Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release Date: 11/8/2016
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization takes place a while after Lost Song, though apparently they’ve decided to go back to a version of Aincrad instead of building a completely different world. (This time, Aincrad is on the ground, giving it the name Ainground.) Despite the horrific incident that led to the characters being stuck in literal battle to the death in Aincrad, they’ve decided they’re okay with exploring the place that literally looks like the place that tried to kill them, and this time everyone starts at level 1. Almost immediately, things begin to go wrong. Kirito is contacted by a mysterious person who has said they’ve returned to Aincrad (which he doesn’t initially share with his friends) and runs into an NPC whose attributes have all been set to “null.”
And so, as you progress through the MMO content, you’re also trying to figure out why this NPC isn’t just missing values, but why they’re set to “null,” and your efforts lead to a story quest that other, less patient players aren’t able to go on. Of course, since it’s an MMO, there are way too many fetch quests and a bunch of friend requests from random people you don’t know or care about, which I thought was amusing as I was playing the game. The combat is interesting, but simple: press triangle and square to do various attacks and partner with your three teammates to do special attacks when the opportunity is right. One thing I did like was the ability to cheer on my partners as they did things I liked, but it doesn’t actually feel like it means anything in the end. Occasionally, monsters will pop up that you have no chance of defeating alone; those familiar with FFXIV might consider them Elite Marks. Despite this, though, there’s no real sense of danger or even of mastery. I don’t necessarily want my characters to be in a situation where they could actually die, but I also want there to be some kind of risk. There really isn’t. Likewise, I wanted to feel like my characters were actually improving, but they didn’t. Surely, they were getting stronger, but I didn’t feel the effects of my partners learning skills like you would in a real MMO.
I found myself wondering why I was playing the game, as there was no real driving force. When I reviewed Lost Song last year, I made the comment that the game was pretty good if you were someone that wanted to watch your favorite SAO characters kill monsters. I mentioned that the game wasn’t difficult and could get repetitive. It appears that Hollow Realization is much the same, and while I didn’t dislike the game, I did find it difficult to get into, which is unfortunate as someone who likes the anime, and especially because this game was made under the supervision of SAO‘s creator, Reki Kawahawa. The game does feel more “MMO-like” than Lost Song did, and that works because it’s a game based on an MMO, but it’s not really balanced with the story. There were periods of time where you’d get a bunch of story development, and then long periods of “go find this spot and kill these things to get an item to go kill this other thing,” or in other words, the vast majority of MMO gameplay. The game seemed to really want you to like this blank slate of an NPC, but it also really wanted you to feel like you were in an MMO, and couldn’t find a way to make that work in tandem, which in the end gives you a less than immersive experience. Further to the point, the bland environments you find yourself in don’t really help with immersion either. I found myself saying, “Oh look, a grassy area. Oh look, a dessert.” While the visuals were certainly nice, there wasn’t really anything to grab your attention.
I found myself more interested in taking Asuna on walks and messing with the dating simulation-type mechanics involved with that, which is weird for someone who genuinely enjoys MMOs and not so much dating simulators. I was mildly interested in the NPC storyline, but I didn’t really care if I found out what was going on. At one point, I remember cynically (and I can only imagine not-so-originally) asking myself if the realization was that this game was hollow. And I think that’s the biggest disappointment here: this game could have gone somewhere. They could have taken us to a completely new world, with a completely new plot, new characters, whatever… and we got Aincrad–excuse me, Ainground–again, with only a few modifications. We got Kirito being awesome and the center of everyone’s universe, but hey, he’s starting at level 1 like the rest of us. We got a mystery, but there’s no driving force for what feels like an eternity. We got more MMO combat and fetch quests and random friend requests, but it feels like we got them at the expense of an MMO story, one with rich, deep lore that invites exploration.
The weirdest part about all of this is that I can’t say I dislike the game. I don’t. I’m just completely apathetic to it. There’s no replay value here because I don’t feel the need to play it in the first place. There’s a lot here, but it feels like a chore to get through most of it. The combat is fun, but not enough to keep me interested. I still like the characters and their interactions and still like talking to them, but in all honesty, I’d rather go back to Lost Song, where at least there was something motivating us to move forward. I’d rather do without the dating simulator–which admittedly was kind of fun–and have a story worth investing my emotion and time into. In a lot of ways, this game was a stronger entry than Lost Song, which is my only point of comparison with the SAO games (feel free to read J. Rose’s review of Sword Art Online: RE Hollow Fragment if that interests you) but I find myself preferring that. The games have potential, but I think the developers need to go deeper and give us more to work with.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to mean something.
Short Attention Span Summary
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization was the perfect opportunity to break from what has been done so far with an interesting and new environment, but instead, we are brought back to Aincrad without any of the real drama. There is an interesting main plot, but it’s constantly fighting with the MMO portions of the game for our attention, which leads to neither feeling particularly balanced. The dating simulator feels largely unnecessary but ended up being more entertaining than endless fetch and “kill x monster” quests. The visuals are nice but not memorable. There was a missed opportunity here for a game that bushed the boundaries of what this series could offer, but sadly, it ends up feeling like more of the same, and while I don’t hate it, I have no motivation to pick up my controller again and return to Ainground, only to spend more time flirting with Asuna.