Review – Accel World vs Sword Art Online Millenium Twilight

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After the considerable disappointment experienced with Sword Art Online Hollow Realization, I had stopped believing in BandaiNamco’s capacity to make something good with Dengeki’s famous IP. The choice of Sword Art Online Lost Song as base was more reason to skip Accel World vs Sword Art Online. However, Japanese articles ended up showing some attractiveness in it, which proved to be true.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Persona Vabel

Forget your desire for an epic story : this one is again quite badly structured or written. It starts as a masked witch calling herself Persona Vabel gatecrashes Alfheim Online. Nothing big, you might think, but the damsel actually comes from 1000 years in the future and makes eras collide in the process. Vabel doesn’t stop here and kidnaps Yui, whose removal, she thinks, will lead to a brighter future.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online villain

As you’d expect, Kirito and Asuna fly to rescue their daughter. Problem is that the game is a complete mess as it merged with the Accel World universe, whose characters starts coming one after another. Kuroyukihime and her pals will soon cooperate with Kirito’s group : like in Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney, the VS” is just for show. The real snag is that the distortion also invited Accel World’s villains, who will block your path in every possible way.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Yui

But that leads to a very long secquence in which nothing really happens : 30 hours of eventless exploring and fighting on 40 in total. Besides, numerous events feel unclear without a certain knowledge of Accel World’s scenario, and it’s not re-explained as you progress. You do have to wait the very end and the ultimate truth about Vabel’s identity to experience a SAO-like narrative. The ending is pretty much inventive and somewhat moving, but that’s little in the whole adventure.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Kuroyukihime

While the main story is uneven, the side events in Accel World vs Sword Art Online are a lot better than before. First and adding to Persona Vabel’s identity, it leaves quite interesting hints for future developments, particularly in Yûki’s case because her destiny might change considerably in this gaming non-canon part. The second point is that character events are a lot funnier and feel newer because Accel World brings characters with personalities as eccentric as their outfits : Kuroyukihime has a bust size complex, superior beingMetatron keeps looking down and shouting at you, and Ashe Roller’s true self is a memorable laugh. SAO characters participate to the fun no less, with more wacky humor and less of the childishness Hollow Realization kept imposing us.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online kuroyukihime

Jokes also becomes quite lewder again, fan service aspect which had progressively disappeared and that we have been missing since Hollow Fragment. Renewed fan service and better sides events lead to more enjoyable artworks : nearly all of them are great (kinky or not). The side content of Accel World vs Sword Art Online hence was made a lot spicier for the core fans to throughfully enjoy the game between gameplay phases. This episode contains a few real time cutscenes, but no more anime-style ones. The 3D looking cheap on PS4, this is actually a lesser experience. As we’re talking about side content, let’s stress that there are only 2 sidequests, which weren’t very great because they rehash the same bosses/fields on uninspired writing. You do have the usual hunt/fetch quests : nothing fantastic but it’s always nice to complete them while leveling up, and there’s a nice trophy as reward.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online blood leopard

The publisher doesn’t hesitate to brag about the record number of playable characters in this episode. DLC taken into account, that makes 44 characters available in the game in a whole, that is to say… 44 times more than last year’s game ! Undoubtly an excellent decision… And that’s not meaningless PR talk because each Accel World character has a unique fighting style, while SAO characters still see their actions determined by the weapon they use (plenty of them by the way, including the bow this time). Blood Leopard for example transforms into a crimson beast to tear up enemies, Aqua Current has a variety of water abilities, etc. Those moves are thus extremely varied. Customisation is different too : you have to collect BP & materials to improve their attack stat, and acquire external modules to add various status effects. Accel World characters cannot fly unlike the others but are a lot quicker and agressive on the ground. The complementarity of gameplay of this cross-over is an outstanding success.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Rain

As for your usual SAO characters, you’ll find the same aerial gameplay you had in Lost Song. It’s still far from perfect especially in getting the right height and managing distances, but it does benefit from magic spells to make it more RPG-like. Accel World vs Sword Art Online also adds a certain number of ultimate moves, like, much to her fans’ delight, Shinon’s sniper rifle. Last innovation but not the least, Skill Connect allows the player to chain several abilities, which deals 10% more damage each time you do it (a bit like in Star Ocean series). Slowly but surely, BandaiNamco is delivering deeper combat in SAO games.

