Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization Review – Pretending Is Not Being

Nov 23, 2016


Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization

November 8th, 2016
Platform PlayStation 4 ($59.99), PS Vita ($39.99)
Publisher Bandai Namco
Developer Aquria

Sword Art Online seems like the anime that was made specifically for video game adaptations – it’s literally an anime about playing VR MMOs, and you can’t get much more on the nose than that. Set in the world of the big new VR game, Sword Art: Origin, the cast from Sword Art Online take up their original avatars, in a familiar setting, to do MMO stuff – but to everyone’s shock, not everything is as it seems and Scooby-Doo style hijinks ensue.

To start with, I want to say that Hollow Realization is probably the very best Sword Art Online game released so far, exceeding the expectations I had set by the previous games in the series. Having said that, it is very much a game that doesn’t quite know what it is, for it is a game of two halves; one typical MMO, one boring visual novel.

Anyone that has spent a good deal of time in an MMO knows that not every quest in an MMO is interesting – the vaguest possible reasons will be given to you in order to give your quest for “Six Wolf Paws” or “Five Murloc Eggs” some sort of justification, but of course the game needs a vast quantity of quests to fill its equally vast overworld – and here’s where Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization falls for the first time. This is not really an MMO, and the fact that almost every quest in the game follows the MMO trope of “collect five X/kill seven Y/take item to Z” is truly painful.

Another issue arises straight from the fact the game has a character creator, but doesn’t actually want you to play as your own character. The game’s default character is the anime’s bland protagonist Kirito, and it becomes quickly clear that the game assumes you’ll just roll with the default; your fellow cast of characters will wax lyrical about past exploits, Kirito’s betrothed Asuna will always treat you as her boyfriend, and all characters will refer to you as a male, even if you changed your gender – your character’s voice in cutscenes will even be Kirito’s Japanese voice actor, unless you dive into the settings to turn it off. No male/female option, no customizations, just off or on. It’s certainly not the kind of game that’ll let you carve out your own niche in the SAO universe.

Then there are the main, story-heavy quests – once you’re finally away from the mundane side quests. Main quests in Hollow Realization are usually exposition and dialogue heavy – and I mean, visual novel-style heavy. Conversations seem to last an eternity at times, and the main story feels lazier than any other part of the game. Main quests often have you agreeing to go adventuring with some pals, they arrive in the field, still chatting away, and then a fight happens and – get this – the characters grunt a bit while you hear sword sound effects. That’s right – the main quests in the game don’t require any interaction whatsoever. When I say they’re visual novel, I mean they’re visual novel and literally nothing else.

And that’s a massive shame, as believe it or not, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization actually has a big, wide world to explore and a pretty decent combat system. When you drop into the world it feels fairly linear, like wide corridors that lead you forward, and while that’s true for the most part the game does a great job of making you feel like there’s more to your surroundings than meets the eye, and there’s plenty of opportunities to go off the beaten track and unlock treasure chests by beating local monsters.

There’s a few other MMO-inspired mechanics here too, such as powerful monsters that drop onto the overworld for you and other players to do battle with – oh, but of course, this still isn’t an actual MMO. Again, to simulate the feel of an MMO there’s groups of NPC players in the overworld – which are, of course, pretty useless. You can help them battle, or they can help you, but they’re fairly ineffective, amounting to little more than window dressing to make the world feel less sparse and dead.

Battling, however, is simple and feels very refreshing. Enemies do massive, telegraphed attacks (often telegraphed to the point of large red sections being painted on the ground to highlight where hitboxes will land) which you can attack with a skill directly after to make enemies Weak, from which point you can execute Skill rushes to get a Down and do massive damage. Battles are another element taken directly from MMOs, with different attacks and even items being placed in an Action Bar, which you can flick through and pick attacks from as they slowly recharge from their cooldown.

It’s a generic battle system, with nothing remarkable to be said, but all things considered it is actually a lot of fun, especially when you get into longer boss battles where dodging, item management and commanding your team actually make some sort of tangible difference.

I started off with Hollow Realization absolutely hating every moment of it, honestly. The faux-MMO style of gameplay, the visual novel-style exposition, the fact I had to play as Kirito, the worst anime protagonist in the history of anime. But after a few more hours with it, I have a soft spot for it. If you skip the story scenes, ignore the dialogue, and just focus on exploring the world and upgrading your gear, there’s actually a lot to love here.

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 (code provided by the publisher). Game also available on PS Vita.


What turns out to be a fun JRPG with a big world to explore and good combat is marred by bad story, bad quests and some diabolical pacing. Only recommended for SAO fans.


  • Surprisingly good combat
  • Exploring the world is fun


  • Bad, repetitive MMO-style quests
  • Visual Novel-style exposition ruins pacing
  • Is not an MMO, tries very hard to pretend to be
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