Bandai Namco's latest installment in the SAO video game series builds upon what the story has established so far. It rehashes past anime installment's happenings through optional in-game inquiries, and pushes the evolving story forward in full effect through the reintroduction of the attached lore's VRMMORPG experience which manifests itself within a fantasy world that is all too familiar to the previous characters involved. As with the first SAO tech disaster involving beta testers of the new virtual reality NervGear who were trapped against their will in a VRMMORPG called "Sword Art Online", Kirito and his band of unlikely friends from the previous encounter return to their former SAO battlegrounds in Ainclad (now Ainground) via another special beta test in hopes of facing their own fears, and moving forward with their lives as friends. Upon entering the familiar yet somewhat different virtual realm of "Sword Art Online: Origins" though Kirito is immediately met with the gaze of a mysterious NPC girl, and a message shortly thereafter stating that whoever sent it was back in Ainclad. These strange occurrences left Kirito with a lot of questions, but in doing so didn't overshadow his online reunion too much, initially ...
When you begin your playthrough of "Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization" you'll be met immediately by an anime inspired cutscene showing off the game's main binding story elements regarding the mystery NPC girl, and the mysterious message Kirito received shortly after entering the popular VRMMORPG. Like Kirito you too will be left with a lot of questions that will only be answered with further progress, but supposing you stick with it you'll eventually learn what this latest adventure entails. After the brief, and rather teasing introduction you'll be taken to a fleshed out character creation menu with which you'll create a male, or female protagonist which will take the place of Kirito in the story being told. That is if you choose to not go with the already available Kirito. As far as character creation options go you'll find physical appearance details, and non-physically inclusive features in the way of name change, height, hairstyle, hair color, eye color, skin color, bust size, voice, and weapon. Once you square those things away to your liking you'll be pushed forcefully into a haphazard tutorial that gets some things right along the way, but that also leaves you without a fully comprehensible explanation of what it is you should actually be doing to complete the more hands-on mechanics related learning sessions. Some of the initial battle requirements, for example will not be completed even though you are performing the actions correctly, because of their precise input demands. This can be confusing for newcomers, but I managed to learn what needed to be done regardless, so there is hope.
As a participant in the new SAO:Origin Beta your created character, or Kirito (if you so choose) has a plethora of options both in battle, and within the quartered off sections of town that house the event triggers, quests, and character interactions that are needed for plot progress. Through character interactions, town interactions, and out of town travel you'll learn more, and more about the game's mechanics as well as the characters, and plot. In the way of character management Kirito, and his company of three optional friends all level up as a character would in an RPG. This includes leveling through gained experience, and applied equipment. In the game you can equip them with armor of the basic sort (boots, accessories, chest armor ...), and a single weapon that includes a sword, scimitar, rapier, club, spear, katana, and two-hand (sword). Each piece of gear, and weapon come with their own base stats that build upon things like attack, defense, agility, and other well known RPG statistics. The weapons in particular each handle differently allowing for a certain amount of attacks per second that can be combo'd into using repeat presses of the "SQUARE" button. Weapons also have a specific range, and skill attacks (TRIANGLE) that use up SP. The SP refills with combo application for those of you concerned. Learning how to best use your weapon will mean the difference between life, and death in Ainground. Supposing you, or your party members do die off in battle though a living party member can perform a revive by holding down "CIRCLE" near the character until the dial meter above them fills up. Just know that you do not revive with much health, so getting the hell out of Dodge, and using a potion will be your best chance for further survival.
As far as the character setup is concerned your party of three computer controlled characters, or online friends plays a pivotal role in battlefield victory/loss. Things like praising performance, or linking with characters to more quickly take down enemies is a must in building upon party effectiveness. You have a series of optional party commands tied to the "L1" shoulder button, and various other face buttons which will allow you to link for added damage effect, heal, and switch between characters for battle relief. Characters in general have an affection chart which displays personality traits that are picked up, and evolved through in-game activity. These affection traits can be locked, and built upon through the praise mechanic (R2) to improve upon perk-like bonus stat boosts that will increase the characters effectiveness in battle. This includes things like evasion boosts, defense boosts, and parry boosts in the guise of such descriptive titles as "Tsundere" or other personality types. In a similar way you can learn new skills with your main character through leveling, and can lock in place those you wish to keep actively available. The ones that have a higher compatibility percentage which is displayed through an attached percentage rating are the ones you'll likely want to keep at the ready for your character. Skill points you earn through battle, and the completion of quests will also allow you to add new skills to your quick access menu which is brought up onscreen through a pressing of the controller's center touchpad. The right hand portion of it to be exact. With the quick access menu in view you can perform additional allotted skills, or use single use items to restore character HP/SP. Potions, SP potions, and other such items can be found in the towns bustling marketplace where vendors are more than willing to sell you their goods.
As far as what you'll be doing in-game goes you will be following a mostly linear path of storytelling that is guided by character interactions, battle, and shop stops at the local marketplace vendors. Character interactions, specifically will happen automatically on approach sometimes, and will sometimes be activated by meeting a character/s in a certain place. Along with such interactions you'll be progressing the story through events. Events are made noticeable through visual markers, and "OPTION" menu reminders that will remind you what you need to do at any given time. There's also a menu accessible map with which you can see similar markers in place in regards to specific points of interest. This includes the town portion of Ainground as well as the out of town portion of Ainground. The battlefield which is accessed via a teleport platform within the teleport portion of the town square, for example offers a place where you can travel to points on said map, and engage in decisive and grinding battles there. Not every battle will be pivotal though, and in a lot of cases you'll be grinding for material, items, gear, and experience that are rewarded for taking on quests which are offered, and acknowledged at a town bulletin board. Another thing to note is that you'll also encounter event triggers out on the battlefield. These too have highlighted markers, and once approached the event will activate.
