Only six years after Reki Kawahara’s original light novel series made its bow, Sword Art Online has matured into something of a phenomenon, and it’s a success that is no way confined to a single medium. Throughout its brief yet decorated history, the lore of SAO spans manga, anime and of course, video games, but in this meteoric rise to popularity, it’s fair to say that the story has become convoluted — impenetrable, even.
Perhaps in a concerted effort to attract newcomers to the JRPG series, Bandai Namco Games was quick to preface our hands-on time with Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization by stressing that the 2016 release will not only feature a brand new story, but it’s also being pitched as a great starting point for those unfamiliar to Kawahara’s sci-fi universe.
Turning the Page
And while I can’t give a conclusive answer based on a brief half-hour demo, there’s certainly early signs that Namco is tailoring Hollow Realization to appeal to players both old and new. Set during the fallout of Aincrad and the infamous SAO incident — essentially when leading star Kirito bested the original game — a new in-game virtual space has spawned: Sword Art: Origin.
The year is 2024, AmuSphere has supplanted NerveGear has the go-to VR hardware to transport players into the virtual world, and a new challenge awaits Kirito, Asuna and their friends. As the fourth mainline installment in Sword Art Online’s console lineage, Bandai Namco is exploring the formative years of SAO, and Kirito will seemingly begin at level one.
Switching gears to gameplay, my time with the demo was limited to a lush forest area known as Hero’s Footpath, where I took on a quest to quell a pack of marauding Bump Boars that have been wreaking havoc across local trade routes. A simple, grind-friendly side-quest that we assume is lifted from the opening portion of Hollow Realization, but the vertical slice was designed more to trumpet gameplay over story at this early stage in development.
Taking point of a team of four characters, there’s an element of strategic play underpinning the game’s combat system, and it isn’t long before directing party members becomes paramount if you really are to topple those nasty Bump Boars.
Managing allies on the fly may take some time getting used to, but it helps that the battle system is notably polished over previous entries, while character animations are buttery smooth as your remaining squad members hop around the enemy, picking it apart one piece at a time.
What separates this battle system from Hollow Fragment is the ability to juggle commands between each character. So, for example, Kirito could initiate the attack by using a sword skill, while the others use a combination of stunning, restraining and ultimately delivering that all-important final blow.
How you choose to doll out the sweeping finale is left in your hands, though sifting through the in-game skill palette to select the best tactic showcases the sheer number of various abilities, powers and items available at your disposable. One thing’s for sure, there’s plenty of room for experimentation within Hollow Realization’s battle system, which will only open up even more so as you progress up the levels.
Along that journey you’ll encounter nine kinds of NPCs — some friendly, some not. In fact, crossing paths with other parties throughout the world in true MMO fashion lends Hollow Realization a tangible believability, this is a universe — or, should we say, server — that feels populated as a result. Playing a game within a game has never been so much fun.
Fast and Furious
From the crisp visuals to the rat-a-tat pace of combat, Hollow Realiziation truly sings on PlayStation 4, and it’s set to bring the beloved series to new hardware with style. One early concern that reared its head during my hands-on was the responsiveness of the NPCs during battle. Given the four-player dynamic, your supporting cast is instrumental in turning the tide in your favor, so when their actions can be sluggish or confused it leads to some frustration.
Even still, such a technical niggle will surely be ironed out as Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization makes the final steps to a PS4 and PS Vita release. Speaking of which, Hollow Realization has been described as a much large title than previous entries in the series, and this evolution in both scale and scope — not to mention the fluid and refined battle system — has influenced the ways in which Bandai Namco approaches the PS4 and PS Vita version of the RPG.
As was revealed in our interview with Producer Yosuke Futami and Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization Game Designer Satoshi Hirayae, there are no plans for Cross-Play between the PS4 and PS Vita versions of the RPG.
While there was mention of the game featuring Cross-Save, the decision to forego Cross-Play between console and handheld ultimately came down to the development team treating each version as a separate entity, thereby allowing them to maximize performance based on the respective technical horsepower. A fair assessment, no doubt, although we weren’t able to play the Vita version of Hollow Realization to put this theory to the sword.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is primed to launch for both PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita at some point in 2016 for those in Japan. Futami stressed during our interview that he wants to align the western launch as closely as possible to the game’s initial debut, so stay tuned for more.
Hands-on impressions conducted during a preview event held by Bandai Namco, with travel fare and hotel accommodation provided by the publisher.