With the launch of PSVR, Sword Art Online fans are one step closer to their dream of replicating the fantasy game in virtual reality, though hopefully without the potential permanent damage of the NerveGear headset from the anime series. While this isn’t that game, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is a clear step up over the franchise’s previous entries and marks the best use of the property so far.
It has you exploring the world of Ainground within a new re-released version of Sword Art entitled Sword Art: Origin. Fundamentally it is exactly the same as the original Sword Art Online, but without the risk of actual death. You begin with familiar faces Asuna, Lisbeth and Silica, though soon enough you’re joined by almost every single companion from both the anime and the previous games. Kirito’s frankly ridiculous harem of women had surely reached an apex, but Hollow Realization adds yet another in the form of Premiere – an amnesiac, blank NPC who lies at the heart of your adventure.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization functions entirely as an offline MMO, and players of Final Fantasy XIV or World Of Warcraft will note a number of genre tropes that it uses to convincing effect. This is the world of Sword Art, and the series’ underlying drive is focussed on forming a party, levelling up, obtaining new gear, and beating powerful foes, while the drama is interspersed with genuine humour, good natured conversation, and of course a touch of romance.
As with any good MMO, the vast amount of your time will be spent in the field, vanquishing foes while working towards the next part of the underlying narrative. This is an old-school grind, which will probably gain it adoration from some quarters while others will bemoan the archaic design. It’s a comfortable format though, and while it’s not pushing any boundaries, it’s one that captures the spirit of the anime series perfectly.
Combat is a combination of combo-led action partnered with an MMO-style action palette. You can reel off attacks with the Square and Triangle buttons, but you can also use an array of skills and special moves, or partner with your teammates to perform chain attacks. Hitting your sword skill just after that of your opponent will cause them to stagger, giving you and your teammates the chance to lay into them for a few seconds. You also have a damage multiplier that continues to grow the longer your combo, and staggering enemies will make it grow more rapidly.
On the whole, combat revolves around the clever use of techniques to grow your combo, with the chain attack being particularly useful. It all feels a bit unwieldy at first, though perhaps because the tutorial is a little dry. It soon fits into place and your constantly evolving skill set helps to keep things fresh.
The visuals have definitely taken a step up over the previous two titles, with huge draw distances and crisp, clear visuals. The character models boast a light cel-shaded effect that really looks the part, while much of the dialogue and exposition is brought to you by high-resolution character art. I’m not always a fan of the ‘talking heads’ that are employed by so many RPGs, and at times Hollow Realization can be deathly dull, but there’s just enough humour brought into the mix to lift proceedings, and the fully-voiced Japanese delivery is lively and amusing. It’s a shame that there aren’t more animated cutscenes though, and things are really dragged out for far too long.
The show itself always had plenty of drama, but here things are drip-fed to you. In essence your game time includes all of the levelling up that Kirito did between each episode, but when you get to the next plotpoint it’s often just meaningless drivel rather than anything you want to hear.
The MMO trappings of Hollow Realization mean that you’ll be taking on plenty of quests, and they generally boil down to travelling to an area and either killing a set number of a particular enemy type, or collecting a commodity that monsters drop as they die. It’s hardly revolutionary, but the combat keeps things interesting enough.
On top of that, the city of Ainground houses all of the expected merchants and tradesmen who’ll sell you new items or enhance the ones you already have using materials you’ve picked up on your travels. It’s all done with a certain degree of authenticity, and if I was just watching and not playing, I’d be hard pressed to tell that it wasn’t a real MMO.
The only real problem that Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization has is that it’s a little too steady and a little too laid-back. The premise is that this is Sword Art but without the death, and really without those stakes, and with its tepid narrative, you may begin to question why you’re grinding through so much of the game. That being said, this is the best digital rendition of Sword Art Online thus far, and goes a long way to capturing the essence of the show – warts and all.
Version Tested: PS4