As I write the Sword Art Online Hollow Realization Review, I find myself deflated. It’s not that I had any expectations for this game, but rather that it could have been good. Instead, Sword Art Online fans are once again fed a healthy dose of niche market reality pie. This action RPG is heavy on the text but light on delivering its story in an engaging manner; at its best when relentlessly bashing away at enemies with the one battle skill that suits you. For more on why I walked away disappointed, read our full review below.
If you’d prefer to watch a video, we ran a live-steam at launch that you can check out right here!
Look and Feel
It’s fair to say that, while it doesn’t have a high fidelity, Sword Art Online Hollow Realization captures the SAO feel quite well. Ainground (the game’s setting) is based off of the original plot-line’s death game set in Aincrad, so there’s a great deal of nostalgia for fans of the franchise.
That said, everything from the character models to the environments always struck me as “budget title”. Sword Art Online isn’t exactly a blockbuster hit in gaming. It’s not surprising that it wouldn’t receive a large investment given the likelihood that Sword Art games will sell to Sword Art fans and that’s all. This observation becomes a problem when you see what a Sword Art Online game could be through the scarce cut-scenes. As a fan of the anime, I identify SAO’s high production values and intense fights as its core appeal. Those appealing traits are found in the aforementioned cut-scenes and it only serves to highlight that the rest of the game is presented in a visual novel-esque “this cardboard cut-out character has three stances they’ll switch between in every conversation with you” way.
The soundtrack is largely forgettable. I’ve literally just completed the game and I couldn’t provide anything of note in that regard. It’s not bad, it just lacks any presence and leaves no impression.
Japanese VO in Full Force
If there’s a positive to Sword Art Online Hollow Realization’s presentation, it’s that it features what I believe to be the full Japanese voice cast for many of its featured characters. Not only that, the majority of the text is voiced. In fact, I’d say you’d be hard-pressed to find a worthwhile conversation that isn’t voiced. Whether or not that appeals to you, it shows dedication to the material that came before it.
Ainground vs Alfheim
Up until this point, I’ve compared this game to the standard on the market, but what about its predecessor: Sword Art Online Lost Song? Well if we judge it solely on that, Hollow Realization features some improvements and a major drawback from my perspective. On the one hand, the myriad of areas in HR feel varied and full of life, with very little wasted space. On the other hand, flying is no longer an option. Based on the lore, this is understandable, but one of the greatest assets Lost Song had was exploring the verticality of its admittedly empty world. Lost Song was vast but it was barren, which is why flying over it was both enjoyable and necessary.
The aesthetics vary at a base level (fantasy vs, well…. less-fantasy?) but the textures and general detail of Hollow Realization are superior to Lost Song. It’s worth noting, with all of the points made, that the two games were developed by different teams (Aquria for Hollow Realization and Artdink for Lost Song) but Hollow Realization is a direct sequel to the events of Lost Song.
Finally; the character models. Hollow Realization allows you to create your own avatar. You’re still the SAO protagonist Kirito, but you can be male or female. A weird decision, given the use of Kirito’s voice from a first-person perspective at all times, but we’ll discuss that later. Through the character creation tools, it’s easy to see how well HR stacks up against LS. It’s not the deepest well of variety in all of gaming, but there’s a sufficent amount of variety in this world that easily trumps LS from scope to style. My point here is also represented by the many other wandering adventurers you’ll likely see around the hub town.
Enemy Design Efforts Made
If I recall correctly, many of Lost Song’s enemies felt like palette swaps to me. For my full thoughts, feel free to read the SAO Lost Song review. Hollow Realization does a fair bit more. From skin decay to a more elaborate set of wings, the monsters often stay within the same family throughout the game but a great deal of effort appears to have been made to differentiate the family members themselves. For all of the issues I have with Hollow Realization, the enemies and their habitats certainly aren’t one of them from a design standpoint. I’m not going to tell you there aren’t palette swaps, but there’s a difference between the occasional enemy with different skin and almost every enemy being just that.
User Interface Concerns
Unfortunately, the game falls apart from an interface perspective. Not that it doesn’t look good. It does. Almost too good. As if the interface might have existed somewhere before.
That’s probably because it did.
The majority of your time will be spent looking at an interface that’ll be familiar to actual MMORPG players. Specifically Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. The map system in particular struck an odd chord with me in this regard. There are events in the field indicated by a coloured circle catchment area and two gold daggers staked at its centre. This is the exact same system that was featured in the aforementioned MMORPG. Unabashedly so.
It’s not just the map either. The skill bar, access to additional skills using the second shoulder buttons: a lot of it feels as if it were pulled from an already existing product. It makes sense, with the MMO feel they’re attempting to replicate in a single-player setting, and I won’t deny its effectiveness but it also feels uninspired as a result.
