Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization – review

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Hollow Realization is the latest American-spelled Sword Art Online game. We’ll tell you now, its appeal is very limited outside of the existing fanbase, so we’re going to presume that you’re familiar with the original story.

Hollow Realization does some things very right, and other things very wrong. One of the very right things is the story. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given that the script was supervised by SAO creator Reki Kawahara, the whole thing slips very, very smoothly into the SAO universe and feels canon even though it isn’t. Although it pokes at the themes of morality and sentient AI rather than fully explores them, the script takes a unique and captivating approach to raising stakes that elsewhere would seem inconsequential. It’s a tale that will rapidly pull fans in and keep them in its thrall until the end.

Much effort has been expended to make this look and feel appropriately similar to an MMO. You start off with creating and naming your character, although we stuck with Kirito’s appearance and name; wouldn’t you? You also get to choose which weapon style you want to go with (one handed sword, two handed sword, rapier, scimitar, etc) and there’s a rabbit warren of skill trees and associated perks/abilities in the menus. Change your mind about the type of fighter you want to be? Not a problem. New weapons can be found and bought, and you’re able to swap between any you own whenever you like, though doing this too much will probably hinder development of skills.

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Yup; vanquished enemies disappear in the iconic explosion of blue and black fragments.

The UI is set up like an MMO, and NPCs will send you messages. Too many messages, in fact. None of them are important to read; we started off reading every one, but eventually got fed up and started ignoring them all. By the time we saw the ending, we had over 400 unread ones.

Gameplay also mimics that of an MMO, to an extent. You choose up to three NPCs to join you (they’ve even squeezed Sinon into the story due to Alfheim Online), and off you go to quest or simply use your pointy thing of choice to kill monsters for fun. There’s XP and levelling up, and mobs have their own levels too. It’s not long at all before you come across your first staggeringly powerful enemy – but generally they’ll leave you alone so long as you don’t get too close, and it’s easy to avoid them until you’re powerful enough to stand a chance. There are chests containing goodies, materials to be found and harvested from enemies which, in turn, are used to enhance your weapons and armour… and yes, before too long Liz sets up shop as a blacksmith. It’s all a neat mix of typical MMO style and SAO backstory.

The story’s told in a visual novel style with original Japanese voiceovers and English subtitles. There’s a lot of it too and, good as it is, how on Earth so many errors got past QA we’ll never understand. The bulk of it is perfectly fine; but there are far too many grammatical errors and clearly half-finished edits. At its worst moments, it appears to have been written by a voice-to-text program.

Fortunately, core gameplay suffers from no such slip-ups. Combat is more tactical than you might think. Powerful enemy attacks are signposted, but not always easy to avoid. Simply tapping the attack button theoretically does the job – if uninterrupted, you’ll end with your assigned special ability activated with no SP cost – but that won’t always work, especially against multiple foes. You can give your party simple orders, and guide the tactics and abilities they develop according to what behaviour you praise, which is an interesting idea.

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This isn’t even the biggest of the creatures. Not at all.

The worst thing SAO:HR does by far is, on a handful of enormously frustrating occasions, display a shocking disregard for common-sense mission design. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, no map marker is provided for your next destination. This is particularly aggravating in the third act, where you are expected to return to areas you’d probably think completely finished with in order to progress. If it weren’t for Google, we might have ended up abandoning the game in tears of frustration at that point.

The multiplayer mode is interesting. You can actually play it offline solo if you like, with six AI companions. Although this initially feels more like the series than ever, the appeal quickly fades when you realise your AI allies are a bit rubbish against semi-competent opponents. Much better to stick with playing alongside humans, in a party of up to four players total (each of which can bring along one AI partner). This is the quickest way to level up, especially if you play alongside others of higher levels – and it’s fun to boot. It also makes bringing down otherwise near-invincible “Named Monsters” actually possible, each such kill rewarding you with a powerful weapon. You can sell/trade items with other players, and all XP and items transfer to your main offline game.

There are quite a few people playing, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding a game or having others join yours. There doesn’t seem to be anything in place attempting to match player levels, but luckily there are plenty of people happy to help others level up. There are bugs – boss health bars have moments of refusing to display properly sometimes, and one boss encounter often bugs out at the end so that you can’t complete it – but it’s ordinarily a smooth and rewarding experience.

Best of all, we found that grinding can largely be avoided (until the final boss, for which we had to earn ten extra levels before it stopped wiping us out). The dating sim element is awkward and antithetical to Kirito’s character, but can be ignored completely without penalty. Overall it’s a great SAO experience that we encourage fans to jump on board. Just be prepared to put your internet search engine to use now and again.

critical score 7

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He’s the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you’ll find something he’s written in there.

Luke doesn’t have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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