Anime based games get a bad rap, but most of them deserve it. Critics may be split on Sword Art Online as an anime series but there’s no denying its massive popularity in and outside of Japan. Indeed Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is the fifth entry into the video game sub-series, but is it for super fans only or is there a good action RPG with broad appeal here?
The game is set after the events in the series and Kirito and company are just diving into the beta for a new game, Sword Art: Origin, based on the infamous world of Sword Art Online but improved with new features, like safety from being trapped in the game and dying in real life. Shortly into the adventure an unusual NPC is encountered and she turns out to be much more than meets the eye.
Without spoiling too much, events reveal the game isn’t exactly perfectly safe after all. The story in the game is conveyed through a mix of visual novel style scenes with beautiful character artwork, Japanese voice acting and dialogue, as well as 3D scenes featuring the character models, with the occasional lovely CG scene thrown in for good measure.
The character dialogue in particular is surprising detailed and fans of other SAO releases have a lot to like here. Previous events are referenced from time to time, making you feel more connected to the characters since you’ve already been through such horrendous trials together. The high volume of dialogue lets each character assert their personality and it’s easy to grow attached to the entire cast despite its large size because you spend so much time with them.
Unfortunately story scenes can be pretty far apart in this game, so much so that at times you may forget what exactly you were questing to achieve at a specific point in time. The lowered stakes mean that things are a tad less exciting narratively than they were in previous outings, but this isn’t as big a problem as the overall story pacing.
Bad though it may be, the pacing becomes but a minor blemish on the rest of the game. Thankfully an in game event list does a decent job at keeping you on task and helps you from becoming truly confused. The character voices are great and combine with dramatic, relaxing music to create a pleasing atmosphere in the game.
The graphics are colorful, detailed and look close to the anime. The huge hub town and areas are neatly designed, and you’ll always be seeing diverse character and enemy designs via the game’s MMO theme. This definitely feels like a new age .hack in many ways, such as how the “players” in your party spout banter while adventuring and send you messages while in the hub town.
This game takes it further though and you see groups of adventurers fighting alongside you and encouraging each other. Because I came in with relatively low expectations, I was continually surprised by the amount of content in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization. While it is of course not quite as grand and everlasting as an actual MMO, the effort is quite remarkable. The game contains numerous expansive areas that you can spend several hours trying to explore and clear.
There are countless quests, monsters, weapons and other kinds of items. Running to the end of a map in just one area can take several minutes. Make no mistake about it this is a massive game and definitely not just a cheap franchise cash grab. You can customize your avatar in a variety of ways and new pieces of equipment change your characters appearance. While in town you can strengthen equipment with drops from enemies, shop and interact with the cast in various ways.
The game includes a dating sim component which lets you court and romance the girls in the cast to build relationships and view special scenes. The amount of unique dialogue and development in this mode is entertaining and the large cast presents tons of options and depth in getting to know the girls. When you create your character you choose a fighting style to begin with but you can later branch out to other skill trees.
When you’re not customizing your character, stealing Asuna’s heart, shopping or relaxing in town, you’ll be exploring Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization‘s massive areas with a surprisingly competent group of AI allies. Combat is real time and intuitive. You can hack away by mashing square and unleash various skills by tapping combinations of triangle.
You can instantly access four different skills this way, but since this isn’t enough there’s also a preset menu that lets you quickly cycle through various items and skills. Mixing up combos is fun, but the PS Vita version consistently suffered from irritating slowdown in battles with large enemies and multiple parties. During the first raid mission, I thought the game might grind to a halt.
This is only a noticeable problem in condensed situations, and maybe not even present on PS4, but worth mentioning since such situations are at times unavoidable in this game. Your allies do a great job of attacking enemies by mixing up skills and you can see how they dish plenty of damage. You won’t have to wonder if your partners are actually doing any damage.
As you stack skills against an enemy you increase a damage multiplier that makes your attacks more and more powerful. You can also parry with perfect damage to lower damage received and launch a sweet counterattack. There is a dodge and it works well enough although it doesn’t instantly interrupt whatever you were doing, and it would be cool if it did.
If you time your skill to land just after the enemy uses one, you’ll send them into a weakened state which even further increases your damage output. Mixing combos together, stacking bonuses and slaying hordes of foes was addictive and fun like in a real deal MMO. There are several kinds of enemies, and you may encounter some many dozens of levels stronger than you in the fields.
You’ll also participate in dynamic mini quests that pop up as you explore the fields. This keeps things exciting and lively, though the rewards are not always tangible. You also discover items and chests during the journey. You can give commands to the group, such as to heal or focus attacks, and everyone usually follows the commands too, but you can also use compliments to gain finer control over a character’s behavior in battle.
When a character takes an action you like, you can give them a compliment, making them more likely to repeat the action. This is not as precise or flexible as something like Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system, but it is good enough to get a member to heal more often or use a specific attack more often. This system incorporates each character’s personality, making it an interesting component to watch as the game progresses.
Aside from its relatively tame and snail-paced story, another issue with Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization could be a lack of adequate tutorials for the game’s varied and deep underlying system. It does enough to get you started with combat basics and a dating intro, but there’s little explanation of stats or weapon preferences, where to get new weapons, what to do with certain drop, etc.
There are also some very vague quest descriptions, such as “Keep Exploring” and with little direction or guidance at times, the game might leave you confused in an enormous game world. There is an online mode, but with no friends with this game I couldn’t really try it. You can play with strangers but the game has whopping level 100 cap and whenever I checked the only rooms had players dozens of levels more experienced than me, enjoying content I hadn’t reached.
The quick match feature never found me a party and many (most?) players lock their lobbies behind passwords. All signs point to the multiplayer being a better-with-friends affair. I will say that if it’s just like the main game only with real players, so long as it is technically sound, it’s most likely a blast. I was greatly pleasantly surprised by Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization.
I came in expecting another bad anime game but was instead blown away by Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization’s enormous game world, addictive combat and different gameplay systems. Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization has a charming cast of lovable characters, plenty of dialogue, countless missions, skills, equipment and areas to uncover, relationships with the girls, a level cap of 100 — I could go on. The abysmal story pacing, technical blemishes, online shortcomings and inadequate tutorials are considerable shortcomings, but not enough to keep this from being a standout action RPG.