Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization Review

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Game Title: Sword Art Online -Hollow Realization-
Developer: Aquria, Bandai Namco
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Game Type: Vita
Download: 3.1 GB
NA Availability: Digital Download
EU Availability: Digital Download
PSTV Support: Yes

Sword Art Online is one of the best things to happen to my website. Back when the first SAO game came West and I posted a review of it, my site’s popularity skyrocketed. I went from making 300-400 hits a day up to Over 9000 hits all in one day, and several thousand a day for that entire week. Hollow Fragment really put my site on the map for a lot of handheld gamers, and Lost Song did the same when I posted its review.

As an avid fan of Sword Art Online and its PS Vita games, I was more than excited to dive into the new game that recently released worldwide. Now that I have, I’m ready for my third Sword Art Online game review for the website. Without further delay, here is my review of the Vita and PSTV version of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization!

Story

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Hollow Realization takes place some time after the events of Hollow Fragment and Lost Song (further setting in stone that all three console games are set in the same timeline, separate from the anime timeline), where a lot of the original Sword Art Online’s gaming systems have been ported over to a new engine and launched as its own game, dubbed Sword Art Origin. In its beta test, the entire crew from the previous two games are diving in to not only test out how it has been implemented, but also to revisit the original world they were once trapped in.

The story involves Kirito and the gang taking part in the Beta Test and finding a seemingly-nameless NPC character. Taking her under their wing, they aim to find out why she’s nameless and how she got programmed that way in the first place.

The first thing to say about the story is that it’s for fans of the series. Newcomers will be very confused as almost every conversation between Kirito and any other character will directly reference either a scene from the original anime or a scene from the previous two games. The game does throw in recap scenes to showcase what happened in said games, but if you didn’t play it, you’ll be lost in those scenes. They play out, assuming you know exactly what they’re talking about.

Gameplay

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The gameplay in Hollow Realization is very similar to Hollow Fragment in that it is a mostly-offline MMORPG. There is a real-time combat system and it will play very much like a standard MMORPG would. If you played Hollow Fragment, imagine that with a few gameplay upgrades and that’s what this game is. Hollow Fragment 2.0, so to speak.

When you start the game, you are able to customize Kirito with different hairstyles, body types, gender (with appropriate voice-tracks outside of story scenes), and your starting weapon. Once you do start, you’ll jump right in, being introduced to the new combat mechanics and thrown into the hub town where you’ll be taking on quests, talking to NPCs, teleporting out into the world, buying equipment, etc.

Before moving on, let’s talk about what’s new here. As I said earlier, this game plays and feels almost exactly like Hollow Fragment does. The exploration, parties, and even the combat feels similar. Here’s what’s new: You can now have parties of 4 (but can only control Kirito), you can revive fallen comrades and they can revive you, combat is slightly faster-paced (but not as fast-paced as it was in Lost Song), and the Skill Trees are mostly different.

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Combat is a bit different as well. While you’ll still be hacking away at enemies, complimenting your party members to get SP boosts, and unleashing skill combos, you have different things in play here. You have enemy weaknesses, where hitting an enemy with a skill the moment after their attack ends, their guard goes down and they’re defense falls drastically. Honestly, it still feels like you’re doing the same thing in combat, but it is actually a little bit different.

The game progresses mostly in 2 areas: exploration and quests. There will always be some sort of Story Quest that you’ll have to do either in the hub town or out in the field but there are also optional quests you can get from the Quest Board that have nothing to do with story, normally hunting and gathering quests for extra cash.

Then we have exploration. Like the Hollow Area part of Hollow Fragment, you can freely teleport out into the field and explore for the sake of exploring. On this note, the world is huge and when I say huge, I mean open-world RPG huge. Hollow Fragment was huge and full of small rooms. Hollow Realization is huge and full of huge rooms that it might take you several minutes to run from one side to the other while ignoring enemies, NPCs, and anything else standing in your way.

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Here’s where things get intimidating. If you followed the main story of Hollow Fragment, you explored a floor of Aincrad and got bits of story pretty often. In Hollow Realization, it quickly becomes the opposite. In many segments, I’d have to go out and explore to advance the main story quests, and there would be literally hours of exploration, obstacles, mini-bosses, etc before I would actually trigger the next story event for the main quest.

Granted, the Hollow Area of HF was like that, but it also wasn’t technically the “main” story of HF. The Aincrad section was. This feels very intimidating and makes the game feel really slow in pacing from how much time you have to throw away just to get a single story cutscene.

All of this is coming back from Hollow Fragment, but that’s another point I want to make. Transitioning between HF and Lost Song was drastic. It felt completely different, but Hollow Realization feels more like Hollow Fragment 2.0. Almost all of the gameplay systems are recycled from HF, all the way down to the pillow talk scenes with the girl NPCs. Aside from a few upgrades, very little is new here aside from the story. Back when this game was first announced, it looked more like a mix of HF and LS, but once you get into it, it just feels like HF.

Still, the game does come together decently well and there’s a ton to do. Only doing the main quest will probably get you to the end of the game in about 30-40 hours, while other quests and side events can easily double that.

Controls

Hollow Realization is fully compatible with the PlayStation TV and the developers made use of that. The two features that use the touch screen, locking onto enemies and praising characters, are re-routed to the L2 and R2 buttons. A nice little convenience that Namco Bandai likes to incorporate into their Vita games.

As far as controls go, the Left Analog is used for moving and Right Analog for moving the camera. The D-Pad and face buttons are used for set commands out in the field, while the L and R buttons are held down to change the skill palettes for the D-Pad and Face Buttons. It’s pretty simple and the game shows you how to do everything in the tutorial areas.

Presentation

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Here’s where things get messy. Hollow Fragment looked smooth and crisp on the Vita, as did Lost Song. Hollow Realization doesn’t. There are jagged edges all over the place and blurring in a lot of the character models. Environments and some enemies look fine, but it really isn’t very fine-tuned like the original games were.

This extends into the rest of the presentation as well. Performance is very laggy and full of frame-drops when out in the field. The original had the occasional frame drop in town and Realization handles the town NPCs pretty well. But when you head out into the field, your entire trek will be frame-drop city. I don’t have a counter on, but I would imagine and guess it’d be around an average of 15 fps.

It really feels like the developers spent more time on the PS4 version of the game and not very much time at all on the Vita version, which is especially saddening for Vita fans since SAO has been a very popular series among handheld gamers.

Summary

Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is essentially a “successor” to Hollow Fragment, perhaps a bit too much. Granted, the exploration and amount of content is breath-taking, but that doesn’t make up for the slow pace and presentation mishaps that feel like negligence towards the handheld version of this game.

6/10

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