Alas, Accel World vs Sword Art Online inherits the terrible animations that were in Lost Song. Characters are stiff and battles end up a bit dull despite the effort put on more dynamic super moves, some of them meant to be impressive. Small consolation within a dated technical showing. On PSVita the frame-rate is so bad that I ended up dropping that version entirely. That’s too bad because character modeling was good on the handheld.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online Lux

On PS4, it can be considered okay at best : some characters are prettier than others, one field is significantly more detailed and good-looking, but we’re still talking about a slightly enhanced 2-year old PS3 engine. The most annoying aspect was difficulty balance. The main story is quite easy but postgame gets really hard all of a sudden, not to say unfair since the game forces you to use one or more characters. Let’s say it again : it is unacceptable to impose characters if you the game doesn’t have them level up at the same time as the others. Even though you can tweak that with BP (at considerable expense) or by changing the difficulty settings in last resort (often disheartening).

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DLCs are symptomatic of this. The road leading to Alice is tough and getting her to join you is even harder. You can always see the good side of things and reckon you’ve finally got challenging trials ahead, but I’m not so sure about struggling to desperation to obtain a charcater you’ve bought with real money.

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Nevertheless, this season pass has its merits, especially for Persona Vabel playable at once, Heathcliff included and an array of very nice outfits.

Accel World vs Sword Art Online plain

Last improvement of Accel World vs Sword Art Online, the progression system is better. The fields might feel identical to the ones in Lost Song, they are far larger in height ! Maximum altitude has been doubled, there are new underground locations/floating islands, the landscape has been made chaotic, etc, so that it feels actually new. You can go higher and farer, and the game has been made far less linear, giving a few hints instead of marking everything on the minimap. You’ll come across a few clever puzzles, true searching phases, which gives the satisfaction of overcoming the trials by your own wits and skill.

While short from being the necessary evolution to make Sword Art Online games as great as the movie for example, Accel World vs Sword Art Online does fix a number of mistakes made those past 2 years. The cross-over aspect has definitely be well conducted, ensuring a variety of gameplay and an enjoyable universe. Still not immersive enough in graphics, animation or direction, it’s however this time a nice buy for SAO fans.

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My games of the year 2016 (GOTY 2016)

Best Action game

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God Eater 2 Rage Burst (PSVita/PS4)

Without a natural leader like Bloodborne last year, hard to choose between the three great ones today. But God Eater 2 Rage Burst somewhat stands out, because of its memorables momenta and heated battles. Full of adorable characters and playable in coop, it goes well beyond the hunting genre to become a great saga.

Runner-up : Fate Extella (PSVita) & The Division (PS4)

Best Shooter

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Battlefield 1 (PS4)

In Spring, I would have bet anything on Overwatch for this title. But that was underestimating DICE’s efforts to make Battlefield not only innovating by its theme, World War I, but also a thrilling sniper experience thanks to the best TDM maps since I know the series. The remarkable atmosphere and the gorgeous graphics are just the cherry on the cake.

Runner-up : Overwatch (PS4)

Best Strategy game

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Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

Kan Colle kai is the new Advance Wars. The addictive management of units and the desperate defense of positions brought me tears of joy when the final trophy popped. Gifted with rich and unique design and having a game system as enjoyable as Pokemon plus outstanding challenge, Kadokawa’s game is one to remember.

Runner-up : Pokemon Sun&Moon (3DS)

Best RPG

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Persona 5 (PS4)

Persona 5 being my first «true» Persona game (after Persona 4 Dancing All Night last year), I hadn’t how massive this series was. And here it is, the hype is 170% deserved, because Persona 5 is an RPG like you seldom see. Great narrative & characters, fantastic combat, dream-like design, deep game system, overflowing content… the new King of JRPG is here!

Runner-up : Tokyo Xanadu (PSVita)

Best puzzle game

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Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight (PSVita)

After a superb Yomawari, Nippon Ichi Software is at it again with Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight. Not adventure this time but pure a 2D platformer featuring lots of puzzles for hours of intense brainstorming, with far better controls than The Firefly Diary.

