Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization offers fun gameplay and a convincing MMORPG experience that’s hampered by an overly complicated UI and a plodding, low-stakes storyline.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization was originally the fourth major game in the Sword Art Online video game franchise and was first released back in 2016 for PS4. The updated deluxe edition for the Nintendo Switch includes the DLC questline Abyss of the Shrine Maiden and the large-scale free DLC Warriors of the Sky, which adds the Stalvatos Ruins.
Hollow Realization takes place in the Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online (VRMMO) game, called Sword Art: Origin, which is based on the servers for the original Sword Art Online‘s Aincrad.
In this virtual world of the newly minted Ainground, Kirito meets Premiere, a mysterious NPC who has not been coded into the game. Kirito and his allies decide to protect Premiere while uncovering the truth about her null coding. However, they must also contend with “Blue Cursor” players killing NPCs who cannot respawn after death, similar to the victims in Aincrad.
The game starts with character creation, which is pretty straightforward. You can change skin tone, gender, hairstyles, body types, and choose a weapon. I soon found a hiccup: darker skin tones are poorly implemented and quite frankly hideous and I was forced to use a lighter skin color instead. From there I moved on and believed that to be the end of my troubles. Cue awkward laugh.
As those familiar with the anime are aware of, the lead character in most of the franchise is a young man named Kirito (technically that’s his online handle but still). So when you customize the character model, you’re actually augmenting his own base model. Which is fine except that the game itself does this weird thing where it treats your hero as Kirito in the main story, whether or not your finished protagonist looks anything like him or even if they don’t share the same gender.
Although most of the Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization’s dialogue plays out surprisingly neutrally, there are moments in which the hero is referred to as he/him/his or boy regardless of the gender you chose, which was certainly jarring for me and my very female protagonist. Also a word of advice: if you choose not to play as Kirito, you might want to turn off Kirito’s voice acting in the options menu (yes, there is a specific option for that) or you’re gonna have a bad time during every single voiced cutscene.
Combat is by far the most enjoyable part of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization. While the environments themselves are visually lackluster with constant pop-in and often muddy textures, fighting enemies as you complete both mainline and subquests is surprisingly satisfying. When engaged in a sortie, you start off by executing a basic combo where the speed and range are dependent on the weapon you chose at the game’s start. Once the combo is finished, you immediately go right into a special skill combo for bonus damage.
From here, more strategic elements open up. For instance, timing your combo properly nets a damage bonus that continues to multiply, even between your party members. Stunning your enemy by parrying their last attack opens them up for free damage. You can also switch places with party members in order to continue building combo chains.
During all this, it’s imperative to pay close attention to the foes’ body language, which forewarns when it’s charging a special attack. Not to mention the AOE (area of effect) indicator that denotes the range of said special moves. Of course, there are commands to force party members to disperse and avoid these attacks, mimicking the intelligence of players who would normally be playing as your teammates.
Hollow Realization also fixes a major issue within the anime IP itself — the fact that the original Sword Art Online has only the DPS (the damage dealing class) available. There are party commands that let you give orders to your allies, such as reminding one to heal while having another draw aggro. It’s a great way to work around the lack of class diversity while still remaining faithful to the source material.
However, there is a noticeable blemish on combat: the targeting system. Targeting an enemy is simple enough, one button and they’re within your sights. The issue though is that your player character still misses almost just as often when attacking a targeted foe, which is extremely un-MMORPG like. Thus you remember that you’re playing an Action-RPG instead and the illusion is temporarily lifted until you eventually adjust to the imperfect system.
Then there are the random events and raid bosses, which play out nearly identical to an actual online MMO. Similar in style to the manifold subquests, you must target a set quantity of a certain type of foe within the time limit. Random events in this vein usually grant XP bonuses and may even lead to even rarer monsters with rarer drops. It’s simple and addictive, giving players ample reason to explore the massive number of areas and sub-areas.
Raid bosses, meanwhile, are scattered around at random and are usually very powerful. In a proper MMO, you would be fighting alongside many other players as they all support each other while slowly whittling down the superboss’ HP in a grand battle. In this game, the other ally characters all die within a few hits due to shoddy AI and then you and your party are left to tackle the superboss on your own. This means that you must fight these bosses at higher levels instead of having the freedom of defeating them by simply using strategy.
For general fans of Sword Art Online, Hollow Realization has a clear advantage over the animated series. Due to its very nature as a game, it’s able to much better replicate the immersion and feeling of being in an MMORPG than the anime can. However, that same immersion is hampered by the delivery of its overarching plot and the overly complex mechanics that ultimately have very little impact on the gameplay itself.
Addressing the plot, seeing the characters generally happy and free-spirited — especially juxtaposed with a mirror image setting of the original death-game MMO — is fun and refreshing. You witness their everyday routines, character interactions, personality quirks, and other basic hallmarks of those playing a normal online game. And I did enjoy the inclusion of the party members discussing the finer details of information bartering, item drops, and the like as it aids in fleshing out the world. At first.
Eventually, as the plot moves along and you become increasingly buried under unrelenting walls of text, it becomes almost a chore to stay focused on the constant stream of dialogue and cutscenes. The story does pick up a bit once Premiere drops in and the real meat of the game opens up. But it’s still difficult to stay invested in the happenings of Ainground for the aforementioned reasons. Other than Premiere, you’re essentially dealing with the “deaths” of computer code, which doesn’t lend itself well to emotional impact or tension.
Funny enough, an easy fix to this issue lies in one of my favorite mechanics. Along with the main party members, there are plenty of named PCs scattered around the main hub. If you converse with them enough and raise their affection toward you, you can recruit them as party members. Since the main plot deals with an NPC killer that you must protect Premiere from, it could have instead incorporated these fleshed out characters into a high-stakes plot instead since real, living people are behind each avatar.
In terms of complicated gameplay mechanics, the worst offender of this issue, bar none, is the Affection System. Essentially each playable character has a set of personality traits and, by conversing with them, you can influence those traits and eventually control what moves and behavior they prioritize in battle.
There are three major problems: one, there is no detailed breakdown on how this exactly works; two, the applicable effects of said influences have almost no bearing on battles as a whole; three, the menu interface is so cluttered that it’s difficult to even shift through, let alone try to understand the finer details.
An even more important, and similarly poorly handled, mechanic of this game is the Skill Tree. Its interface is difficult to parse and navigate and the descriptions are too abbreviated and contrary to make much sense. Unfortunately I couldn’t just ignore something as vital as skill progression so I instead opted to simply ignore the descriptions and make assumptions based on the skill names and my past experience with other RPGs.
Sword Art Online has plenty of content to keep players busy for quite some time, with well over 50 hours in the main game itself. And for completionists, the 12 different endings for each of the main ladies that are a part of your party is quite the bonus. The endings can only be unlocked for each girl by ranking up their friendship meter to level five, then choosing them as a partner in the final battle.
After the mainline story, there’s tons of new content to explore. Not only is there the free DLC expansion that adds an entirely new area to play in, but the title also offers another DLC questline — a three-chapter long redemption arc for Tia: Explorer of Illusory Mists, Tuner of Causality, and The One Who Resists God.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is filled to the brim with tons of content and story details that makes it more than worth the reasonable price tag. Fans of the Sword Art Online franchise have a lot to do and tons of easter eggs to uncover with allies from across the anime, and will undoubtedly enjoy this new foray into Ainground.
For those not familiar or fond of the IP, it’s harder to recommend Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization. In the case of the latter, your enjoyment of the game will boil down to whether you can overlook the uninspired story for the rewarding gameplay.