Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization Review
The Sword Art Online anime series may have ended a few years ago but the franchise is still alive and kicking. The manga and light novels are still in production, there’s a live action series on the way and every so often a videogame is thrown into the mix. The games are often fan service only, bringing new material for the franchise as a whole but also not having a huge impact on the videogames industry. Hollow Realization is no exception, but at its core it is a competent RPG that will appease fans and keep the series going.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is set after the anime series, with the main cast of characters returning to beta test a new virtual world that is reminiscent of Aincrad. Long gone are the dangers of dying in the real world should something happen in-game, so most of the crew are just looking forward to exploring at a leisurely pace. A mysterious NPC character called Premiere appears and follows Kirito, prompting the group to uncover her origins and why she is in this new world.
The story is told primarily through character portraits, featuring some minor animations such as blinking eyes and moving mouths. Most of it is dubbed in Japanese which should help capture the same feeling as the anime for some. Be warned that if you’re not familiar with the anime then the plot will likely go over your head – there’s a lot of pre-existing relationships that were formed in the anime, and apart from a brief recap of some key events it’s mostly just glossed over. At times it also feels like the story drags on as often when you’re just getting into the thick of actual gameplay, you’re suddenly forced to watch long drawn out conversations between characters.
The game’s combat system is robust and efficient. Being an action RPG, there’s a high emphasis on stringing together combos and working together with teammates. You can control your squad by commanding them to dodge, execute attacks and heal completely on the fly. If you manage to string together your attacks in the right way, you will achieve damage bonuses. You’re also able to parry attacks and time counters when enemies are temporarily vulnerable. It can be quite overwhelming at first, particularly because the game has a rushed tutorial, but those who are patient and learn all the tactics will have a much smoother experience. It is a shame though that the AI wasn’t more capable when left alone. Squadmates are fine taking orders but you can only do so much at once, and if left alone it’s not uncommon to see them be defeated and require rescuing. At times it feels like you’re struggling to control four characters at once rather than acting as a commander.
Hollow Realization features a lot of grinding. It takes hours to open up multiple areas, and there are a lot of fetch quests which involve attacking the same types of monsters over and over again just to collect various spoils. Events do appear randomly while out in the field, and there are some truly amazing boss encounters to discover, but you’re going to have to spend a lot of time leveling up before you can take on some of the more interesting beasties.
Deep within the game are relationship and attribute systems. The idea here is that if you bond with other characters then you will make a better team while in battle. Things like complimenting your teammates or just having a one-on-one discussion supposedly affects how they attack enemies and changes their stats. Unfortunately the game does a poor job of explaining how it works exactly, and after spending time looking through the countless menus and text tutorials (and consulting some unofficial fan sites), it isn’t overly clear what the overall affect on gameplay actually is. Similarly, characters have individual attributes and personality traits that can be customised but it’s lost amongst tedious menus and a lack of explanation. It’s a shame because it’s obvious the developers have really gone all out to implement these features, yet it’s hidden and will likely go ignored by most.
Like most anime-based games Hollow Realization features cel-shaded visuals. Nothing is overly impressive here, but the world is presented neatly and is quite colourful. While exploring the main hub town there is some noticeable dips in framerate due to the amount of NPCs running around, which is a shame as for the most part the game runs smoothly.
It’s difficult to recommend Hollow Realization to anyone who isn’t a fan of Sword Art Online. The story assumes you have prior knowledge of the series and the gameplay, while competent, has many minor annoyances which may prove a little overbearing for some. Things like grinding, incompetent AI and unrealised affection and attribute systems mean the experience isn’t going to compare against other RPGs on the market. If you’re a fan then there’s a lot to take in, but otherwise there’s little here to keep you interested for long.