I love the Sword Art Online anime and manga, and I’ve always appreciated the games that were loosely based on their stories. Hence why I was excited to dive into Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization for the PlayStation 4, the third game based on the light novel series and anime that focused on players trapped within a virtual reality multiplayer online role-playing game. While this Sword Art Online game implements more MMO-like aspects from the series into the gameplay, borrowing elements from games like Final Fantasy XIV, it unfortunately falls short in other areas that prevent it from being the definitive Sword Art Online experience.
Kirito and friends find themselves in a new VRMMO called Sword Art: Origin, a copy of the original Sword Art Online world of Aincrad that was the focus of the series. After receiving a mysterious message from an unknown source, Kirito must return to the digital world to seek answers. The story is not an adaptation of any specific story arc from the anime or light novels, but instead a completely original story from series creator Reki Kawahara that references some aspects from the show.
However, like the previous Sword Art Online games, Hollow Realization suffers from a lot of plot filler that jumbles up much of the story. Some events go on for way too long and become long sections of boring dialogue between gameplay. It’s great seeing Asuna, Kirito, and their friends again on a new adventure, but the charm fizzles away quickly when I find myself being stuck watching long cutscenes that aren’t important to the main plot.
A lot of changes have been made to the gameplay from the previous Sword Art Online games. Unlike both Re: Hollow Fragment and Lost Song, Hollow Realization borrows a lot of the menu layout, map design, and battle system of other console MMO games. Unfortunately, it also inherits a lot of the same issues that plague those games as well. The screen can sometimes get over-populated with menus that can obscure a lot of the action, while at the same time being somewhat limited and impractical in how important information is displayed.
It’s great having all of my abilities shown in front of me on the ability pallet, but very annoying when I can see the enemy or range of attacks behind it. Little things like this frequently add up to become big problems, especially in sections where you have multiple enemies on screen and powerful foes that require all of your attention.
What is great is being able to team with up to three allies in a questing party. Before going out into the world of Sword Art: Origin, you can party up with different characters from the entire Sword Art Online series within the main town area. Forming a group is done similarly to the previous game, where you had to meet up with your allies in town in order to party up with them.
It’s still annoying trying to search for a specific character in town to party up with, especially when this could be done so quickly through the game’s menus. Party members are definitely reliable in battle, where they will attack or use abilities at the right times or call out suggestions to you in battle. Using abilities together with your party members in battle starts a chain that can help to dealing more damage against enemies and boosting up your party’s abilities.
My biggest gripe with Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is navigating the large maps. While exploring the huge environments is great and really gives the illusion of playing an MMORPG, they can also be incredibly time consuming and annoying to navigate. The map you have displays all the right information, but doesn’t zoom in enough to get a sense of distance between points of interests, nor specifics on objectives for any quests.
Teleportation stones allow you to fast-travel between areas and the town hub, but they are spread far apart and work as one way. Some areas took me close to half an hour to walk from one area of the map to another to complete a quests, only to spend a lot of time searching for the next place I needed to go to advance the story. It would’ve helped to have more fast travel options or abilities, especially for areas that were long stretches of walking through the environment.
There is a multiplayer component to Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, but it isn’t the focal point of the experience. This worked out the same in the previous game Lost Song, where multiplayer was an option but not a robust aspect of the game. You can take on different in-game events with others online, using your own equipment and abilities you obtain in the single player game. It’s a nice touch, but nothing that will really pull you away from the main game. In my time spent playing Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, I only played a few sessions of multiplayer and focused on the single player campaign.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization brings some great changes to the series, but doesn’t overcome a few issues to make it the best game for fans of the Sword Art Online series. The original story from Reki Kawahara is interesting and the new gameplay is reminiscent of real world MMO games. However, navigating the large environments and the dull filler cutscenes dampen an otherwise enjoyable experience. I love seeing all of these characters on new and exciting adventures, even though it might not always be the best.
This review was based on a digital review copy of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization for the PlayStation 4, provided by Bandai Namco.