The Sword Art Online anime took the industry by storm when it first released with fans instantly hooked by the story, characters, and setting, so it was only a matter of time before the franchise made the transition to videogames. Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is now the third game in the franchise, and although it’s definitely the best one yet, the series could use some serious changes after releasing three titles in just three years.
The story of Sword Art Online sees its players trapped in a Virtual Reality MMO where if the player dies in game they would die in reality. Hollow Realization takes place after the events of the first and second season of the anime and our hero Kirito and his friends decide to participate in a beta of the brand new Sword Art Online: Origins. Origins looks to send players back into the already established world, now dubbed Ainground. Why they would think it’s a good idea to send players back into a world where they were trapped fearing for their life is questionable.
One of the aspects that made the anime and manga so good is the constant threat that the characters faced. In Origins that threat is gone which takes away from the experience in some regards. Rather than focusing on a major threat, the story of Origin focuses on the NPCs (Non Player Characters) of the world. Kirto and his friends encounter an NPC who dosen’t seem to have any parameters and decide to befriend her. As the story progresses you find out that the girl: who they decided to name Premiere, has a special quest, and they set off to try and solve it.
Along the way they discover that in Origins when an NPC is killed they are gone for good and are simply replaced by a brand new NPC to take their spot. Being the heros that they are Kirito and his friends make it their personal quest to protect as many of the NPCs as they can. Sure, there are some twists and turns that follow but you will be tested just to see them. Hollow Realizations story takes a long time to get going, and I mean a long time. Most players will probably lose interest and forget about the main plot. After about thirty hours into the game I was still in the beginning stages of the story and quite honestly just didn’t care about it. The pacing is so bad with so much filler content that I didn’t even know what was supposed to be a story sequence or one of the games many pointless conversations.
For those who love the Sword Art Online franchise, fans may find much to like about the many, many conversations that the characters exchange,but cutscenes and conversations are presented with static character art and last way longer than they should. Outside of the main storyline your friends will ask you to help go questing with them or participate in different activities, and you often find that you don’t actually participate in them, but just get to read about them instead.
All the cutscenes in the game are voiced, which is very impressive, but doesn’t help you if you don’t understand Japanese. Normally I wouldn’t consider this a problem but due to the amount of dialogue you go through your eyes will feel the strain; I swear with all the reading I did in the game I probably read the equivalent of the first two Harry Potter books. My eyes were not happy with me through the long stretches and it got to the point where I just started to skip a lot of the conversations in the game. Like I mentioned earlier, most of the conversations and cutscenes I found to be completely pointless. A half an hour conversation trying to convince me that Premiere is a good name for an NPC is not something I care about because the name is still terrible. I even went through a series of cutscenes that lasted at least forty minutes where characters talked about who is going to watch over a virtual girl while she slept. This is just one example of many many shallow moments in the game.
Hollow Realization also features its own dating simulator. As Kirito, all the girls want you, even though they all know you are in a relationship with Asuna. In the core story, Kirito and Asuna are dating but the game seeming encourages you to cheat on her with someone else. You can go on coffee dates and even hold hands while walking around in town. If you’re affinity with them reaches max level you can invite them to lay around with you in bed sharing feelings with each other. All of this made me feel weird because I was pretty much emotionally cheating on Asuna.
Where Hollow Realization does succeed is in simulating a single player MMO. From the interface to the amount of simulated players that roam the fields and towns, it’s a good illusion. Like a lot of actual MMO’s, Hollow Realization tries to create a lot of content like farming for materials, upgrading your equipment, and many fetch quests that a lot of MMO’s are renowned for.
Collecting materials in the field isn’t difficult and you can find almost everything you need from enemy item drops and materials scattered in the environment. There aren’t too many of them so it’s good to know you won’t have to go grinding in lower level areas to get specific drops because you can get everything you need throughout the game. Upgrading your gear and buying new equipment on the other hand is hit and miss. Buying new weapons and armor I found to be pointless because you can you always find something better in the field. Upgrading your equipment is also problematic.
The blacksmiths in the game work based on their level. The more you go to them to upgrade your gear the higher their level increases — they also come with their own skills that tell you what they are better at and what they will fail to do with your equipment. This becomes a problem because you have to remember what each blacksmith is good at because the game doesn’t really keep track of it for you. One blacksmith may be good at upgrading your armor and not so good in upgrading weapons, and if their level isn’t high enough at even what they’re good you can still fail, pretty much forcing you to waste your materials to level the blacksmiths.
Questing in MMO’s is an important aspect, but Hollow Realization takes it as a complete joke. Character specific quests are nothing more then half hour cutscenes you have to read and sidequests are nothing more than fetch quests. There are so many of these quests I had to stop doing them as I would rather keep the materials I collected to upgrade my gear. It got to the point where I had a hundred and three quests that consisted of ‘find five of this item’ or ‘kill ten of this enemy.’ The rewards of these quests aren’t even worth doing as you just get healing items and currency.
The best part of Hollow Realization is its combat. Combat has evolved from the last two games making it more simple but also keeping a lot of its unique features in tact. Going for a more single button press combat system’ the game has become more action-oriented, though also sticks to its RPG roots. It’s not simply just tapping one button the entire time though. You can map different skills to the different directions you move the analog stick, so pressing left on the analog stick and pressing triangle will perform a different skill than simply pushing triangle on its own. You can also open up a pallet like you would see on a PC MMO so you can select through all your skills and items if that suites you better.
Another aspect of combat is dishing out orders to your team which you can of course customize to your liking, but the AI is pretty good at following your orders. You’re also encouraged to compliment your party members. Doing so will not only raise their affinity towards you but will encourage them to do specific attacks that you like more often since you can’t actually tell them what skill you want them to use.
The game world itself is huge, there are six massive areas to explore and each of them features a fun boss fight. The environments also have unique events that you can participate in. These events are best described like FATES from Final Fantasy XIV. Completing these will net you special ores for crafting and some may even unlock other events to complete. You will also encounter special monsters that protect treasure chests that you can challenge and enormous monsters that reach levels of up to a hundred that you can face off against way later in the game.
Graphically the game is clearly held back by the Vita version. Hollow Realization is a pretty game at times but mostly it all looks like a Vita title rather than a PS4 title. Fields are large, open, and pretty bland. I can only image what they can accomplish with a longer development cycle and releasing for only one console.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization feels like a copy and past job in a lot of aspects, though it’s that combat that saves it somewhat from being too boring. As much as I love seeing the dynamics between my party characters evolve, I don’t care to read a half hour conversation about what they are going to eat for dinner. Hollow Realization represents a decent simulation of an MMO, but for anybody who has spent a lot of time with the genre, it offers precious little in the way of innovation