Runner-up : Ace Attorney 6 (3DS)

Best Sountrack

初音ミク Project DIVA Future Tone

Hatsune Miku Project DIVA Future Tone (PS4)

The tracklist in Hatsune Miku Project Diva Future Tone speaks for itself : in the 228 tracks, you’ll surely find dozens of your liking. Every J-pop style is widely represented, with a lot of novelties compared to portable Project Diva games (Hôkai Utahime, Gothic and Loneliness). Yet this PS4 game also features classics like Remocon or Envy Cat Walk.

Runner-up : Hatsune Miku Project Diva X (PSVita/PS4)

Best graphics

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The Division (PS4)

Open world of impressive scale, The Division is visually the most striking game I’ve seen this year. Ubisoft re-created New York with great realism and the post apocalyptic touch makes it an immersive experience.

Runner-up : Battlefield 1 (PS4) & Hatsune Mike Project Diva X (PSVita)

Best innovation

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Overwatch (PS4)

When Blizzard does something, it rarely fails. Overwatch is a competitive FPS like you’ve never seen before. Close to an RPG by its characters and skill mechanics, it allows for a great variety of gameplay blowing everything else in the genre. You’ve got an innovative set of roles like defenders (D.Va) or support characters of which the recently added grandma Ana is a stunning example.

Runner-up : Mary Skelter Nightmares (PSVita)

Best narrative

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Persona 5 (PS4)

Persona 5 is the master of suspense and intrigue. The passion in those personal destinies, the will of the characters, the bond uniting them, all this conjugated with the onimous plot set by wicked elites is a delicious cocktail that you keep pouring during dozens of hours.

Runner-up : Tokyo Xanadu (PSVita)

Best atmosphere

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Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight (PSVita)

Nippon Ichi Software is at its best when creating dark and crooked universes. Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight is no expection and delivers gloomy art that chills the bone : blood, death and despair are the key elements here. The developments, the very logic of the game and the touching conclusion make it emotionally beautiful.

Runner-up : Battlefield 1 (PS4)

Best design

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Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

While Persona 5 sure blows things out in terms of design, I might stick to Kan Colle kai for this one. Really unique concept with risqué fan service included, Kantai Collection does a great job drawing friends and foes, and decorating your HQ is a lot of fun too.

Runner up : Persona 5 (PS4), Mary Skelter Nightmares (PSVita) & Pokemon Sun/Moon (3DS)

Best game you might never play

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Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

I’m actually pretty sure you won’t play Kan Colle kai, unfortunately. Kadokawa has already announced that the game would be pulled back from shelves, further evidence that relations with the IP owner DMM.com aren’t exactly easy. You still have a few weeks to order an import version and a fat kanji dictionary with it.

Runner-up : none

Most disappointing

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Sword Art Online Hollow Realization (PSVita/PS4)

You’d need to be really incompetent or seriously cynical to keep this unwanted «title». Mr. Futami Producer of Sword Art Online games, must be this kind of guy. Incapable of keeping the progresses made in Sword Art Online Lost Song, he’s badly rehashed Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment with Sword Art Online Hollow Realization : romoved playable characters, boring linearity, thin storyline, outdated engine… everything indicates he wanted to maximize profits by minimizing efforts. This logic seems actually be going on with Sword Art Online vs Accel World, the first screens of which are horrendous. This time, my money will go the more capable and ambitious developers.

Runner-up : Summon Night 6

mini Platinum-trophy Game of the Year

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Persona 5 (PS4)

mini gold trophy Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

mini Silver_Trophy Rose and the Old Castle of Twillight (PSVita)

mini-bronze_trophy Tokyo Xanadu (PSVita)

Review – Sword Art Online Hollow Realization

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After selling more than a million copies of the previous games worldwide, BandaiNamco is fully aware that Sword Art Online is now a big asset of its JRPG line-up. By deciding to re-create Aincrad in Sword Art Online Hollow Realization, the publisher bets on nostalgia for this episode.

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Invited by Seven to beta test a new virtual reality game, Kirito and his friends come to Sword Art Origin. This software being developed on Aincrad as base (where Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment took place), the infamous «death game» surfaces again in the form of a mysterious message saying «I’m back to Aincrad». This, and the arrival of a NPC of complex AI named Premiere will mark the start of troubles because the development of Sword Art Origin will soon go awry.

