Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization


Review by · December 18, 2016

The Sword Art Online games don’t have the best track record. Like many games based on productions from other mediums, SAO hasn’t made the transition from anime to game with resounding success. Not ready to back down, Hollow Realization is Aquaria’s third attempt to perfect their single-player MMORPG formula.

If you’ve watched any of the anime or played any of the games, you likely know that Sword Art Online is the name of a fictional virtual reality MMORPG. In the original story, all the players were locked into the game and discovered that if they died in the game then they also died in real life. The only way to escape was by defeating the game’s final boss.

Sounds exciting, right? Except… that danger doesn’t exist in Hollow Realization. The new virtual world of Ainground is just a regular VR game. And this is Hollow Realization’s core problem: there is absolutely no motivation to push forward in the game. Kirito and his harem of stereotypes adventure far and wide, but often with no discernable purpose. Hollow Realization’s story centres on the plight of a bugged NPC whom, for reasons that totally defy any logic, the heroes become attached to and want to try to protect/save/insert other JRPG cliché here. It’s incredibly difficult to care about the fate of an NPC in a game inside a game (NPCeption) and it’s made more frustrating by how much Kirito and friends seem to without any motivation to do so. Have you ever played a video game where, upon seeing an NPC only gives one gold as a quest reward, immediately thought: “This NPC must be bugged, so I must try to help it find a purpose in life because it’s almost like a real person?” This is the entire driving point behind Hollow Realization’s plot and it is impossible to take seriously, even as it deepens and develops later on.

A riveting cast of characters might have dug the plot out of its hole, but none are found among Hollow Realization’s cast. All the major female characters from the anime and previous games are present, including Asuna, Leefa, Phillia, Yui and nearly a dozen more. I have only seen some of the SAO anime and played none of the previous games, but they seem to accurately represent what the characters are like in the source materials. For some Sword Art Online enthusiasts, this is likely to be a treat as you can interact with the girls, build up their affections, walk with them around town, hold their hands and, if you play your cards right, even relax in bed with them. Never mind that Asuna is Kirito’s in-game wife, all the ladies (plus Klein) are fair game.

If you do enjoy spending time with the girls, then you can delve into the affection system. Each potential party member has a collection of emotions that boost their powers in battle as your friendship deepens. The game does an exceptionally poor job of explaining how the system (along with many other mechanics) works though. Each character has their own side-stories and events too, but they’re fairly simplistic and generally lack depth. Hollow Realization also misses a massive opportunity to turn some of the character events into side-quests, relegating them to dialogue instead.

While the story stumbles, the gameplay at least makes it up to the batting plate. Hollow Realization does a respectable job of translating an MMO experience to a single-player adventure. There’s open, inter-connected areas to explore, tons of enemies to loot, a plethora of equipment to find and bosses to defeat. You can take three additional party members with you, including any named NPC around town if you pester them enough. There’s a skill tree for each weapon to level up, kill x number of these and find x number of those quests to complete, and even an MMO-style action bar to assign items and skills to. SAO looks and feels the part of an MMO, but it also highlights exactly why they’re usually a ‘massively-multiplayer’ experience: it’s boring to go alone. Take out the excitement of a dynamic world, the intense rush of PvP, seasonal events, skilled players, guilds, fun communities, and those special unscripted moments and you’re left with running from point A to B, hacking through enemies using the same skills, and listening to inspiring dialogue from your party like “let’s have a picnic” and “aren’t those new accessories cute?”

The fast-paced combat is at least a little more exciting, even if most encounters can be approached with largely the same strategy and skills. At the end of each major location there’s a more difficult raid boss to fight where you team up with additional AI party members. You can target different parts of a raid boss’ body and getting out of the way of their most powerful attacks requires carefully observing their movements. If later bosses didn’t take almost an hour to defeat and the AI didn’t constantly die then they’d be quite enjoyable. The AI of party members is frustratingly slow though, and they often fail to get out of the way or won’t start attacking until long after Kirito does. In raid bosses, this can be fatal. You can issue simple commands like attack particular targets or dodge, but they’re often slow to respond and most have a cooldown before they can be used again.

For Kirito, there’s a solid selection of weapon types to use that have their own skill trees. I primarily outfitted him with a 1h sword and had a range of damage-dealing and tanking abilities to learn. It’s not always clear what each ability does since descriptions are a combination of numbers and abbreviations, but testing them out gives a decent indication. Sadly, it’s hard to have more than a few easily accessible for use at a time. Abilities can be assigned to the square or circle buttons on the controller, but with odd combinations. For example, you can assign four different skills to circle, but one requires you to double-tap forward first, while another relies on rotating the control stick and then pressing circle. This often moved me into a non-optimal position (since moving the control stick also makes Kirito run) or wasn’t the easiest to pull off accurately in high-pressure battles. You can also assign abilities to slots on the action bar, but that requires pressing the touchpad to open it and then moving along the bar to select the skills; far too slow in the middle of a battle. Ultimately, the controls are too cumbersome to fully utilise all skills available, which is a shame.

Hollow Realization may not be a big budget game, but it does deliver some beautiful environments to wander around: sprawling forests, murky bogs and underground ruins. Game areas are absolutely massive though, so it can be quite a chore to walk from one side of one to the other. Fortunately, there’s a good fast travel system in place that lets you instantly teleport to a zone where you’ve activated the warp, but I still found the walking speed far too slow. There’s not much to do other than killing enemies though, and exploration is unneeded as all treasures are marked on the mini-map by default. Still, the combination of light and bright colours makes daytime an enjoyable time to run beneath tree canopies or splash by the side of a lake. The main story alone will likely take you well over 50 hours to complete, and you can expect to double that if you want to see all Hollow Realization has to offer. The music does a serviceable job of accompanying the adventure, even if no track is a standout. There are no English voices, but the Japanese actors do a good job with the lacklustre script they have to work with.

My time with Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization can be best summed up with a short story from one Saturday morning. I had just finished eating breakfast and wanted to wind down from my week of work and do something fun. I had Hollow Realization to play, but then I remembered that there was also a load of laundry to put out on the line. I chose the load of laundry. In the words of my wife: “you might like Sword Art Online if you like cute anime girls,” but I think you still might prefer to just go put out the washing instead.

This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer’s opinion of the game or its final score.


Pretty scenery, tons of depth, captures the essence of an MMO.


Boring to play, inane dialogue, uninteresting story and characters, simplistic combat, poorly explained mechanics, limited controls, unrewarding exploration.

Bottom Line

Skip it unless you're a diehard Sword Art Online fan.

Overall Score 51
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Andrew Barker

Andrew Barker

Andrew was an absolute workhorse during his many years with RPGFan. A contributor to both news and reviews, he would go on to overhaul and completely run our news department – in fact, he was the reason we expanded news INTO a "department."