Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date: November 8, 2016
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita
Virtual reality isn’t new technology. It can be argued that Nintendo is the first company to experiment with the tech back in the ’90s with the Virtual Boy. A failed console using 3D technology to create the always ineffable “immersive experience” the gaming industry loves to carelessly purport, Nintendo attempted to introduce gamers to new kinds of gaming. Fast forward nearly 20 years and we have Sony’s PlayStation VR, the Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive, and a slew of inferior virtual reality mobile headsets populating the retail space. We’re beginning to see virtual reality coalesce into our real life, constructing a sort of mixed reality as the tangible interacts with intangible, an experience that can be both invigorating and exciting but also terrifying and creepy as hell.
Sword Art Online has always toed the lines between mixing virtual reality and real life into a mixed reality. Never quite realistic, Sword Art Online always sought to humanize characters that plunged into the virtual world, interacting with the inhuman, the Other. While tantalizing as a thought, the anime began to drag, and the games continued to reinforce the same narrative told in season one of the anime, never bold enough to venture to new territory. Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, unfortunately, is just that: a hollow fragment of an otherwise excellent series that needs to be more daring in its idea. (A criticism of both the anime and the myriad of games to come out.)
You play as Kirito for the hundredth time as he and his troupe — you should know the collective by now — embark on a new Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online (VRMMO) game, Sword Art: Origin. (It should be noted that, while character customization is available, it is the most rudimentary customization ever, especially considering cutscenes use Kirito’s voice regardless of the voice you set for your created character.) Taking place three years after the events of Sword Art Online, Kirito and his band of friends are apprehensive of Origin, but ultimately don’t succumb to this nervousness as Kirito wants the potential for virtual reality to succeed in the world. It is here, in the opening moments, that Hollow Realization begins to fall apart.
You’re immediately bombarded by incessant reminders of the events of Sword Art Online, the affects they had on the characters, and the effects they had on the state of virtual reality. There is nothing wrong with using the preceding narrative to set up the story you’re trying to tell in order for plot devices to work, but Bandai Namco either a) has no faith in its players, b) doesn’t think anyone has seen the damn anime, or c) believes its audience isn’t smart enough to piece things together. The story of Sword Art Online isn’t complex or structurally aberrant, so it’s puzzling why Bandai Namco is so concerned with handholding and coddling throughout the entirety of Hollow Realization. This bombardment is also at odds with the characters’ inferred PTSD; too often does a character either stutter or gasp at the thought of Sword Art Online, so why hammer these traumatic experiences into the player and subject the characters to them ad nauseam?
In bromidic Kirito fashion, you’re charged with looking after a null NPC. Yes, the entire story revolves around babysitting a single NPC that “should’ve been coded but all of her values are null,” as they so annoyingly state ad infinitum. A plethora of other players in the game comment on this, stating, “She’s an NPC with no values who gives one Col when you complete her quest. Who cares if she lives or dies?” Unfortunately, because Kirito is an altruistic bastard, his rebuttal is a sugary, “She’s more than an NPC.” This narrative is less trite and more uninteresting, as it divulges into a series of fetch quests, babysitting missions, and endless running around painfully large maps
Thankfully, combat is somewhat exhilarating. Taking cues from MMOs like World of Warcraft and Never Winter, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization uses hot keys and an active battle system reminiscent of previous Sword Art Online games. (Hollow Realization is closer to Lost Song than Hollow Fragment in terms of the pace of combat.) Regrettably, this exhilaration becomes insipid after you realize how hollow Hollow Realization‘s combat truly is. There are copious weapons to choose from, but once you unlock dual wielding it’s hard to go back to anything else simply because of twice the damage output.
Furthermore, battling the same monsters for either farming purposes or because this game is the literal definition of palette swapping becomes rather tiresome. Couple this with the sheer idiocy of teammate AI and their blatant negligence to follow commands, and you have an experience that grows exhausting from perennially carrying the team on your back. Enemy AI isn’t much smarter, but the fact that your team AI is more competent than the enemy AI, but is still capable of being whipped out is telling of how doltish both are. It also doesn’t help that maps are too large and enemies respawn at nigh impossible rates, requiring needless backtracking to progress the story and incessant battles with the same enemies. You don’t always have to engage enemies, but then what’s the point of combat being implemented if it’s optional for at least half of the game? (Some bosses and certain enemies are necessary to battle, as expected of an RPG.)
For some inexplicable reason, Bandai Namco had the gall to incorporate a superfluous dating simulation system into Hollow Realization. Much like the combat and the narrative, this is also hollow. (I suppose “hollow realization” is an apt title.) During combat, you can compliment one of the three party members venturing with you. (Including yourself, you can have up to four characters in your party.) Moreover, you can walk around the city with Asuna, get coffee with Leafa, or watch the sunset with Sinon. The status of your relationship with these characters determines how they operate in battle and the way they carry themselves around the city either by themselves or with you. This is the most unnecessary aspect of the entire game: Kirito is already married to Asuna, so why should there be a dating simulation, for your created character? Your created character isn’t really your created character if he still uses Kirito’s voice. It also doesn’t help that this feels half-baked due to its inactivity in the whole of the game, something that perhaps shouldn’t have been coded in the first place.
Once it’s revealed you revisit Aincrad again and that Ainground — the main hub city of Sword Art: Origin — is a recreation of Aincrad, you can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of deja vu, as if all of this has played out similarly once before. “Though, I would like to note that you have not changed either,” an important character purports at the game’s conclusion. “Still you refuse to do the sensible thing when every odd is stacked against you.” Sadly, Hollow Realization is just that: a game unwilling to let go of the past and, most likely, afraid of change.