- Developer: Aquria
- Publisher: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
- Release Date: 21/05/2019
- Price: £44.99 / $49.99
- Review code provided by BANDAI NAMCO
The Anime Brought to Life
For those who don’t know, Sword Art Online is a fairly popular anime centered around a VR game. Those who played the game were trapped within its world, and death in the game world spelt death in the real world. Freedom was an option, though players had to conquer the 100 floors of Aincrad to earn that freedom. It was an interesting premise, and although the death game has been long left behind at this stage, the series continues on with much lower stakes storylines.
Obviously, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is based off of the anime, but the games do differ in story quite substantially in some key areas. The first SAO game, Infinity Moment, begins after the death game has ended in the anime. Where everyone is released from their prison that was Sword Art Online in the series though, in the game a glitch causes those trapped within to not be freed. Not only that, players from other online VR games are sucked into the game, trapping even more poor souls within the evil game’s grasp.
Where in the anime they only cleared about half of the floors before earning their freedom, the glitch in the game forces those trapped to complete all 100 floors, thus creating an immediate split between the anime’s story and the plot of the games. Two more games followed, introducing more characters and continuing down the same path as the first game.
Story Art Online… Sorry
Finally, we come to the story of Hollow Realization, which may not have the same high stakes as the original game, but it certainly tries its best to create enough intrigue in the hopes of holding your attention. To that end, the game actually does a good job of this, though certain gameplay elements may get in the way sometimes (more on that later).
The story begins with our hero Kirito entering what appears to be Sword Art Online. He receives an ominous message from someone he doesn’t know, saying that they are back in Aincrad. He also spies an NPC eying him off, and his adventures in this new VRMMO are off to an intriguing and unsettling beginning.
This new VRMMO is not Sword Art Online, rather this is Sword Art: Origin, a game based on the original death game, but free of all the nastiness that was, well, death. It turns out all the characters we know and love are all taking part in the beta test of this new game, but things are about to become more complicated than they thought.
Dancing around spoilers, the main questline revolves around a blank NPC with a broken quest, and the gangs protection of that NPC to prevent her deletion. They also want to solve the mystery of her quest, as Kirito accidentally uncovers a trigger to a second stage of her quest. Because of this, they figure that if they figure out how to trigger her entire questline, that she will no longer be bugged. Aren’t they nice people?
A Single Player MMO?!
Being based on an VRMMO, a lot of work has been put in to making this game feel like a true MMO. To that end, you earn experience, level up, unlock skills on skill trees, find and equip new loot, go on raids, quest with friends, basically everything you would do in an MMO. Instead of basing the game on an auto-attack battle system though, you are given a lot more agency over your attacks and combat in general. To that end, the game resembles something like Ys VIII more so than WoW or Xenoblade.
Within towns, you can talk with NPC’s to accept quests or buy and sell loot. You will see “player characters” wandering around too, which you can interact with and recruit to your party if you wish. There is also a relationship mini-game you can play, where you can essentially woo any of your female companions, eventually engaging them in pillow talk. It can get a little creepy when you start seducing your sister (technically cousin), but the translation team did a good job trying to dance around that one by having them engage in a good wrestle at the end.
Anyway, weird incestuous activities aside, the romance game isn’t really essential, but it does grant those characters buffs in the field. These buffs didn’t really do too much to warrant engaging in that system though, so if you don’t want to get all hot and bothered with a visual novel-style seduction game, then you do not have to. For those who enjoy that element though, it is here, and requires some trial and error to get down to a science to max out your friendship points.
But What About the World?
Leaving the town behind sets you off into the main adventure zones within the game. Each zone has its own look and feel to it, and are made up of a bunch of areas that are separated by loading screens. There are also dungeons to explore when you get far enough along in the story, as well as a Raid boss at the end. Throughout each area, you will see enemies roaming around, and occasionally a major enemy that is at a ludicrously high level. These high level enemies are meant to be taken on with multiple people, or if you level up enough with just your team. That seems a little insane though, as the first area had an enemy that was level 94, which is quite insane so early in the game, but also kinda cool to see.
The areas themselves are pretty big, taking a fair amount of time to explore, and helping to make each zone feel like a massive piece of the overall world map. Within each area you will find treasure chests to open filled with items, though some of these chests won’t open by simply walking over to them. Some are protected by an aura, and that aura won’t go away until you defeat a group of enemies surrounding it. These enemies are generally more powerful than the usual beasts you see in the area, so are a little tougher to deal with.
There are also some quest strings you can undertake that will grant you a chest at the end. These are shown on the map as crossed swords within a green circle, and generally have you taking on powerful enemies. Each quest string is about three quests long, and escalate in difficulty. The single item reward may seem a bit lacklustre, but you do gain a decent amount of experience for taking on those more powerful enemies.
With Sword in the Name, There’s Gotta be Combat, Right?
The main crux of the game centres around its combat. There’s a lot of systems to engage with, and it can be a bit daunting at times, but it does make sense after some experimentation.
Beginning with the basics, by default you have a basic attack button, special attack button, and a button for your defense skills. You can add to those skill buttons, as you can initiate different skill moves with different inputs. For example, pressing the button will do one attack, pressing a direction and the skill button will do another, tapping a direction twice followed by the skill button will do another and so on.
