Sword Art Online has been around for quite a while now; what started in 2002 as a simple light novel series has gone on to span a multimedia franchise including several books, manga adaptations, video games, movies, and – yes – an impending live-action Netflix series. It was only a matter of time before the franchise would receive some representation on the Switch, and that has now finally materialized with Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization. Though the first for Nintendo players, this is actually the fourth game in the Sword Art video game series, which itself has diverged from the canon in some key ways and established a storyline of its own, and after an initial launch on PlayStation platforms, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization has now found its way to the Switch in the form of a ‘complete edition’ that includes all the previous DLC. On the whole, it more or less proves to have been worth the wait – offering up a robust and well-realized RPG experience that dwarfs much of the competition on the eShop – but this quality does come with a few caveats that newcomers may want to consider before buying.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization picks up shortly after where the last game left off, as Kirito, Asuna, and all their friends migrate to a new game called Sword Art: Origin to partake in the closed beta. They’re enjoying the game, often pointing out its similarities to the original Sword Art Online (just, y’know, without the real death part) and things are going well until Kirito runs into a weird NPC girl with no name and seemingly no real part to play in the broader game world. Charmed by her pure and kind demeanour, the team takes her under their wing and name her “Premiere”, but things quickly grow more interesting as they take her on quests and discover that perhaps she isn’t the ‘nobody’ NPC that she first appeared to be.
For those of you that find yourselves tired out by an overabundant story in an RPG, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization may prove to be a rather taxing experience, as portions of the experience border on becoming more of a visual novel than a game. When story beats are triggered, it can often lead to almost comically long cutscenes that can last north of fifteen minutes at a time. Aside from a few instances, the vast majority of those cutscenes are spent reading through extensive dialogue (acting as a sub for the Japanese voice actors) as character portraits flash on and off the screen, occasionally changing expressions as the conversation calls for. Those of you that don’t want to be bothered with these scenes can blaze through them by simply holding down the ‘L’ button, but even then, it can sometimes be a fair bit of time before the figurative controller is put back in your hands and you can continue the adventure.
The Japanese voice acting for these scenes works well and features some strong performances, but the writing itself leaves something to be desired. Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization plays host to just about every cringe-worthy and tired anime trope that you can imagine, and while this isn’t strictly surprising given that the source material is a popular anime, it can nonetheless drag down one’s enjoyment as pervy humour and eye-rolling events unfold left and right. No joke, there is even a girl who frequently refers to your character as “Daddy”. All of this can be argued as being part of the charm, however, and the personalities of various characters from the show come through consistently. Just be aware that Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is just about as ‘anime’ as anime gets, for better or worse.
As a game about an MMO, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization goes to great lengths to replicate the feel of a largescale RPG being played by thousands at a time and it mostly manages to get it right. The main town – inventively called the “Town of Beginnings” – contains all the standard equipment shops and wide-open rendezvous points one might expect, along with some more scenic locations in which you can take a partner on a ‘date’. The world itself is comprised of a series of levels which each contain several interconnected areas packed to bursting with monsters to fight and grind for loot drops, treasure chests, emergent mini-quests, and terrifying boss creatures. It’s the little details that really tie it all together, though, such as other parties of NPCs running through the world much like your own, fighting their own battles against monsters and making call-outs as a real team would.
Battle uses a live-action system a bit like the one employed in YS VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, in which you simply slash away at enemies right there on the map until either they die or your party wipes. Of course, this wouldn’t be a pseudo-MMO without an enormously busy UI overrun by toolbars, so your skills, special attacks, and items can all be accessed via a toggleable bar that can pack up to 60 different actions at one time. For the most part, you can get away with just using a much simpler four actions bound to a quick menu – most of the enemies and bosses you encounter don’t require such extensive min/maxing – but the depth offered in combat is certainly welcome.
See, it’s not just about whacking an enemy with a stick for a bit until you win. Every hit builds up a multiplier that affects how much damage the enemy receives, but with the caveat that the multiplier resets if you let up for too long. Moreover, your party members will frequently make call-outs asking for a certain skill or attack to be performed, and if you time these things right, it can set off devastating combos that all but vaporize the thing you were fighting. Through dynamic elements like this, combat is infused with some much-needed energy, as it becomes a deft dance of balancing skill cooldowns, damage multipliers, and friend call-outs in equal measure. Outside of the (free) DLC endgame content and a handful of bosses, making full usage of the deep combat is hardly ever required or even requested, but having that high potential skill ceiling is nonetheless nice for those that want to get the most out of that later, harder content.
