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Review: Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization

Sword Art Online: Hole Realization (PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita)
Developer: Aquria
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Released: October 27, 2016 (JP) November 8, 2016 (NA / EU / AP)
MSRP: $ 59.99 (PS4 ), $ 39.99 (liv)

Sword art online: Hole realization might be the best Sword art online game yet.

Then again, we can not talk about that much. After all, it’s just the third major Sword Art online game (fifth that counts renewed reissues), located along a quality range within the ‘inoffensive’ spectrum.

That said, Hole Realization would be easy to recommend, and in terms of inspired design, the closest thing yet comes to really capture how it can feel as if actually playing the online RPGs Sword art online cast is constantly engaged in. In short, it’s a game that almost guarantees an unclassified thumb.

Now if it was not just a Sword art online game…

I want to clarify the last sentence a bit, but first the good news: Sword art online: hole realization is a real good time, mechanical. This was especially true for me as I have always had a soft spot for games trying to riff on other genres conventions.

It was a real pleasure to see a single-player RPG attempt to represent the tropics and structure of an ongoing online MMO, and Hole realization captures the aesthetic masterfully. The interface mimics the MMO look, busted with icons and even uses a faux chat window and ‘event log’ to both track combat actions and remind players of their immediate goals.

From fake friend lists, to carefully placed uses of common MMO terminology, and even how the motion-controlled in-game interface appears to appear near the character models when players use the actual game menu settings Hole Realization is the most successful attempt yet to promote the illusion that one is actually playing the fictional VR online games Sword Art online characters are playing.

It’s effectively scratched the itch I’ve ever had .hack had gone in the pot and it’s worth appreciating. Of course, this is not entirely new and is essentially a better-executed takeover Hult fragment ‘s approach, helped together by a conveniently well-known premise. The setting for the latest anime tour is ‘Sword Art: Origin’, a quasi-reboot of the original ‘Sword Art Online’, the game where Kirito and his friends were first caught in a years-long life or death battle. Of course, the death game aspect is usefully carved out of the new title, and the crew apparently feels safe enough to visit the site of their first ordeal, now that it’s safe to do so.

In some ways, the fact that it never becomes a -safe to do so is what is most disappointing about the Hole realization narrative. On the one hand, it would be a bit of a cliché for them to get caught up in another death game, and in some ways counteract the point of the story. And yet, the death game story was at least exciting.

Like Lost Song before that, Hole realization has players literally just hanging around at the controls while watching a guy and his guilds faff around in a game. A significant part of the main campaign’s motivation is literally just Kirito going ‘Hey, let’s try going to the cool looking place in the distance!’ and then everyone who goes.

I’m not the kind of person who demands epic adventures out of any RPG. Some of the best moments in these games come when there is a bit at stake, when sometimes you and your friends just want to throw a party or go on a road trip or grind some craft materials or drive some Chocobos. But there has to be some effort, or at least a sense of progression in the characters to get time spent to seem worthwhile, and Hole realization fails to deliver on that front.

Even its seemingly main plot, involving a seemingly vigilant NPC named Premier, feels like a retreading of the many ‘This AI character is real!’ sub-plans there Sword art online have already explored. Hell, Kirito even has an AI daughter, Yui, who’s had a presence in every game so far, so this story doesn’t even get the benefit of novelty.

None of this benefits from the deliberate slow pace of the game, which tends to stick to ‘story’ tasks in a very vague progression between sometimes hour-long attack tracks and side tracks. It’s one thing to encourage players to relax and not ‘mainline’ everything, but it’s another to have a campaign structure so loose that I’m worried that I’ve somehow ruined the game.

In some ways, I can not completely blame the Hole realization for being the way it is. Sword art online as a whole has never really visited the heights of its original story arc, so one can in some ways argue that the game remains true to form.

It’s just a bigger bummer now, because this time the systems and the technical side feel robust enough to have supported more risky, bigger stories and characterization. Gameplay-wise, Hollow realization feels like a more successful, refined iteration of what Aquria was trying to do with Hult Fragment (and Infinite Moment Before That), without the simplification that plagued Artdink-developed Lost Song .

This is most evident in the fight, which cuts into menu gymnastics and ramps up some of the more real-time aspects, while retaining that game-within-a-game feel. Face buttons still trigger basic attacks and pre-selected ‘Sword Skill’ specials, while pressing the trackpad provides an MMO-style ‘hotbar’ to access other abilities and items. Timing and positioning also have larger turns, and players will need to keep an eye on both the enemy’s attack zones and the performance of their skills to get the most out of their abilities and party members.

Out of battle Hole realization trying to simulate the social aspect of MMOs. Players can try to chat up and make friends with any other player or NPC, even the random ones walking around the city who are not part of the main crew. A button can open a ‘profile page’ that shows a player’s personality traits, and each personality trait (eg ‘Curious’ or ‘sexy’) comes with a number of related traits and abilities. With enough badgering, any teammate can be hired as a party member, and praising them when they do good things in battle can affect their personality, battle tactics, and state growth. It’s a smart system, though it’s maybe a little too subtle in practice, as during my time I could not really figure out how to engage in it in ways that, in addition to pressing a button to say ‘Good job!’

However, it is easier to get involved in the upgraded graphics. Hole Realization finally looks better than an upscale PS3 game with more detailed models and environments and a more colorful, lush look overall. Unfortunately for Vita owners, this comes at a disastrous cost in performance. Do not play the Vita version.

I feel in conflict with Sword Art online: hollow realization , because although it has never been more interesting to play as a game, the fact that its narrative is typical of the latter day Sword Art online stories has actually become something of a responsibility . A bolder story, one that took more risk, established a better sense of effort or even did something other than tiring water would certainly not be Sword art online- like and would make it much easier to recommend to people outside the show’s fanbase. As it stands, however, Hole Realization remains a Sword Art online game for the better and worse.

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