Game Review: Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization (PS Vita)

Can this lastest entry into the simulated MMORPG world of SAO (different O, though… more on that later) live up to the legendary status of its predecessors on the handheld? Or will it be a hollow experience indeed? Let’s figure it out together in this review of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way right now: the world of SAO has a huge following, made none the smaller thanks to the unexpected, but well deserved, success of the first two entries on the Vita. So Hollow Realization had a lot to live up to. Big shoes to fill, if you will.

Does it? Well, for the most part, yes.

While I usually start my reviews talking about the story, I want to switch it up and first talk about the gameplay, because that’s the star here. HR is an action-RPG in its truest form, with seemingly simple combat systems. However, first impressions belie what hides in a two-punch mince-pie of awesomeness: firstly, there are very clever implementations of timing and strategic elements built into the combat, and secondly… well, it’s just damn fun to play, to be honest.

This being an MMORPG simulator, you have a party of “real” (not really) players that you go into missions with. It’s the same old “let’s kill X number of Y beasts” fare, but combining strategic call-to-actions on your teammates and time-based power-ups for your hits, you can easily down foes well above your level, even early on in the game.

This allows, for those of you who are impatient, the possibility of avoiding all the JRPG grinding and go straight for the jugular. It also means that the game becomes much more than a button-mashing, blind-attacking fetch-and-kill slideshow.

There’s some real meat on this bone, and it tastes really nice.

"Huge beasts are no match for a well-trained, strategic JRPG player" - Abraham Lincoln. Possibly.
“Huge beasts are no match for a well-trained, strategic JRPG player” – Abraham Lincoln. Possibly.

Sadly, not everything is perfect (I know, it never is), and this entry into the Sword Art Online falls a bit flat in a rather crucial aspect for a JRPG: the story.

The failure is two-fold: first, there isn’t any real danger. There are no surprises, there are no hostile take-overs, or “we are trapped in this video-game universe and must escape” situations. It pretty much is just a game about friends playing a video game. Sure, there’s the intriguing story about the NPC we find almost as soon as we start the game, but even that loses its appeal after you’ve put double digits into the game.

Secondly, there are a lot of characters, with a lot of filler story that doesn’t really create interesting plot. It’s fantastically acted, mind you, and that will definitely tide you over while you wait between cutscenes to go back to the rather excellent combat. But on the whole, the confusion that arises from having all these characters (specially if you’re not knees-deep into SAO) on screen at the same time never really goes away.

While the story is not great, the combat and acting will keep your attention focused on that beloved OLED screen. Or LED, if you're a heathen.
While the story is not great, the combat and acting will keep your attention focused on that beloved OLED screen. Or LCD, if you’re a heathen.

OK, so: the story isn’t great, but the gameplay is, and so is the acting. What about performance, you ask? Well, they have this engine pretty much optimized to the fullest for Vita, so while the colors are a bit drab, the whole thing runs as smooth as coconut oil on a hot pan.

Sadly, they don’t feel as confident as I do about the way this game looks or runs on Vita, apparently, because those screenshots you see there are from the PS4 version. The PS Vita listing on the PSN store doesn’t have any. Sad.

Value for money? You’ll easily get 50 hours out of the game, 100 if you are willing. It won’t get tedious, either. Yes, they re-skin some monsters, and yes, some of the dungeons look same-y, but… it really is quite a fun game to play.

It’s hard to explain. A bit like riding that old bicycle you have in the shed: it’s not really perfect, it’s a bit creaky, a bit rusty, but there’s a little something something that makes it a hell of a lot of fun.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, if you’re a fan of the Sword Art Online universe, you’ll feel right at home here. Familiar characters, great gameplay (I do miss the flying though), and a solid investment in bucks-per-hour terms. If you’re new, though, the lack of any real danger to the characters and the sheer amount of characters on screen (and their seemingly endless interactions), might get a bit boring.

At the end of the day, though, this is a solid, fun entry into a vast universe, and while it’s not the best entry in the series, it’s by far and away a hell of a fun one.

  • Title: Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization
  • Publisher: Bandai Namco
  • Developer: Bandai Namco
  • Format: Physical / PSN Download
  • Size on Card: 2.9Gb

Vita Player Rating - 07

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