Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization review for PS Vita, PS4

Platform: PS Vita
Also On: PS4
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Bandai Namco
Medium: Digital/Disc
Players: 1-4
Online: Yes

I come into Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization at a double disadvantage: I’ve never watched the anime, and I’m not into MMOs. While that didn’t stop me from enjoying either of the previous two games in the series (Lost Song and Hollow Fragment), this time out it feels…different.

See, whereas the first game in the series was basically a continuation of the show (but one that still told newcomers like me everything they needed to know), and the second one gave you an interesting world to explore — and, more importantly, fly around in — with a clear sense of stakes and goals, Hollow Realization doesn’t have either of those things going for it. The plot is pretty thin: gone are the stakes of the first game, where you played as a gamer trapped in an MMO in which video game death meant dying in real life. Here, the plot (such as it is) is that you’re occasionally investigating why some NPCs have died — which, let’s be honest, isn’t anywhere near as compelling, just given the nature of NPCs. And I want to emphasize the “occasionally” part of that last sentence: while you do make half-hearted attempts at investigation, more often it feels like Hollow Realization is just an excuse for you to wander around a giant world by foot, running into friends from the previous games and reminiscing. If you really loved those characters, I guess it’ll be fun to see them again, but otherwise, it really feels like this game is lacking in any sense of urgency.

Which might be the point, I guess? This is where my lack of familiarity with MMOs comes into play. My impression of the genre is that much of what you do in those games is driven by quests and whatever you feel like doing. Absent a coherent plot, Hollow Realization feels much the same way. And again, while this recreation of an MMO’s look and feel may be attractive to people who’ve always wanted to play an MMO by themselves and offline, if you’re not going for that, it’ll all just feel like a lot of aimless wandering.

What’s weird is that one of the areas in which the game most glaringly falters is in an area where you’d think it would want to borrow from MMOs the most: character creation. Yes, you creating a character is one of the very first things you get to do after starting up Hollow Realization, but almost immediately thereafter you discover it was absolutely zero bearing on the game. It doesn’t matter if you decide to make your character, say, a woman of colour with a high-pitched voice; the cutscenes will play out with your character looking as you created them, but she’ll be slotted into the story as a deep-voiced male. I’m not necessarily going to begrudge a game for wanting to tell a specific story, but it seems silly to give players any input into their character when it’s not going to have any impact whatsoever.

To the game’s credit, it retained one of the things that set Long Song apart: the combat. True, thee’s a lot less flying involved, but much like the games before it, Hollow Realization is good at making fighting enemies nice and satisfying.

It’s just too bad that the same can’t be said for anything else here. The first two games in the Sword Art Online franchise showed promise and then delivered, respectively. It’s a shame that it’s hard to view Hollow Realization as anything but a giant step backwards.

Grade: C