Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization Review
Within the "Role Playing" genre, there are several subgenres, such as the Western RPG, the Eastern RPG, and the MMO. Those in the MMO field have a special level of dedication. Offline RPGs will wait for you. As a lover of these games who, in high school and college, could put two to three hours in a night, but now with a family to take care of is lucky to get two hours of solo gaming a week, an MMO doesn't fit into my lifestyle. By and large, unless you can get in at the start of an MMO or come across a tolerant and caring veteran, you'll fall behind quickly. Heck, I even have a hard time keeping up on Grand Theft Auto V online, watching people with extra practice mow through while I'm just there to have fun. Any sort of massive multiplayer online game with leveling will move on without you, so an MMO requires a steady dedication you won't find in many other places.
Sword Art Online is a unique beast. Starting as a manga and anime series, it tells the story of a group of MMO players who joined in on a virtual reality MMO that had a deceptive twist, trapping them within the virtual world until someone could officially clear the game. This resulted in a world of knights and dragons, but with pop-up virtual reality menus, guilds, levels, experience, and the like. It created a wonderfully unique niche, feeling much like how a traditional Dungeons and Dragons session goes, where real-world terms are slung about between characters in game that would make no sense if it were real-life. Gameplaywise, it is the fourth in a series of "single player MMOs," wherein the virtual world of the anime is brought to life in a story based single player game that plays like an MMO. There are official "NPC"s populating the town, while other "players" are more unique characters, brought to life and represented by people our main character knows in the "real" world. Hollow Realization is a great chance for people who don't have the time to get into an MMO to really see what the hype of an online experience is.
Battling within the game is done in real time, and each individual action you can complete has a bit of a "cool down" process. You will have a basic attack set, and then two separate sets you can create, one for special moves, and another for support actions. Support is integral in Hollow Realization: There are 300 plus NPCs in the game, but you are able to recruit any and every one to your cause. You do this through support building: everything from barking orders in battle and congratulating them on a job well done to having walks around the world's hub city. The game is rife with opportunities to build these bonds and level the characters. Much like any traditional MMO, there are plenty of side quests to do on your way to the main goal. The storyline this time around involves our main heroes coming across who they feel is an NPC (a character designed for the game, with no real-world human counterpart) having strange behaviors that start with the traditional NPC behaviors missing, but she slowly grows into something more than a computer-generated shell.
Balancing relationships and battle commands is integral in proceeding in SAO:HR. Encouraging your teammates at the right time result in better proficiencies and a stronger team in the field. Building your own experience level opens up new chains and attacks that can better work with your group as well. Learning cooldown times, attack radii, and enemy attack patterns and ranges is integral to success, and any micromanager will find a trove of statistics to balance and micromanage, as you adjust your team, equipment, and power levels to be a death-dealing powerhouse team.
As I started up the game, I came across my most confusing glitch, if one would call it that. I had never experienced anything in Sword Art Online before. The game presents after the first "press start" with a character creator, much like my recently reviewed Dragonball Xenoverse 2. Getting full into the MMO experience, I decided to mix it up and get as far away from the default character as possible. I tweaked everything, but what it boils down to is I played as a girl. Starting cinema opens with that default setup male character, then it goes to a battle with my create-a-character. After that, it goes to some conversational cinema through my character's eyes. It's all hunky dory, but I do notice a prevalence of female characters around me. The game does a good job of throwing backstory your way to get you up to speed, but as the first bits went on I ran into a girl who said she was my wife. "Okay," I said, "progressive game." Then, I realized the Japanese voice of my character sounded nothing like my selected voice from character select, it even sounded masculine. But we go back into a field event, there's my girl. Run into a male friend who gets frustrated at me for "taking all the good girls." Back to my girl. New cutscene, more history I've never experienced, more masculine voice. I start digging, and learn that default character, Kirito, is the main character of the anime and all games up to now. Sure, they let you create a character, but the entire main storyline is centered around Kirito. You ARE Kirito. I backed out to the main menu and went with the default, and things felt a lot more natural. Backed out again, and tried a different mix of traits, still ended up with the same situation. Why put in a character creator, then? Perhaps it is for the multiplayer (an MMO made into a single player experience with online bits, ha!) so that people can differentiate who they're playing with, but there isn't one lick of storyline to describe this discrepancy. It could have been a side thought, you know? Kirito has two files that share XP or something, and the new "game" the characters are playing separate NPC battling and online versus battling, but that's nowhere to be seen. The final nail for it to me was when I saw that there's a "Daddy's a player" achievement for achieving top romantic affinity with all the girls in the party. I'm no developer, but it just seems shoddy and lazy that it is set this way. Plus, you set your character's default weaponry in that first scene, with no chance to test them out, and unlike any traditional MMO, you only have one save file. Starting a "new game" on the main menu results in the entire file being wiped and starting at the beginning. I really would have appreciated being able to do SOMEthing to feel like I'm making a smart decision.
Aside from that one blunder, though, the game is beautiful. The world is well developed and gorgeous. I had a hard time keeping track of where to go with all of the different areas available, though simply following the plot would put you at a major disadvantage, missing out on necessary experience from many a side quest. Battles are confusing at first, but as you get to understand how to better manage your party, you will find yourself tag-teaming (er...switching) your way to victory in no time. The game's storyline is intricate enough to have tempted me to head over to Netflix and check out the original series, which is definitely worth watching and helps you better understand your teammates' motivation, giving you more reason to care for them and the story in general.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is a beautiful game that builds upon some solid lore from many previous games, two anime seasons, and a manga. While dropping in fresh is possible, those who are steeped in the knowlege of where everything comes from will far greater appreciate the minor nuances of the game. Stick with the default character if you have no intention of going online or if you wish for logical continuity. A deep battle organization system can make the difference between a bunch of crazies hacking away, praying for a miracle, and a well-oiled team ready to take on whatever faces them. With the MMO blood flowing in it's veins, fans of the game will find myriad hours to sink into the game. If you have a Netflix account, I highly suggest getting into the series before or during your playthrough to really get a feel for the world of Sword Art Online.
Thanks to the developers for providing a digital copy for review.
Final score: 4.5/5