A decent single-player RPG that plays like an MMO and caters heavily to its target audience.
If you aren’t familiar with or a fan of the Sword Art Online (SAO) light novels or anime, I can safely say that Hollow Realization probably isn’t for you. Much of the content and story of this action-RPG focuses on seeing recognizable and beloved characters interacting with one another. The combat isn’t bad, and there is a ton of content, but much of the narrative is told through dialogue interactions between characters, so some previous attachment to them is almost a precursor to enjoying the game.
The story of Hollow Realization centers around Kirito and his friends—Asuna, Leafa, Lisbeth, Klein, among others—entering a new game called “Sword Art: Origin,” which seems familiar to them since it reuses assets from “Sword Art Online,” the game they participated in three years prior. In Ainground, the world of Sword Art: Origin, Kirito and crew meet an NPC whom they name “Premiere,” who seems to be something of a blank slate. Her data doesn’t reveal much about who she is, and it’s the player’s job to find out more about Premiere as you journey through Hollow Realization’s five main areas.
Hollow Realization is actually the fourth entry in the series, but it’s the first to come to Switch. I was still able to enjoy the game and understand the story without playing the previous games, but I have watched much of the SAO anime and was able to recognize many of the characters. That said, Hollow Realization relies heavily on dialogue, and the lack of English voices means you are going to be doing a lot of reading if you want to follow the story. Although there are a smattering of animated and in-game cut-scenes, these were too few and far between, and it would have been nice for a greater part of the story to be delivered in more entertaining ways.
For those that are interested, there are dating sim elements as well, and these allow you to strengthen bonds with different characters, increasing their power. One particular element of the dating sim aspect can safely be ignored, but could still put some people off: upon reaching a strong enough bond, you can “bridal carry” a character into bed, which leads to a simple mini-game where you can move the camera around and give basic reactions to that character’s comments. The bed mini-game can lead to a loosely-animated cut-scene with your partner in a seductive pose, and the best thing I can say is that these scenes aren’t the most egregious things on the Switch. Ultimately, the dialogue in these scenes is pretty repetitive and inane anyways, so yeah. Buyer beware.
The combat feels similar to that of Ys VIII: The Lacrimosa of DANA, which came to Switch in 2018. You can equip a variety of different weapons such as swords, axes, and spears, and these have different special attacks that you can use by spending stamina points. I played through most of the game using the sword, and it’s easy to see how the game can be compared to an MMO when you have all of your skills and items listed in a toolbar in the bottom-middle of the screen. You can travel with up to three other party members, and they will fight fairly passively beside you until you create chain attacks and combos that can deal massive amounts of damage. It’s always satisfying to stun or weaken an enemy, and then unload a multi-hit combo on them, which drives up your damage multiplier. Of course, most of the basic enemies you encounter in the world don’t require a lot of skill, but there are frequent instances and special events in each area that task you with taking down unique or empowered monsters, and these do require more strategy than just jamming the attack button.
Each map within a given part of the world contains treasures and a teleport pad that you can unlock to send you back to town or to a particular dungeon on that map. However, these dungeons, and much of the Deluxe Edition DLC, are locked until you complete the main game. Traversing the environment can feel a little slow as enemy variety is lacking and the scenery is nothing to write home about. The music doesn’t really stand out either, so I played much of the second half of the game while listening to podcasts, which also made grinding more tolerable, too.
Speaking of grinding, I didn’t actually have to grind out levels or skills until the extremely challenging final boss. The best part of Hollow Realization is the four area bosses that take the form of raids where groups of NPCs join you to take on a large and imposing creature. These raids require extra strategy above and beyond what you might need elsewhere in the game. For example, you might have to take out the raid boss’ legs in order to knock it down so that you can begin to whittle down its sizeable health meter. Even though you can’t direct the NPCs around you, having them there makes these battles feel all the more epic.
The progression and side-quests merit a mention as well. There are numerous not-overly-simple systems for skill progression, equipment development, and character bonding. While you can get through much of the game with only a rudimentary knowledge of these systems and the combat in general, you will face a severe hurdle in the game’s final boss without either grinding to an incredibly high level or understanding better how to fight effectively. In terms of side-quests, there are extremely easy fetch quests that give meager rewards and seem to be repeatable, but there are also narrative-focused ones that can lead to cute character interactions. What’s funny is that you basically just watch and read these character-focused side-quests, and there is no real reward for doing so other than the scenes themselves.
There is easily over 100 hours of content in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, and that’s before you consider the online multiplayer component where you can play competitively or cooperatively with other players. Regardless, much of the content is either repetitive or forced reading, and the story isn’t going to win any awards. To enjoy this title, you have to want to spend more time with characters you already know. If you aren’t interested in Kirito and Asuna’s budding romance or Yui playing the dual-roles of both game guide and in-game daughter, you aren’t likely to derive a lot of entertainment from Hollow Realization. There are better action-RPGs on Switch, such as the aforementioned Ys VIII, but certainly none that give the freedom of exploring and interacting your favourite SAO personalities.