Review: Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • PC

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (47.33 GB)
Release Date: July 10, 2020
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Bandai Namco
Original MSRP: $59.99 (USD)
ESRB Rating: T
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

My history with the Sword Art Online franchise is pretty up and down. There are sections of the anime that I enjoy, but also quite a few aspects and arcs that I really don’t. I had fun with the first Vita game, but the games can be clunky and bloated at times too.

I still watch the anime though, which is, as of this writing, airing a third season, titled Sword Art Online: Alicization. This game is, as the name might imply, an adaptation of that season. For those not familiar, the anime itself is based on books, which is why a game adaptation is already ready for a show still airing. Also, this arc of SAO has been airing on and off since 2018.

Alicization Lycoris sees series protagonist Kirito waking up in the virtual world of Underworld with no clue how or why he is there. He soon meets Eugeo and quickly deduces that Eugeo is neither another player nor an NPC. After becoming fast friends and helping Eugeo complete his calling, the two decide to travel to the capital of the human world, with the goal of joining a knightly order to find Eugeo’s childhood friend Alice.

As those who are familiar with the anime may not be able to tell from that synopsis, Alicization Lycoris diverges a bit from the anime’s story, much like most of the other SAO games. Initially the changes are minor: skipping anything before Kirito entered Underworld permanently, and any perspective besides Kirito’s (namely Asuna’s story). This does make the early part of the story much more of a mystery if you haven’t seen the show, as they don’t explain anything for quite a while into the game.

The game follows the Kirito’s story in the anime pretty closely up until around episode twenty-three of season three. There’s an additional subplot featuring a new character (of course a female character who slowly comes to admire Kirito), but otherwise the only story differences are in service of the game being a game, i.e., adding in side quests or moving things to make the game more interesting to the player. After the first chapter (of the game) though, it quickly and suddenly diverges from the anime story.

The first SAO game, Hollow Realization also diverged from the source material at a specific point. But where that game started at the point where it diverged, this one goes back a little ways first. I get the feeling the developers wanted to start at the divergence (it actually kind of does, as the first thing you do is fight the chapter one final boss before flashing back to Kirito entering Underworld), but decided they wanted to set up the supporting cast for this arc of the story.

The problem is that they did so as a half step. As noted previously, the story only tells Kirito’s story, plus it somehow feels both rushed and drawn out, taking nearly fourteen hours to catch up to where they decided to put their own spin on it. Those fourteen hours are often a chore, as they bounce between exposition dumps of a character explaining the world, actual story advancement, and some very short playable missions (with the ability to do a little side stuff if inclined).

For those first fourteen hours, the story bits aren’t even consistently handled. Some key moments are shown, fully animated with dialogue. A few fights are simply described by onlookers, proclaiming things like “they’re pushing the foe back!” while we don’t get to see the fight. And some parts are quickly summarized. Sadly, one of the worst plot parts of this arc is one of the fully animated sections: a story beat where two male characters attempt to force themselves on two tied-up female characters. Fortunately, it’s not quite as explicit as in the anime, but that’s one story beat I wish they would have changed.

It’s just odd because it feels like there’s an implicit “we don’t need to do too much here because you already know the story” for the first chapter. But at the same time, why bother including it if it’ll be so half-assed. As of this writing, I’m through chapter three and the story continues to be uneven after that, but at least feels more like a video game story. There’s even some good scenes, mostly centered around an amnesiac character exploring their place in the world and their relationship with people who knew them before they lost their memories. Though a lot of the new story is “go here and kill X because it’s bad.”, I could probably nitpick inconsistencies in the story for a whole review though, so I’ll move on now to the actual gameplay.

Gameplay:
Much like the previous Sword Art Online games, Alicization Lycoris is an action RPG so everything is real-time. Thanks to some UI changes, it initially seemed like they had moved away a bit from the other sword-based games (Hollow Realization and Lost Song), but as I got more used to the game, I began to feel more like the previous games.

That said, it somehow feels a little worse than I remember. Movement is a little on the sluggish side, and the controls aren’t always as snappy and responsive as I would hope. Certain actions even seem to buffer in weird ways; for example, several times I would try to block/parry, press too late and have the parry come out several seconds later, just after I had recovered from being hit.

Still, I was able to get used to the way the game played after a few hours and it’s mostly serviceable, however it still continues to feel bloated. There are a lot of systems tossed in, both during combat and after, and there’s a lot to track. On top of that, some of the systems in the game are slowly introduced throughout chapter one, but a bunch are dropped in suddenly at the start of chapter two. No joke, you get half a dozen tutorials all back to back the second you hit the start of the chapter.

