Sword Art Online:
I generally don't buy - or rent, as the case may be - licensed tie-in video games, for a host of reasons that includes 'they're usually terrible' and 'the things I like enough of that I want more of them spread over different mediums that they weren't designed are pretty few.' But I did rent Sword Art Online: Lost Song, because in a way, it's a perfect fit for a video game. It's an anime about a video game, of course no sensible video game company would pass that up.
Lost Song, a sequel to Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, follows a gang of SAO survivors in a new game, Alfheim Online. After a major content update adds a whole new area, Svart Alfheim, to the game, the group sets out to be the first ones to complete it. Their main rivals in this are Shamrock, a massive guild led by idol and VR scientists Seven, and her austere right-hand man Sumeragi, whose vastly superior numbers give them the edge over the group. All is not quite as it seems, however, as Seven and Sumeragi are conducting a potentially dangerous experiment, called the Cloud Brain.
So, the game is actually a pretty typical hack-n-slash RPG in a lot of ways. You've got light attacks, heavy attacks, jumping, dodging, blocking, magic, and special attacks in combat, and must combine them in various ways (with a stamina meter and a mana meter to contend with) in combat. Out of combat, you can pick up sidequests, change equipment, switch out who's in your party (with each party member having different stats and different equippable weapons), and buy a range of restorative and buffing items. Very standard stuff, and that's all right, actually: Not every game has to reinvent the wheel.
|Lovely opening theme, though.|
The game's one big innovation is the flying mechanic. While it comes off as a little overly complicated at first, it actually doesn't take long to get the hang of, and once you've gotten the knack for it you can quite happily soar around the overworld - there's an altitude limit which factors heavily into the storyline, but one of the best parts of the game involves that getting removed, allowing you to fly to the upper edge of the map. Flying is a lot of fun and never really gets any less fun, and the only times it's awkward is when you have an aerial boss battle against something a lot more agile than you are.
The AI, you see, can fly perfectly, and swoop down on you with laser accuracy, something you will never be able to do, because your mind is not built for working in three dimensions. You can use the lock-on system even when flying, but you shouldn't, because doing so utterly destroys your ability to fly straight and you end up just nudging at the ground with your head, trying and failing to turn. I'm not sure precisely why this happened, but I think it was a combination of camera-dependent controls and not being able to see where I was going.
Where the game starts to fall apart in terms of gameplay is how same-y everything is. There are really only about a dozen enemy types, recoloured and giving boosted stats for each area - this is true for most of the bosses as well, with only the end of area bosses being given unique designs; there are only three different dungeon designs, and for the first three out of four areas you'll be going through two of those again and again; the last area is basically just a slightly modified recolour of the first area, and so on.
|Here we see a party composed of some people on the first island.|
(It is nice, incidentally, that you can play any one of your twenty-something party. I tried playing as Kirito, Asuna, Yuuki, Klein, and Rain, and they all played distinctly differently. Less nice is that almost all of the female characters have 'swimsuit' and 'bath towel' costume options, which is just creepy. That's just incredibly creepy.)
Combined with the side quests being all of the 'kill x amount of y monsters' or 'collect x amount of y materials' type, and you end up with quite a repetitive game on your hands. It does feel very much like you're playing an MMO, in both a good way and a bad way.
Other games do this too, repeating dungeon decor and recolouring monsters, but Lost Song does it constantly, to the point that, by the end of the third area, I was bored. With a good plotline, I may have managed to rally my waning interest, but the plot isn't all that great, and it's fairly light on the ground: Most of the story consists of the party figuring out how to clear each area, with occasional plot beats regarding Seven and her Cloud Brain. Nobody is really personally invested in the plot, with the exception of late-joining party member Rain, and the whole thing seems a little phoned in, to be honest.
|It's nice to have Sinon in a game.|
(One interesting point about the story is that Lost Song apparently takes place in an AU, where almost all of the party - including Leafa and Sinon, both characters who were introduced after the SAO arc - are SAO survivors. This seems to be partly because Hollow Fragment wanted to have those characters in it, and partly because it allows the game writers to skip over the Fairy Dance and Phantom Bullet arcs. It's an interesting change, but not one that gets mentioned a lot.)
All in all, it's a game that could have done with a whole lot more effort put into it, but it's got a lot of nice ideas behind it, and it's worth a look if you're a fan of Sword Art Online. Probably not worth a look if you're not, though. Despite the game only recently coming out, a sequel, Hollow Realization has been announced, to come out midway through next year.