't bad, not at all, but they make the show look very much like an early 2000s, average budget show. Despite the characters being in a video game (ie, there is no reason why their clothes have to obey the laws of physics and common sense) the clothes weren't that outrageous but the setting did explain some of the odder choices which was nice. There were also some nice settings within the show where it was clear that the creators remembered that this wasn't a standard fantasy show but a show set inside the video game (such as the upside down castle) and I thought those were nice touches.
I'm not exactly sure if I want to try out any more series in this franchise, especially since for some of them you need to see video game play throughs first and other bits are only explained in mangas/novels but I think in the end this is a franchise where I like the concept better than the execution. Hmm, that might explain some of the problems I had with Quantum's ending....
*they mention him in the very first episode (which got me excited since one of the characters in .hack//Quantum based their design off of him) and he even was on the cover of one of the DVDs, only to appear for a barely five minute cameo, lame! I've since been able to figure out what works he's really in and find his backstory but I was still miffed by this.