Where it all began.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization on PS4
There’s just something about Aincrad, the setting of Sword Art Online that trapped players in a cruel game turning virtual deaths into the real thing, that keeps fans coming back for more. During the first season of the anime, Kirito and his newfound friends fought their way through the game and came out alive but forever haunted by the events that transpired in that digital realm. But a seed was provided when it was all said and done, and from that seed sprouted more games, free from the trap that kicked off the franchise but still utilized for nefarious activities. Knowing this, there is still something alluring about it, and for Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, someone has decided to take the game back to its roots.
Welcome to Sword Art: Origins, the latest game created from that same seed unlocked by Kirito and his friends. Instead of an entirely new game, though, the developers took Aincrad, that 100 floor tower of challenge and doom, and turned it into a wide open expanse known as Ainground. While it doesn’t have the same imposing appearance as a torture tower floating in the sky, it offers just as much, if not more of a challenge.
Exactly why a game was created using the same appearance as a game that took so many lives is unknown. What is known is that Seven (who fans will remember from Lost Song, the previous Sword Art Online RPG) is supporting the game, which is the only reason that all of the characters have returned to such a nightmarish location. It’s still unclear who’s behind everything and things only grow more puzzling when you meet a nameless NPC who doesn’t follow the same patterns and coding as everything else in the game. That NPC is Premiere, an AI whose memory has been wiped and finding out her origin, as well as her purpose will reveal the answers to all the questions that the characters and you, the player, will have as you explore the prettiest Sword Art Online game to date.
Anime-based games tend to fare well as long as character designs match what fans know. But Hollow Realization goes the extra mile by offering the best enemy designs we’ve seen thus far in the series as well as tons of customization options for your main character. Unfortunately, you don’t have much control over the gear of your party members which range from random NPCs that you can befriend to fan-favorites like Sinon and Asuna. You can unlock a unique set of armor by increasing your relationship status with each of the major characters (meaning characters that appear in the anime and in previous games).
That friendship system actually ties into the strategy element of Hollow Realization fairly well. During combat, you can give compliments to any of your chosen party members which will boost your friendship with them and earn you temporary perks while out exploring, such as an injection of SP (used to trigger abilities) and faster refresh rates on certain actions. However, you don’t only just get these temporary perks. When an ally performs an action, it will fall under one of their traits such as Shy, Smart, Cold, Fiery, and Spirited. These are directly related to how that character acts and will dictate what moves that character will learn and how they perform in battle. Simply spamming compliments will give you temporary advantages but can certainly cost you in the long run.
A lot of the combat in Hollow Realization is like that, actually. Every fight can be won easily if you don’t mind spamming certain actions, but that will prove to be costly as you progress. There’s much more of a focus on managing your teammates while fighting and working with them rather than just leading the charge. You’ll often find that enemies are much more susceptible to certain attacks if you combo them with another character, or have someone flank. It’s a way of maintaining the relatively simple combat scheme that Sword Art Online games have employed and adding an extra layer of challenge on top of it. Although, it isn’t without its issues.
Ally AI is less than great, and at times it can be downright horrible. The only way to get them to perform in a certain way is to use the compliment system mentioned before, however that takes hours upon hours of play before it really starts to matter. You can lock in certain skills that you want them to use (thankfully) without having to worry about a compliment making them change what you need, but they still don’t do things well. It forces a constant need to micromanage during difficult encounters as you instruct them when to dodge and then instruct them when to heal themselves. No matter who you bring, they often fail to have any battlefield awareness once you’re up against more than two enemies.
It’s a shame, really, because controlling your own character in Hollow Realization feels like a healthy improvement over the game’s predecessors. Yes, there are still a lot of menus and plenty of icons on screen that you will have to manage, but it has a much smoother transition between fights and you have the ability to dance around the battlefield fairly effortlessly. Even with the lack of flight that we got to experience in Lost Song – thanks to it taking place in ALfheim Online (ALO) rather than Sword Art Online – I never felt limited. I could dash in, do my damage, then dart away before a major attack wiped me out. Skilled players will be able to stand toe-to-toe against enemies well beyond their level, and that’s a sign of great action RPG. It’s just that having your allies be completely useless at times makes it difficult to form meaningful strategies in a game that often calls for them.
Another issue I had with the game is that, just like in the previous games, you’re always Kirito, the main character of the anime. Fans have yet to be able to place themselves into this beautiful, deadly universe. Sure, you can customize your character how ever you like – naming them, choosing their gender, changing their voice, and even equipping different armor – but during the story, you’ll always hear Kirito’s voice, and everyone will refer to you as him regardless of what you choose. It ruins the immersion quite a bit, satisfying only those players who happen to want to be Kirito.
When you mix once again having to be the star of the anime in what is supposed to be a mock MMO along with the fact that we’re once again exploring only Sword Art Online, it begins to weigh the game down. We had a bit of salvation in Lost Song thanks to ALO’s fairy world, but what about Gun Gale Online? The post-apocalyptic shooter MMO that had a much darker presentation and actually introduced the world to Sinon who quickly became one of the most characters in the series. For the video games, she’s been given a different origin just so we can use her, but it would be great to explore the world she actually came from.
Don’t get me wrong, Hollow Realization is far from a bad game. AI issues aside, this is the best its felt to control your avatar since the very first game, and everything is very pretty, reminiscent of the stylized anime that the action is based off of. I just couldn’t help but feel that I’d been here before, and that’s coming from a fan of the series.
It’s great to see how far the games have come in terms of managing all those damn menus, presenting an experience that is true to the source material, and figuring out how to take the combat system and make it fun and fluid. But in the end, it feels a bit too safe. Yes, we know it’s called Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, but that doesn’t mean we should have to stick to the first world that series introduced us to. If you’re a fan of the series in any way, you will definitely find enjoyment. But when the dust settles, you’ll also find yourself wanting something more.
Score: 3.5/5 – Fair