It took three games, but they finally got it right the fourth time around, and right where it all began, to boot!
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization had its Philippine launch a little over a week ago, and the hype sure delivered. Not only did it come as a standard release for both Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita, the game was also made available in a Collector’s Edition.
Of course, I do not have a PS4, so I went ahead and bought the Vita version on release date, being the trash SAO fag that I am. I went home, popped the game in my PSV, and it’s time to head back into the online world!
This is usually the part where I talk a bit about the game’s story, but for this one, I’ll start with a question.
Are you part of the anime community during the early 2010s, some 3, 4 years ago? Yes? Then SAO needs no introduction.
In a nutshell, SAO is a story of a group of people trapped inside a virtual reality massive multiplayer online (VRMMO) game, where in-game death equates to death in real life. The story follows Kirito, a beta tester of the Sword Art Online game, who seeks to clear the game – the only way for the trapped players to get free from the death game. Along the way, he falls in love with and marries Asuna, one of the top players in the game and waifubait # 32416. Of course, he does that picking up a harem along the way, because girls love the edgy loner OP hero who wears black am i rite?
SAO ended up being a huge hit of a show that’s pretty fun, if not controversial (and that’s putting it lightly), during its run. Ever experienced the Re:Zero fandom, with all its waifu wars, weekly threads in anime groups, and dozens of cosplays of the same character in a local anime con? That was Sword Art Online back then.
In spite of all that, it was really nice to see a show blossom from simple power fantasy that’s originally intended to be a one-shot into one that found the right mix and formula in showing what a VRMMO show should be about: a fun story featuring good old dungeon raids and treasure hunts while managing to tug at some heart strings at the same time with a surprisingly (for a power fantasy LN) well-fleshed out drama arc to cap the series’ animated run.
If you’re coming in and expecting the same story from the games, you’ll find yourself wrong. The video games do follow the anime’s story, but only up to a certain point. The Aincrad arc of the original SAO anime ended at that certain point, but the first/second game (Infinity Moment and Hollow Fragment) subverted that ending to create a brand new continuity and timeline for the video games. From then on, it kinda snowballed into the next few games. Due to events happening differently in Aincrad, a lot of the future plot points from the original material never happened in the game, which ran on its own track towards the ALO arc and onward. The next games show loads of new characters joining the cast, as well as familiar faces making their appearance in a much different manner than what fans of the source material would have expected.
That’s not to say that the game won’t be a treat for light novel and anime loyalists. The SAO video games still make occasional callbacks to some events and minor subplots that happened in the original series and successfully find a way to fit them into the brand new narrative that the games use.
For this latest installment, the story takes the cast back into the world of Aincrad, or so it seems. This new game, titled Sword Art: Origin, brings the cast to a trip down memory lane through a world named Ainground. It seems to be deja vu all over again, with one big exception: It’s no longer a death game for the players. Still, what seems to be a more “standard” MMORPG turns out to be one with more mysteries and secrets underneath for the group to solve.
The first thing people who played through the other games would immediately recognize is that the game feels and plays like an expanded remake of Hollow Fragment. True enough, Hollow Realization is an action RPG that takes after its predecessors very much.
Bringing back the immersive MMORPG appeal of Hollow Fragment
Several classic elements of the MMO genre are present, such as weapon crafting, material farming, field bosses, special abilities, messaging system, loads and loads of side quests, and everyone’s favorite: the ever-present grindfests. The game offers a plethora of options for the player character to customize his playstyle, which include a large variety of weapons and numerous skills. With a full roster made of hundreds of abilities, the possibilities are endless in creating the ideal character build, whether you want your character to be an attacker, healer, tank, or a hybrid of styles.
Armed with your gear and your trusted party members, it’s time to head out to the field and do some hunting! Your allies move alongside you in formation, helping you clear the way as you rack up EXP and farm items while exploring more and more of this colorful new world.
I said that the world would remind players of Hollow Fragment, but the battle system is a combination of Fragment’s MMO-style battles and the fast-paced frenzy of the Lost Song battles. While you fight monsters, you and your allies can take turns calling plays and issuing orders to each other, such as signaling for an all-out attack or telling everyone to heal up. This interactivity in battle adds a whole new depth in combat that adds to the immersion in the game, giving the illusion that your AI-controlled allies are players just like you (which they really are, technically, but I digress).
Therefore, the key to success in battle lies in figuring out the commands would work best for every given situation, as well as fast reflexes in dodging, jumping, or casting sword skills. A synchronized party would make a world of difference between successfully rushing a boss down or having to endure a long, tedious battle of attrition.
It’s definitely a step up from the previous games, done by combining two positives of the past two games: the depth and complexity of Fragment’s skills and abilities, and the well-received hack-and-slash system of Lost Song.
Kirito starts off as level 1 in this game instead of being the OP Gary Stu that we’re accustomed to.
Note that in the previous paragraphs, I said “player character” instead of Kirito. In this game, you can opt to create a custom character and play as him/her instead of Kirito. Do note that in-game dialogue will still refer to you as Kirito, and your lines would still be voiced by Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, so that ruins the point of the character creation option in a way. Still, the variety in character creation is a step up from Lost Song’s extremely limited “character creation”. If you’re worried about being stuck with a character you don’t quite get the feel of, fret not. You can keep changing your appearance (and even switch back to Kirito) through a nifty item located in your inn room.
Takami Chika, Aqours leader and…. SAO player?!
Give or take, as far as a fake MMO is concerned, this is one of the closest the series has come to recreating the experience.
The relationship system and dating minigame makes its much-awaited return from Hollow Fragment. A relationship meter exists for each player character in the game which indicates the player character’s bond level with him/her.
