Sword art Online (or SAO for short) Hollow Realization is an action JRPG that plays like a single player MMO. Developed by Aquira and published by Bandai Namaco Entertainment it is the fourth instalment in the video game franchise after SAO: Lost Song. The game is available for both the PS vita and Playstation 4 with my experience being judged on the PS vita.
The game takes place within a re-creation of the original game in aincrad – where Kirito had his first taste of Virtual reality hell playing a MMO game which not only would not allow a player to log out but also killed them in real life if they died in the game. But, this new aincrad has been modified so it is not the horrific experience it used to be with the implementation of real dying and all being removed. Other small changes like the castle itself being named ainground and condensed into one floor rather than the numerous amount of floors in the original MMO game Kirito started in. The game focuses around a particular NPC in the game that Kirito finds who they eventually name Premier as she seems to be a “blank” NPC with no settings. The story develops allowing Premier herself to develop giving interesting twists along the way. Personally the story for me I found a little lack lustre. But, I guess with SAO’s original story it would have a lot to try and do to genuinely surprise me. But, I feel that was not the problem. The game really focuses on the characters already in the story giving you short visual novel like cut scenes every now and then – which is nice as it fleshes out their character- but, I was more inclined to skip it as much as possible. This may be because of how much I already knew about the characters from seeing the first season of the show meaning that their appearance was more comforting then exciting. This coupled with the lack of new characters gave very little intrigue to the world.
The gameplay leans more into the action then the JRPG in combat. When fighting an opponent you have the option to hack at it with a standard attack or use a special skill. The player also has a chance of negating the enemies attack via dodging or parrying the blow. This is just for you. In your team options are different however, as the other three characters you bring along in your party to fight alongside you in combat cannot be controlled in such a way. You can issue basic orders with these characters in combat to help you out, making the battle a little bit more tactical and enabling you to really lay down the hurt when you need to by ordering your team to use their skills or tell them to draw the aggro while you heal. There are also other things the game allows you to do to allow you to maximise skilful play such as higher combos meaning you deal more damage and being able to stagger and stun an enemy. But, this all being said the combat did not feel intuitive and rather clunky too making battles incredibly frustrating at times. I mean it is fun slashing away and feeling you have nailed a great combo by throwing a few skills in there just there were times when I could clearly see a hit coming from the enemy a mile away and my mid attack animation would not allow me to jump out the way. This may be due to the fact I was using a katana but the lack of control of this made the combat lesser for it. Also the tactical elements such as staggering and telling your team members to do something felt very shallow and often was far more trouble than it was worth.
Combat is not the only aspect of gameplay to the game, with it being a JRPG and the world being full of tough monsters to combat you are going to need to level-up and do other things to increase your character’s prowess so you don’t get flattened by that level 93 tree just by his accidental footstep. The basic levelling up to increase a character’s stats should not be a surprise but you can also level-up other characters’ stats via interacting with them as each character has personality traits such as “shy” or “wild” which give additional boosts to the character that possesses them. These can be boosted by interactions such as talking and apply to the NPC’s walking around as well as the established characters in the series. Speaking of the other NPCs, these can be recruited and used as party members allowing you to craft your own team in SAO Hollow realization. But, equipment is also important and the game has a simple crafting system that allows you to enhance or transform your weapons via materials you gain from quests, killing monsters or about the place in the world.
The game has a fairly varied amount of quests such as quests that trigger in the field randomly, collection quests were you have to get items for lazy NPC’s, quests to kill the local wildlife and event quests that drive the story. All though all of these quests focus on kill A to get B- it does it possibly in the most original way for each type of quest. But, there is only so far you can get with a very limited set of things to do other than kill enemies making the game feel like a grind quite fast. Then again, this I guess gives the game a very authentic MMO feel to it.
Visually the game looks very nice and the environments look great on the PS vita so no doubt they look stunning on a platform like the PlayStation 4. The animations feel very minimal for the skills which is slightly disappointing but, they still look great. There is not a lot to talk about with the soundtrack as it does its job with giving a fantasy feel with the game. It would be nice if there were more notifications via sound that enabled the player to tell when to strike for a stagger and what not but it does not do a bad job of letting you know when you have connected and really enhances the feel of those more potent skills.
Overall the game feels exactly like how the game producer wanted it, like experiencing the MMO world of SAO Origins from the ground up with rather confusing and sometimes un-intuitive mechanics to learn and use. But, when you realise how these things work then the game open’s up and provides a really nice JRPG experience that feels like you are playing a single player MMO. The combat is also fun enough and the idea of developing bonds with the players (NPC’S) around you is interesting however it would have been nice to have a little more variety in the game with maybe a couple of mini-games or something else rather than spamming the talk button. So if you’re a fan of the SAO series or would like an action JRPG MMO you can play anywhere without needing to be plugged in then this is definitely a game you will enjoy. The transfer feature which allows a player to load a save from the previous game probably adds to the game too unfortunately this is a feature I did not have any experience with this being the only game I have played in the series. Odd to play a game that seems like a perfect multiplayer only game for it to focus on a single player experience but hey, innervation I guess, wait what’s .hack//.