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PS4

The dev team defends this new yet old setting because they said they wanted players to experience an Aincrad from the start (in Hollow Fragment, you start at floor 76). The game system is roughly the same as in the first game on PSVita and PS4 : you prepare your gear and interact with your buddies in the town before teleporting yourself in the various worlds of Sword Art Origin. The only difference is that you can now bring 3 allies and not just one. But the fact that Seven is part of the plot suggest that Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is actually closer to Sword Art Online Lost Song than you might think.

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PSVita

Indeed, as in Lost Song, death in Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is not definitive : you can easily revive a fallen ally whereas in Hollow Fragment, any KO meant an immediate game over. While players in Sword Art Origin are safe, NPCs don’t come back the same. NPCs are a key element in this episode : there are dozens of them in the village and you can invite any of them in your party. BandaiNamco makes the risky bet that you’ll like them as much as the heroines. But in the end, an NPC is nothing more than a series of 0 and 1, and can’t have the charisma of a main character. Sword Art Online Hollow Realization clearly fails at delivering intensity in its narrative, which by the way accounts for a tiny part of the total length of the game. Nothing like the mature atmosphere and the suspense of the recent anime series.

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The story actually doesn’t unfold before 30 or 40 hours. There at last you get a few (precious few) cut-scenes, but for most part you won’t have anything else to follow than character side events. Let’s say it straight, those events have a very light tone : slice of life only, the dark atmosphere of the Hollow Area doesn’t exist here. True, it’s fun at times but it never goes beyond the friendship and worries of your average teenagers. Another disappointment is the further use of live 2D for dialog. That means next to no cut-scenes in the scenario and rather boring scenes describing battles that aren’t shown. It feels cheap for a game that sells hundreds of thousands and comes from such a great anime. Even tinier series like Atelier have dropped that for years.

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The (numerous) illustrations look a bit commonplace compared to what was offered in Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment. The latter was rated CERO C in Japan (CERO B for Hollow Realization) and had more risqué and more interesting artwork. It’s better investing in the excellent manga adaptations Sword Art Online Progressive and Sword Art Online Girls’ Ops at this point.

Let’s go into the field of Sword Art Origin. It’s not an open-world as we know it nowdays because each of the six themed worlds (forest, desert, citadel, etc.) are unlocked progressively, and themselves divided into smaller linear areas. Sword Art Online Hollow Realization never escapes its linearity and doesn’t give much freedom to the player. Objectives are all marked (giving very inaccurate information at times) and there’s no secondary quest that would invite you to explore further or go back in former places. The only entertainment lies in Event Fragments, random hunt quests in which you face tougher monsters. Those represent excellent leverage because you often get high-rank equipment.

The battle system is a mix of the first two episodes : it’s basically an action-RPG since you attack directly with square (Hollow Fragment was relying on auto-attack) but the action aspect is less rich than in Lost Song. On the tactical side, you get back the skill palettes from Hollow Fragment. L1 and R1 allow you to give orders to allies, including the now famous switch that switches positions between Kirito and a friend, then triggering a powerful attack. Even better, you can order all your teammates to fire at will for maximum damage. Linking attacks effectively sometimes leads to a skill chain, which launches a light spell of dramatic effect. Accuracy is a problem, because the lock isn’t effective and you’re likely to hit the void. Premiere is the only character that can «die» but here again the game is a bit lenient since you have 60 seconds to revive her. Far, very far from Hollow Fragment where any mistake had you start from scratch, giving real heat to battles.

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PSVita

The palette at the bottom of the screen contains the passive skills regarding the status of your character. There’s quite some room to cram everything you need to strengthen your hero. It’s possible to dramatically increase your attack, your defense, your HP, your resistance to bad statuses… Becoming such a superman necessitates that you analyse the skill tree, so large that you can only fill a fraction during the main story, and choose wisely the most effective items for your playstyle. So and despite a poorer gameplay than the past episodes in general, there is depth in Sword Art Online Hollow Realization.

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PS4

You quickly understand that in the fight against the main bosses, rather interesting because more complex than before. Each of them has body parts that you’ll have to break in order to deal critical damage. You side with a large number of NPCs, which gives a real impression of raid as it is depicted in the anime. The boss fights get increasingly harder and you’ll have to be ready with the right abilities if you want to succeed. The final boss is absolutely ferocious and show a more unforgiving side of the gameplay, which goes in the right way because it arouses passion. Too bad nothing of this is felt during random battles or mid-bosses that are quite tiresome.

