I haven't played the other Sword Art games, but I am a massive fan of the show so I went in to the game fairly sure I could pick up where it was in the timeline. I was wrong.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization
is set some three years after the original and after a story arc called Mother's Rosario. That is, if the games followed the same timeline as the show, which it either doesn't or the writers didn't pay attention to it. There are a few mistakes that pulled me away from the game and sent me back to the show to re-watch it because the errors I felt had been made took me completely out of the game.
This is why the review is as late as it is, and the next paragraph will contain spoilers for the show so if you haven't seen it and want to then skip ahead.
Early in the game you meet a character called Shinon and you briefly reflect on first meeting her trapped somewhere in Aincrad, the original castle where people could actually die in the real world. This felt off to me because I was sure that Shinon didn't come in to the show until after Kirito and friends escaped Sword Art Online
and I was right, so this is the first bit of story that was far from the mark.
Then there is Yuuki, oh Yuuki... The final story arc of the show released to date centres around this character. In the Mother's Rosario arc I mentioned above she is the strongest swordsman in the game Alfheim (where the survivors of SAO
played together afterwards) who befriended Asuna and asked her to join her on a quest because soon they wouldn't be able to play the game anymore. This is because in the real world the members of Yuuki's guild are all terminally ill, none more so than Yuuki whose body has wasted away due to the AIDS virus. She spends most of her waking hours in a medical version of the machine the others use to play games. Not long after Asuna discovers this Yuuki passes away.
End of specific spoilers.
So one character's story is slightly smudged, but another is brought back from the dead. This didn't sit well with me at all and to a great extent stopped me caring about the story the game was trying to tell. In Hollow Realization
the stakes have been flipped and this time the NPCs can be killed permanently. Normally this wouldn't be a problem but in this game all of the NPCs have the potential to become fully sentient digital beings like Yui. This is discovered alongside finding an NPC, the main character called Premiere.
With no proper settings, she is what they call a null character and her initial quest seems bugged, but as she starts to exhibit an ability to learn and acquires personality traits Kirito and crew take her under their wing and begin a journey to discover exactly what is happening.
The game's setting is based around the original Sword Art Online
, but instead of being a castle it has been turned into a continuous landmass. The zones are all graphically attractive if not technically brilliant. Same for the character models - they are all faithful to their anime counterparts but still lack technical brilliance. This is primarily because the game is also available on PS Vita.
The gameplay is split into two parts. First you have exploration and combat that take place in the open world and do a fair job of emulating an action MMO with a party of four (eight in the multiplayer, with four human players each with an AI companion). You accept quests in the main town. These are all 'collect x, kill y' type objectives that are tracked as you fight your way through zones and complete story quests that further your investigation into just what Premiere is and why the other NPCs have been designed the way they are.
The other half plays out like a visual novel where long sections of the game are told with semi-static 2D art with voice acting (all in Japanese with subtitles). There are next to no choices to be made, but these sections are substantial enough to be counted as separate to the combat and exploration side of the game.
There is also a system in place that allows you to form bonds with any of the 300 other players and form parties with them. Some of these are familiar characters, some are entirely new to the franchise. These feature conversations, personal quests, hand-holding and...
Bedroom talk, yes you can romance and take to bed almost any character. There is no actual sex involved, but it is heavily implied, it is a bit creepy but also thankfully only a tiny piece of what is otherwise a massive game.
Combat is fun and frantic with a pleasant mix of strategy and button-mashing. It is especially satisfying when a difficult mob suddenly crumbles because you planned and executed a perfect attack that leads to your whole party being able to wail on the enemy. The large-scale bosses at the end of each area are taken on by a raid-sized group - a silly amount of NPCs fight alongside you - these fights can last a long time, but with careful observation and planning your enemies can be brought low quickly.
The music is forgettable except for a few pieces that are lifted from the anime, although the town's theme will get stuck in your head. Be prepared to counter it with other music outside of the game!
As a game on its own this is an excellent RPG that mimics the mechanics of an MMO. It feels true to the franchise, but a few major missteps in the story concerning familiar characters killed it for me. These alterations could be due to the previous games deviating from the canon timeline, but for someone coming in fresh from the anime it can be a minor annoyance or an emotional gut punch depending on your investment in the relevant characters. The gameplay saves it to a degree.
There is one last thing that I need to mention - at the beginning of the game you can create a whole new character. Don't do it. Stick with default Kirito or a mildly altered version of him, because even though you're playing as your own character it is Kirito who speaks in all the cutscenes/ visual novel sections and if you made a female avatar this is especially jarring when suddenly your character starts speaking with a familiar male voice - I had to restart the game
because of this.
+ Bright and colourful world to explore
+ It captures some important aspects of the franchise
+ Interesting twist on SAOs death games
- Fumbled narrative for some key franchise characters
- A needless character creator that breaks immersion
- Some poorly explained main story quests
- A bizarre relationship mechanic that is more creepy than endearing
SPOnG Score: 6/10