Game: Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is a beautiful manga-inspired RPG where visual novel and MMO style action crash together, and I’d be flat out lying if I said I didn’t spend at least half an hour relishing in the character creation screen. There are endless customisation options, from voice, eyes and gender, right down to weapon style (still absent from The Sims for some reason). A unique joy exists in getting glammed up for endless rounds of electrifying battle, and from there on, a slew of dense, abundant tutorials preface every game feature – which are pretty overwhelming for most newcomers to the series. But much like the periodic 2D story flashbacks establishing the Sword Art Online universe, they’re an absolutely necessary component in understanding the complex, multifaceted party-based gameplay.
Once again, players assume the role of protagonist Kirito Kirigaya as he ventures through the virtual world of Sword Art: Origin, a virtual reality MMO game. The fifth installment in the video game series is very aware of the horrible events which transpired in Sword Art Online and does not hesitate to reflect on them, but never dives too deeply, instead preferring to focus on a lighter (and often vaguer) plot which has mixed success; While the introductory scenes familiarise us with the joyous camaraderie between Kirito and friends, the momentum lulls when an anomalous NPC enters the party, dragging dialogue down rather than providing any real point of interest. Subsequent attempts to integrate the story are better (we learn more about character backgrounds and their motivations), but still unnecessarily drawn out and lacklustre overall. The central hub (Teleport Plaza) and surrounding areas are brimming full of people to chat with, but if you’re not trying to recruit new party members or plant seeds of romance the incentive to do so is pretty low – it feels more like a monologue than anything. On that note, like Hollow Fragment, the female cast do serve a harem-type function in the romance options, and I put that down to fan service; Anyone fond of harem manga who’s also willing to ignore the repetitive writing will probably enjoy it.
Beyond that, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization revolves around completing quests for XP and rewards, exploring new territories to discover materials for boosting base attributes, getting to know other characters and, ultimately, levelling up. It’s a grind, but a very addictive one: The pretty environments and concert-worthy orchestral melodies serve as a convincing background to the main game, which thrives on micromanagement of skills, attributes, collection, and an ‘affection system’ that lets your personal relationship with members in your party influence their effectiveness in battle. The actual fighting is tons of fun, relying on a cocktail of hack ‘n’ slash like button mashing and dodging, timed attacks, managing your SP level for a more powerful sword skill attack, and even encouraging your comrades which helps them remember and use specific attacks more frequently. Visually, it’s a neon explosion of colour. Counters tracks hits and damage, fuelling the excitement, which culminates whenever you secure a skill chain and obliterate the pixels out of enemies – and the higher the level, the more triumphant you feel upon victory. Despite its tendency to become a repetitive grind, the combat escapes from becoming too formulaic thanks to its design. It also provides completionists with a nice avenue to continue acquiring new skill points – another typical yet enjoyable progression system.
Brilliant art, a phenomenal soundtrack and intricate battles and levelling systems will keep players invested in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, but only for so long – its comparatively uninspired story reduces replay value and prevents it from reaching higher levels of immersion, which are well within its reach.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is available via the PlayStation Store (PlayStation 4, PS Vita) for $59.99 USD. Gameranx reviewed Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment for PlayStation Vita and we thought it had tons of great, addictive content but was dampened by weak characterisation and haphazardly added features.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.