One of the most ambitious JRPG’s ever created.
- Developer: Aquira
- Publisher: Bandai Namco
- Genre: Action JRPG
- Release Date: 10th July 2020
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
- Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
It’s always great to see game series grow and develop as the developers get a better hold of their capabilities, and that of the hardware platform they are working on. Previous Sword Art Online (SAO) games have always felt dated, even before their release date. Finally, though, here in Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris, it feels like Aquira have finally opened their wings, and for want of a better way of saying it, “gone for it” to try and create the SAO game fans have been craving for years.
After the game’s impressive visuals, gameplay, and sequence at the start, players soon find that this world they now inhabit is, frankly, enormous! It’s very easy to be overwhelmed at just how much of an insignificant speck on the map you are. When players realise how much of the game can be explored, that’s all they’ll want to do, owing in no small part to the fantastic artwork and world design.
Great things come at a cost!
The world is stunning to look at, and a far cry from the blocky, stale visuals of old. We are not talking Red Dead Redemption or Horizon Zero Dawn beauty here, but in terms of anime, the visuals are top-shelf. Forests and trees especially are rendered beautifully, with exquisite detail and excellent lighting, throwing beams of sunlight through the leaves. Rocks, paths and buildings also have a decent weathering and rendering to them, comprising a feast for the eyes.
With various locations to explore, such as caves, cliffs, water, towns, etc, the attention to detail in each goes far above what you might expect had you played the previous games. However, all this detail and beauty comes at a cost. The game has a constant and, at times, highly irritating issue involving slowing down of the frame rate.
Even when doing nothing more taxing to the engine than walking along a path, the frame rate frequently drops to around 20FPS. It’s not a game-breaking phenomenon, but it’s a constant annoyance. It’s possible to get used to the frame rate dropping when walking and exploring, but it’s especially irritating during combat sequences: When there is a lot of action on screen, the slow frame rates are particularly noticeable.
As irritating as the drop in frame rate is, this is easily forgotten with the main core of the game; the excellent combat, intriguing and interesting story and characters, and a whole wealth of content, to boot!
Without going into spoilers for those who have not seen the anime, the story here follows almost exactly the anime series of the same name. In fact, the game doesn’t really kick off in its entirety until you’ve played through the story of the anime and get 12 to 15 hours in. From there the story goes off in a new direction, thereby letting players experience the anime, but also giving them new content to enjoy.
Per the anime, the characters are key to the experience and enjoyment and are faithfully recreated with excellent voice acting from the same voice actors of the series. With no English audio, anyone who can’t speak Japanese is going to need to embrace the subtitles, and at times, you will need to take five and grab a drink, as sections of reading can go on for up to half an hour before their conclusion, and a save point presenting itself.
Once you arrive at this point of the game, the end of chapter 1, and around 12 to 15 hours in, the game takes on a new feel, almost Monster Hunter-like.
Once you’re well into the adventure, you can then access the game’s online co-op features. These missions can have a variety of themes, but it’s here the game tilts more toward a Monster Hunter MMO of go find a monster/s and kill them for a reward.
Of course, you don’t have to do these missions online, and can attempt the same missions in single-player, but with AI companions. The AI isn’t the best nor the most sensible of companions, but on the whole, they cope very well. However, you can easily switch mid-battle to any member of your party to change your own gameplay experience and make the other members of your party more useful.
There are many mission types, such as trials, collection of items, defeating a number of monsters etc, but for constant variety, online missions arrive that constantly change, too.
Combat, combat and more of that please.
One of the best aspects of the game is its combat. Unlike previous games where players instantly slash away with their melee weapons, there is a sprinkle of real-world physics here when it comes to swordplay. Players crouch, pause and then unleash powerful strikes. They wind down and pause when finishing a move. As they move around the battlefield, they also take a moment to slow down and gather themselves before continuing the fight. This leads to excellent, thought-provoking, tactical gameplay, as button mashing simply isn’t effective in getting you through.
Added to the simple attacks and blocks, are sword arts (the clue is in the title of the game), which add powerful attacks. These are applied by holding R1 and then pressing a button of your choice. Players can assign whichever art they want to apply, but the best two are actually the ones you start with.
Attacking builds up a gauge for powerful finisher moves, and it’s important to learn how to create combination attacks to more efficiently deal heavy damage and beat challenging foes.
There are a wealth of customisable options to change the appearance of your in-game avatar: from hairstyles and clothes to giving each character their own unique features.
Another, often underrated aspect of the game, is the excellent audio.
The background music whilst in general play serves to encourage the player to explore, and it is very relaxing to listen to even after hours of continuous play. Acoustics were minimal in caves or tunnels, but the combat noises were visceral and weighty. It really felt like a huge weapon was making contact with flesh with each swing of the sword, and the resulting ‘slunk’ of the hit.
The only real hitch in the audio was during some talking sections. Whilst the voice actors put in a great performance, the lip movement was simply going up and down, and missing the gravitas of the situation. However, like the majority of the game, it was still a very satisfying experience overall.
When you create a humongous, gorgeous world to explore, that contains not only fan service to the anime series, but hours worth of new content, it’s hard to be too critical of what they were trying to achieve here in SAO Alicization Lycoris. If the performance of the game is improved with a post-release patch, then the experience will be dramatically improved.
As it stands, with its gameplay and design quirks, it’s a very easy game to get lost in and enjoy for well over 100 hours, and the few annoyances it possesses fade away after time. It doesn’t hit all the right notes at times but it is willing to be different and challenge the status quo of expected open-world JRPG games. Overall it is an excellent way to experience life inside the world of the anime series.