Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Available on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita
ESRB Rating: T
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is the latest in a series of Sword Art Online games that is based off a light novel and anime. The setting of the series is a fictional Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing (MMORPG) game in which players don a Virtual Reality headgear that allows them to fully immerse themselves in this online world. Sword Art Online is the name of this game, which itself has seen several settings during the various story arcs of the series. The video games are based off the source material, but occur in alternate realities where events did not unfold exactly how they did in the original stories.
In Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, Kirito, the main protagonist of the Sword Art Online series, and his companions are invited to participate in a beta test for Sword Art Online: Origins, a new MMORPG set in a recreation of the world from the original Sword Art Online. Inside this new game, they meet a variety of other players, and encounter a mysterious NPC that offers a quest with an unusually meager reward. Intrigued by this odd and seemingly incomplete NPC, Kirito and his companions aim to solve the mystery of this unusual NPC.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization has a Teen rating by the ESRB with the following justifications listed for the rating:
- Drug References
- Mild Language
- Partial Nudity
- Suggestive Themes
This list is very accurate for what is portrayed in the game, especially suggestive themes. The game is full of what is often called “fan service” in which female characters are frequently shown in rather suggestive situations and revealing states of dress.
The battles fought in the game are not bloody or gory and are pretty tame; they should not cause any problems for even younger children.
There are some direct portrayals of drug usage within the game.
The teen rating seems appropriate for the game, younger children should have parental discretion.
Although there is an online multiplayer feature, at its core this game is a “Pretend” Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). The game simulates the look and feel of a MMORPG, but the core game occurs offline. The game-play borrows a lot of elements from Phantasy Star Online 2 and Final Fantasy XIV.
There are two types of game-play here. This game is an action RPG that plays very similar to Phantasy Star Online 2. You always have direct control of your character. You can run, jump, attack, and evade all in real time. You can perform special skills with your weapons, which often serve as finishers to your combo attacks.
Much like Final Fantasy XIV, you have a pallet where you can set various skills, items, and abilities to grant you quick access to them. Enemies have visual cues and the world maps have special events that occur when you enter a designated area. Fans of these online RPGs will find a lot looks familiar here in Sword Art Online.
The second style of game-play is a visual novel. Story progression takes place through character portraits displayed on screen. Most dialogue is voice acted, albeit entirely in Japanese. Subtitles display the dialogue in English. Nearly all narration is presented through this visual novel style of play.
In terms of visual presentation, the game takes a unique approach. I would describe the aesthetics as looking like Dragon Quest characters inhabiting a Final Fantasy world. The character models have a distinct “anime” look to them, helping them stay pretty true to the source material they come from. The world and terrain you explore looks much like the world of Final Fantasy XIV; a much more realistic look in contrast to the characters.
Speaking of the in-game world, there is no shortage of world to explore. Helping the game simulate the look and feel of a MMORPG, you are presented with some truly massive maps to roam around in. These maps are full of monsters, treasure chests, and special events that will ensure there is always something to do on them. With so much activity, you can easily spend more than an hour on a single field hunting down all its features.
Of course, maps filled with monsters inevitably leads to battle, and fortunately battles are one area where this game shines. Despite a large number of skills and abilities available, you do not have to wade through endless menus searching for your desired move. Basic attacks are mapped to a simple button press, with another button activating your main skill. Further skills can be activated by tapping your special attack button while inputting a direction on the analogue stick. An action pallet can also be customized and displayed or hidden as desired to gain access to even more skills and abilities.
The result is quick access to your desired specials with minimal “search” time, which is essential when you are in the thick of a heated battle. Combat is simple enough that it’s easy to learn, yet has enough depth and strategy to it to make it feel engaging without being overwhelming.
My favorite aspect of the game comes from one of its mechanics designed to help simulate a specific MMORPG experience, and that is the simulated “raid” boss battles. While there are only a handful of true bosses in the game, when you finally do encounter one, you find you are not the only one gunning for the boss. A whole legion of characters have shown up contemplating how to defeat the boss, and they are more than happy to join up with you for the battle.
Accept the offer, and you’ll begin the boss battle with a 12-member team, and it is truly an incredible experience to see so many characters working together in real-time to achieve an objective. You can even issue commands that your AI party members will follow; you are given a lot of influence over encounters.
Are you a trophy hunter? If so, there are quite a few to go after. It will probably take you a several hundred hours to collect every trophy this game has to offer. If 100% completion is your thing, this game will keep you busy or quite some time. Obtaining the platinum for this game is quite an accomplishment!
