Sword Art Online fans, rejoice: the follow-up to Hollow Fragment has finally made it to western shores. If you consider yourself part of that group, you’re no doubt aware that the game continues the alternate-universe storyline that began in the Japan-only PSP game Infinity Moment. If you’re not, you’re probably not quite sure what any of that means.
Fret not — any fan of JRPGs can probably find some enjoyment in Lost Song’s classic gameplay, whether you’ve been following the story since episode one of the anime or doomed to confusion for the entirety of its running time. Sure, there are better choices for fans of the genre on PS4 right now (last month’s three big ones come to mind), but this is still a safe, solid bet for lighthearted action-RPG fun.
Your Waifu Is Trash
Fair warning for newcomers: when I used the phrase “doomed to confusion for the entirety of its running time,” I meant it. SAO’s story is well-known for being impenetrable even for its most keen followers, so you can imagine what it’s like walking into this universe blind. Thanks to the continuity established by the anime, light novels and games before it, Lost Song suffers from many of the same narrative issues as those entries: a convoluted plot that seems to have been assembled at random; dialogue that volleys between two modes, expository and “quirky”; and lamest of all, a massive set of interchangeable, pandering “waifus” whose qualities include a) being cheerfully submissive and b) really boring.
If this criticism of the story sounds harsh, understand that it’s more “jaded amusement” than serious hate. Anime and JRPG fans have learned to put up with a lot of silliness over their years of fandom, so your reaction to the narrative will either be one of delight or comical bemusement. The truth is that you really don’t need to understand the story to find enjoyment in the actual gameplay part of the experience. This time around, lead character Kirito and friends are exploring the new floating continent of Svart ALfheim in the virtual reality MMO ALfheim Online — and yes, there’s something bizarrely meta about playing characters in a video game who are playing characters in a video game.
With this expansion to ALO come a number of welcome features. This time around, you’ve got your pick of 17 playable characters (with two more available via DLC), with two AI-controlled partners accompanying you on your adventures. What these characters lack in personality is compensated for in an expandable roster of skills, abilities and weapon capabilities. In one of the best deviations from Hollow Fragment, the overworlds have been greatly expanded to encourage exploration, and you now have access to a “flying” mode that makes traveling and investigating quicker and more exciting.
There’s just something viscerally satisfying about soaring through the air, battling enemies along the way, only to touch down right in front of that dungeon you need to complete. The two separate modes give you a real sense of control of your character, too: hovering is better-suited for aerial combat and picking up items, while flying makes for quick and efficient traveling. Outside of these various improvements, things follow a fairly standard action-RPG formula: explore the world, discover dungeons and sidequests to complete, fight a massive boss, rinse and repeat across a new stage. There are a handful of multiplayer quests to complete, too, which can be fun co-op experiences if you’re into that sort of thing — but these feel more like a distraction than a truly integrated part of the adventure, and you won’t even get access to them until after you’ve completed the first world by your lonesome. It’s sort of a cliche at this point to compare games to comfort food, but that’s an applicable metaphor in this case — this may not be a standout entry in the genre, but it’s a reliable and fun one.
Fun though it may be, there are a couple of quibbles you might have while you’re experiencing the Skinner box euphoria of questing and collecting. Lost Song’s combat system isn’t horrible, but it is certainly stiff and dated compared to most modern action-RPGs. There’s a sense of free-flowing movement and flexibility that makes real-time battles extra satisfying… and yeah, it ain’t here. The dungeons are similarly old-school, featuring linear designs that wouldn’t have been out-of-place in SNES-era titles. That’s not to say they’re not fun, but the ol’ find-a-key-or-switch, open-a-door routine is a little tired in 2015 without tricky puzzles or interesting architecture to offset the ho-hum feeling.
Visually, this version of SAO is admittedly primitive — a complaint one could lodge against most modern JRPGs. These graphics get the job done without being all that impressive, although flying is boosted by some great use of motion blur and dynamic camera angles. Cutscenes are told via 2D portraits of the characters flapping their lips in a manner similar to skits in the Tales games, which is cute but sort of cheap (there are big moments when it just seems inappropriate to cut away to these minimally-animated pictures). The music, on the other hand, fares better than you might expect in a licensed game. There are some really catchy tunes here, particularly the buoyant and cheerful overworld and town themes.
A New Song to an Old Tune
Sword Art Online: Lost Song’s story is probably not going to win over non-adherents of the popular anime franchise, but thankfully it’s not required to enjoy the rest of what’s on offer: a fun, lighthearted and breezy run through well-worn action-RPG territory. Aside from the game’s breathtaking flying mechanic, the rest of the mechanics can feel a bit stiff and even dated, but that surely won’t be able to dissuade anyone enamored with the addictive quality of beating quests and raiding dungeons.
Review copy for Sword Art Online: Lost Song provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.