Character growth is handled through a rather confusing array of interconnected skills, which the in-game tutorial hardly bothers explaining to you. Using any one of the nine main weapon classes will naturally grow your proficiency with that weapon, passively earning you skill points that can then be spent on a variety of skills related to that weapon as your proficiency with it increases. However, every now and then you’ll unlock a ‘class’ skill that has its own skill tree which can only be furthered by having that class skill equipped. This also has an effect on your party members, whose growth you’re given limited control over as well. The party member can equip any class skills you’ve unlocked and progress their own growth in that skill tree, and you can then set how frequently or infrequently you want them to use each action. Affecting this to some degree, too, is their emotional state, which is represented as a series of various sized bubbles that can be either encouraged or discouraged in battle.
A key shortcoming here and, unfortunately in the rest of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, is the laughable effort made at explaining key systems and functions to the player. This is an incredibly in-depth and complex RPG in many parts, and while there’s an effort made to explain certain things to the player, important elements are often left out of the tutorials that leave you scratching your head and wondering what the heck this abbreviation means, or why a level that should be increasing is remaining stagnant. It’s not exactly rocket science, so experimenting around with menus and trawling through the infinite wisdom to be found in internet message boards can help to clear up some of the fog, but Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization's failure to communicate the importance of certain gameplay features makes much of the first ten to fifteen hours a slow and confusing time for new players.
Similar to this, there are certain times in which the confusing systems are made even more difficult to decrypt due to hokey game design that makes simple things unnecessarily complicated or irritating. For example, if you’d like to check up on a party member’s emotional state or change their class skill, you’d think that you could do so by going to the ‘Friend’ tab in the menu and selecting their name. In reality, you have to walk up to them on the map and initiate conversation, pulling up a sub-menu that’s inaccessible from the main menu. To make this worse, party members don’t automatically follow you when you’re in town, meaning you have to look all over town and spend five or ten minutes doing something that should only take a few seconds. Going off of this, the town bafflingly doesn’t feature the mini-map that’s present everywhere else in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, so if you need to talk to a specific character to progress the story, you have to spend extra time running around looking for them, sometimes checking some areas multiple times because characters move about of their own accord. It’s annoying things like this that can drag down the pace and kill one’s enjoyment of the game, as it becomes more trouble than its worth to fumble around with problems that few other RPGs have.
It’s a real shame, too, because when it isn’t being needlessly frustrating or confusing, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization has more than enough content to keep any longtime RPG fan happy for dozens of hours. Though the sidequests can often be standard fetch quest guff, there are several sprinkled in that possess some genuinely interesting stories or objectives that help to build out the game world that much more. And, once you reach the end of the main game, all the previous versions’ DLC becomes playable, adding new challenges, dungeons, and quests to the game to make for a meaty postgame. Topping all of this off is a multiplayer mode that can bring Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization another step closer to being an actual MMO, featuring both co-op and PvP modes that aren’t as robust as one would like, but nonetheless add some extra value to all the other content. Make no mistake, if you have the patience to get past the rougher parts of the game up front, there are potentially hundreds of hours to be sunk into Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, and that kind of meaningful content and extensive replayability deserves to be commended.
From a graphical perspective, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is no slouch either, possessing a clean and surprisingly detailed art style that looks fantastic whether you’re playing docked or portable. Character portraits in cutscenes are brightly coloured and wonderfully expressive, and when running through the game world, you’re treated to detailed and surprisingly realistic environments with long draw distances and high-resolution textures galore. It’s clear that a lot of time was put into making these environments feel like living ecosystems in many ways, and the sizable scope that they present just serves to remind one of the kind of ‘home console’ experiences the Switch can make real when on the go. The only thing dragging all this down is the sub-par performance; it’s not terrible by any means, but there are many points where Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization struggles to hit that 30FPS benchmark and the dropped frames prove to be noticeable.
At the end of the day, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is the kind of game that you probably already know if you’re interested in or not. This is an anime-inspired, in-depth RPG that comes with all the trappings, good and bad, that your mind associates with that description. Fans of the show and of complicated RPGs will no doubt find plenty to love here in the likable characters, complex character customization, and frantic battle system while those who would consider themselves to be unfamiliar with RPGs or the anime will no doubt be put off by the uneven, sometimes cringe-worthy writing, lack of effective tutorials, and general tedium present throughout the whole experience. We’d give Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization a recommendation overall – this is a good, quality RPG – just make sure you do a bit of research in advance to confirm that it’s what you’re looking for.