Can't believe this series actually got a PC port. Its only $50 for all three games and a new DLC episode that tries to give a happy ending in game that is bleak and depressing as hell. .hack//G.U. is one of those long cutscene games so if you're not a fan of that, you will not enjoy this game.
In order to fully understand the story, you need to watch .hack//ROOTS, which explains what happens in the "three months later" that you see between the tutorial and the beginning of the game, and a mini-series that is present within the game itself. I will not cover those as they are not essential and there are numerous references to the previous four .hack games. It just helps with the characters and you do not need to have seen or played the other series to understand the story.
The first game starts with Haseo, the main character, getting Data Drained by a mysterious PKer in The World: R2 who goes by the name of Tri-Edge. This resets him to level 1, but it also awakens a new power within him. Over the course of the PvP tournament, he discovers strange black spots that are infecting people and causing them to fall into comas. Only the people with the power, known as the Epitaph Users are able to combat the black spots known as AIDA. The infection spreads, but the game keeps it under wraps as the only way to save the ones who are lost to AIDA is by finding out the cause of it. Although Haseo wins the tournament, he discovers that the AIDA are interested in the Epitaph Users as well, stealing Atoli's Epitaph.
The bonus content comes in two forms. The first is Online Jack, a series of anime shorts viewable in game that tracks real world developments while the main game is ongoing. The second one is the more important one. It is a series of videos made by the brother of one of your party members, Pi. Her brother worked on the first Project G.U., an attempt to gain control over the eight Epitaphs and harness their power after the events of the first set of .hack games. During the videos, her brother realized that the Epitaphs would allow control of emotions and it was too dangerous, so he sabotages the project and steals the character that Pi would eventually use. The project then decides to use a fake Epitaph, essentially substituting Cubia for Tarvos and ends up destroying the first version of The World. In an attempt to salvage what was left, they built The World: R2 and the remaining seven Epitaphs (also called the Cursed Wave, Eight Phases or Morgana, and a crapton of other names) bound themselves to different characters, setting up the events of the .hack//G.U. games.
The second game continues where the first game left off as the AIDA uses Atoli's Epitaph to make a mirror server. Everyone panics and is stuck there for a few hours, but only a few minutes pass in real life as Haseo works with others to force a log out. Eventually, Sakaki, someone close to Atoli infects her with AIDA and uses her to try to take control of the guild Moon Tree and the Epitaphs. However, he loses control of Atoli after she is purified by Haseo's own Epitaph. Sakaki flees before infecting himself. With his defeat, Ovan, a man that Haseo knew and has been pushing Haseo along reveals that he is out of time, but Haseo is not strong enough. Ovan reveals himself as the true Tri-Edge and attacks Haseo. Although Ovan is defeated, he is not gone as Haseo was not strong enough.
The third game continues shortly after the end of the second. Yata has disappeared and Sakaki is now in charge of the Epitaph users in the fight against AIDA. People object, but they have no choice. They secretly follow and rebel at the same time. Sakaki holds an open PK tournament and reveals the existence of Epitaph Users, accusing Haseo of cheating to win the PvP tournaments. Once more, Sakaki is defeat by the Epitaph Users. The last Epitaph User is revealed to be Yata, the one who has been working and guiding Haseo against AIDA and upon his defeat, he recites a poem that sounds like a warning. The Epitaph Users track Ovan down and Haseo fights Ovan once more. Haseo is able to defeat Ovan, but Ovan uses his Epitaph's special ability, the Rebirth, which can only be triggered when Haseo's Epitaph and Ovan's Epitaph meet under certain conditions. This forces the game to reset, purifying it of the AIDA. Haseo is injured and restored by Zelkova in the Net Slums, which functions as a safe haven against the new problem that has arisen. The AIDA infection was what was keeping Cubia, the antithesis of the Epitaph users at bay. Now that AIDA is gone, Cubia is able to physically manifest and begins taking over computer networks all over the world. With the help of the other Epitaph Users, Haseo is able to hold Cubia back, but without Ovan, they are unable to beat it and slowly losing ground because Haseo only has copies of the other seven Epitaphs within him. As Haseo struggles, a vision of Ovan appears to help Haseo, giving him the power needed to defeat Cubia. In doing so, the Lost Ones are awakened from their comas, including Shino, Haseo's old love/friend and his reason for doing all of this in the first place. But, Haseo chooses Atoli in the end (if you prefer Shino, read the manga, I think he chooses her in that one).
If you've played all the games, then you get a bonus scene. In this scene, Shino restarts the Twilight Brigade, a guild that was started by Ovan in order to find the Key of the Twilight, an item that is said to make the impossible possible in The World. But this time, Shino believes Haseo and decides to look for Ovan with the new Twilight Brigade with Haseo joining her. This leads into Reconnection, Vol 4, follows this story as Haseo searches for Ovan. However, he meets an enemy he cannot defeat, so he is granted the power of the Lost Weapons for his latest class change. When he does find Ovan, a program meant to eliminate irregularities, much like the Azure Trio appears before him. With the help of Ovan, the two combine their Epitaphs to defeat the creature, finally freeing Ovan and giving everyone their happy ending.
