I feel it’s probably worth mentioning that I have had very little experience with the ‘Sword Art Online’ anime in which Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is based upon. I’ve had a quick look in preparation for playing the game, but nothing excessive to the point where I could say I necessarily know all of the characters and the locations they visit. The same goes for the previous ‘Sword Art Online’ video games too – again, I’ve played them, but not enough to deem myself an expert or even that experienced with the series. Fortunately, I didn’t find that background knowledge was essential to enjoy Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization. It’d certainly help you out in regards to the characters and the world, but the game does a good job itself of introducing you to everything anyway.
I was immediately reminded of ‘Ready Player One’ when I started Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, with the game taking place within the wondrous virtual world of Ainground. It’s a re-imagination of the setting from the previous game and one that doesn’t come with the risk found before – previously players would actually die if they were killed in-game, but finally ‘Sword Art Online’ players can enjoy their time in the virtual world without facing that risk. This time around the story focuses on Premiere, a strange NPC in-game that doesn’t seem to have any coding. With her presence shrouded in mystery it’s up to the player to discover her origins and what is going on. Of course, this is an RPG – things become a lot more elaborate than that over time and Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization certainly delivers a long, in-depth narrative experience.
There really is a lot going on and with the MMORPG focused design you’ll get plenty of optional quests to complete that prolong the overall experience. It’ll take you over forty hours to get through the main narrative and even then you’ll still have plenty more to do. There is a problem with the pacing in-game though, with the story taking a long time to get going and having plenty of almost pointless diversions in-between. I felt like I was doing a lot of different things, but there was no sense of progression – things happened, but nothing that felt pivotal towards the overall plot. Don’t get me wrong, things do eventually unfold and the story does take some intriguing turns, but it takes quite a while to get there.
The story is mainly told through illustrations of character on screen with their conversations playing out below them, à la any visual novel or Bandai Namco’s ‘Tales Of…’ RPG series. It’s a neat way to progress things, but it does mean it often neglects the cinematic oomph that’s found in other RPGs. On a personal basis I could appreciate it though, especially since the aforementioned ‘Tales Of…’ games are some of my favourite RPGs. Everything is fully voiced in Japanese too, which I know will certainly appeal to plenty of JRPG fans.
I’ve already mentioned that Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization’s sheer volume of side quests ends up bulking up the overall experience, so it’s a little unfortunate that they’re not exactly the most enthralling of side endeavours. You’ll be tasked with the likes of simply fetching items or killing a specific monster, you know, the usual menial tasks that make up your typical MMORPG. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they felt a bit more meaningful, but it just seemed like the game threw them at you in abundance to simply add more content. Of course, more content is never usually a bad thing, but it typically felt a bit pointless and had me feeling like I was simply doing the same thing over and over again.
Fortunately Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization’s combat is a lot of fun, offering fast and frantic encounters that mix up action-RPG gameplay with the elements found in a traditional party based MMORPG. I’ve already mentioned that the game shares similarities with the ‘Tales Of…’ series from a narrative perspective, but I also found that the combat itself shared a lot of the same qualities too. You’ll mash buttons to unload combos of standard attacks, but you can also unleash special moves on your opponents. There are other combat mechanics to take advantage of too, including a well-timed stagger than can make your enemy vulnerable to damage as well as chain attacks which allow you to link up with your AI controlled party members to hit a coordinated team attack.
There’s a big focus on linking up plentiful attacks and keeping them coming with the game rewarding an uninterrupted offensive with a multiplier that inflicts a lot more hurt on your opponent. It sounds a little complicated, but in honesty the game’s combat is incredibly accessible and just about anyone could pick it up and get bashing away from the get go, regardless of their experience with RPGs. Each encounter is always really fun with the fast pace of the combat keeping things exciting. It’s certainly the highlight of the game and something I never grew tired of, regardless of how boring some of the side quests that accompanied it might be.
After spending a lot of time playing ‘Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn’ I could appreciate the MMORPG elements that were intergrated into combat, such as the area of effect attacks from opponents that would see some of the battleground glow to indicate a strong attack was about to hit that area. Thankfully the more action-based approach of combat in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization means it’s much easier to perform quick manoeuvres to get out of harms way. You’re certainly more nimble than in typical MMORPGs, so dashing and dodging is a must if you’re going to survive some of the more dangerous encounters.
There are a few encounters with bigger bosses that require more parties to come in and help you out, something which is certainly reminiscent of the higher level raids often found in MMORPGs. It really felt like the developers went out of their way to add a level of authenticity to the simulated MMORPG experience offered in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization and it’s something that die-hard RPG fans will certainly appreciate.
This does come with one flaw though. MMORPGs are typically party based affairs, demanding each player takes on a particular role and perform it well. The AI in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization could feel a little clumsy in that respect, often leaving you in a situation where you need to play out the role of a tank, DPS, and healer all at once. You can issues orders to your team mates as well as establish relationships that define how they act in combat, but it does take away from the overall illusion that you’re meant to be in this MMORPG with other actual players. Maybe I was taking that side of the game a little TOO seriously though…
The game world itself looks great with a decent variety of environments to work across. I ventured through a ton of different locations throughout my time with the game, something which made the often boring questing all the more bearable. It actually made me wish that I’d seen more of the anime to at least be able to relate to some of the locations I was exploring, though I still stand by my initial opinion that non-fans can take it all in and enjoy it too. It’s a world that’s befitting for an RPG, so it certainly fits the bill.
Outside of hitting the field and taking down enemies you have hub areas to explore where you’ll take on the quests, speak with NPCs and visit plenty of shops. There’s an emphasis on improving your gear through a Blacksmith too, though that could feel a little too convoluted at times. There’s a lot of complicated malarkey with stats that would typically feel relevant in a MMORPG, though I felt a little less inclined to play about with them too much seeing as there weren’t actual people depending on me playing a specific role. Stat boosts and new skills are always a plus, though I never found myself worrying too much about the intricacies. It was still handy to play around with though and will definitely interest those who enjoy fine-tuning the minor details of their equipment in RPGs.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization offers a lot to please RPG fans thanks to its enjoyable combat mechanics and well-designed world, but it does take a bit of time to get the ball rolling. The abundance of menial side quests doesn’t help too much either, especially when they don’t really offer much to the overall experience outside of simply bulking it up.
Still, it’s an enjoyable RPG and one that’ll keep you busy for a long while. There’s enough on offer to please gamers who have never experienced ‘Sword Art Online’ before (like myself) whilst I’m sure that fans of the series will be enjoy their adventure through Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization’s world too.
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release Date: 8/11/2016
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Playstation Vita