Sword Art Online, originally a light novel about an online death game eventually got its own anime, which gave it a boost of popularity in which Bandai-Namco took as an opportunity to have a game create a game based on that. So we have a game based on an anime series, that was based on a light novel, which was based on the idea of a game. Things certainly have a funny way of coming around. The series itself does have a lot of critics and fans and admittedly I’m part of the former. However I’d admit that there is some draw to the series that got everyone’s attention in the first place. Many may already be predisposed to disliking the story and its characters, however if you consider it as a hack-and-slash kind heavy kind of game, it actually sounds like it could work.So let’s go ahead and see if the newest installment, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, has picked up on what could make it work as a that.
Our setting for this title brings us to somewhere after all of the horrible events of an online death game had taken place. Our cast is brought to play the prequel of the first game, being called Sword Art: Origin. So instead of being in some giant castle-tower with a hundred floors, it’s a set of maps and towns that sort-of interconnect. Oh, and there’s no fear of death, that never came back from the first game. Everyone is having ideally a grand time in experiencing their new world, except you who has to watch all of them talk, when your protagonist takes notice of a mysterious NPC. And the story kinda waddles from there.
Production (3.5 / 5)
Relative to the game’s predecessors Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization looks great on the PlayStation 4. I’ve got a thing or two to say about the PlayStation Vita version but I’ll get back to that later.
All of the characters look just like they should based from the anime and don’t look awkward. They actually animate quite decently and I sort of wish they relied on these models more than the 2D Art at least for key scenes but they didn’t which is a bit of a shame. Unfortunately I couldn’t say the same about the maps. It’s totally understandable to make use of reusable elements to fill up an entire map but these maps are all so vast that getting disoriented is really that easy especially during combat. The lack of notable landmarks, how all the elements look the same, and the map on the UI lacking proper scale and detail doesn’t help. Some amount of hours into the game I gave up on exploring these huge maps because of the little reward they gave and how long it took to travel between maps.
While I can’t honestly say much about the music because I can’t remember how any of it sounds, the voiced lines through the game are generally appreciated. Just that it gets old when you’re watching a lot of cutscenes in one go, which happens a lot in the start.
Mechanics (3.5 / 5)
In terms of actual gameplay, the action of the Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization feels generally simplified but in a sense, evolved and perhaps better. However it has tons of obscure mechanics riding around it. Some may say it’s basically an upgrade from Hollow Fragment but the last Sword Art game I played was Lost Song. So I really wouldn’t be able to tell.
What I can tell is that mashing the attack button like in Lost Song is no longer a viable strategy. What you should ideally be doing is dodging enemy attacks and countering them with your own to open them up to make bigger opportunities to deal some real damage. On top of this, you can command your AI party to take specific actions between attacking, defending or supporting you. And yes, supporting meaning there’s several types of classes in the game. Generally their skills are dictated by the type of weapon they’ve taken. This is a very welcome change, indeed and a commendable improvement from past titles.
The UI also looks like it’s really something from an online game with so many actions you can ‘hotkey.’ I heard that it feels and looks a lot like FF14, all I can really say is that it works for the most part. If the PS4 had a keyboard peripheral and could work like a controller, this game would be all over it.
Hybridizing builds is totally feasible so long as you can spend the time grinding levels with each respective weapon. For example, a high-damage skill would be learned with an axe while your basic heal spell would be learned through the mace skill-tree. So you’ll have to grind using these weapons to get those skills if you wanted them. Levelling gets predictably slower as you go on, so planning and researching the build you want early is probably for your best interest.
It’s also possible to customize how your party AI would act around you in-battle by praising actions you appreciate them doing. However it’s a bit difficult to understand how what they just did because instead of saying they used some spell or skill, it says a character trait like ‘stubborn’ or ‘caring’ or ‘fiery.’ And after praising the healer Silica a lot for one trait I barely noticed if any of her skills had changes in frequency or not, or if they levelled up at all.
On a general perspective it all really feels like it works somehow, but the problem is it’s hard to tell how much it works because of how little visibility the game gives on what you’re trying to do.
Content (2.5 / 5)
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization works to make itself play and feel like an online game and it does it, in ways that you might not enjoy.
