Sword Art Online: Lost Song launched on PlayStation 4 and PS Vita today in North America, following a Friday release in Europe. Developed by Bandai Namco, the action-RPG is the third game in the series, which originated as a Japanese light novel and manga, and was adapted into a popular anime. The previous title, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, received mediocre reviews due to its unwieldy controls and superficial storyline. Lost Song has taken major steps toward improving mechanics, but falls well short on providing both a compelling story and content.
Lost Song follows a storyline divergent from the original narrative. Instead of escaping from SAO after Kirito defeated game creator Akihiko Kayaba, players remained trapped in the game, alongside characters like Leafa and Sinon, who never played the game in the original material. The game recaps the events of SAO in the form of Kirito’s internal monologues, so players who are unfamiliar with the series can still connect the dots. A few months after the events of Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, Kirito and friends are jumping back into the new fairy-themed virtual reality MMO, Alfheim Online. The game has been updated with a high-level area, called Svart Alfheim, and is filled with new mythical enemies and Norse gods to contend with.
After brief movement and combat tutorials, players are introduced to the Flying City of Ryne, a home base complete with an item shop, a tavern to create characters and pick up quests, and a smithy to identify, purchase and upgrade weapons. Players can change their party members, store gear, and view a gallery of story images and cutscenes at the inn. All of the main characters from SAO return here, including those from Hollow Fragment. New characters include Seven, a 12-year-old MIT grad, world-famous pop idol, head of the powerful ALO guild Shamrock and leading mind on virtual reality research (she didn’t leave much for her 20s, did she?), Rain, a super stalker with hidden skills and a secret past, and Sumeragi, Seven’s bodyguard and supreme tough guy.
Players follow the initial questline, racing against the massive Shamrock guild to be the first group to clear Svart Alfheim. Quests take players through meadow, desert and ice areas, clearing dungeons and defeating boss monsters, before finally bringing them Dark world. After clearing the initial three areas, players can fly even higher than they could initially, unlocking two higher dungeons in each zone. The dungeons will seem VERY familiar, as the layouts are reused heavily. Even more unfortunately, the bosses start getting recycled as well; expect only slightly altered mechanics, a paint job, extra health and damage, and an annoyance buff that always hits for critical strikes. By the time you play through everything, you’ll see each of the bosses several times.
Many of the character interactions are driven by Kirito’s relationships with his faithful harem. At one point all of the girls, including Kirito’s pseudo-sister and Yuuki, whom he met five minutes ago, are trying on cat ear accessories to try to impress him. “If you like them, I could keep them on all the time for you,” says girlfriend Asuna, in a desperate attempt to regain Kirito’s wandering eyes. Toward the end of the game, after completing a couple of event quests with Lisbeth, she gives Kirito a one-of-a kind ring she crafted, before whispering “someday I’ll get his attention.” These are not healthy relationships, people.
The game is humorous at times, but again relies quite heavily on the romantic interactions, which can make many of the events feel pretty awkward. Kirito claims that Asuna is his girlfriend, but there are literally Trophies for creating “deep bonds” with several other women, and one for taking almost every one of them on a date. Even so, some of those moments do translate into funny situations. A favorite scene of mine came when boss battle music started playing as Asuna caught Kirito and the guys looking at a compromising photo-book of NPC ladies. As a rule, dialogue is pretty basic, but some of the interactions between your various teammates can be fun.
Lost Song has managed to overcome many of the gameplay issues from Hollow Fragment. The real-time combat is quite satisfying, though the mechanics are pretty standard fare for an action-RPG. Each character’s repertoire includes basic and strong attacks, dodges and guards. They use stamina for physical attacks, dodges and movement and mana for special attacks and magic, which can be used to heal, buff, damage, or de-buff enemies.
Each character can equip three weapon types. For example, Kirito can use dual blades, a single sword, or a two handed great-sword. Individual weapon skills can be strengthened through use, while characters themselves have an independent experience level. Raising weapon skills unlocks new abilities for that fighting style, while character XP unlocks new magic abilities and passive skills. Passives include combat boosts, such as increased critical strike, attack or defense, as well as increasing damage from specific branches of magic. Others provide utility by boosting damage against bosses, increasing rare item drop rates, or reducing aggression towards the user. Leveling progression is a bit odd as characters start at level 100 (to reinforce the feeling of continuity from the story). Combat also involves a feature called Union Rumble- Bar fills through combat, utilizing allows players to use the switch attack, leaving an opponent defenseless to an ally’s powerful follow up. The mode also allows certain passive boosts to kick in.
