By Jason Parker (Ragachak)
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As a precursor to this review, I need to say that I have seen almost none of the Sword Art Online Series minus the most basic of research prior to jumping in so I could make some semblance of the story sensical. Therefore I won’t be judging any part of the game with rose colored glasses impugning my judgement. So they were trapped in an MMO, where if they died in game, an electronic pulse kills them for real. Got it? Because that’s serious stuff. How they decided to play another Sword Art game baffles me, and makes me wonder what kind of Rambo twisted PTSD these kids must be experiencing to willing walk back into the heart of darkness. But here they are! And that’s one of the major things that disappointed me right out of the gate, for SAO: Hollow Realizations. The danger, the urgency, it’s all gone! Now they’re just. . . playing an MMO, and exploring some mysteries in the beta version of the game. It’s not the same as the anime, but it has the same characters. It takes place post-Sword Art Online, and they are beta testing Sword Art: Origin, another VRMMORPG that somehow they are convinced to go and try out. Part of my brain thought they’d rehash the same story, but it does not appear that way at all. Whenever you see a character for the first time from the show, you will learn who they are, but thankfully if you already know the series, when he starts to reminisce, you can opt out of it, and move forward. I had to watch them all though. But what is Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization?
MMOVN – Massively Multiplayer Online Visual Novel
It’s a Visual Novel! Sure, it has a lot of combat, exploring, and MMORPG aspects, online multiplayer, and a host of really cool stuff. But at its heart, Sword Art Online is a Visual Novel. Why would I say that? You can romance pretty much anyone if you invest enough time into the game. You can have three allies go with you into battle, any of the major characters as far as I’m aware, but there are tons of “players” just milling around the main hub, and with time, effort, and lots of talking and hanging out, you can get some of those people to join you if you don’t want to have the regular folks. But they seem to level with you [the main characters], if you go and level in the multiplayer, which I will definitely get to. But you spend more time reading dialogue than you do spend kicking ass. I have never played an RPG with this much character text to read. That’s fine though. You can skip ahead if you want, with the L1 button, but beware! You might get instructions for your next quest in them, and miss out! You have an “Events” button in your main menu to show you what you need to do next, but it’s so vague. “Explore downstairs”, “Get the items you were asked for”, and no way to expand it. That is a pretty big oversight for someone who might put it down, come back and forget, or simply just skip the talking to get to the fighting.
Sword Art Online – Harem Realization
SAO is part Visual Novel, part .Hack-esque MMO simulator, but that’s what the franchise is built on. Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s talk how else it’s a VN. You can talk to, and build relationships with everyone. I think you can even befriend/romance the girl who stands beside the Quest Board. But this is the thing that bothers me the most, I think. You play as Kirito during the intro of the game. Your avatar/name are built around the main character, Kirito. You can change your look, gender, character name, weapon style, etc, but the game still treats you as if you’re Kirito. Since I played a female character, I’m a guy, playing a guy, who is playing a girl, but is still a guy in his internal monologue. It’s very jarring and confusing, but ultimately it’s hilarious. But my problem comes from the primary relationship in-game with Asuna, the main squeeze from SAO. If you two go on dates, call each other lover, and walk around together. . . why can I go and romance anyone I want, and bring them back to my room for pillow talk?
I don’t know if it’s an oversight or what, but I think being Kirito, but not being Kirito was weird. I feel like SAO has too many mechanics. This is one that probably could have been cut down or removed entirely. I like building relationships/faction rep, because it fits the MMO scene, and making new friends, but it goes too far. As the game progresses and you help people in the world, you will be bombarded by requests to meet and make more friends. At first I had NO idea how to find them. I eventually learned that by pressing R1, you can figure out what area they are in, and go meet up with them. You have a relationship mechanic, where you can even hold hands/carry your S/O around.
MMO Combat Reinvented
Then you have the stagger mechanic for combat, and dodging. This one is really cool though. In combat, it is treated like FFXIV in that AOE fields come up and you can press a button to dodge. It’s also reminiscent of GW2. With R1 you can leap, dodge, or move, in conjunction with a direction. And if you leap at the exact instant you need to, I believe you receive a bonus, not to mention looking very cool. If you attack an enemy in the brief instant after their attack is done, you can stagger/weaken the enemy; if you land your attack right before they deliver theirs, you can stagger them, and cancel their attack completely! There’s also a combo system, where uninterrupted hits build and deal more and more damage, as long as the enemy doesn’t hit you. It’s pretty generous in how long you can go without hitting the enemies before the combo breaks as well. But that’s not all! While we’re on the subject of game mechanics in combat, there’s also the Chain System.
You have to activate it, or wait for someone to initiate a Chain Attack. You’re vulnerable during a chain, so if you get plowed by a huge attack, it could spell your doom. But the way it works, is teammates will call out when to land a skill. If you land a skill when they say so, it will deal lots of damage, weaken the enemy, and make your team happy. I also hear that there are some EX skills that can only be attained by large amounts of successful chain attacks. There’s one more important mechanic to bear in mind for combat. You can pay compliments to your team, and whenever you use it, it will compliment whatever they did last. It’s a great way to teach your team what you want them to do more often, like healing, using certain skills, being aggressive, et cetera.
There’s also the quest board! That’s going to be your major way of making money. You’ll have quests to find items, kill enemies, etc, and you’ll be rewarded with money and occasionally items for completing them. You can take on as many as you want, and the item ones will be able to be completed if you already have the items farmed. Those are the ones I try to grab first. Luckily when you go to a map, you can see what events, NMs, and quests can be completed there.
