This Week in Games - Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization

by Dustin Bailey,
We're closing in on the end of the holiday release season, though we've still got a couple of huge games to go—one of which is out this week! Yes, folks, the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII is nearly among us, and while I think I will surely die if I see the term “chocobros” one more time, I'm looking forward to this buddy road trip movie of an RPG.

Hey, all those Switch rumors from last week? There's more. We'll get to one in the proper news section below, but here's a far weirder story first: Ubisoft is reportedly developing a Rabbids/Mario crossover RPG for launch day release on the Switch. The French company is said to be working on the game under Nintendo's watchful eye, and will feature the Mushroom Kingdom being invaded by a raving force of rabbit-like rabbids. This is one of the weirder rumors we've heard yet, but Ubisoft does love a console launch, and it wouldn't be the first time Nintendo's collaborated with a third-party on a bizarre crossover.

Review Impressions: Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization

The concept of a video game about a fictional MMO from an anime media empire isn't exactly a novel concept, since it was well-explored by .hack over a decade ago. This isn't the first time Sword Art Online has been the recipient of a game adaptation either. It's too obvious. When you've got a wildly popular franchise built on the concept of gaming, how could you not adapt it to the digital realm? Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization blends gameplay elements from previous series spin-offs into something that's not quite an action game and not quite an MMO simulator.

The story picks up a few years after the events of the SAO's first two story arcs, inside a new VRMMORPG called Sword Art: Origin. Based on data from the original game, the ashes of Aincrad have been rebuilt into a new realm called Ainground, and it's day one of the beta. Kirito and his friends, apparently not bearing the permanent psychological scars of life and death struggles inside this virtual realm, are there at the dawn of the beta test in the new Town of Beginnings.

If you haven't watched SAO in a while, don't worry—the lengthy visual novel segments will helpfully exposit almost every relevant plot detail and summarize each and every character arc in a pretty exhaustive fashion. At a not-insignificant number of hours into the game, it's not like those character arcs have evolved to any particular degree, either. This is very much a “the cast of SAO just like you remember them” sort of scenario, with any kind of interpersonal drama basically unheard of. Everyone's super-happy, and that's cool, but the hour count gets well into the double digits without any conflict to drive the story forward. What plot is there in the early hours focuses on a mysterious NPC called Premiere, who keeps leading hapless players on a quest that seems to go nowhere.

Why that's an issue is unclear, since there really aren't any meaningful quests to go on in this virtual world. The driving force of exploration in the early hours is just Kirito saying “let's go to that castle in the distance.” The game—that is, the fictional game of Sword Art: Origin—is left without much of a story to make room for the “real” characters of SAO, but those aren't particularly substantial, either. The in-game quests that do exist feature such MMO classics as “collect five of X” or “kill ten of Y.”

It's lucky, then, that there's a unique set of gameplay mechanics to drive the adventure. You take direct control of Kirito, who has a basic attack that can combo into more advanced abilities. Skill with your weapon of choice increases as you use it, granting skill points that you can use to unlock those more powerful options. Those abilities can be activated from an MMO-style hotbar or mapped to certain analog-plus-button inputs, like double-tapping forward and hitting triangle, or rotating the stick and tapping circle. It generally works well enough, but in the heat of battle it can be difficult to measure your inputs and ensure that you're using exactly the ability you want.

The rest of your party is made up of the human players of SAO. That initially just includes Kirito's circle of friends, like Asuna, Klein, and Sinon, but any NPC “player” character wandering the world can eventually join your party if you befriend them with gifts and conversation. Forming a party is just a matter of opening your friends list and adding them to the group, and since they're theoretically playing the game when they're not with you, they'll maintain a level roughly equivalent to yours. You can't directly command your party, but you can issue more general orders like “dodge,” “heal,” or “draw aggro.” The most important of those orders is “use skill,” which starts a series of chain attacks that see you and your allies combining strikes for impressive damage. While you don't have direct control of how your friends level and use their skills, you can give a thumbs up when they display traits like “kind,” “fiery,” or “sexy,” which will encourage them to use specific types of skills.