The graphics of the game jumps between the game engine and the pre-rendered cutscenes. But because Vol 4 was developed much later, the cutscenes in that one are much higher quality. In terms of graphics, they are comparable to one of those games that have a Vita port and still works fine with the console version. They at least upscaled everything so that even in HD, things look nice. Enemy varieties are big enough, but use a lot of recolors. Characters in your party look unique, but the NPCs that run around town are very similar. The towns themselves are small, but the field and area varieties are enough to make things feel different every now and then. Most of the graphical work went into the Epitaph battles that come with spectacular pre-rendered cutscenes every once in a while. They do it for some conversations as well and it would have been equal to a modern game if they could have done it to everything, but that would be a completely remake instead of just a remaster. Its by no means bad, but definitely good for a remake of a game that came out more than ten years ago.
The game is divided into two areas, towns and fields. Towns are where quests and most story events are initiated while fileds are where nearly all the combat and story events take place. Fields are comprised of three word phrases and you can earn more word phrases through the story, reading message boards, and completing fields with a B grade or higher. There are also special words that give bonuses, like increased drops, or summons the Doppelganger (the ultimate secret boss) instantly. Even though the field types are pretty generic, it still makes it interesting to explore and farm for items as the keyword maps are fixed in nature. But, there are thousands of combinations and you get fixed rewards for visiting and completing each one. The in game forums even gives you hints on where to find certain items.
Combat is the main focus of this game as there are no custom characters or anything like that. The game starts off as a simple and poorly done action game where you just either mash or hold the attack button with the occasional block, switch targets, and triggering a special attack. But, with each game comes noticeable improvements. For example, in the second game, you can switch weapons by just using one a weapon skill with a different assigned weapon to it. Haseo can now move when he has charged up his broadsword. Even his allies become more aggressive and are able to use healing items on their own. By the third game, you can have two sets of skills equipped though the second set has a weapon restriction on it. In the fourth game, that restriction is lifted, giving you full access to eight skills in any combination. You can see the combat system grow and change, but it would be nice if those changes were retroactive as well since they would massively improve gameplay.
Another type of battles are the ones with Epitaphs. They focus on you shooting the enemy and protecting yourself until the enemy opens up themselves to a melee attack after being stunned. Repeat this until you can Data Drain them. Because your levels are much more impactful, most of the battles no longer feel as long and tedious until you get later into Volume 3, but that's because there is a very small opening to Data Drain your enemy and it can get frustrating as you try to find that opening. They look and feel a lot more epic, but can get frustrating when they make you do several of them in a row (this is a big problem in Volume 2).
Another issue is with the side quests. The side quests reset between each volume and you essentially have to do a ton of grinding to complete each one. Had they been one continuous series like the One Sin boss that spans across all three games, it would have made the game a lot better and prevented missable content while reducing the grind. Instead, you're forced to visit the few same maps over and over to kick rare animals, spend chim spheres to save the robot, and hunt PKs. By resetting the quests, they manage to make the games have a lot of annoying grinding aspects if you want to do everything since those items you missed cannot be acquired in the later games due to the quests being reset each time. Had they been continous (since you restart them in every game anyways), it would have made nothing missable and allow you to control your pace through them. Instead, it forces it into an insane grind if you want to be able to complete the Ryu Book collection (more on that later).
The side quests that do not reset are the Lost Weapons, the Cherrunos side quests, and the Doppelganger that can be done in any of the three games. The Cherrunos side quest starts in Volume 1 and if you check the Message Boards, there are occasionally words that talk about strange voices. By completing all of them, you get the full story behind the Forest of Death, an event that was present in .hack//Roots that corrupted Haseo's character with AIDA (and explains why Haseo was Data Drained) and serves as the post game 100 floor dungeon. The Lost Weapons start as a story event in Volume 2 that unlocks the Adler's Keys and then in Volume 3, you can Data Drain enemies to acquire cores to upgrade the weapons. They serve as the game's ultimate weapons.
There is also a side quest involving the Ryu Books. This is a series of books managed by the Grunty (a pig) in the Canard guild home. By doing things in game that include everything from play time, to running over enemies with your bike, and even simply trading with other NPCs, they can points and grow. In turn, they unlock special backgrounds, music, and past videos that you have seen to be viewed. When you get all the books up a level, you unlock a Guild Upgrade that gives you special features, such as being able to heal at the blue platforms (exit points for fields) or the ability to warp between them. Its a nice touch and gives a lot for completionists to work towards.
One of the major points of the game that I often overlook is the music. There are a few repetitive songs, but they are used well to draw emotion and the somber atmosphere matches the overall tone of the game pretty well. The voice acting is not bad, but I feel that the music overshadows everything else and helps accentuate the overall tone of the game. For example, whenever Haseo thinks about the past, the song Honeysuckle plays along with showing the events, reminding Haseo of a happy past that he has lost touch with since the beginning of the game. Gentle Hands usually plays towards the end as major events die down as a way to lift the mood of what is often something tragic. Music in a lot of games nowadays are less memorable and rarely tied to a game's story events and I feel that as a result, many games have less emotional impact. The only one I feel is superior or even close to .hack//G.U.'s usage of it is Final Fantasy 10.
.hack//G.U. Last Recode is a story driven game. If you do not care about the story and only the gameplay, then this game is not for you (you can probably clear each game in under 10 hours if you skip cutscenes). The gameplay is pretty bad until Volume 2's class upgrade that allows you to customize your skills and change weapons in battle. It also improves more with each volume of the game. The sad part is that in doing so, they make the previous games feel awful if you go back to try to replay them. The story is alright, but the music helps a lot in driving the emotions. The story does not take long to pick up, but the interruptions between story events sometimes feel like forced side quests. But in the end, for $50, you get a pretty good deal that contains more content than games released today.