I absolutely love the Sword Art Online franchise; I was immediately hooked on the anime and since have picked up the manga and the light novels. Many feel that it garners undue attention because it was a fad, that it just happened to be popular at the right time, and I think that gives massive disservice to the wonderful stories found within the pages. When I first reviewed Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment, I noted how superficial things like graphics and controls could be improved, but loved the story and how I could build my own relationships (SINON FOR LIFE!). Though I did not review Lost Song when it was released, Chris certainly enjoyed it, feeling it was an improvement in most aspects from the core game. Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is a return to the VRMMORPG and again, nails numerous little quirks and really solidifies itself as a fantastic "single-player MMO" action-RPG that follows Kirito and friends through yet another wonderful and deep world.
SAO: Hollow Realization takes place in an altered form of Aincrad, which is the location for the "death game" where the first arc of the manga/novels/anime/first game took place. Here it is called Ainground and is essentially the entirety of Aincrad, which was a floating castle, spread out and flattened into a traditional "world" with various level edits being done to make it feel more continuous, like a real world. Since I have followed Kirigaya Kazuto (Kirito, the main character) since the very beginning, I was natually like "Huh, let's throw Kirito and gang back into the same virtual world where they were trapped in a life-or-death situation for YEARS... Like that will go over well." Surprisingly, the story compensates for that sort of thought process, and explains why Kirito, Asuna, Lisbeth, Agil, Klein, and Silica, would willingly log into a world essentially copied over from the original Cardinal System (which ran Aincrad).
I found it a tasteful way with dealing with the potential emotional harm, and many times in the first few hours of gameplay the main characters refer to how it is both scary and comforting to be back in this world. Especially since they can leave at any time. In SAO: HR Kirito is there to help with a closed beta on the orders of Seven (a character from the past, who happens to be a wicked great idol / computer genius?) and their input is greatly respected. In the first few minutes of the game Kirito meets Premiere, who is an NPC set to a "null state" where she is essentially a blank slate (for those that have seen the Anime, think Yui, when Kirito and Asuna first meet her on floor 22). Kirito then works to find out who she is and what her purpose is, which unravels into the primary story of the game (sorry folks, no spoilers, but trust me, the game is good enough that any fan of SAO should pick it up and play it immediately).
With both Hollow Fragment and Lost Song being more Vita games than PlayStation 4 games, and it showing in the graphics, I was quite hopeful as Hollow Realization videos and images came to the public, and was utterly thrilled once it actually released. SAO: Hollow Realization feels and looks like a real PS4 title. Graphics are excellent, with gorgeous areas, long draw distances, and a massive bevvy of particle effects due to the trillion different weapon skills. Rich and varied environments dot the world of Ainground and the way that each area plays out, with NPC parties out farming / questing / raiding, makes it feel far, FAR larger than it really is. Come to think of it, with the number of recruit-able NPCs (in the hundreds) it actually is huge, though many of those NPC's are just re-hashes of various templates; still, they feel like people and you can develop relationships with them in-game.
Speaking of relationships, the whole mechanism for developing/growing your various friendships has been completely overhauled and in a good way. It is easier to gain (or lose) relationship points with the various characters. Of course I spent my time wooing Sinon, because see comment above, though I did, interestingly, feel pretty bad about how I was treating Asuna. In the previous two SAO games, I did not really care. Either I am getting soft in my old age, or the writers are getting better at depicting Asuna and Kirito's relationship and having it hold its course.
Though fans of the series will feel right at home with the latest release, those that are not familiarly with the world and the stories of the main characters may feel a bit left out, even though there are a few attempts at explaining the backlog of events interspersed in the first hour or so of the game. With its wonderful visuals, compassionate, if naive story and character development, plethora of customization options, and wonderful relationship builder wrapped up into a universe that is beloved by many, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is a fun action-RPG romp that does an amazing job masquerading around as an MMO.
Bandai Namco Games
Bandai Namco Games
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Article by Robert