The general flow of combat sees you timing your attacks to avoid enemy strikes and dodging out of the way of big AOE effects, dashing back in for follow-up strikes that, when properly executed, can leave bad guys stunned and ready for even more damage. The nuance sees you learning how your party interacts, what skills are best in what situations, and how to time your strikes for maximum effect. It's an entertaining combat system, and one with a lot of permutations for skill and customizability. It better be, since it's what you'll have to latch onto for the hours of grinding and exploration you'll need to do in the huge spaces between story beats.

I wish I could stop there, calling this a competent RPG lacking in plot but trading in solid combat. Unfortunately, I've been playing the Vita version, which is a very, very bad port. Looking at footage of the PlayStation 4 version it seems to run smoothly, so these issues here are just for the portable rendition. But it looks like a jaggy, rough-hewn mess on Vita, and the lack of graphical fidelity is a minor complaint when put against the abysmal performance.

This isn't a “60FPS or bust” denigration of a standard framerate—the game is so choppy that it often becomes tough to play, with button presses not registering as they should and input lag so pronounced as to make combat far more difficult than it otherwise would be. It also gets worse as you play, and I had one particularly lengthy session culminate in a boss battle where the framerate was clearly in the single digits. Rebooting the system got it back into “playable, but bad” status, but it was still far, far less than ideal. Did I mention the pop-in? This game has the most bizarre pop-in problems I've ever seen, with things visibly appearing at a relative distance, disappearing as you get close, and reappearing when you're right on top of them. That's annoying when you're talking about NPCs in town, but it's a real problem when you're in the field and can't see enemies until you're already at engagement distance.

If there's one thing I'd like you to take away from this review, it is “don't play the Vita version of this game.” Don't read the above problems as the game being “ugly,” read them as it being “barely playable.” This is a terrible version of a decent game. Play it on PS4. Not Vita. If you can only play it on Vita, don't play it at all. This is my service to you. Don't do it.

NEWS

POKEMON SUN AND MOON SELL INFINITE COPIES, SWITCH VERSION MAYBE ON THE WAY

If it seems like the latest Pokémon games are bigger deals than they have been in a very long time, don't worry. It's not just you. Sun and Moon sold nearly two million copies in their first three days in Japan, and over here GameStop is reporting that they've been the best performing games for the company all year, with the biggest pre-order numbers they've seen in half a decade. Maybe you can attribute that to some formula-shaking gameplay changes, or maybe to the runaway success of Pokémon Go, but the end result remains the same—Sun and Moon are doing very, very well.

And Nintendo's looking to capitalize on that success even further, if reports coming out of Eurogamer are to be believed. Once again, this generation is to receive a third version with expanded features, but this time it's set to be on an entirely different console. Codenamed Pokémon Stars, it reportedly was being developed in tandem with the 3DS editions (similar to how all third entries in the franchise have been developed), but using separate, high-resolution art. Despite the graphical upgrades, it will feature the same map, locations, and general structure as the 3DS games.

This would be the first main series Pokémon game on a home console, though given the nature of the Switch the idea of a “home console” now has a very different meaning. Pokémon Colosseum this is not. Nintendo's certainly holding back the announcement to avoid cannibalizing Sun and Moon sales, but given the success they've had so far I doubt there's much cause for concern. With Pokémon hype at the highest it's been since the late 90s, a Switch version next year would provide a powerful mainstream argument for the new console.

SQUARE APOLOGIZES FOR BAD GAME WITH SERIES OF DISS TRACKS

Square Enix might be responsible for the two biggest franchises in the world of JRPGs, but that doesn't mean they haven't produced a few clunkers. See, for example, Samurai Rising, a smartphone game built on the job system and promising a classic action RPG experience. It failed to meet expectations—quite spectacularly, in fact. So spectacularly that Squeenix hired a rapper to diss their own game as an apology.