If that doesn’t sound intuitive to you, you can press the minus button, which will bring up a menu with all of your skills. From there, it is just a matter of selecting the skill you want to use with the D-pad and pushing the A button. This setup makes the game feel even more like an MMO, which certainly fits the entire theme.
Things become a bit more complicated when you start bringing your party into the fold. A key move as part of the anime was the Switch attack, which you can do here. Essentially you switch places with a party member, and they deal an attack that can cause extra damage. You can also cheer on your party to give certain characters extra buffs, and order your party to perform certain tasks, such as healing, attacking or casting buffs.
Raids further complicate things, as you worn with not only your own party, but other parties as well. In these battles you can order certain parties to attack different weak points on a boss, helping to defeat the raid as efficiently as possible.
What to Do With All This Experience…
As you defeat enemies you will gain experience points (this is an RPG after all). Gain enough experience and you will go up a level, giving you general buffs to all your stats, as well as getting you skill points to spend on the skill tree.
Things on the skill tree seem muddled and hard to discern, though you will quickly realise that the skills are set up in such a way that you can ignore the majority of it for a time. Basically it is set out per weapon, but all a part of the same skill tree, which is why it initially looks daunting.
An easy way to navigate things is to look at the abilities relating to the weapon you want to use. I went with swords, so spent the majority of my initial skill points in the 1h sword skill portion of the tree. If you want to use say spears, you can go down to that part of the tree and learn the skills relating to that weapon.
Wait, This Isn’t an MMO?
The way the menus are set out are done in such a way as to make the game feel like a full on MMO. You will have a friends list, where you will receive and reply to messages when needed. Generally these will be side quest based, but you will also get some fun flavour text from Kirito’s many friends.
As you set out in the world, that feeling remains, as you will see other parties navigating the world, attacking enemies, and having chats with each other. You can also swoop in and help those players out, and sometimes they may stumble in to your battles, which helps sell this world as an actual MMO.
It’s the little touches that make this feel like a living breathing MMO. The way you can interact with your party, how they sometimes refer to out of the game things in their lives, how they level up with you as they go on their own quests, it just all comes together in a really nice and almost believable way.
A Pleasing Aesthetic? Yes Please!
Basing a game on an established property can be a tricky proposition. On the one hand, you are expected to nail it as the material is already set out for you to go off. On the other, with an anime property, you have to somehow make these 2D designs work in a 3D game.
Thankfully, Hollow Realization looks the part, which really helps bring the anime to life. The character designs have a certain charm to them that certain 2D turned 3D models have, and reminds me in some ways of how the Atelier games bring their models to life.
A visual novel-style aesthetic is used for most character interactions, which works well to show which characters are talking, and also gets that beautiful anime art design in the game in some form.
Unfortunately the environments let things down, coming off as a bit bland. This is offset somewhat by how packed full of monsters and other “players” everything is, but you won’t exactly be wowed by the areas you explore.
And the Sounds?
Hollow Realization has a Japanese voice over that is quite excellent. Now some people may be turned off by the lack of English VO, but fans of playing these types of games in the native language will be more than pleased with the offset here.
The sounds of battle emulate what you would hear in an MMO, and helps to sell the setting. Tying everything together is a soundtrack that fits each moment perfectly. Each environment and area has a song that helps set the mood, and battles have a theme that will get to ready for a fight.
A Great Performance is Key
Everything runs really well, and honestly the Switch feels like the perfect platform for the game. You can say that about any RPG really, as the portable nature of the console helps you smash out those long 30+ hour long titles, but the lacklustre environments are also less noticeable when playing on the small screen.
Unfortunately, there is one issue that was very noticeable throughout. The loading times are quite long, some lasting upwards of 30 seconds. That doesn’t sound like much, but when there is a loading screen between each area, when fast travelling, going back to town, entering and exiting cutscenes, it becomes a glaring issue.
Any Other Issues?
The button layout can be troublesome as well. They do the cardinal sin of making B be the button used to select things in menus. This would be more bearable if interacting with things wasn’t the A button, which is also the cancel button. So an example, if you want to talk to a character, you press the A button, then to select what you want you need to press the B button, but will find that you will naturally hit the A button again which will cancel out of the conversation. It is frustrating to be sure.
Also, quest markers can be a little painful to follow in some instances. Sometimes the main quest marker will be exactly where you need to go, while other times it will be in the basic area. At some points the marker won’t be there at all, and with no way to check what the main quest is, you end up having to just explore until you hopefully stumble upon the answer. That said, sometimes the game won’t allow you to progress to other areas until you work out where you need to go, so that can become quite a problem.
Thankfully the game is fun enough, and the story intriguing enough to overcome these issues. That said, some people won’t be as tolerant of these issues. Honestly though, the game is worth seeing through.
- Nails the look and feel of the anime
- Intriguing story
- Fun gameplay
- Deep mechanics
- Great sound design
- Environments are a bit bland
- Button layout is a problem
- Loading times are lengthy
- Annoying quest markers