When it comes down to it, Hollow Realization is the best looking Sword Art Online game to date. That praise is equivalent to being the tastiest meal cooked in a microwave.
Sword Art Online Hollow Realization brings fans of the franchise back to familiar territory. Kirito and his harem are invited to the beta test of a new Virtual Reality MMORPG – Sword Art: Origin. Get it? Because “SAO”? Yeah. (To be fair, it’s done with purpose). When Kirito stumbles across a nameless AI in the Town of Beginnings, a disturbing message is sent his way: Agil’s been sending Asuna some questionable pictures.
No, but seriously, I don’t mean to undermine Hollow Realization’s plot. It’s fine. Just fine. Directly following on from where Lost Song left off, there’s many a familiar SAO character to be found. Naturally, the busty heroines return along with other friends of Kirito. It’s a “love wins” time as per usual for Sword Art.
I Guess Visual Novels Aren’t For Me
Call me a regular nut-job, but I like a story that’s presented well. Sure, I enjoy exposition in the form of the skits in a Tales’ game or an audio-tape in Bioshock, but the core story? I want it designed and animated to make me feel something. What doesn’t do that for me is a cardboard cut out whose facial expression occasionally changes. Sometimes a character will lean forward a bit, just in-case you’d forgotten she had massive breasts (Strea). Other times, they’ll lean back for a second, or put their hand to their mouth. Hell; they might even blink! All of this could be forgiven in a dedicated VN game such as Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness (which I also didn’t enjoy for similar reasons) but in a full-fledged game? Not so much.
If they resonate with you though, be my guest. There’s much to see here. In fact, the side-quests? They essentially feature no gameplay, opting instead for streams of dialogue. Usually falling on the side of “Hey Kirito! Remember when we did stuff before? I know, right? *whispers* I love you“. They even try to game-ify your interactions with the cast, which doesn’t go down too well but that’s a gameplay topic.
With fully voiced main characters and a seemingless endless need to bother you all of the time, there’s a lot to enjoy if you’re here for these characters and their bonds. I just wish they weren’t done against static backgrounds in such a tired fashion.
Scarce But Impressive Cut Scenes Deserved More Attention
I’ve mentioned that I believe Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is an obvious budget title. I feel that way mainly due to its impressive opening, ending and occasional slice of anime/CG cut-scenes. Rather than opting for this approach across the game (which would be expensive) they jarringly return to visual novel form for an excruiatingly long time.
I feel as though this is why I didn’t feel connected to the antagonists. Their personal struggles didn’t feel real to me because they only felt fully realised in the two (maybe three?) moments they’re animated in an impressive way. And it really is awesome when they are, but because I’ve been staring at these blinking 2D images for 40 hours, I’m jaded on their occasionally cool moments.
BE the Kirito…. What?
Sword Art Online Hollow Realization has an identity crisis. Kirito being able to make his own avatar in this new game is fine. That’s not the issue. Men can create women and vice-versa in MMORPGs. It’s a tale as old as time. What’s odd is to put the player in a first person perspective AS Kirito during all of the interactions. I suspect this is largely due to the fan service efforts of Everybody Loves Kirito. As in “Hey, you know Asuna right? Well she loves Kirito, which means she now loves YOU…. even when they call you Kirito”.
The previous game, Lost Song, understood the separation. Kirito appeared in the picture interactions because you aren’t Kirito. You’re playing AS Kirito’s avatar. That’s true of Hollow Realization too, except they insist on keeping it in first-person for the interactions for the aforementioned fan-service aspect in my opinion. You can have all of the anime boobs, butts and adopted child AI people you want but don’t faff about with perspective. I do understand that rendering the customised avatar in the chat wouldn’t work, but just show Kirito. The Kirito people know. The way that he’s shown in the CG cut-scenes (because he’s certainly not your created avatar there!) and in the odd static picture. Aquria slot good ol’ Kirito in when it suits them and makes him disappear when they want him to feel like “you”.
A Good Plot Hampered By Endless Text and Repetition
The core story of Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is actually pretty good. The Null NPC issue, the digital drug abuse, the gang enjoying a brand new Virtual Realty MMO without threat of death in a place based off of where they nearly died: all fine concepts. What doesn’t sit well is the never-ending dialogue. There’s so much circle-jerking going on that it turned me off to the plot. Many a conversation seems to feel the need to recap the events that you’ve just endured.