Although the game features a character creation mechanic, no matter what you do with your character, the game still considers you to be Kirito, SAO’s main protagonist. Most of the time, you’ll be referred to by the name you input, but make no mistake. You are Kirito. In all of the cut scenes, you’ll hear Kirito’s voice actor voicing your dialogue unless you go into the options menu and mute the voice. Characters will make references to your past deeds in previous adventures from SAO, and treat you the same way they do Kirito. Even if you create a female character, everyone will still refer to you as a male, and all of the female characters will still hit on you.
I should mention that I am a woman, and it quickly became apparent to me that I am most definitely not the target demographic for this game. Aside from being forced to essentially be Kirito, this game is definitely one that plays the role of a male fantasy. The core cast of the game is almost entirely female side-kicks for Kirito, all of which are ready and willing to hit on Kirito, and frequently present themselves in varying states of undress. In fact, the rewards for many of the game’s side-stories is a snapshot of the girls in a revealing and often seductive state.
Even Asuna herself has realized what this game is really about! Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not a prude and I am not offended by some revealing images, but when the same fully nude female character was shown to me 3 different times, and nearly every other quest line was prominently having the female characters reveal their panties and having suggestive dialogue, it became quite clear that this game was not intended for me.
Further building on the male fantasy design of the game, it includes a dating simulation. Characters have a friendship level that represents their affinity towards you. Once you are on friendly terms with a character, you can invite them to walk around town with you. Special locations around town will allow you to initiate a private conversation with a character. During these private conversations, you not only get a chance to build up your friendship with them, you get to make out with them as well. You can stroke them, grab their waist, or if you’re really daring, move in for a kiss. If you are skillful with your making out, you an even bring the characters to bed with you, where you can have a “Pillow Chat” with them as they lay down on your bed so you can continue to make out with them. While the game naturally guides you towards the multiple female characters swooning over you for this, anyone and everyone is fair game. Male, female, it doesn’t matter. As long as your friendship level is high enough with someone, you can romance them. Even Kirito’s family members are fair game. Want to hit on your daughter? The game will let you.
While this mechanic does introduce an element of bonding with characters, which is not a bad idea, the way it’s carried out comes across as so shallow and superficial that it’s hard to feel like you are really building a meaningful relationship with the characters as opposed to just taking advantage of them.
Another area of the game that is rather under-whelming is just how shamefully it borrows from other games, to the point where it almost feels like a knock-off of them. This is especially true when the game is compared to Final Fantasy XIV, where the similarities become so glaring that it has to be intentional.
Monsters look suspiciously similar to enemies encountered in Final Fantasy, and the special field events are virtually identical to the “FATES” encountered in that game. Enemies even use the same targeting field on the ground to telegraph their attacks that Final Fantasy uses. When it comes to originality, this game is sorely lacking. But, on the other hand, the things it copied it did so fairly well.
It really does get your heart racing and builds up a sense of excitement when a massive super powerful enemy suddenly appears, and you have to decide if you are going to fight it, or run for your life. These on-field super enemies can be even stronger than the game’s main bosses, and it can take as long as an hour to defeat one.
If you are able to topple your super foe, the rewards are incredible pieces of equipment, giving you a real tangible motivation for engaging these super foes; not just bragging rights. In addition to the super enemies, there are also lesser field events that give lesser rewards but still encourage field exploration and interaction. Despite the lack of originality, these copycat events are executed well and can be fun to play.
While this game is only pretending to be an MMORPG, it does in fact contain a multi-player mode playable online. Multi-player mode is instance based. You create a room that can contain up to 4 people. There is no story progression or special quests in multiplayer mode. It’s essentially free-roaming of the world maps, although it is possible for the super enemy monsters to appear, allowing you to recruit friends to help fight them. There’s also a mode where you need to defend checkpoints while accomplishing an objective. This mode is also available offline, but it is quite fun to play it with friends. That’s all she wrote for multi-player. It’s a fun diversion, but it’s features are quite bare-bones. It’s worth mentioning that PS4 and Vita cannot play together for some reason.