It’s one of the few, major failings of this game: It has too much to keep track of. Just a ludicrous amount of mechanics. I haven’t even discussed Blacksmiths yet! There are lots of them all around the game, and they have skills, and things they’re good at. You want to help them get better at their craft, so they can help you improve/transform gear. But I wouldn’t really worry about that until the end of the game. It’s a great feature, and I appreciate how much attention to MMO detail they put in the game, while not forcing you to make friends, or to craft. Much like a real MMO, not everyone wants to do that stuff.
I hate crafting, and being forced into relationships bothers me, unless it gives me a real benefit. And while the Visual Novel portion of the game is a bit lackluster/tedious, the actual in-game combat? Love it. You enter areas that have waypoints a’la Diablo, and exits are clearly visible on the minimap [which you can toggle between a huge, disruptive map, and a small WoW-esque minimap], as well as Random Events, NMs [Notorious Monsters/major encounters], most of your storyline objectives, random players, and when you’re close to enemies, they show up as red dots. Wait, random players? Yes! Groups of AI players wander the maps and try to complete their own objectives. They might help you, or you might help them, and if you do help them, they might send you an in-game message thanking you. This is jarring, because I never expect gratitude when playing a real MMO. But it’s a nice touch!
This is Sword Art Online, so there are no ranged/magical classes, but you do have a variety of skills based on what weapon you’re wielding. 1H Sword, 2H Greatsword, Spear, Daggers, 1H Club, Katana, though my personal favorite for sheer ludicrous combos/damage is the Katana. You have a few kinds of skills: Sword Skills [can only be used when you’re wielding that weapon. You’ll have different palettes for different weapons], Battle Skills [Buffs primarily.] and EX Skills [Extra Skills, special stuff]. You gain skill points for reaching thresholds with a weapon [up to 1k I believe], so that is one reason to use all of the weapons eventually, for the most skill points possible. There are several EX skill trees, and once you unlock them you can work through those as well, but many of those skills I believe have requirements. I recommend just focusing on one, maybe two EX trees, with the role you will fill in the game/online. Healer, Tank, et cetera. This is a really cool concept, but I sort of wish it didn’t have a Skill Tree within a Skill Tree. But I love that you have so many options for buffs, abilities, weapon techniques, items, and much more.
You can even have palettes, which are command bars from MMOs, where you can slot abilities, buffs, items, give commands, and use dialogue choices [mostly for multiplayer]. You don’t have to have it up, because it has a lot of shortcut choices, but they felt awkward and clunky to me, so I stick to the command bars/palettes, because that’s what I know. Even if your palettes are up, your four face button choices are still very usable. Square – Attack, Triangle – Ability, Circle – Parry, and X – Jump. The right side of the touch pad can dispel/bring up Palettes. I appreciate the attention to detail here though. Going off of Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV, there are storyline missions [red with exclamation mark], random events that pop up [a green circle on the map], which have rewards for completing them. There are also huge level 95-110 bosses [your level cap is 70, mind], which players/AI can work together to fight, or you can tackle them in online multiplayer. Occasionally you might see a blue sealed chest on the map. To get to the contents, you have to best the enemies defending it, which is not very difficult if you are leveled.
The Online Experience
Speaking of leveling. . . If you want, once you’ve completed the first area and fought the first raid boss, you can go online! The online multiplayer is entirely separated from story progression. It’s just a simple grouping of up to four, with each player able to bring a partner from their collection to explore maps, fight huge bosses, help each other level up, trade items, give money, and so much more. I love this to death, possibly more than I love the main story, which does intrigue me. But being able to just fight and grind MMO style appeals to me more. I have noticed there are people online who are more than willing to help someone new gear up/level up so they can handle the challenges ahead in the game and online. However, a word of caution. I was level 12, and right where I needed to be in the story. Now I’m progressing through the story at level 40 or something, and am more than double what the current enemies are! My character is hilariously powerful, and I can just smash things to bits. It takes some of the challenge away from the main quest, but if you’d rather just go online and kill stuff with your friends? It’s there for you.
Log In; Tune Out
Score: 4/5 [Great]
Honestly, this game is far better than I gave it credit for initially. I was one of those people that looked down on SAO because it’s not .Hack. I’m old, curmudgeonly and stuck in my ways. However, this game emulates an MMO in some of the best ways. I’ve made a few new friends, can stream online multiplayer and make new ones all the time. It pairs an interesting, different story with familiar characters and friends from the first show. However, I do still feel it lacks some of the danger and urgency that SAO had, and I’d love to be able to turn off auto-save and try “SAO” runs where if you die, it’s game over and you lose everything. A hardcore mode would be interesting for challenging and getting back to the roots of SAO. You can fight raid bosses/big enemies where you have to weaken their bodyparts, and then get back to the weak spot, but some of those will get very tedious, depending on how much health they have.
But it’s an engaging, addicting game, with very pleasing music and sound effects, an infinitely vast array of characters and ways to play, and tons of content both now and in the future. SAO: Hollow Realization is a take on the MMORPG that I did not quite know that I wanted until I started playing it. While yes, it has a ton of mechanics and systems to take in, and a lot of information to handle all at once, many of them you can ignore if they’re not your cup of tea, to make the game fun for you. They don’t hold your hand, and definitely allow you to play your way.
+ True to the MMO game style, fast paced, and will feel familiar to modern MMO fans.
+ Fans of the franchise will not be disappointed at the cast and the character interactions.
+ Hundreds of possible group combinations for solo play.
– So. Many. Different. Systems/Mechanics. It never ends.
– Far more character dialogue/talking than I realized I’d have to endure.
– Multiplayer can break the game very easily [in terms of difficulty]