Saturday 10 December 2016

Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization

It's easy to dismiss this as 'yet another anime game', but hold your horses there Mr or Mrs Prejudice Pants. Sword Art Online is well worth a watch (the first series, anyway; the second one, which nobody's bothered making a game of, goes a bit crap about halfway through). It starts off as an intriguing adventure set in a VR MMO, and ends up as a somehow-not-twee love story. Perfect video game RPG fodder.

Okay, so this is definitely only a game for existing fans, but still. The original SAO premise, in case you don't know, is a virtual reality MMO created in a time when VR is actually what we want it to be – essentially transporting minds into a virtual space, all senses active, for a sort of digital dream. But Sword Art Online is created by a madman who locks all the players in. If anybody attempts to remove a player's headset, or if that player dies in the game, then – dun-dun-duuhhhnnn – that person dies in real life. So, not sure if the lack of SAO VR games so far is a good thing or a bad thing.
Hollow Realization, the fourth SAO console game, is set in an alternate timeline but after the whole death game thing is over. As such, there are fully established characters and lots of past events casually referred to, and the developers don't give a crap about filling you in. Ideally you'll have watched the first series (or read the original light novels) and played the previous games, but as a bare minimum you're going to have to have watched the first series of the anime. Fans will get a thrill from talking to, and fighting alongside, the likes of Klein and Leafa, and get a warm glow from seeing Kirito, Asuna, and Yui together once more. Everybody else will quite frankly wonder what the fuck is going on.
The main reason you'll need to be a fan is that's really the only way you're going to comfortably overlook the game's flaws. The story, for example, is fantastic. It's totally in keeping with the SAO universe in every way, and would make a great third series. It also has more intelligence and depth than anime (or, indeed, games) tend to offer. You can take up to three people with you when you go out into the field, and you have plenty of familiar faces to choose from. Even the weapon types on offer relate to the series and – of course – enemies disappear in the trademark blue-black pixels when defeated.
While at its best it feels like you're in the SAO world, fighting monsters and levelling up alongside your favourite characters, its best isn't what you're always given. The bafflingly regular typing and English mistakes in the subtitles is one thing (audio is the original Japanese only), but the lack of direction in quests is quite another. Sometimes, you'll be given nice big map markers telling you where to go to advance the story. Other times... you just won't. This is a massive problem for one particular chunk of the story, where you're expected to revisit areas you otherwise would quite reasonably think were over and done with.
You don't have to worry too much about character levels until the end if that's not your thing (I strongly advise against trying the final boss before you hit level 50). Even then, you can strengthen your characters without having to endure more joyless grinding than a whorehouse. Multiplayer, played separately from the main story, is a pretty quick way to level. It's not too hard to find a game, and fighting alongside three other humans makes tough enemies much easier to take down.

There's a dating-sim-inspired element to play with in town... which is underdeveloped and, to be honest, a bit of an embarrassment. There was no need to include it just because of the fantasies of A Certain Type Of Player. It's thankfully never compulsory, and the game is arguably better if you ignore it. SAO fans unite! We have a good game here... but it might be hard to convince others of that.
If you like SAO, Asuna you buy this the better. 3/5


Luke Kemp

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