Anime fans around the world will be familiar with Sword Art Online. The light novels and the sprawling media empire that they spawned follow the exploits of Kirito as he stumbles from being trapped in one online video game to another. Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris is the latest game to follow Kirito’s misadventures and the first to attempt to directly adapt the events of the light novels. The results, unfortunately, are mixed at best.
The story of Sword Art Online has always lent itself toward video game adaptation, allowing characters to reference things like hit points, experience, and levels without breaking the fourth wall. In this iteration, Kirito finds himself in a strange virtual place called Underworld with no memory of how he got there. His quest to contact the outside world is hampered by the fact that none of the other people he meets seem to know they’re in a video game. Most of the inhabitants that Kirito encounters are flat and lifeless, adding to the shallow feeling that we got from the rest of the game.
It sure makes a good first impression, though. The opening cutscene is stunningly beautiful, with fluid motion and gorgeous animation that looked like it could have come from the best bits of the anime. The developers did an amazing job of recreating the anime's epic feeling. Unfortunately, the game seldom looks that good again. Most subsequent cutscenes and animation are stilted and plain, with villains not even given mouth flaps when they speak. It feels like something that you would see two console generations ago and stands in stark contrast to the high bar the opening sets. It's like giving us a Michelin star-worthy appetiser and then quickly replacing it with a fast-food main; it's serviceable but didn’t live up to our expectations, leaving us frustrated. The skill and ability are there but either budget or time constraints prevented developer Aquria from delivering.
The technical issues with the game don’t end there. Several times during our playthrough, characters wouldn’t animate in a cutscene, meaning that their model would merely slide across the floor rather than walk. Despite how wide open the world looks, the developers have managed to make it feel painfully small thanks to invisible walls that pop up without warning. There are frequent and long loading screens, the most jarring of which appeared in the middle of a cutscene. Every hour we played we experienced at least one or two of these issues.
These issues hamper what is, at its core, a decent action-(J)RPG. The combat is smooth and fun, with visually exciting auto-combos and powerful sword arts to unleash on enemies. It starts simple and adds layers of complexity during the game’s first ten hours. Even grinding isn’t a drag here because fighting the average enemy is engaging. When Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris gets out of its own way, it manages to be a decent game.
Throughout the excessively long tutorial, you're introduced to its combat system. Tying attacks together with your AI companions is the key to success against the more powerful foes you’ll encounter. New skills are unlocked through the Skill Tree system, though they can’t be assigned until much later in the game. This became a running theme of our time with Alicization Lycoris – showing us all the fun stuff we’d be able to do several hours before we were able to do it. It is a frustrating and confusing design choice.
When you’re not slaying monsters, the story unfolds through a combination of 3D and 2D scenes that are heavy on dialogue and light on action. Because most of the game is so plainly animated, it is easy to get bored as characters dump lore on you. The plot for the first several chapters mirrors the source material closely before it diverges to tell a new story. The transition to the new story is handled somewhat clumsily, with large time skips that brush over major plot points. It is pretty clear that Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris is intended for existing fans of the franchise, complete with the option to skip much of the opening plot to get to the original material sooner.
The game gets off to a slow start and takes a long time to recover. As we mentioned before, new features and systems will continue to pop up more than ten hours in. Even something as simple as fast travel, which is introduced almost immediately, isn’t accessible until you're four hours into the game. Multiplayer aspects are locked until nearly 20 hours in, which keeps you from using the most interesting features. Joining other people’s games, either friends or random strangers, can be a fun way to pass the time but you have to invest so much time getting there that it loses all appeal.
Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris hits all the notes you’d expect. Players can craft their own armour and weapons, go fishing, and complete side quests. These aspects feel shallow and tacked on, though, lacking any challenge to improve on the game’s dry opening. It doesn’t do a great job of satisfying JRPG fans who want depth, and also manages to disappoint fans of the series as a whole. This one is safe to miss, then, unless you simply have to see every possible story within the Sword Art Online world. While there's a good game in here trying to get out, there are better RPGs and better Sword Art Online titles out there.
Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris takes forever to get moving. By the time the training wheels come off, players will likely have switched off in frustration. Pacing is a big issue for the first half of the game, with hours spent in unskippable cutscenes or repetitive tutorials before the best features become available. There is a decent game locked away behind the multiple missteps and technical issues, and if you've got the requisite patience and high regard for the source material, there are things to like — most notably the smooth, engaging combat. The problem is that getting to it feels like work rather than play.