Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization (PS Vita) Review

Sword Art Online comes in again with its third gaming entry, and again continues the continuity set forth in the first one.  However, playing the others beforehand isn't required, as the developers have learned a few things since the first game released.

I have yet to play the second game, Lost Song, but I don't feel like I'm missing any story.  Unlike the first game, Hollow Realization starts with very little backstory.  It's just enough to set up roughly who the characters are, and optional bits explain the overview of the last two games.  It's a huge leap forward from the first game, whose jumbled mess of an explanation was only useful to those that knew the story already.

Before most of that, however, you must complete the battle tutorial.  While I do appreciate games dropping you into the action quickly, this battle tutorials are not for the basics, but for the newer systems.  So, they won't make you press every button (this is how to attack...etc.), or tell you about how to do special moves, but they instead teach you when to stagger enemies and how to chain skills.  Based off this tutorial, the combat is something I'm going to have to get used to.  I'm not even sure I got the skill chain successfully, as it never said that and the monster eventually died.  Either way, I was done with that and ready to move on to the game.

I did eventually 'get' the combat, but it took me a few hours.  While the game appears to be more hack and slash, that won't help you get good at the game.  To put it another way, it works on normal enemies, but not on bosses.  You have a normal combo, but can place an unlocked skill as the combo ender, which is a really cool feature.  Otherwise, you can equip and activate up to four skills.  Rather than be in a standard configuration, they are based on the Triangle button and various commands with it.  It's not the best solution in my book, but you can call up the command bar if you want access to more.

Kirito can also parry enemy attacks.  You rarely have enough time to do it on reaction, so you just have to know when to do it.  I rarely ended up using it, and mostly dodged.  The dodge is much more reliable, but it unfortunately costs SP.  SP is also used to activate skills, and restores slowly, so you have to prioritize which you want to use it on.  The dodge is also unfortunately not an animation skip, so you have to be careful that you aren't in the middle of an attack when you need to use it, as you won't be able to until after the attack finishes.

Since the game is supposed to be you playing as a person playing an MMO, you only really control your main character (Kirito unless you make one).  You can't directly control the other party members you have, such as asking them to heal you, but you have some influence in what they do.  There is an icon on the lower right of the screen that allows you to compliment someone, which, in theory, shapes what abilities they do when in your party.

Still, it would be easier if I could just have them heal me.  Especially Silica.  I don't want to take her along in the first place, but her class is listed as healer, so I expect her to do that.  Kirito doesn't get a healing ability, and I don't want to just chug potions all day when there are other party members with me who can help me stay healthy.  It would give them something to do, since they aren't too keen on attacking.  When you are busy hacking and slashing away at enemies, it's easy to lose sight of your friends, but watch them when you get a chance.  In any instance where you have to sit back for a second (or a named monster puts you to sleep for over 30 excruciating seconds), you may notice that they don't do much.  Sure, they are helpful at using skills for a chain when you ask them too, but they don't attack near as much as you do.  They really do rely on Kirito for everything.

Hollow Realization's story seems par for the course for Sword Art Online.  Kirito quickly meets a young woman that he decided to help for no real reason.  Just like Yui.  And Strea.  And Philia.  And Yuuki...the list goes on.  Here's some minor early-game spoilers.  The girl he helps this time is a null character who has an incomplete quest.  Instead of reporting it, or at least making fun of a bug like a normal gamer would, they decide to protect her.  What?  I'm pretty sure an actual gamer wouldn't try to befriend the bug and help it stay in the game rather than get fixed.  Maybe they are just enamored with her personality, like Yui?  Nope, they blatantly state that she is a null character, meaning she has nothing to her.  She's a place holder.  She is somehow more bland than the Create A Wrestler move stand-ins, Red and Green.  They are also in the game's beta phase, when stuff like this is to be reported and fixed.  Of course doing what they do just rolls into the plot, but it's still a bit of a ridiculous premise to me.

Anyway, on to where the game takes place.  The areas of Ainground are really big.  Much bigger than I would think.  The nice part of this is that you have plenty of space to move around and fight enemies without bumping into additional enemies.  It's really easy to fight one at a time.  The bad part is it takes awhile to go from one end to the other.  The start of each area has a teleporter that, once activated, allows you to warp to it from the map.  Switching areas and returning to town are thankfully very easy affairs.  You only have to deal with the fairly long loading times.

When moving around the first area, the first groups of enemies are appropriately leveled.  The next few groups (still in the first area) were a few levels higher, which made me think I had to grind to get though the first area.  I did grind, but I didn't need to.  Enemies in each area have a level range, so some are higher than their neighbors.  This isn't ideal, as it confused at least one player (me).  Also, you can reasonably take on enemies that are 2-3 levels higher than you (unless they are named monsters), which I didn't know at the time.  Unfortunately, the game will also throw random super high level monsters into an area, but they are easy to avoid until you can actually fight them much, much later in the game.

Most story quests are clearly marked on the map, or at least which area the objective is in, but it isn't always so clear.  There are a few objectives that you are given very basic directions for, and you end up wandering around until you can figure them out.  It can put a damper on progression.  Side quests will tell you in the description where you are likely to complete them, which is very helpful.  However, each area can be rather large, so you still have to run around (or remember) where to fight the required monsters.  There's a third type of quest, which are events that randomly appear on the map when you enter.  These are clearly marked with circles, so you know the area they take place in.  So, even if you are at a loss how to advance the story, there are plenty of things to occupy your time.  Or at least mine, since I love doing side quests.

Will Sword Art Online fans like Hollow Realization?  Likely.  It's not a bad game, even though it has some issues.  I could see the PS4 version being better with regards to loading and draw distance, so that may be the version to get.  Hollow Realization at least makes it more approachable for new fans to jump into the games without an unnecessarily long introduction to the universe.  I can see clear differences between this and the first game in the series, and to me, it still shows that the developers are trying things out to see what works and what doesn't.  It's worth playing for fans of the show, but I still feel we aren't to a great Sword Art Online game...yet.  It is getting closer, though.

The Good:
The game starts off much better than the first one.  Large areas to explore and plenty of quests to complete.

The Bad:
Story quest progression can be very vague at times.  The AI companions aren't very helpful.

The SaHD:
I'd like to see the game go full action RPG, and allow more fluid combat.

(Review code for Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization was provided by the publisher)

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