Interface of the dating minigame
Relationship points can be increased in several ways. You may develop stronger bonds with someone through praising their moves on the field, or simply having short dates with them while in town. The date method is the only way to unlock other romance features such as the ability to walk through town while holding hands. Why stop there? At higher levels, you can even give the heroines the good old bridal carry.
Of course, it ends with something like this
It’s these little moments that complement each other to complete the SAO experience. After all, the appeal of an MMO besides the actual adventure is its ability to create a virtual community through the use of the internet. It’s common practice for players to hang out in town and spend time interacting with its various offers during their off-time in between raids and quests. Here, in Hollow Realization, you get a decent dose of that experience. If I were to say one thing about it, it’s that the game managed to capture the experience of being in an MMO rather well.
From the fields and dungeons, to the cafe and scenic views in the city, to the NPCs who do their best to serve and sell players to the best of their efforts, a whole world that’s “just” made of data comes to life.
The appeal of MMOs in a nutshell
Yes, in the end, the dating minigame options could end up being repetitive in time, and the relationships could feel artificial, but that’s all within the limits of what a fake MMO can give.
Tying in to this is the various side stories that the game contains for the characters. One of the main gripes about the SAO novels and anime is the lack of character development or background. Generally speaking, there’s not much effort given in fleshing out the characters or giving them actual concrete personalities, resulting in a series of bland characters who move around as Kirito’s cheerleaders or walking plot devices. This seems to be an issue that the games, starting from Infinity Moment, have tried to rectify with their heroine-centered side quests, which often tell an ongoing story centered on one or more of the cast that slowly unfolds over the course of the game, but only if you decide to talk to the character in question.
It’s a great pleasure to have these back in Hollow Realization.
Mandatory “Playing at the Lake” CG
These side quests are mini stories that can range from light-hearted adventures or serious challenges regarding a heroine’s struggles with her identity. They all take time to complete, being available one segment at a time, and only after after certain points in the plot have been completed. Through these games, some things have remained constant for these segments. They all give the player a deeper glimpse of the heroine’s character, show some new, interesting interactions, as well as treat the player with colorful CG illustrations.
Here’s one of the more dramatic ones to contrast with the happy, light-hearted one above
There is no such thing as a perfect game, and Hollow Realization is far from that fantasy. To get this Vita-exclusive problem out of the way, I’ll start with it first.
At this point, it’s obvious that the game is not optimized for the PS Vita, not even close to it. Framerate-induced lags, random game crashes, and graphical bugs all rear their ugly head at one point or another. It’s not to say that the game is literally unplayable on the Vita, but it runs like crap for half the game, to put it bluntly. It’s so bad that more than one patch has been released to “improve game stability on the Vita” in a span of a few weeks. So consider this a warning if you plan to get the PSV version of the game. You’re free to take it or not (I sure didn’t).
If only I wasn’t playing on the Vita, everything would have looked so much more beautiful
Now that we got the Vita-exclusive problem out of the way, let’s move on to the next one, which is the bad AI. I don’t know if the developers tried to go for more realism this time, but back then, when you signal your allies to fall back, they actually stop what they’re doing and rush towards where you are. Now, they “dodge” in a random direction, sometimes even jumping right into the attack that you’re telling them to avoid. They don’t even respond as quickly either. Don’t even get me started on how they almost don’t use skills unless they got told to. In the previous games, you’ll almost always have the party buffed from some of their abilities. Now, they don’t cast buffs at all or even sword skills unless you did something to trigger them into doing so, such as a successful Switch or an order for an all-out attack.
Third is something that may be a problem or not depending on the person. The game is super grindy. Farming for skill points, raising your levels, gathering items, and completing your skillset all take a lot of time. Compound that with a main story that takes a long time to pick up and you got a recipe for a game that could end up becoming a slow slog for some players who don’t have a lot of patience.
It’s the opposite of Lost Song where stuff happens too quickly or you gain levels almost instantly at times. Now, they leaned back towards the grind that is Hollow Fragment and in some areas made the problem even worse to the point of being a candidate for Fake Longevity among the Vita RPGs. Don’t get me started on the redundant and repetitive fetch quests too.
Choose your Waifu. Protip: Purple is best girl
It’s amazing how far SAO the video game has come.
It’s been four games, from the PSP, to the Vita, and now it seems to be headed to the direction of being PS4-exclusive. It went from two action RPGs that plays more like a strategy game to a straight-up action RPG with spammy mechanics to this. It really pays when the developers take the best of the previous games and find a way to combine them. In the end, they came out with what a SAO game should be: an immersive experience in a virtual world that puts the player into a simulation of an MMORPG, with a proper battle system that combines depth and options with fast tempo that tests players’ reflexes.
A coherent story that expands on a “what if?” scenario from the main SAO story, a cast of party members that have their distinct quirks, abilities, and personalities, and a battle system that’s fine tuned from their past mistakes – Make no mistake, Hollow Realization is the best SAO game for the Playstation systems yet. The story alone will take roughly 50 hours to complete, and that’s not even counting all the minigames such as the dating system and finding the best combination of items and battle skills. If that’s not enough, there’s also the mission of defeating all those super bosses that will take a literal raid of around a dozen players to clear.
Yes, it still has some rough edges that needed to be polished, but as of now, it’s hard to not at least find an aspect of Hollow Realization to like.
If you’re a fan of SAO, this game is an absolute must-play. I’m not even gonna mince words here. If you’re a fan who has the capacity to do so, get this game! Even if you’re not a fan of SAO, I don’t think you’ll regret picking this up as an action RPG for you to put lots of time in.
Final score: 9/10