Sword Art Online: Lost Song on PlayStation 4
Games based on anime are an interesting type. They often have an established following which can be a good thing, but also their undoing. Having to straddle the line between fan-service and something that is accessible to a larger audience is a daunting task for any developer, and it never gets any easier. Yet that’s exactly what the team behind Sword Art Online: Lost Song has tried to do.
The first effort of this endeavor came in the form of Sword Art Online: Lost Song’s narrative. Just like its predecessor, Hollow Fragment, this game presents an original story with some brand new characters set in the world of Alfheim Online (ALO). Players will find themselves in Svart Alfheim, a series of sky islands not too far from the world tree that serves as the first expansion to the ALO universe. Kirito, Asuna, Leafa, Klein, and the rest of the gang are just joining the fray now at the launch of this new area and are intent on clearing it before anyone else can. This leads them to bump heads with what is easily the most powerful guild in the game, Shamrock, and from there, the story plots a course to mystery and adventure.
Once the story kicks in, players will start to see the primary differences between SAO: Lost Song and Hollow Fragment. Where the previous game made an effort to make the single player experience feel as if you were playing a genuine MMO, this one feels much more like an Action RPG. It still has that open structure in its hub worlds to a degree, but there is a story it is trying to tell, and at times it will pull you out of the game to make sure you hear it. It adds a bit of structure to the experience, but it can sometimes be a bit jarring.
You may have plans to beat a boss then further explore a dungeon, in the hopes of finding treasure or grinding the minion spawns, only to find yourself pulled back to the town of Sky City Ryne for a long discussion with your party. These bits do add a bit of extra insight to the whole affair, but will leave those who are new to the world and characters at a loss. The relationships between all of the characters in the game are well-defined, and while there are a few jokes in the game that help you draw lines between everyone, the deeper stuff is completely lost. The events of Sword Art Online are briefly mentioned, but it’s done in a way that removes a lot of the gravity of the situation. Which is unfortunate because it’s those very events that make everything else so intriguing. The fact that they faced death for two long years, and then still had to go back in to save other characters while having psychotic, egotistical scientists and programmers trying to thwart their every move is a big deal that is just glossed over.
Where Lost Song’s exposition seems to lose players, the gameplay (most notably, the combat) brings everyone back in. One thing that separated ALO from the original Sword Art Online game in the anime was the ability to fly. This opens up world exploration and combat in incredibly fluid ways. Players can dash on the ground to deal with a ground enemy and then, with the simple touch of a button, find themselves soaring through the air at full speed to take down some Wyvern that caught their eye. These transitions are easy and that encourages the constant flitting about and demolishing of enemies that one would hope for.
On top of that, the combat mechanics have been completely revamped along with the way skills are implemented. Players can use and upgrade the skills of every playable character, learn new ones, fine tune passive abilities, and create the ultimate parties. Magic (used when weapons are sheathed) adds an extra level of strategy that grants distance but also requires time and resource management since each spell takes a different amount of time to cast depending on its potency. You can attack at any time without the need to lure enemies or wait until they notice you which was a serious annoyance in Hollow Fragment. Just dive in and wreck as you please and if things get a bit too rough then quickly take to the skies and get yourself out of there. Use your party members to your advantage, buying yourself openings and setting up vicious Switch Attacks, or scatter to decimate a horde separately. There are many more options that are bolstered by the verticality of the islands you’ll visit.
Lost Song is the first Sword Art Online game that lets you play as all of the major characters as well, and it’s a pleasant surprise that they feel like more than just re-skins of the same avatar. Each one has their own skills, weapon preference, and perks, making the experience feel brand new depending on who you’re using. Kirito is a monster when it comes to close range combat thanks to his stellar swordsmanship, but Sinon’s proficiency with a bow makes her a devastating sniper. It’s a nice touch that helps to mix up the combat which, like in many ARPGs, can become a bit repetitive.
There’s also the option to create your very own character. Choose a race, weapon preference, look, skill set, and more in order to tackle the world. You won’t appear in cutscenes, unfortunately, but it’s fun to fly alongside your favorite characters and take on everything Svart Alfheim has to offer, especially those huge bosses. Or you can tag along with some of your real friends’ own created characters in multiplayer. The inclusion of others makes for some interesting battles since you’ll have more accurate call-outs of threats and can further refine your strategies.
Cameras are often an issue with games that offer a few range of view and combat, but it becomes especially troubling when paired with a somewhat wonky targeting system. To target an enemy, you have to hold down the L1 button until it locks, but it will only lock on the closest enemy to you. Then, to switch targets, you must use the right stick but it never really makes much sense as it chooses between the dozens of enemies on screen in no discernible order. When you finally do lock onto the right enemy, the camera is incredibly slow in keeping up with them, often times keeping the one enemy you desperately need to see off-screen. This becomes a serious issue when battling some of Lost Song’s bigger bosses since they have larger move-sets and longer ranges.
Yet, even with its wonky camera and story that sometimes alienates newcomers, Sword Art Online: Lost Song is a solid game. The repetition is countered by the variety of playable characters and interesting dynamic brought on by flight, and the central story is simple yet easy to get into. Everyone wants to be the first to overcome a challenge, and to be able to do so with your closest friends is an experience worth partaking in. There is plenty of fan-service for those returning, and the combat is genuinely fun and engaging. If you’re a fan of Sword Art Online at all then you owe it to yourself to check this one out, and if you’re just looking for an interesting ARPG to pass the time then Lost Song is definitely a worthy option.