Sword Art Online is a bit of strange beast both as an anime and as a video game. The show has this strange power to completely polarize fans, and you will have a hard time finding someone who just thought it was okay. Most people will say it’s either the best thing they’ve ever seen or the worst piece of crap that has ever been made. In the words of many British people, you could call this a Marmite game; you either love it or hate it. The game manages to avoid this entirely by being just okay. Not bad, not great, just okay.
The story of the game is a little weird to talk about, so to explain it I’m going to have to enter the territory of spoilers.
If you’ve seen the show, then you will be familiar with most of the characters and the storyline of the game world before the game started. However, things might also feel a little “uncanny valley” for you as well, because this game doesn’t follow the storyline of the anime, at least not properly. Instead, this game and the three that preceded it, Infinity Moment, Hollow Fragment, and Lost Song, follow an original story written by the series creator, Reki Kawahara. The plotline followed by these three games is very similar to the plot followed by the show as well, but there are a few additions and changes that make the characters different, and certain events may or may not have happened at all.
The changes to the storyline and characters were probably necessary, but it can be a little jarring at times for people who watched the show. It’s odd to be hanging out with the characters you grew to know over 2 seasons, only to find that they act differently in the version you’re familiar with, like the first time you hang around with someone in front of other people and they change who they are.
The plot here follows the group of main characters as they revisit an MMO based on the one they were all trapped in together a few years earlier. The new game called ‘Sword Art: Origin’ is a standard VRMMO without the deadly side effects, but things start getting strange for the gamers when they discover a mysterious NPC with no programming and a secret message from an unknown source.
It’s very clear that this game attempts to ape the style of an actual MMO without actually being an MMO, meaning that there’s a battle log that looks like a chat window, there are several very interesting choices in regard to how many skill slots you can have, and you can’t pause at all. This all works very well, and the game genuinely feels like you’re playing an MMO, which is both a good thing and a bad thing at the end of the day.
The good parts of this are that it makes the game feel bigger, and the world that you’re exploring does tend to feel more alive when it’s populated by hundreds of other people running around on missions or simply relaxing in a café to have a drink and chat. The bad parts are really only relevant if you don’t like MMOs or at least don’t like the bad parts of MMOs. Obviously, the game can feel very grindy, and progress through the world does feel very slow, but you also lose out on the bonus ‘social’ aspects that you’d get with a real MMO. There’s no arranging times with your friends to log in together and clear a difficult raid, you just have to pick your AI party instead. There are no guilds, factions, or groups, instead you add random NPCs controlled by the AI with fake personalities, etc., etc.
The list of things that the game is missing over a real MMO could go on and on, but at the end of the day, the MMO setting is likely to be appealing to the right sort of gamer, and if anything, it’s impressive to see such a faithful reproduction of a multiplayer gameplay style in a single-player experience.
Moving on to the combat, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization goes for a suitably interesting approach. All of your skills and level ups are based on the weapon that you are using while gaining experience in missions. You have a skill tree for every weapon type that you can wield in the game, and you can unlock skills based on which weapon you have spent the most time using, which is a good way of handling level ups for the most part. Although, the way they are presented on the status screen can be a little confusing at first, leading you to spending points in pointless skills you either can’t or won’t use.
The combat has the old MMO issue of feeling really repetitive. You do unlock new skills to use pretty regularly, so there are a few sprinkles of variety added into the mix, but these attacks are pretty similar for each weapon, so once you’ve got the most basic versions of each, it’s probably going to be a while before you get anything that changes things up much. On top of that everything feels a little clunky. Trying to nimbly dodge out of the way of enemy attacks is difficult because your character gets locked into combos easily, and dodging doesn’t interrupt them. So if you’re wailing on an enemy and he telegraphs one of his super powerful attacks, you need to have pressed the dodge button before you knew the attack was coming in order to have had a chance of getting out of the way of it.
The game’s party system is an interesting attempt at making the game feel like an MMO. You have access to not only your own group of friends based on characters from the show, but you can also party up with any number of the randomly created characters wandering the world, and each of these characters (including the show-based ones) has their own personality that effects their combat skill and stat growth. This is primarily thanks to an emotion system that applies different stat bonuses to each character based on certain aspects of their personalities, which you can pick and choose to affect how they grow.
The problem with the system, apart from it being completely obtuse for pretty much no reason, is the fact that there is almost no reason to pick up randomly generated NPCs when you have a group of characters from the show that you are familiar with who have a pretty varied array of skills and stats. There also doesn’t seem to be much point to the emotion system. You can use it to change how the characters grow, but why would you? It’s not necessary to get through the game, and it’s not particularly well explained or defined, it’s just more unnecessary fluff to get in-between you and the action RPG gameplay.
Visually, the game comes the closest I have seen to a 3D animation looking like a 2D anime, at least in some of the cutscenes. Having said that, graphically the game does look like it belongs more on the PS3 than it does on the PS4, but since this is a port from a PS Vita game, that is hardly surprising. I must say that the GUI is very well designed. It fits well with the style of the show and manages to blend well with the MMO style that the rest of the game aims for, even if it’s clear that this GUI wouldn’t have worked if this was actually a virtual reality MMO like the game is pretending to be.
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: PS4, PSVita
Release Date: 8th November 2016