Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization Review – Save the NPCs (PS4)
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is the fourth entry in four years of the video game series in the popular franchise which bears its name. Considering the last game released just a year ago, let’s see if there is enough content here to justify a purchase.
Lots of Backstory
For those who are not familiar, Sword Art Online is a popular Japanese franchise, which started as a light novel and now encompasses manga, anime, video games, and soon even a movie. The gist of the story is that it is the near-future, and virtual reality has progressed to the point where you slip on a VR headset, and are completely immersed in a virtual world, experiencing all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures that the world has to offer. In short, think The Matrix and you’ve got the concept. The first virtual reality massively multiplayer online game (VRMMO) in this world was called Sword Art Online, and the day it first opened to the first 10,000 pre-orderers, it was hijacked and players were held hostage in the game, with the penalty for dying in the game or attempting to remove the headset before all floors of a giant tower were cleared resulted in that player’s real-life death.
In Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, it has been some time since that world was saved by protagonist Kirito. New, supposedly non-lethal VR headsets have been produced, and a new game called Sword Art Online: Origins has opened up for a public beta. A lot of the assets have been reused from the original SAO game, which could certainly be taken as a critique of the video game industry. A good chunk of the beginning of the game is spent with many characters examining what is new, and what is carried over from their harrowing time spent trapped in the original game.
NPC in Trouble
Without giving anything major away, an early goal in the game is to determine why you’ve come across a seemingly bugged-out NPC, and why the new game has a few weird, darker rules when it comes to NPCs themselves. Hollow Realization attempts to get you to care about AI-controlled game characters, almost in an Ex Machina kind of way. Even after a couple dozen hours with this character, I couldn’t find myself caring all that much about a simulated being, but perhaps I just lack that kind of empathy. It’s an interesting concept, and most of the game’s characters will likely grow on you in the long run.
Fans of Sword Art Online will find a lot to enjoy in Hollow Realization. There’s so much story content here, it’s probably enough to fill up a manga volume. Cutscenes are fully voiced, which can help to sell immersion. This is key, because the cutscenes themselves are typically of the more static variety — you see a couple of avatars of whichever characters are interacting, and most action takes place off-screen, leaving you with sound effects and occasionally a screen color flash to indicate when something is going down. It feels like lazy story telling, but on the other hand if you have a halfway decent imagination then it’ll almost feel like you’re reading/listening to a manga. Still, the level of animation on offer here is a bit disappointing.
Slow and Steady Story
An issue that may divide some of you is the game’s pacing. Many JRPGs have slow stories, taking upwards of 20 or more hours to really get to the meat of the issues at hand, and even core mechanics of the game. Hollow Realization takes what feels like forever to go anywhere with the story. This does allow each character to become fully-realized, and before long you feel like you know some of the behaviors and nuances between them. Even side quests include cutscenes that can span 10-15 minutes, but they are impressively fully voiced, which makes a big difference given the static nature of the cutscenes.
One of the weakest portions of Hollow Realization‘s presentation is the graphics. The environments are so incredibly generic, it would be hard to tell this game apart from many other RPGs. Monsters litter each area, and combat takes place in real-time. Since textures and environments are lower in texture, the game does at least run at a consistently high frame rate through most battles. Oddly, any time you’re in the game’s main town hub, the frame rate dips considerably. This may be due to the number of NPCs roaming around the area, and the number of interactions you might have with them.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is set up just like a real-life MMO. Expect to be bombarded by friend requests as you help others out. You can date other characters, even those with the same gender, which is a surprisingly progressive feature. Developing relationships with other characters consists of going on walks with them, and talking to them at designated spots. This causes a minigame to appear, whereby your date will ask you a few questions, or even just state some opinion or thought they have. By nodding yes or no correctly, you can advance that character’s feelings toward you. You can also move in closer to the other person, and press square when prompted to perform ever-more-daring moves such as holding hands, touching their waist, poking their cheek, and finally, kissing. Time this wrong, of course, and the conversation is ruined, as are any chances of improving the relationship from this awkward interaction.
While you can party up with basically any other NPCs you come across, most interactions consist of fetch quests. Much like any MMO, there are job boards throughout the main town, from which you can take on various odd jobs requested by NPCs. The thing is, 99% of these quests are of the pointless fetch variety, and only seem to exist to give you a bit more money. You’ll often complete a quest without even realizing it. At one point, I had 90 active quests, all 90 of which were these same fetch quests. It’s enough to drive your inner completionist mad. Quests are also sorely lacking in details. Even mainline quests only an icon on a zoomed-out map, and you may find yourself wandering the world aimlessly, hoping to stumble upon the correct area to trigger the next event. Thankfully, anytime you are out of combat, you can instantly teleport to various checkpoints, or just warp back to town to purchase supplies.
Speaking of which, combat is incredibly easy throughout much of the game. This is likely by design, because Sword Art Online is all about telling a story. You can form a party with up to three other players (including multiplayer at a certain point), and you can command your party members to attack at a certain time, but can not directly control them. There are some tactics with the Affection system, though this is not explained particularly well by the game’s tutorials. You’re mostly left on your own to figure out some of the game’s finer mechanics. In any case, mashing square and triangle, and commanding your teammates to keep enemies busy while you hack away does the job in the vast majority of battles.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is anything but hollow. There is an almost unbelievable amount of story content, with side stories piled high on top of that. The storytelling might be a bit too slow for some, but then this is par for the JRPG course. Most cutscenes are woefully static, but they are at least fully voiced. Combat almost feels like an afterthought, with few mechanics even explained well by the tutorials. Still, if you can’t get enough Sword Art Online, Hollow Realization is an easy purchase.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.