Event's on SOA:Origin's battlegrounds vary in difficulty, and will reward you accordingly. The more difficult the battle the greater the treasure that will appear once you've cleared the scene of enemies. Speaking of which treasure chest are color coded, and accessibly categorized in this game. The brown chest are the least of the three available chest types, and only require that you defeat the surrounding enemies. The blue, and red(?) chests on the other hand hold greater loot, and require more difficult challenges for unlocking. The equipment you collect does come in different rarities so battling often can turn up some pretty impressive, and effective gear.
When it comes to battles there are basically two types. The story driven battles, and the quest battles you take on at the town bulletin board. Story motivated battles will obviously progress the plot while quest battles will earn you items, and Col (in-game currency). The quests can be taken on freely, and once completed must be followed up (in most cases) at the town bulletin board in order for you to receive your reward. In battle you can have three extra party members which will mostly act on their own accord, but that must be affectionately encouraged, and aided when their health is low. During the tutorial phase of the game, and deeper into the story you'll met other key characters you can choose to party with. From what I gather you can also invite other SAO: Hollow Realization owners from your friends list to play along with you in real-time as well.
Vendors, which also play a crucial role in gameplay offer up a wide variety of wares, and services for your Col. These vendors include pricey restaurants offering single food items, a weaponsmith, a blacksmith, an armor vendor, an accessory vendor, and and item vendor among other things. These help you better prepare for the escalating battle at hand, and in some obvious ways. One thing that is not so obvious though is a vendor that can enhance, and forge your weapons for added effect. With the material you gather from fallen foes, and drops on the battlefield along with the required amount of Col you can craft some seriously effective weapons. This is where a majority of the games grinding will come into play as the game is mostly that type of experience. It really feeds off of the RPG genre for it's focus, and in a way it's like a Matrix effect where you (the gamer) are playing a reality within a reality within a reality.
The graphics, and over all quality of the game are also worth noting. The world in the new SOA, as it were is a mostly a 3D third-person action adventure centered around a 3D build. This includes both character design, and the environments in which said characters interact. Character models, for example feature a more anime styled appearance that adopts more recently applied cell-shading techniques. In battle characters are scaled down though to make way for more monstrous behemoths, and some lesser human sized creatures. The in-game character designs look very much like their anime counterparts in a more crude yet polished way. Oddly though is the fact that creature design is far more impressive than the character's design. The creatures often times look more realistic with blended textures of varying sorts whereas the characters are more smooth, seemingly generic, and lacking of such detail. As far as the landscapes go they are complimentary, and seem to be a prominent focal point in the game. The landscapes both in town, and outside of it are dolled up with nice pseudo-realistic environmental effects including flowing water. It's not the best graphical design elements I've seen on the PS4, but it's decent enough to impress PS3 owners.
The soundtrack within the game is as you'd expect from such an anime inspired experience. It's symphonic at times, orchestral at others, and even synthesized on occasion. Regardless of it's blend it's never out of place, and builds upon the special moments that the game has to offer it's players. Those of you worried about the spoken language fret not as it keeps the original Japanese voice-overs intact while offering English reading gamers easily readable subtitles. The only complaint I have with the voice overs is that Kirito's voice talent bleeds into created female character's spoken dialogue if you do not turn off the Kirito narrative from the start via the "OPTIONS" menu. Even if you do turn it off there will be awkward instances in the character subtitles where the created female character will still be addressed as a male character. I feel in this instance, and for these reasons the character creation options should probably not have been tacked on like they were. Perhaps being able to play as either Kirito, or his love interest Asuna would have been a better choice in that it offers something for both genders.
The Verdict ...
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization isn't a perfect game by any means. It has it's fair share of flaws in the form of haphazard, and frustratingly organized tutorials as well as character creation problems mainly tied to the female gender option. If you can get past these things there is a decent adventure to be enjoyed, and a story that will no doubt excite fans of the SAO anime series. I think Bandai Namco's designated developer did a nice job of relaying the rabbit hole effect as it ties in with the virtual fantasy gaming experience that is Sword Art Online. It keeps you guessing along the way, and has you reliving key moments in the history of the characters you've come to favor. I think the voice-acting, and the story driven dialogue come together alongside the grinding gameplay in such a way that it's more complimentary as well. I think there is definitely a nice balance of battle, and story within the game.
As far as the "Deluxe Edition" goes it is rather pricey at $84.99 (US), but in a way it earns that pricing through the added season pass, and the exclusive in-game costumes you get as a bonus. The only thing I did not like in regards to the bonus content is that you seemingly have to purchase the bonus gear with in-game currency, or at least that's the way it looked to me. I could be wrong, but I didn't see an option for getting the items from the vendor using the tickets I had in my inventory. For those of you curious about said gear there's male and female God Eater costumes, a wedding dress, a maid outfit, swim wear, and night wear. The latter stuff mainly in place as options for the female character creations. If that suits your fancy then you might just want to get the deluxe edition. I personally thought the game was "Alright". It definitely got, and held my attention. I will close in saying always try out a game before buying if you can. Demos are a good option as is trying out a friend's copy. I think PSN's share play feature might actually work out in those regards too. Thanks for stopping by, and reading what I had to say! I appreciate it!