Players can engage in combat in flight mode, but are immediately switched into a stationary float mode, which is more like standing in mid-air. The flight controls can be a bit clunky at first, but they are quite enjoyable once you get the hang of it. The only annoyance comes when fighting particularly large flying enemies. If your character lands on them, his/her wings are removed, leaving you to free-fall when that enemy dashes away. After clearing the first area, players gain access to character creation. But don’t get too excited, as the feature is quite limited. Several races are available, but the gender is pre-determined and features can’t be changed much. Weapon and magic capabilities are also pre-set.
Party members have particularly smart AI (too much smarter and we’ve got a Terminator situation on our hands). However, their customization is limited to assigning usable spells and attacks. You can’t set item use restrictions or healing guidelines, so you’ll often have to take care of yourself. Lost Song utilizes a three player party system, and all three can be chosen at will (you don’t have to keep Kirito as the leader). That is a nice feature, but only being able to control the leader can be supremely frustrating. If you die, you have to hope your teammates can either finish the fight or come to resurrect you.
The boss difficulty escalates as you progress through the story, requiring players to learn the timing and nature of enemy attacks and find weaknesses to exploit, not unlike a dungeon or raid boss in an MMO. Though the boss fights themselves are fun (the first time around), the dungeons prove dull and formulaic. There were only three environment models, so you spend half your time running through altered versions of the same dreary cave or ruin.
Tragically, most of the story quests fall into the dull rinse-and-repeat pattern present in most unsuccessful RPGs (go to X dungeon, get Y item, bring back to Z). Almost all of the extra quests involve replaying previous boss fights (shocker). Other side quests are available, and involve killing a certain number of monsters or gathering a certain number of items. Nothing groundbreaking there. Also available in the inn is the multiplayer match-finder. Players can participate in one-on-one PvP duels, PvP brawls with teams of four, or multiplayer cooperative quests (again, against previous boss fights with elevated stats). This feature is only available with a PlayStation Plus subscription.
The game took me about 25 hours to complete, with 10 or 15 hours of post-game content to pick up a Platinum or complete all the tough extra quests. Trophies are pretty easy, though several are hidden, and only a couple really require much of a grind (I will be releasing a Platinum guide shortly). There is a new game plus mode, and completing the game also unlocks an arena to compete in pseudo-PvP against your teammates. Four new characters can be unlocked in the postgame as well, for a total of 19 (only four of them are guys). Several new quests and a couple of “new” dungeons are also unlocked after the main campaign completion.
The game looks great: there are lots of bright, vibrant colors, and character gear looks pretty awesome (the weapon changes are visible). The variety of outfits was a nice touch, until fan service reared its ugly head. Each of the girls, including the 12-year-old, can adventure in a bathing suit or revealing bath towel. That’s not cool. Also, the lack of traditional clothing/armor gear is odd for an RPG. The combat looks good, particularly when you’re unleashing some of the crazy late-game sword skills. The drop down menu also looks gorgeous, and is very reminiscent of the anime, while character interactions are shown in a style typical to Japanese RPGs, where the avatar of the person speaking appears on screen with the text. Lost Song is subtitled, and there weren’t any glaring translation issues.
The musical score is definitely one of the high points for Lost Song (as could be expected, from the name of the game). It is soft, pretty and neutral in tone, and heightens upon entering battle, making the combat feel more intense and epic. Lost Song looks and feels a bit like an MMO at times, with NPCs running around in the town, fighting creatures, and flying in the outside zones. Not to say all the NPCs are nice: I was trying to grab an item in the field and one kept flying over and wailing on me. However, the MMO illusion is quickly dispelled as many of the “players” look nearly identical.
Another instance where the game feels lacking occurs in the Sleeping Knights storyline with Asuna, which was a significant chunk of the manga and anime. Apart from Yuuki, a playable character, none of the characters were displayed at all (players could just hear their voices). Some quest NPCs whose avatars are shown, even the important ones like Odin and Loki, are laughably generic.
Despite its flaws, I did enjoy playing the game. The battle and flight gameplay is fun, and seeing your favorite characters from SAO come alive is a treat. Lost Song shows marked improvement over Hollow Fragment. However, the shallow storyline, recycled content and overly gratuitous romantic references continue to chip away at the title’s quality throughout, damaging the experience as a whole. Overall, there is about 20 hours of solid content packed away here. I can get over reusing dungeon layouts to an extent, but I don’t want to do the same frustrating boss fight 10 times because somebody has a lack of imagination. Bandai should have cut this game in half and charged half price for it.