While offering no real improvements as far as graphics, sound or battle mechanics; .hack//Mutation is still better than .hack//Infection. With the heroes named and the plot rolling, Mutation really picks up steam where Infection left off. Even though Mutation is the second game in the series, it is really where the story begins. However, the game is still riddled with problems, and you can tell it was rushed, and really, the lack of improvement takes its toll.
Bandai did absolutely nothing to improve upon the look or feel of the game. It is pretty obvious Bandai wanted to capitalize on the fleeting popularity of .hack//Sign (which was on Cartoon Network at the time) by releasing all four games within a year or so. Graphically, Mutation (and all the other .hacks) is at the level of a Nintendo 64 game (save the FMVs, which saved the graphics rating from certain death). Really, it wouldn’t have been a large or expensive endeavor to make the game look nice, but Bandai cut this corner just a bit too much. In some ways, the biggest disappointment for a diehard .hack fan is the music. Though I, as a .hack//Sign fan, am not a big fan of the folk-style, high pitched vocals, I did prefer it to the repetitive thing that plays in the background which got very annoying when spending large amounts of time in one area.
The biggest and most devastating problem with Mutation is the terrible, terrible AI. The total lack of self-preservation, the stupid item management, the refusal to use skills without advisement, and the inability to adjust to an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses all REALLY take away from the game. If you met a player like them on a real MMORPG, you would kick them out of your party so fast, you wouldn’t know their name. Despite that, the gameplay can be addictive, and the battles flow nicely as long as you keep up on your party’s status.
One thing that doesn’t stink is the remade show scenes. The introduction of Sora, the taming of Tsukasa’s Guardian, and more, are all very nicely redone with the same voice acting from the show, which makes it beautiful to watch. Anyway, one of the cooler features is how you can import your party members, items, etc. from Infection onto Mutation, which is a really nice feature. Unfortunately for a few players, this is really a necessity, seeing as the game starts out for a level 30 player (which is about where you drop off in Infection), so if you start without Infection, you are going to need to work your way up to level 30.
Mutation did improve when it comes to the plot of .hack. Infection was virtually a prequel, and because of that, the plot was as active as an old bowl of soup and as linear as a ruler. Mutation doesn’t have that problem. With the introductions of major characters out of the way, you now have a less restrictive mission setup, a discernable plot and, most importantly, you don’t have do menial tasks to pull together a ragtag party for the majority of the game. Don’t worry, you still get to meet some newer, cooler characters and bring them into battle.
As for sidequests, there are an infinite number of semi-sidequests, with literally BILLIONS of dungeons to explore and empty out. Also, the Books of Ryu (which keep stats on you and your performance) offer more nice unlockables, particularly the FMVs and nifty desktops, but acquiring these trivial little guys is incredibly tedious. With simple cut-and-paste dungeons, and basic tasks like killing all monsters on a field, finishing a Book of Ryu just gets flat out boring; making it so only a certain kind of devotee can “complete” this game.
All in all, most people won’t hold the .hack RPGs in high regard. Really, this series is made for a very specific group (otakus and mega-RPG fanatics) so very few people will really love this game above other PS2 RPGs. If you are a regular gamer who would like a solid action RPG, then pick up Infection, beat it and go on to Mutation. However, if you are a hardcore RPG fanatic and/or otaku (they often go together) then Mutation is a great game to pick up for yourself. So go out, pick it up, come back and prepare yourself for a nice MMORPG-type game that won’t charge you fifteen bones a month.