Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online is an intellectual property that has spanned books, multiple anime seasons and a few games, and has just made its debut in the cinemas with Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale. To celebrate the film’s release, we’re going to look back at its two latest video game entries, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization and Sword Art Online: Memory Defrag, and examine how they complement the experience while also making it accessible to new fans.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization was released in November 2016 on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita, while Sword Art Online: Memory Defrag came out in Western countries earlier this year on all mobile platforms. The games were unveiled to little fanfare; it appears as though BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment enjoys keeping things quiet.
Hollow Realisation keeps to the series’ tradition of finding a simple premise and filling it to the brim with so many dispensable characters that it puts the bin outside my local Salvation Army to shame. However, there is a very key point of difference between the narratives of the games and the anime.
The story is so slowly told that it’s like trying to drink a glass of water by absorbing it through your toes. It delivers its narrative through a few cut-scenes and a metric shit load of character dialog panels, but that works in the player’s favour as most of the dialog consists of non-sequiturs and very little narrative. So, you can pretty much guess what’s going on if you’re familiar with Sword Art Online’s story, despite the narrative being completely new and original. It does pick up around the 40-hour mark when circumstance is finally established and you begin to see plot points twist — like a contortionist sloth. The narrative really cuts the slow exposition and you start to become engrossed in the story — which is always a welcome change from monotony.
Thankfully, the show delivers its narrative quite fluidly: the pacing is great, it keeps to the point, and you can get into it. If you’re not already a fan of the series, however, you’re going to a tough time getting attached to any of the gamers’ characters (this analysis holds true strictly for Hollow Realisation; Memory Defrag doesn’t have much of a story to submerge yourself in). Picture your grandmother informing you that you need to go outside and bat a bug to death with your blue and red national pride thong (flip-flop, don’t get the wrong idea), but first, she has to tell you how she met your grandfather — that’s what Hollow Realisation’s story is like.
Although its story is pieced together at the same speed a snail would connect a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle using one of those children’s grabby-robot-arm toys, Hollow Realisation’s gameplay and mechanics are something to behold. Daunting and admirable are two good words for it. The fighting is complex at times but simplistic when you want it to be; that might sound like an odd analysis, but it’s a concept executed with a number of aspects all functioning together, like an old-timey clock with all of its cogs operating together; or a cheese board where all of the cheese, wine, and muscatel slice all unite in one eye-watering, tongue tingling, appetite arousing explosion of joy.
Basically, you and your team of three others are going to be killing monsters for the entire game, but the manner in which you dispense of these otherworldly tenants varies depending on your level compared to the monster/s. It’s very much like other JRPGs in its inclusion of real-time strategy in the combat, but Hollow Realisation throws in a few ounces of spice to this established gameplay function.
There’s no quick switch to a combat screen where you’re tethered to the spot, and you don’t have to control your allies; they happily and quite competently handle themselves, right up until you’re fighting something larger than life itself at which point you’re able to issue orders that can help you win the battle. You have to coordinate your attacks and defence, dodge attacks and have your companions do the same, and ultimately combine your skills to deliver an express package of punches to the enemy. It’s all quite similar to the show: when protagonist Kirito battles a single pig, he fights it alone, but when he’s up against a big boss, his teammates fight alongside him and invariably help him kick the big bastard’s ass quite convincingly.
The similarities between the games and the show are very nice. Hollow Realisation truly brings out the sensation of what it would be like to be in the world of Sword Art Online — even down to the relationships between the characters. The gravity of the interactions between the characters is lost in Memory Defrag, but ever-present in Hollow Realisation in a manner that surprised me greatly.
Since Memory Defrag is a mobile game, the story is told solely through a slideshow of dialog panels that are entirely skippable — this is the only interaction the characters ever have (understandably so). Hollow Realisation, however, takes the idea of seeing two fictional characters having a chat and blows it the fuck out of the pond. We’re used to just laying witness to two animated figures blink at each other whilst words float on by, but Hollow Realisation developer Aquria improved on that model with one that is so simple and quirky that it’s charming: players receive conversation prompts that trigger a first-person sequence where you’re able to either nod or shake your head at what your conversational partner’s got to say. You can also “make a move on them” (the game’s words, not mine), but just like in real life you’re not going to find too much success unless the character’s in the mood for it.
But wait, there’s more! Once you get them in a certain mood, you can hold hands with them, walk them back to your room, carry them in a bridal carry and lay them on your bed so you can engage in “pillow talk” (also a direct quote from the game). As soon as you’ve done this a few times, you’ll level up your relationship. It’s somewhat insane that someone thought of this and executed it pretty darn well. Amazing side-note: you can do this with male characters, the game doesn’t discriminate; love is love, people!
With a three-chapter DLC expansion, Shrine Maiden of the Abyss on the way, I strongly recommend Hollow Realisation to any fan of the series who’s still unsure about the game — and that’s coming from someone who’s using a PlayStation Vita to play it, so you know it’s good.
Now, we come to Sword Art Online: Memory Defrag, a title that developer GREE, Inc. built very well and very cleverly by taking Hollow Realisation’s splendid combat mechanics and adapting them into a mobile game. It’s refreshing and refined for a freemium game. Players are required to time their parries and dodges perfectly, which means that you really have to be careful with your attacks because if you’re halfway through a combo animation and a different enemy strikes, you’re done.Memory Defrag also sees players fighting alongside two companions, switching between their own character and those companions at any stage and almost-always fighting alongside at least one companion. Every character has unique skills and you can equip items and unlock particular skill trees to enhance them — it really is a bare-bones version of Hollow Realisation; with the exception of not having a real storyline.
It’s also a global multiplayer title, allowing players to complete the story with friends and even to use their characters to back you up when they’re not around to play them. The abundance of quests and levels to complete is huge. I got it on release day, and I haven’t even completed the first season because the presence of a gently rolled out difficulty curve has forced me to grind. Grinding is the essence of both the Sword Art Online games — those sweet, precious levels. They’re all that matter.
Like many mobile titles these days, Memory Defrag also uses loot drops to entice you to come back, with three equipment slots available for your characters (armour, class-specific weapons, and accessories) compared to Hollow Realisation’s ten — not that it’s all about size, right? Despite that, with new quests being added daily and new updates being rolled out quite frequently, it’s definitely worth checking out, even if you’re not a Sword Art Online fan already; it’s free, it’s fun, and you don’t have to follow a story that only makes sense to fans of the series. Hell, you really don’t even need to be emotionally invested in the characters to enjoy the game, which can’t really be said for Hollow Realisation, so this is definitely the one to pick up if you’re looking for your introduction into the series.
If you’re not already a Sword Art Online fan like me, I strongly recommend that you jump in; it’s ever so much fun, and it’s always expanding, not just through the anime series, but through these fantastic games as well. If you’re a JRPG lover — or a lover of RPGs in general — who’s looking for something new to sink your teeth into, this is the series for you, and with Ordinal Scale currently sitting pretty at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and a third season of the anime in the works, there is so very much to look forward to. Sword Art Online truly is the gift that keeps on giving, and it’s sure to be just that for a long, long time to come.