The first thing that hurt the combat experience for me in SAO:HR was when the use of palette swaps and name changes for your enemies and their ‘descendants’ was going to be put into play. You’ll see the same types of enemies with slight changes in name, color and behavior, sometimes they have a new skill or spell. But in general they all feel the same but with a higher level as you go. This would have been okay if I had to change my tactics in fighting them but you can probably guess that I didn’t. I killed the Sea Crab the same way I did with the Hard Crab, the Salty Crab, Spiked Crab and so on. And while we’re at it, what’s up with the crab memes, Japan?
Anyway, the game opens up to you with immediately 15 other characters available for your party. It might have been interesting to play as these other characters but you don’t get that option. And honestly 15 is a huge number, I don’t have that many party regulars in any online game I’ve ever played. That’s 4 completely unique party combinations I can make and the gamer in me compels me to level all of them in a balanced fashion. I wish they paced this a bit more or at least let me know that I won’t really have to level all of them.
But the worst part of this is that they’re all voiced characters, and generally all of them get a few lines every scene, no matter how unnecessary that is. It’s really a test of patience to skip a scene or hold that fast forward button. Because the exposition parade almost never stops but somewhere in there, hidden is the next thing you need to do. Because while the game subtly attempts to guide you to your next it does a poor job of doing it. Maybe the only time you’re willing to read through the text is during the dating events you trigger with the other girls, I don’t know if you can do the same with the guys because, let’s face it, nobody really cares about them.
Raid battles would be where it’s at in this game, and where I generally the best part of the game I experienced. Fighting a giant boss that can be divided in parts, being taken on by a 4 parties at the same time, totalling 16 characters, was downright awesome. By the time I figured out how to reach the first raid boss, I was already quite over-leveled for the encounter which watered down the excitement a bit but I still enjoyed it especially when it was starting to feel like everything in the game’s combat design was really coming together. I really wish there was more of these, or at least find them faster than I did.
Features (2.5 / 5)
At the start of this game you’re asked to put together an avatar of your choice, which was like ‘Wow I don’t have to be Kirito.’ So you put some good minutes in customizing that character and finally start the game but you suddenly realize that what you did was pointless because you’re still playing the part of Kirito. What a let down. It’s actually for online multiplayer, and not a character you’ll be making a story with.
On the plus side, though, online works pretty decently in SAO:HR. Connecting isn’t that difficult and play doesn’t feel laggy. Just that all the previously mentioned issues I had with single player reflects perfectly in multiplayer. One possible issue would be the difficulty of communication without relying on voice chat but that’s generally a problem of theses kinds of games.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization also has carry-over save features meaning you can load previous game data for extra stuff and it also cross-saves with a PSVita version. Unfortunately I really wouldn’t recommend playing this title on the Vita for the following reasons: A huge issue would be the graphic downgrade. While reduced resolution and detail is expected, a drop in framerate and animation quality for a game that rests a lot on timing and on-the spot decisions really hurts as this is, in my opinion, the best part of the game. Being unable to see the small details of animations that tell you what the enemy will do next, having your commands lag because the PSVita couldn’t handle everything that’s going on. Only lead me to a frustrating, heal chugging battles. It’s supposed to be a fast game, yet everything slows down on the Vita version.
Overall (3.5 / 5)
Overall, I commend Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization for showing its many attempts to improve itself and bring together whatever makes people like the series for. It brings in a lot of new mechanics that were unfortunately badly explained but you can tell after some hours of grinding through the game that it’s working in there, somewhere. It tries to guide you so you can discover how the game works and how you can bend it to work for you. Maybe if I had a lot more time to work with it, which I don’t, I might have been able to figure more of it out.
If Bandai-Namco’s end-goal here is to make an actual online game for the Sword Art series I’d say they’re starting to make some very solid foundations here. Unfortunately between the exploration, grind, dating and story, none of them seem to really connect to each other. As if the teams working on this game never really coordinated in bringing the game together, I find myself alternately playing several smaller games and there’s no real overlap between them. So there’s a strong tendency to avoid unwanted parts of the game so you can get on to enjoying what you like doing in it.
If you’re honestly interested or curious about what Sword Art Online would feel like as an actual game, this is probably a great place to start. I personally believe that they may be onto something here and if they can get over this issue of a severely segmented experience, the next one might be something everyone could really enjoy.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization grinds hard to better itself and shows its improvements by sitting at a decent 3.5 / 5.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is available on the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation Vita. But really, stick to the PS4 version.