Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization (PlayStation 4) Review

By Drew Hurley 20.11.2016

Review for Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization on PlayStation 4

Bandai Namco has, thus far, done a superb job in crafting its very own Sword Art story. This is the fourth in the series and each has built upon the previous, delivering interesting and compelling tales in the Sword Art universe, while also bringing completely new and original aspects to the fold. Can this latest instalment, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization continue that trend and keep the still burgeoning fan-base happy?

For those not in the know, the Sword Art Online franchise began life as a series of light novels in Tokyo, as is often the way. The series was picked up for an anime adaptation and its popularity exploded. The premise established a VR fantasy MMO game in the near future where players were trapped inside the game, unable to logout and death in it meant death in the real world. The only way out was to fight, and to defeat the multiple-floored dungeon. After escaping the world of Sword Art Online, the anime and novels saw protagonist Kirito and his friendly harem of young ladies take part in a number of other VR adventures. This series developed a completely original story, yet still retained the major cast members introduced throughout the further stories from the source material in all new stories.

After the catastrophe of the original, society became understandably wary of these VR MMORPGs, so when a new title is announced based on the Sword Art Online that took so many lives, the outcry is deafening. Genius idol and scientist, Seven, from the last instalment, has taken her new friends, in Kirito and his partners, as beta testers for this new game, which is entitled Sword Art Origin and set in a very familiar looking land called Ainground, as opposed to the original Aingrad. The heart of this story follows the team's embarking into this new world, along with meeting a strange NPC girl who seems to be an anomaly in the system; a complete blank slate who Kirito's friends dub "Premiere." There is more to Premiere and the entire world of Sword Art Origin than there seems and soon enough Kirito and friends are fighting to save their new virtual world.

Screenshot for Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization on PlayStation 4

The core gameplay of Hollow Realization feels very similar to the previous titles, with some improvements to each of the key elements. This is very much still a faux MMO, where there are plenty of missions and side-quests to pick up in a rather familiar town, and then it's out into the world of Ainground to kill specific amounts of enemies or collect a set amount of item drops. There is still the same overwhelming amount of information, with overly complex skills and ability systems that feel like they should belong in an MMO, and the same combat system housing them. There's almost a type of simplicity to the combat controls, but it has had enough improvements to keep gamers interested. There's a regular attack bound to the square button that can be simply mashed to cut through most enemies, but utilising appropriate timings on the landing of these attacks delivers much more damaging attacks. Timing is crucial on defence, too, where a split-second parry can stun the enemy and a well-timed special attack can lower its stats. There are also plenty of weapon types that can be equipped and played around with, each with a mammoth amount of skills to learn.

Combat isn't a solo affair; a party of three can be made from Kirito and two companions, each with specific MMO-esque roles to supplement Kirito's play-style. At least, that's the idea. It's not quite the same in practice, thanks to the abysmal party AI. Regardless of what characters are chosen, they all share the same flaws; they stand in the line of AOE attacks, refuse to heal, flat out ignore commands, and just generally get in the way. It's like being in a real MMO with players who have no idea how to play. These AI problems are even more frustrating considering the game has retained the same praising system where praising an AI teammate's actions is meant to customise their choices and craft unique party mates. This doesn't work particularly well, though; for example, in this review process, it was hard to tell if all the praise delivered to Silica actually made any difference, since constant praise for healing and buffing still resulted in her randomly rushing off into other mobs or ignoring the rest of the party while they were at 5% health.

Screenshot for Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization on PlayStation 4

There's plenty here that has come from earlier instalments in the series, but there are still plenty of improvements. Developer Aquria returns after the last title went to new developer Artdink, and it has come back with lots of new ideas to improve the experience. One of the most evident is the clear inspiration from more recent MMOs. Instead of just picking up quests and heading out into the world to complete them, there are now added elements reminiscent of the dynamic events of Guild Wars 2, introducing story elements to random occurrences on the map, which help incentivise further exploration into the considerable world of Ainground.

One of the adventure's biggest weaknesses will actually be a major selling point for some - it is chock full of fan-service. No, not that kind of fan-service… although there is some of that with the returning romance system, but more on that later. The type of fan-service here is the copious amounts of story and dialogue between the cast, all of which are here and in cool new designs that retain their original styles but also adds some little features with meaning that only fans will understand. For major fans of the series, these will be great - plenty of the comedy and harem elements they have come to expect, along with warm moments between characters and some decent story arcs for fan favourites that continue to build on what came before in the previous outings. The problem with these moments can be that there are so very, very many of them. It gets to the point that they actually feel intrusive to the gameplay and to the core story about Premiere.

Screenshot for Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization on PlayStation 4

In regards to that fan-service, love it or hate it, the romance element returns with Hollow Realization. Once again, each of the party members can be taken to romantic spots and a "small talk" mini-game played to increase affection with them, which all culminates in a "pillow talk" scene and CG picture, to encourage players to collect them. To be fair, the system has improved with each game and now makes a lot more sense compared to the random badly translated words to react to.

The presentation has been stepped up over previous entries, too. The story moments use the same static sprites that capture the original anime, not to mention being fully voiced by all of the original Japanese voice actors. The gameplay presentation is improved, too, with the open world experience delivering a much faster and bigger world, not to mention a much more dynamic combat experience.

There's a mass amount of content here - at least 60 hours to play through - and those who want to take on all of the extra content, along with romancing all the ladies, will find over a hundred hours hidden away. Those who have supported the series so far also have a nice surprise waiting when they start with Hollow Realization, as existing save files from the previous titles rewards with some powerful unique equipment.

Screenshot for Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization on PlayStation 4

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is a hard game to judge, since newcomers to the series will be baffled and even bemused by the overly complex mechanics and the unnecessarily convoluted story that seems to refuse to focus on the interesting parts. That being said, though, Hollow Realization is a great instalment for long-term fans of the series, as it is filled with enough fan-service to keep them entertained for a long time, or at least until the inevitable next one in the line arrives.

Developer

Bandai Namco

Publisher

Bandai Namco

Genre

Real Time RPG

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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