By way of Siliconera, here's a translation of that verse from guest rapper Ace. “Square Enix is about the big masterpieces, but Samurai Rising was just a big letdown. What are you going to do about it, Mr. Boss? What's with this rarity of a kusoge?” Ouch, Ace, not holding back. “The damage to our expectations isn't away. I'm not letting go until I know your solution, so why don't we hear your word right here and right now?”

To this, a Square representative shouts “I'm very sorry!” Here's hoping we don't hear any rap inspired by the next big Square release.

DETAILS ON FINAL FANTASY XV'S DAY ONE PATCH

Final Fantasy XV was delayed to allow time for some last minute spit and polish before it went gold, but don't think you're getting out of a day one patch. Nosiree, you'll get an update when you stick the disc in your system and you'll like it, by gum. In addition to the expected bug fixes and enhancements, a number of fairly significant features are in the update.

Scenes from Kingsglaive and the Omen trailer are being integrated into the game. A greater number of fish and recipes are coming along with a gallery of your culinary discoveries. Photos you take on the adventure can now be uploaded to social media. (Joy!) The camera system is getting improvements. A new ability tree is making Wait Mode more viable for turn-based battlers. And a “Beast Whistle” will let you call monsters to battle.

Director Hajime Tabata also addressed leaked copies of the game and the early footage that's been leaking onto the internet, telling prospective players to be “careful,” and asking spoiler-armed fans to act with “consideration.” Oh, Tabata. Do you even understand how the internet works?

FINAL FANTASY XV
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 4 / Xbox One
Release Date: November 29
MSRP: $59.99

There's one very big release this week, and when I say “big” I mean “monstrous.” After starting development over a decade ago as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, the game now known as Final Fantasy XV is about to be upon us. What's happened in the time since work began on this massive project? The launches of the Wii, PS3, 3DS, Vita, PS4, Xbox One, and the entire life of the Wii U. The dramatic decline of Japanese game development. Almost the entire Obama administration. Children born after the start of the project will be able to play the game next week.

Such a protracted development rarely bodes well for a game's quality—Duke Nukem Forever, I'm looking at you—but Final Fantasy XV looks pretty cool. Folks have played substantial parts of it, and have come away impressed. There is, however, a very real possibility that this is the last game of such sweeping scale that will ever come out of Square Enix.

Unless you've managed to evade the monster of marketing so far, even dodging the tie-in anime and feature film, you should already know that the heart of Final Fantasy XV is the story of a royal boy band taking a fantastical road trip in a really fancy car. There's action, politics, and romance. Betrayals and deceit. You know, all the makings of a proper JRPG soap opera.

You'll have control only of lead character Noctis, leading him into battle with a customizable array of weapons and abilities. Other party members will follow your lead or listen to specific commands, but otherwise act on their own. The Ascension Grid build on the template of the Sphere Grid, allowing you to build your entire party through massive, branching skill trees.

I'm hoping I'll have enough time with the game to deliver some meaningful impressions in next week's column. In any case, we'll soon find out if the wait has been worthwhile.

STEINS;GATE 0
Developer: 5pb.
Publisher: PQube
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PlayStation Vita
Release Date: November 29
MSRP: $59.99 / $39.99

Steins;Gate 0 will mark the first time we see a spinoff of the wildly popular visual novel localized into English—not surprising, since the original VN only got an official Western release last year. If you're not already familiar with Steins;Gate, you should probably go play that first game, or watch its anime adaptation. It follows a group of time-traveling students who develop the tech to change the past.

This new game follows one of the original story's alternate endings and, well, I'm not digging too deeply into spoilers because I still need to play the first one. It takes inspiration from existing light novels and drama CDs to spin an original story, and based on early reviews it seems to be an truly excellent follow-up.


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