Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is the PlayStation 4's third Sword Art Online title, and it's the best one yet. Boasting an original story that takes place after the events of the various animes, Hollow Realization takes the property's cast of teenage gamers and throws them into an entirely new adventure. Fans of the franchise will feel right at home, but even if you're not keen on the rather divisive source material, we reckon that there's still a lot of role-playing goodness on offer here.
Let's start off with the game's story and structure. Proceedings take place within a new virtual reality MMO named Sword Art Origin. As its name suggests, Sword Art Origin has a lot in common with Sword Art Online – the original MMO that protagonist Kirito and the gang found themselves trapped within. There are monsters to fight, vast and varied locations to explore, and huge boss enemies to overcome – but in Sword Art Origin, the game over screen doesn't result in the actual death of the player in the real world, as was the case in the twisted Sword Art Online.
As such, the plot is generally pleasant and light-hearted. Here we have Kirito simply enjoying the brand new MMO together with his friends, as they look to complete the game and discover its secrets. Unsurprisingly, friendship is at the forefront of the narrative, and plenty of chummy character dialogue gets that point across. Cutscenes mostly consist of nicely drawn 2D portraits talking with one another, but there are some fully animated scenes dropped in here and there, and they're a treat to watch.
On the surface, the plot may not seem all that engaging – after all, without any kind of notable risk, this is really just a story about a bunch of youngsters enjoying a fantasy RPG together. But get through the plodding opening hours, and things start to get more and more intriguing. The gang soon find themselves tangled up in a series of mysteries that unravel as they progress through the game, and slowly but surely, it becomes apparent that all is not what it seems.
It'll take quite a while to reach out and grab the truth, though. The story's a lengthy one, but not necessarily due to its density. Indeed, a lot of your time will be spent travelling from one quest marker to the next only to be told that you now have to head back to a previous location in order to trigger a new cutscene. This particular brand of padding can slow proceedings to a crawl, and it can often feel like an age has passed since you last stumbled across any meaningful narrative exposition.
Thankfully, exploring the title's vast, open areas is enough hold your attention in between stints of story. The world of Ainground is absolutely massive, and even though it's broken up into multiple environments connected by loading screens, it still manages to convey a real sense of scale. The locations themselves aren't especially well designed or all that detailed, but they all house their own events, enemies, and treasure chests. In short, there's a lot of free-form content to chew through if you're the adventurous type – and a lot of super powerful foes to challenge if you're feeling confident.
And that's without even mentioning the huge amount of side quests and optional tasks that are constantly available. Job boards in the game's hub area are perpetually providing you with any and every kind of fetch quest that you could possibly imagine. Not exactly the most exciting of excursions, but having a few extra objectives to complete while you're out chasing down more important quests keeps the coin and experience points flowing.
The aforementioned hub town is also where you'll be buying new equipment and building relationships with your party members. You can invite any of your allies to take a walk with you, and from there, you can buy them food, gift them items, or stop by a local landmark and flirt like crazy. There's a definite dating sim aspect to how it all works, and although it can seem a tad creepy at times, it's nice that you can get to know other characters at your own pace. What's more, it's just the sort of relaxing downtime that you might crave after hours of slaughtering monsters.
Speaking of which, there are a lot of monsters to slaughter. Every environment, big or small, is always teeming with creatures to put down, meaning that combat is a huge part of the release. Fast and quite satisfying, the battle system is a step up from previous titles. It's got simiar RPG elements to the ones found in Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment, but it's also primarily action-based, like the combat in Sword Art Online: Lost Song. You'll be pulling off combos, dodging attacks, and hammering your opponents with sword skills.
Playing as Kirito, you can have up to three other characters accompany you at any one time, and you can shout commands in the heat of the moment to give your team an advantage. If an enemy's stunned after your most recent barrage, for example, you can tell your party to link attacks together, creating devastating combo chains that are perfect for destroying tougher foes. At its most basic, Hollow Realization is something of a hack and slasher, but add in a large amount of sword techniques, fighting styles, and battle skills to master, each with their own properties, alongside a bunch of tactical options, and there's a wealth of strategic gameplay to unearth.
It's a bit of a shame, then, that your allies can be complete idiots at times. The artificial intelligence is pretty standard for the most part, but against particularly powerful enemies, your comrades have a nasty habit of slipping into a state of utter stupidity. Whether this is a poorly implemented form of artificial difficulty we can't quite say, but it's not uncommon to see members of your party get hit by attacks that they'd usually avoid with ease were they fighting against a lesser monster. It's not a deal-breaking issue since you can manually revive fallen allies and straight up tell them to jump away from danger when you see it coming, but it's frustrating nonetheless.
Fortunately, if you get really tired of babysitting you computer controller friends, you can always hop online and team up with other players. The co-operative elements have been expanded in Hollow Realization, allowing you to roam around areas from the single player side of things and take on combat-focused events with up to seven other buddies. And even if you don't have any pals to play with, you can draft in party members from the story – although that obviously doesn't solve the issue of their intermittent idiocy. In any case, co-op questing provides yet more bang for your buck, and with a good group of like-minded friends, grinding for high level loot and putting your combined skills to the test against even harder bosses can be heaps of fun.
An improperly paced plot and annoying artificial intelligence aside, Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization is the best Sword Art Online game on PS4. It's utterly packed with content, from the lengthy main campaign and tons of optional side quests all the way through to challenging co-op trials and even dating sim minigames. The combat's got a nice edge to it, too, and there's a lot to be said for the sense of adventure that exploring Ainground instils. For fans of the source material, this is a no-brainer, but even if you're not into the property's waifu wars, Hollow Realization still offers hours upon hours of RPG fun.