For all the things about an MMORPG that the game does right, there’s a lot it gets wrong. First and foremost, the game is extremely dialogue heavy, so much so that it is not uncommon to spend 20 minutes doing nothing but advancing dialogue. While narration is important, the problem is that frequently, the narration is just fluff that has no significance to the story. Many times, its just not interesting to read. All of these characters know each other and are friends, that’s great and all but the game is going to be reminding you of this constantly. What’s worse is, it’s very easy to stumble into these long cut scenes when you’re simply trying to move through town to reach a destination. I once encountered four lengthy cut scenes all while I was trying to walk to the teleport plaza. It quickly became a rather infuriating experience when every one of them was little more than re-affirming that the characters are friends with Kirito.
Even out in the field, you are not safe from these. Frequently, you’ll be traversing a new field and will at last find a significant location; perhaps one you have spent a great amount of time searching for. But just as you approach its entrance, Kirito will halt progress and demand you return to town to “tell the others” about it. You then must go back and sit through a lengthy scene where you explain to the other characters what you already knew. Then at last you can return and continue on, but by the time you get back, that sense of excitement and anticipation has probably turned into one of frustration and annoyance.
That’s not to say that the story is all bad. Over time, you can genuinely start to feel for some of the characters, and some of their events are quite relatable. Occasionally, the events that unfold are surprisingly poignant and can really touch your heart.
While it doesn’t make up for all the fluff, there is some good bits in the narration if you are able to pay attention long enough.
In addition to the length of the visual novel elements, another problem is the means at which they tell their story. Frequently, a cut scene will begin, and end a quest without ever giving you any active input into it. This is true for the vast majority of the main “quests” in this game. You don’t feel particularly engaged when a terrible monster supposedly shows up and attacks your party, only for it to never be seen on screen. Instead, you see images of your friends as various sound effects play in the background and the on-screen text tries its best to convince you that a fierce battle is underway. Very occasionally, you’ll actually be thrust into an in-game battle during one of these scenes, though this is rare. That’s the most participation you ever get in these visual novel elements. While they are beautifully drawn, they are over-used and way too long, and become more of an annoyance than an engaging story tool.
For as much as these visual novel elements talk about all these quests the game is full of, in truth, the quest system is arguably the most faulty part of the game. There are essentially 3 kinds of quests. The main story, the side stories, and the bulletin board.
The main story is just what it sounds like, the main single player offline campaign. The side stories are triggered by talking to people in town, or visiting a specific location. These side stories are always visual novel scenes. Finally, we have the bulletin board. The bulletin board offers hundreds upon hundreds of quests… all of which fall into one of 2 categories. Hand over some items the client wants, or kill certain monsters. It never goes any deeper than this, this is how every single quest works from the bulletin board. When you complete a request for someone, they’ll mail you a thank you letter, and may even ask to meet the in town. Meeting them in town allows you to trigger another quest, which is simply another item fetch quest. Clearly the developers did not understand what actually makes for an engaging quest system in an MMORPG. Endless monster hunt and fetch quests become little more than chores. A proper quest system with interesting characters and objectives could have made what is supposed to be a MMORPG world feel much more alive and interactive. What do you think would happen if in a real MMORPG your party leader decided to do several hundred of these kind of quests and dragged you along for it?
Another problem with the quests is the mail. As I mentioned, every time you complete a quest, the client sends you mail. This results in a huge amount of “mail spam” in which you start receiving hundreds of messages, and everyone sends the same messages. It gets tiring very quickly, to the point where soon you’ll just be ignoring the mail. There’s no quick delete function either, every letter has to be manually deleted. What’s worse, in many cases deleting someone’s mail simply prompts them to re-send it, which only furthers the problem.
One other glaring flaw about the game are the numerous typos. A few are forgivable, but here they are spread throughout the game, and show up quite regularly. In a game that already has problems of breaking you out of the immersion, this only makes the problem worse. Though, they can be a source of amusement as well, such as this one:
Can Horton hear the Who?
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is a fun, yet flawed game. The target demographic for the game is young men, and the game is not the least bit subtle about that fact. The story is full of visual novel elements that quickly out-stay their welcome and the game features one of the worst quest systems ever seen in a game.
Despite these drawbacks, the core game-play is solid, and the visuals are gorgeous. The world to explore is huge, and despite it’s shortcomings teaming up with friends in multiplayer mode can be fun. The game can be difficult, but is always a fair challenge. There are some truly epic boss battles to be had in SAO.
While the game falls quite short as a pretend MMORPG, if you can make it through its lengthy dialogue and get to the action, there are plenty of good times to be had.
My final rating for Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is 7.7 / 10