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PS4

As much as Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is faithful to Hollow Fragment’s system, this status quo is in fact a step back if you consider the elements in Lost Song that have vanished without reason. In particular, how can you not be revolted by the fact that the twenty or so playable characters of the previous game are no longer playable at all? You are forced to play as Kirito : BandaiNamco has de facto divided the number of playable characters by 20… Worse, the bow doesn’t exist anymore! Shinon, sniper in the Phantom Bullet part of the anime and Archer in Mother Rosario is now stuck with a damn spear… So not only does Sword Art Online Hollow Realization limit the gameplay, but it also fails to follow the context.

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PSVita

On the positive side, let’s stress that the hero’s look can be modified anytime. The character creation menu is rich and effective, allowing to give birth to your ideal protagonist in no time. That said, it stays as Kirito in the narrative, which is extremely confusing in case you choose a female character. Moreover, a man’s voice in the narrative is mandatory, so you have to deactivate it if you’re playing a girl. The multiplayer mode, which has you travel into Sword Art Origin with other players in order to defeat named monsters, is a good, profitable and entertaining way of enjoying your own avatar.

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PSVita

On PSVita, Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is even less convincing. Graphically speaking, texture quality drops seriously and character modeling is really poor in some cases. It clearly lacks polish if you compare with Sword Art Online Lost Song, released last year. We’re surprised to witness bland environments, while Hollow Area had complex architecture and breathtaking sceneries. Disarray at experienced the framerate hiccups, being progressively fixed thanks to 5 updates. On boss fights, the drop is astonishing… A funny way to thank Vita players, whose enthusiasm two years ago made the once Vita exclusive Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment a global success.

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PS4

The result is of course a bit better on PS4. Textures are a lot sharper, especially in the town, but dungeons don’t feel really more impressive. Lightning effects and attack effects, on the other hand, look great. Character modeling show some progress but not enough : Premiere’s 3D model is still hideous, and graphical bugs are often spotted. No problem in motion though, 60 fps is guaranteed on the home console. Music is maybe the only department where Sword Art Online Hollow Realization performs well : symphonies are great and live up to the series, and field themes make the walk enjoyable. Welcome to SAO is so remarkable that you could stay in the menu for hours.

Sword Art Online Hollow Realization is the story of a publisher that makes AAA revenues while keeping making a AA game. Under-investment hurts this newest episode even more than last year, making it impossible to reach the greatness of the anime. The unacceptable loss of the new features brought by Lost Song leaves me crestfallen and the feeble technical side doesn’t help. A less-than-average Sword Art Online game that I can hardly recommend at full price.

Review – Sword Art Online Lost Song

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After the worldwide success of Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment, growing expectations surround this Sword Art Online Lost Song, coming full of new features and advanced experience. So I thought but…

Sword Art Online Lost Song is a direct sequel to Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment, like Fairy Dance follows Aincrad. But much unlike the anime, the transition between the two stories is too brief and awkward, without even the smallest explanation on how Strea and Phillia could have landed here. That is not the only problem regarding the narrative, because the scenario, fully original this time, is plain and dull from A to Z. The new characters Seven and Sumeragi don’t have that much screentime, let alone relevant background, and aren’t playable before the very end of the game (Seven even needing an update for that). Rain, who use double-sword skills like Kirito, joins the group around half of the game and is better integrated in the story. Cool thing since her fighting style is the most dynamic. The story develops very late and you come to know what’s really behind those three after hours of meaningless chit-chat. And even there, you don’t even remotely have a sense of epic like in Hollow Fragment. Sword Art Online Lost Song in fact suffers from the same issue as Fairy Dance, a steep drop of narrative pace and intensity.

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This adds boredom to a less than exciting exploration. Sword Art Online Lost Song might be an open world, this is nothing to discover in it : all objectives are marked on the mini-map and there is no side content other than basic hunting quests. The whole game rehashes the same progression frame that is dungeon → mid-boss → dungeon → boss without any kind of variation. There is nothing for the player to have a change of air. Dungeons as well as music start being a little more interesting in the last environment, which a lot darker with disorientating mazes. Worse, character stories warp you directly in the right place, whitout any need of searching, although you did have to look for a way in Hollow Fragment. We’re far, so far from the complexity and the scale of the fantastic Hollow Area of the previous game.