A lot of the included dialogue is simply unnecessary. Cumbersome, even. A friendly reminder that everybody’s your friend, even when some people aren’t your friends. To the point that there’s so much of it that’s mandatory, I didn’t want to explore much of it in the side-quests (which are also INCREDIBLY dense on the dialogue and text). It’s like somebody’s beating you over the head with a Japanese audio-book and it harmed the core story which is otherwise quite enjoyable.
Localisation! Bad Job.
It seems that even the localisation team got tired of proof reading the text at some point too. There are a vast amount of errors in the English text. A ridiculous amount that prompted a palming of my own face at one point. A facepalm, if you will.
I can overlook the occasional blip on the radar. It’s a tough job, translating so many mind-numbing interactions. Where it becomes a problem is that this is just within the core story. Sure, the proof reading would be directed to priority content, and you’d think the main story-line’s text would be that.
Again, it doesn’t leave you completely lost, but for a full-priced retail product being put out by Bandai Namco, whom I’ve largely complimented on their general localisation efforts in English, this was a surprising mess.
Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is an Action RPG. It features skill bars at the lower centre of the screen, a mini map in the top right and various menus that incorporate the game’s MMORPG aspiration in to a largely single player experience. Many of the common tropes exist, such as killing enemies and completing quests for experience to level up. Add in a touch of the Elder Scrolls style “use this school of ability to increase its level” mechanic and you have a core combat loop that can be quite fun when it isn’t stretching itself out too thin.
Kirito and Co. Do RPG-ing!
When you’re ready to venture out in to one of the six regions from the teleport gate in the Town of Beginnings, Kirito can take three additional people with him. Each has their own weapon and sub-class. Characters that don’t participate in the field level up with the party, so nobody is left behind.
By equipping Kirito with one of nine (eventually ten) available weapon styles, it’ll level up with use. This, in turn, provides skill points to invest in the branching ability paths available to you. Some abilities are locked behind a prerequisite minimal skill level. Others are hidden within unlockable sub-classes for yourself that can freely switched between, though the abilities are only available if the sub-class is equipped. The same applies to weapon “sword arts”: if you have a rapier skill, only if you’ve equipped a rapier can you use it.
Battle skills, on the other hand, are a different story. These special skills are usually unlocked at cross sections on the skill screen and can be used with any weapon and/or sub-class equipped. Battle skills can be anything from SP recovery (the skill-resource i.e. mana) to increased experience or movement speed for a period of time. They’re remarkably useful, especially for cutting down on the more grind-y aspects of leveling in Sword Art Online Hollow Realization.
No Control Over the Party Progression or Default Combat Stance
Though the player character progress is a fun, intuitive process of leveling when you adjust to it, any other character is a problem. Essentially, you “influence” their growth by complimenting them with a shoulder button in battle. After nearly 50 hours of gameplay and a completed story, I still have no solid idea on how this is supposed to work.
The party still levels in the basic sense, as do you. Experience ups your base level which, in turn, ups your base health, SP and various stats. Standard RPG fare. It’s just their actual skills that become a strange thing. Healers that don’t heal you. Attackers that stand idly by as you slash away at enemies. Sword skills of the same type that you’re using aren’t coming out of Asuna’s rapier the way it does yours, and if they do, it’s once in a while under direct instruction.
Yes, as well as abilities, the (up to) three party members usable in single player are AI controlled. That’d be fine if the AI wasn’t terrible at being those characters. There are vague instructions you can shout by holding L2 on the dualshock and pressing a D-Pad button. One such instruction is “Attack”, or as I have affectionately named it, the “Why are you just standing there watching me being eaten by a Dragon?” button.
When the party does come together and chain skills, it unleashes incredibly powerful combo attacks that follow up on your previous efforts. If this were a more directed experience, that aspect could be incredible, but I also feel that’s why the game refuses to give you proper control: it’d be too easy. That’s no excuse to make it so obscure, but I do understand the delicate balance.
Combat Basics: Dodge and Strike
Combat with enemies will make up the majority of your time spent in Sword Art Online Hollow Realization. Their attacks are mostly telegraphed via a red cone of impact just before they unleash it. The key to victory is evading and stunning the enemies by attacking just after their attack to stun them. The timing mechanics keep the gameplay engaging as most enemies have mildly different patterns that force you to adapt to their speed.
Of course, there are balancing issue. Bosses exist that are far easier than your average skeleton in this game purely due to their attack patterns. Take a level 67 dragon, for instance. The dragon’s movements are slow and deliberate. It could easily kill an unprepared player, but its abilities are predictable and easy to counter. Not to mention it has two main points of weakness: its tail and head, offering mounds of experience and an instant stun each time you break a piece and let it regenerate afterwards.
