Please note that this review covers the single player portion of the game.
I’ve had a bit of an on-and-off relationship with the Sword Art Online games, demonstrated best by my time with Sword Art Online: Lost Song, the second entry in the series after the original Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment.
While I did enjoy its simple but cathartic Action-RPG combat, skill system and flight mechanics, the combat did get a bit monotonous after a while, and the game’s somewhat underwhelming multiplayer and very limited create-a-character system ended up souring me on the experience. What if I wanted to be a male Cait Sith, huh!?
With that said, here we have the latest entry in the series, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realisation. Can it build on the weaknesses of Hollow Fragment and Lost Song or will that subtitle become surprisingly apt the longer we play it? Let’s find out.
Things started off very well when I was presented with a character customization screen right after starting a new game. Of course, the main series’ hero Kirito is the base you build on but there’s plenty of ways to make your character your own, including thirty one hairstyles, multiple mouth and eye shapes, fifteen different voices, nine different weapon styles, and more.
None of the voices or hairstyles are locked by sex, either – if you want a super adorable anime girl with a deep, rough, bloke voice, go ahead. There’s definitely a fair bit of room for creativity here and I’m happy to say it’s a lot better than what you could create in Lost Song. From a character customization perspective, Hollow Realization is easily the best in the series so far.
Having crafted the valorous heroine Enn Thrii (I tried), I confirmed my character and moved on to the main game. One thing I should mention is that while Hollow Realization only allows you to have one save file, if you ever get bored of how your character looks you can return to the character creation screen by using your wardrobe once you unlock your first inn room.
After a quick introductory cutscene setting up some intrigue, we’re put right into a battle with your character as well as series veterans Asuna, Lizbeth and Silica. Hilariously, no matter what voice you’ve chosen or whatever sex your character is, you will always speak with Kirito’s voice and be referred to as a male by the other characters. Weird as that is, I’ll totally accept it if it means the character you’ve designed technically gets to play a major role in the story.
Combat in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization has been tweaked a lot since the earlier iterations, playing noticeably different to Lost Song in particular. Combat in general is a lot more mobile, with Kirito/the player character able to pull off dodges with greater ease and packing somewhat faster attack animations. While the basic combat is still a fairly basic hack-and-slash affair, I really enjoyed a lot of the new systems added in Hollow Realization, particularly the “Combo Ratio” system, which rewards long, unbroken strings of attacks by multiplying your damage output by higher factors the longer it goes, as well as the Stagger system, where unleashing a powerful “Sword Skill” right after an enemy finishes a powerful attack of their own will stagger them, making them more vulnerable to damage.
You can also unleash parries, which stun your enemy if used successfully, however it’s by no means an easy feat to pull off – while a powerful enemy attack is usually signaled by a red flash, enemies usually make their attack just after you think they will and others – like those bloody skeletons – barely telegraph some of their attacks at all, usually making dodging the preferable method of defense. That said, no pain no gain, and it is very satisfying indeed to finally parry an enemy after a fair few failed attempts.
Your allies can also get involved in a much more tangible way here thanks to a variety of commands you can issue to them. One of the most powerful of these commands is asking your teammates to use their skills in a chain, with you forming the final “link”. If you all successfully deploy your stronger skills, you’ll pull off a full chain attack and deal gigantic damage to whatever enemy you’ve set your sights on, usually massively raising the Combo Ratio as well. One thing I did like is that if you find a group of NPC players taking on an enemy in the field you can join in and briefly team up to take the enemy down together. After helping them to defeat tough enemies NPC groups will even thank you for your assistance, a little touch I rather liked.
Overall, while the combat system still carries the kind of slightly rigid-feeling control one might get out of actual MMORPGs with similar systems like Tera Online, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization probably has some of the most enjoyable core gameplay of the series thus far, thanks in no small part to the new systems, which give the hacking and slashing some very welcome flavour.
Hollow Realization’s story will satiate fans of the series but probably won’t do much for those who haven’t seen the series or played the previous games. This being the third entry in the Sword Art Online game series, players are more or less expected to know who the characters are right off the bat and the game doesn’t spend a great deal of time acquainting you with the individual people you meet initially. While fans will probably have no problem with this, newcomers may find themselves at a loss for who some characters are or how they’re connected to the others around them.
While there are some in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes, the majority of the story is conveyed through visual novel style dialogue sequences – make no mistake, Hollow Realization has a lot of text for you to get through. While the game does have a pretty intriguing main plot centered around a mysterious, seemingly sentient NPC dubbed “Premiere” by the main cast, the game does suffer from what I like to call “Neptunia Syndrome”, where you can usually tell within the first fifteen or so lines of text whether or not a cutscene is actually going to contain any plot development or be comprised mainly of cute/humorous banter that sometimes goes on a little bit too long
Nothing wrong with banter of course and there are some rather sweet scenes to be found for those who like the characters, but I will admit I ended up using the skip button quite a bit during my playtime when it seemed as though all the story developing content in a dialogue scene had been conveyed.
One story related feature I was grateful for was the Event Log, which lists all of your current main & side objectives related to the story. It’s not always the best at reminding you precisely what you need to do and why you’re doing it, but more often than not there will be a big icon over the area you need to reach on the world map to progress and it’s not too difficult to work things out from there. In any case, I’ll gladly take that over a whole bunch of wandering and attempting to eke reminders out of the other characters!
Probably the most notable new gameplay mechanic outside of the combat is the Relationships system, where your character can build rapport with pretty much everyone you encounter in town areas. Every NPC can be spoken to and your relationship with them is tracked. There’s even a mode called “Private Chat” where you have a one-on-one conversation with a particular character you’re close to and have to react appropriately to what your conversation partner is talking about to gain a huge boost to your relationship with them.
Once your relationship reaches a certain rank NPCs can be added to your party and as that rank develops even further you’ll unlock a variety of extra interaction options too, including holding hands, carrying them bridal style and taking them back to your inn room for “very intimate conversations”. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want a waifu simulator – especially if said waifu happens to be Asuna – here it is. Your relationships with your allies and the character traits they develop as a result have an effect on what actions they’ll perform in battle too, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on them.
While the system doesn’t have much depth outside of the main characters (more often than not it boils down to badgering NPCs endlessly until your relationship with them reaches the next level) and I found that it takes way too long to raise your relationships to the next level as a result, I do think it’s a great idea and it adds a little extra something to your interactions with the NPCs and your party members.
From a graphical perspective Sword Art Online: Hollow Realisation is pretty much well executed all round. The anime style used on the characters looks great as always, translating the show’s style into 3D while retaining pretty much all of its rather adorable appeal.
Environments and enemies are rendered in a more realistic fashion compared with both the human characters and their equivalents in Lost Song and in my view they look good, with the designs of most enemy types gradually escalating in complexity as more powerful members of that type make themselves known and environments having a generally lived-in feel to them, with far more NPCs wandering around and interacting than in previous games.
All in all, while it’s not going to be dethroning any of the ARPG greats any time soon, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realisation is arguably the most polished entry of the Sword Art Online game series thus far, with some great improvements to its character customization and combat systems in particular.
Fans of the series will get a lot of enjoyment out of it, and those who can stomach the fact that the game feels like a (pretty good) single-player MMO and bear the more cutesy aspects of the characters and the plot may find some fun in the game’s many quests, breadth of character upgrade potential and slight sprinkling of optional waifubait. If you’re looking for a plain and simple hack and slash action RPG with a bevy of customization potential, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is a very good title to consider.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is available now on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.