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You’ll have to make do with the numerous playable characters of this entry. Whereas you were stuck with Kirito all along in Hollow Fragment, this time you can play as nearly 20 characters like Shinon, Sakuya, Yûki and an elf coming from nowhere called Lux. Various combat styles are available depending on which weapon you choose, and are different enough to each other to ensure a nice variety of gameplay. The bow for example makes up for its weak attack power by enabling precise strikes so as target the enemy’s weak point more often. Attack and support magic also appear with this new universe and add a wide range of combat possibilities. Each weapon also has its own unique skills, including the famous Mother’s Rosario, vastly powerful but impossible to use before you reach a high number of MP!

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The battle system still seriously lacks polish. The camera is flawed and makes the fighting nightmarish in cramped environments. Locking targets is a pain as the lock would change target without notice. The switch has been completely ruined : it’s common to fail it despite hammering te right buttons, and it is nothing spectacular compared to Hollow Fragment… As he series jumps into ALO, aerial battles are introduced in Sword Art Online Lost Song. The controls are not bad but need a great deal training to regulate altitude and speed. Even with those additions, boss battles feel really underwhelming compared to the previous one, not being as difficult or crucial in the narrative.

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Graphically speaking, characters have modeled with cared (except Silica, don’t know why…) with a strangely big emphasis on the girls’ boobs, which let me wonder if the Team Ninja hadn’t infiltrated BandaiNamco at some point. Environments (nature and town) look sharper but the level of detail has severely dropped : they look poor and empty. Animation is downright terrible : movements are jerky and characters stiff, not to mention the abnormal frame rate drops. Sword Art Online Lost Song was clearly lead-developed for home consoles and PSVita just a had a lame port, despite having the most preorders in Japan… Monsters and bosses aren’t varied and you end up fighting the same ones over and over. This is not the level of investment you’d expect for a game whose predecessor sold more than half a million! Sure there are cool illustrations and fine humor, but expectations are not met. It lacks great cutscenes, great fights or just efficient direction like the series has always had. Dialogs between 2D models feel kinda old here…

I’m the first to be sorry about it, but Sword Art Online Lost Song does not take the series in the right direction. It’s cool to have all those new characters but the game in a whole loses nearly everything that made Hollow Fragment great. This sequel feel like a licensed game without fresh ideas, let’s hope that BandaiNamco will rethink it entirely for the next entry.

Review – Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment

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/!\ Caution! This review contains spoilers for the Sword Art Online anime /!\

Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment (SAOHF) is the second game inspired by Reki Kawahara’s light novel, but the first one to reach western shores. Don’t worry though, because you won’t miss anything : the first game, Sword Art Online Infinity Moment, is included in SAOHF, the latter being in fact an extension of the former.

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For those who are familiar with the chronology of SAO, Hollow Fragment starts when Aincrad ends. It’s at the same time an extension and an alternative ending to the first part of the anime. After beating Kayaba Akihiko at floor 76, the game doesn’t end. So Asuna, Silica, Lisbeth and all the SAO players have to climb to the 100th floor. Meanwhile, Kirito finds himself transported in some unknown area, called Hollow Area. Seconds after he arrives, he is attacked by a Player Killer called Philia. SAOHF is therefore composed of two distinct parts, Aincrad as we know it from the anime/LN and the Hollow Area especially thought and designed for this new Vita game.

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Before we go into the differences between them, let’s check the battle system. You always play as Kirito, while having in your party a girl (or a man, for that matters) controlled by the AI. The game mechanism is close to Xenoblade’s in the way there’s an auto-attack and cooling down when you use some skills. During battles, you have five palettes that you can switch between with L and R. Two are for giving instructions to your partner (retreat, defense, offensive, congrats, etc.), one regroups your attack skills and the last two your healing/support magic. Your partner will regularly ask you to perform certain actions (attack skill, switch, paralyze the enemy) by which both characters will launch a powerful joint attack or relay. You also have to watch a «risk» gauge : the higher, the less effective your normal attacks will be. You therefore have to ask your partner to «switch», which sends her/him on the front without cover, but recovers the risk.