Then there’s a level 12 skeleton. It has a multiple slash skill that it uses upon contact and a swift, hard-to-detect basic slash that interrupts your own skills. Unless you can kill them in one hit, they’re a pain to fight. Downright obnoxious, actually.
For the most part though, enemies for the areas are well-balanced and combat is fair. Occasionally the capture zone for an enemy attack won’t appear for some reason, so that can be annoying, but otherwise just pick a combat style you enjoy and get to work. This game is at its best when enjoying an uninterrupted level grind, testing out various weapon styles to see what works for you.
Equipment and Upgrades
There are ten slots of equipment (nine if you’re using a two-handed weapon). Three of these can be upgraded at a blacksmith with the right materials: weapon (and shield, if applicable), chest and boots.
Blacksmiths (such as your own party member Lisbeth) level up as they work. They can unlock new skills that will bestow positive effects on a successful upgrade and can transform a highly upgraded weapon in to something new. The process is expensive and the materials can be a grind to get, not to mention that success isn’t guaranteed. There’s a percentage to show the likelihood of success with that particular Blacksmith but you’ll have to invest a lot of materials and spend a lot of Col (SAO Currency) to get anything out of the process. It’s still worth doing if you’re in it for the long haul or find some equipment you really enjoy.
Quests, Chests, Events and Bounties
Bounties can be taken from several boards in the Town of Beginnings. Killing enemies or acquiring materials is the quickest way to earn Col, which isn’t very quick in the first place. Bounties also offer experience, though it’s better to find a decent grind spot.
Quests can be initiated with party members at certain intervals. Most will result in a racy or comical still image of an event. Honestly, I didn’t spend much time on these side-quests give the dense main plot. I’m aware that certain things can only be unlocked by pursuing those side-quests so have at it.
World events, even if they are unoriginal at this point, are a welcome addition. They offer the best rewards in the game from loads of experience to rare equipment. When you cross their catchment area, it’ll pop up and tell you the requirement. It’s usually a sub-boss enemy with several life bars, several enemies or a stealth mission to get from one end of the current map to another without being seen by a particular enemy. All of them are fairly easy if you’re around the appropriate level and their level requirements are shown in the area details of the world map. It’s all very well done in that sense.
Chests offer reliable rewards. Particularly blue chests, guarded by an aura that requires the party to slay particular enemies surrounding the chest. They respawn after you’ve left the area and often give the same reward. This system is perfect for potion farming to, once again, ease the grind.
Nod to Make Anime Girls Like You
We all know what it’s like, us adventurers. When you’re not swinging a weapon around or buying potions, there’s nothing more relaxing than hanging out by the fruit stand whilst your best girl asks you vague question to which you must nod or shake your head at.
Oh. Is that just me? Not even me? Alright then.
In order to increase your affinity with your party members (which is the ONLY way to upgrade their weapons by the way!) you must ask them to go on a walk with you. Alone. At certain areas, a heart bubble will appear over the character’s head. Take Strea, for example, as you drag her actually-bouncing boobs across the quaint Town, you might stand next to a fountain and talk to her. This will prompt the first-person perspective mini-game to begin. The fine lady will ask you how you feel / what should we do? etc etc and you can nod, shake your head or move closer with the left stick.
By responding to her questions amicably, she’ll get happier and your relationship will VERY SLOWLY increase. I mean woefully slowly. I’ve spent less time in real life getting to the point of having sex with somebody than Kirito does just to get a woman to let him “gaze longingly” at her. I’m not kidding: that’s an option as you “Move closer”.
Eventually – and I do mean EVENTUALLY – you’ll be able to hold hands with her around town (as long as none of your friends see!) and then the money shot: you can bridal-carry her to your bed for some “pillow talk”.
The Issue is that it Locks Systems Behind its Tedium.
I cast no judgments. If that’s your thing, wet your whistle on it all you wish. Personally, it’s not worth it for me, but what’s more is that you can’t simply equip these characters with better gear. It’s locked behind a gift giving system that only seems to be accessible in conversations with them at Level 4 of the relationship. And I’m honestly note sure if they even equip the better item you give them! There’s no indication, just the fact that you can give them a version of their respective weapon at Level 4. It’s nonsense.
It might shock you to know that I feel as if I’m missing something in these near 4,000 words. Still, this iteration of Sword Art Online’s series of video games is another underwhelming effort. There’s a lot to love in the combat and weapon skill systems, as well as some fantastic bosses to fight, but between the streams of mandatory text that can’t be skipped, the awful companion A.I in battle and the inability to directly control the progression of other party members, Hollow Realization lives up to the hollow part of its name. It’s lacking and fans of the franchise deserve a better game in a world inspired by MMORPGs.