The title “Sword Art Online” is something you’ve probably heard in passing or maybe seen news stories about on this website at least a handful of times. Even if you’ve never played any of the games before it’s probably not all that surprising that the name sounds familiar to you when you consider that the original Japanese graphic novels have sold over 19 million copies, this speaks volumes to the success of the property that has spawned both a TV show and four video games since its inception in 2009.
The whole premise of Sword Art Online is that a group of gamers, playing VR, were trapped in a world where an in-game death meant that they’d die in the real world. Hollow Realization is set four years after these events, as the original cast of characters return to a new VR game, set in the same world as the original, but without the almost inherent threat of death. For new fans of the series, such as myself, the original story is helpfully recapped at the beginning of the game – offering an optional summary complete with some much-needed clarification, or simply a skippable extra for series experts.
I think that the biggest compliment I can give Hollow Realization is that it made me a fan of the Sword Art Online series – something I never thought I would be. But it isn’t this sequel story that I became a fan of, instead I began to fall in love with the original idea and what happened in the first, original Sword Art Online, not in this new story.
For a game that has attached itself to a story with stakes that are literally life or death, Hollow Realization does a tremendously bad job of helping you to care about what’s going on. Not only is the plot slowly fed out drip by drip with huge boring gameplay chunks to fill the gaps but when we do finally get new information relating to the plot the dialogue takes far too long to explain what’s actually happening. Unfortunately skipping through these portions can cause you to miss the odd important breadcrumb of information in a sea of irrelevance.
This may sound slightly hypocritical – that when the plot does finally manifest itself I bemoan the fact that they talk so much but this is because what the characters are saying is basically nothing of any relevance at all. It’s something I kept finding myself thinking as I pushed on through the game. In the end, it left me feeling unsatisfied. The long sections of grinding to reach the next area in order to tease out more of the story really wasn’t worth my time – that feeling is something that really didn’t make me want to revisit the game to experience more.
Something that I found intensely hard to get to grips with was understanding how everything worked. I have a real problem with games that drop text-screen after text-screen on you from the off, trying to explain everything, or almost everything, that one has to master in order to properly utilize all the tools available. Hollow Realization is supremely guilty of this, and its opening hours made me feel lost and swamped within menus and instructions very quickly. It would have been nice if there had been a more intuitive and less text-heavy tutorial system.
The combat in the game becomes stale very quickly, while at first slashing your weapon feels fun and moreish it very quickly becomes simply a seemingly endless stream of button mashing. That said, the ideas behind it are interesting, and the potential power one can unlock for bigger and better attacks by attempting to master the systems will no doubt pique the interest of some players.
The game world is split into different regions, each separated into a plethora of different areas, usually only offering mild differences from the previous area. I found myself feeling equally as swamped here as I was with the tutorials. The fact that these areas are huge in size is fantastic, and the fact that the Vita handles them with little problem (enemies and objects popping in and out are only minor grievances and don’t really hamper the experience at all) is an added bonus, but they seem only to be large for the sake of it. I found myself really wishing that these areas were smaller, designed to a higher quality and had less empty space. If this were the case, they could easily be more unique and ultimately more memorable.
Unfortunately enemy designs also seem to be lacking. Enemies in each area feel very samey and repetitive and so any quests that consist of “Kill 10 Monster Xs” also tend to feel very samey and repetitive. This is another contributor to the lack of satisfaction I felt throughout much of my playtime. Because I was largely doing the same thing, fighting the same enemies and completing the same menial tasks, I wasn’t seeing or doing anything new or cool within the environments, everything very much followed the same pattern.
Additionally, some of the larger story quests (called “Events”) give a really poor amount of detail in exactly where you need to go or what you need to do, one example being when you’re told to kill an enemy “West of the mine” – it took me hours of trawling through different areas of the map to find this specific objective, and this ended up leaving me feeling frustrated and bored. This wouldn’t be nearly as bad if, as mentioned before, these map areas were smaller so that objectives were easier to find.
Another criticism I have is about the visuals of the story sections of the game. A lot of the story sections in the game show characters talking in front of pre-drawn backgrounds. These images are absolutely beautiful but unfortunately are used again and again in similar situations – it would’ve been fantastic to see a little more variation in them. The repetitive visuals really didn’t help with, as mentioned previously, the inter-character conversations being quite long and dull. Looking at the same backdrop time after time just adds to the feeling of repetition.
Something that I also took issue to with these conversations is what I see as being a sexist portrayal of some of the female characters within the game. Not only are many of them over-sexualised in their clothing and overall appearance (something even called to attention by the game itself) but you constantly find the female characters talking about cooking rather than fighting or other such pursuits. Of course, this is a slippery slope – should a creator stick to their vision or within the boundaries of equality (personally, I believe the latter should always come first)? Make of it what you will, but I certainly found these moments uncomfortable and a little jarring and I think a greater effort could have been made to equalise the entire cast of characters.
Ignoring the issue of stereotyped male and female roles I did find the characters incredibly likable – I found myself wanting to play more of the game simply to hear more of their individual stories, which is brilliant, considering that really is most of what you’ll be doing. My only issue here is that there are, perhaps, too many to fully keep up with, and to form a connection to all of them, with some seemingly superfluous.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization can easily be described as a series of almost theres, with the real accomplishment lying in the characters, next to disappointments in the story, quests, environments and looks (although it should be noted the PlayStation 4 version of the game is much prettier than our poor Vita’s). For fans of the Sword Art Online series, I’m sure this mock MMORPG featuring familiar characters in front of a familiar backdrop will be a nice, if under polished, addition to the franchise. As a new player, while this game left me wanting more, the premise intrigues me and certainly makes me want to check out the source material in the hope it will have a few slightly more original ideas that are executed to a higher level.