While it seems attractive on the paper, the execution is not always good. The IA of the girls tend to ignore the situation time to time, stopping for no reason or ignoring your switchs. But the biggest concern about them is that they are fairly weak at the beginning of the game. For example, Kirito starts at level 100, Silica only at lvl 70. They naturally reach Kirito’s level as you progress in the game, but it causes lots of irritating game over in the first hours. Furthermore, most of the fights can be done with only pushing the circle button and waiting for some sign from your partner. You’ll have to wait to have at your side partners at respectable level and in front of you some really though enemy if you want to experience the thrill of battle like it was thought by the devs. Technically speaking, the game is not even average : the 3D are neither that good nor that bad, animations are kinda stiff, and the game has quite a few annoying frame rate drops and graphics bugs.

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Let’s examine Aincrad now. Climbing your way to the 100th floor feels a bit humdrum : at every floor you’ll have to complete unappealing sub-tasks while in search for the boss’s room, and then beat the boss itself. The level design is nothing special, the floors look like each other too much. True, it’s pretty large in total, but most of time you’ll be going from point A to point B. There is no proper «exploration» and puzzles are scarce.

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You can still spend a bit of time with your harem for a change, sitting at the café with whoever you want to have a little chat. That said, the dates are nothing exciting because there are precious few topics and the answers are completely random. There is no logic to infer like you would you do in a real dating sim.

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Fortunately, the game includes a lot of events really close to the anime in terms of humor and atmosphere. And when I say a lot, it’s nearly a dozen per floor, with sometimes sub-quests that will make you go back looking for special things in previous floors. Those are actually mini-stories detailing the situation between Kirito and the girls (in Asuna’s case, it’s about their marriage). Events are a LOT more focused on fan-service than the anime’s average, which you can easily figure out from the numerous beautiful and juicy illustrations. Let’s stress that SAOHF includes Leafa and Shinon (who don’t appear in Aincrad, Shinon having for example premiered recently in the second season airing right now), and two original characters, Philia and Strea. It’s quite a noticeable bonus for the fans of the series and adds some variety too.

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But SAOHF doesn’t stop here in variety. After a certain time, you will actually be able to pick any NPC as your partner! They will regularly ask you to come and fight alongside them to help raise their level. By doing this, you will gradually earn the trust of all the characters around you. Not only that, but this has also an influence on boss battle, because some NPCs will always join you in your attempts to clear a floor.

HA a

Even though I highly recommend to clear Aincrad first, nothing stops you from jumping in the Hollow Area right away, or even to do both parts in parallel for a change. SAOHF in not linear at all for that and you can manage your progression as you like. The Hollow Area is organized very differently from Aincrad : it’s a very large surface divided into smaller areas you to clear one after another. The comparison with Xenoblade is clear, «exploration» becomes the keyword. Navigating is pretty tricky as the rough map you have at your disposal is about as precise as a pirate’s treasure map, and just going trough a couple of zones takes hours. The game helps out a bit but not too much, which leaves you really searching your way forward and think like you should always do in a correct JRPG. Note that the environments are a lot more refined, and level design improves quite significantly too.

Zodiac a

Battles had become increasingly intense in the last stages of Aincrad, but here in the Hollow Area, they’re pure enjoyment. This is thanks to several things, the first being the thunderous boss battle theme that makes confrontations tremendously dynamic. The second thing is the perfectly balanced difficulty, which makes battles really rewarding. You have to be constantly swapping between palettes and item list, and at the same time having an eye your your partner’s situation. And believe me, the boss monsters’ design is something…

Philia

Third thing is the scenario. While the story in Aincrad only begins in the upper floors (and actually merely copies what happens in Fairy Dance), the story that takes place in the Hollow Area is full of original and clever ideas, with some moments easily matching the best parts of the anime. The cutscenes are of really good quality (as good as in Fire Emblem Awakening for instance) and really help building a fascinating atmosphere. The sad thing is that it’s quite shorter than Aincrad : I rushed it within 20 hours, while spending more than 50h to clear Aincrad. But I still have trophies to get and a bunch of sidequests left untouched, so I could probably spend a extra couple of hours in it if I hadn’t that big pile of games to finish and review ^^’

No doubt that Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment will provide some great entertainment to SAO fans. However, because of its various drawbacks, it might not be good enough for JRPG players at large.