That leaves a lot to juggle and some just seemed more interesting or useful than others. Sword skills, for example, were very helpful, and while it took some learning, I figured out how to work them well. On the other hand the sacred arts (the magic system in the game/anime) felt very underwhelming and I’ve largely ignored them. There are some things that seem like they’re cool ideas, such as the ability to adjust your AI companion’s behavior (which is nice because the AI is trash otherwise), but there’s just so much, some of it is easy to miss, and many of the systems are poorly explained in-game. I had to go digging on forums to learn how to get anything out of the AI adjustment mechanic.

To add to the poorly explained mechanics, enemies have pretty large health bars, so it’s kind of necessary to at least try to figure out most of these systems if you don’t want fights to take forever. The game also appears to scale enemies to the player’s level, which is a mechanic I personally don’t care for. Half the fun of RPGs is getting high level and then demolishing lower level mobs, which is gone when they’re always at or above your level. Some quests and specific enemies seem to have level locked enemies, so at least there’s that.

Another mainstay of SAO games is here too. There’s a small ‘dating’ game thrown in, where you can sit down with your favorite characters. It’s still a weak addition, as you just pick from a few actions, get a single small line from your date, then pick another one. However, I do like that you can date any character regardless of your own character’s gender. Oh, yeah, you can customize your main character too, though again it’s locked until chapter two, and all cut scenes still show your character as Kirito.

I guess the overall feeling though is that there’s just too much and much of it feels half-baked. Or at the very least not explained well and not explored mechanically. That said, I still mostly enjoyed the game once I did learn the systems. Or at the very least I didn’t hate my time with the game, even with the mediocre story and mechanics, I still found myself coming back without much complaining.

The “more is better” fallacy seems to extend even beyond gameplay systems. After the overly restrictive and linear first chapter, the game opens up drastically with suddenly a ton of side missions and optional content. However, none of them are all that engaging, with a lot of fetch quests or “kill X” quests. Even the main story starts to meander with lengthy tangents seemingly in place mostly to extend the game time.

I’ve also had some technical issues, though of course they’ve been patching the game so your mileage may vary. Glitches like not being able to switch back to the main character or talk to NPCs have hit me a few times and I’ve had a few areas of poor performance. Load times are pretty bad when switching areas or sometimes even just during cutscenes.

One part of the game I liked the most was the 1v1 duels that are sprinkled throughout. These can feel a little more tactical and tense, as you have to work to break through the foe’s defense and make sure they don’t do the same. The enemy AI isn’t the greatest, and near the end of chapter one you hit a ton of duels back-to-back which made them feel a little less special, but the duels were still something I mostly enjoyed.

Visuals:
I can tell that there was a decent effort put into the graphics in the game. Which is why it’s disappointing that I don’t think they work. Environments look good enough, with some nice distance views and a decent amount of fidelity. However, to me the characters just don’t fully mesh with the backgrounds. Kirito and co seem semi-cel-shaded while the environments border on realistic. It just doesn’t quite work for me.

Outside of that, there’s some of the usual quirks of these mid-budget anime games. Animations in battle look fine, but cutscenes (when using the 3D models) can be stilted and uninteresting. For example, near the end of chapter 3 there was a very long cutscene and I noticed that there was almost no character movement: the camera would pan around but characters rarely changed pose except between scene cuts. For me, it just made an already uninteresting plot line even less interesting. Fortunately, not all scenes are quite this bad.

That said, the few times the game does pull out the (what appear to be) pre-rendered cutscenes, they can look pretty cool. They once again don’t mesh well with the rest of the game, as it’s easy to see the differences in models and locations, but they do at least look cool.

Audio:
As with SAO games past, there is only Japanese VO in Alicization Lycoris. And as one might expect from such a large game, many of the side quests and optional content don’t have full voice overs, just representative lines or occasionally nothing at all. The voices do sound like the same cast as the anime, so there is continuity there for those who watch the subtitled version.

Music is pretty mixed. Some of them are decent, but many songs are used too frequently and I grew bored of them. I often feel like that’s a problem with these incredibly long RPGs, but SAO does seem on the worse side of things. After a dozen hours in the main town, for example, I’ve become pretty tired of the song that plays there.

Online/Multiplayer:
Again, despite the name Sword Art Online, the game is not really an online game. There is multiplayer, and it’s a lot more streamlined compared to some of the previous offerings. It’s pretty easy to open up your own game to allow others to join and to find others to join. The biggest hurdle to the multiplayer is you can’t do it at all until chapter two. Yeah, I’m still going on about that, but I find it so strange how much of the game is locked away during chapter one.

One nice feature I like is that you can open up your game for online players while still playing the game, meaning you don’t have to sit in a room somewhere waiting. However, the down side is that you can only have a single AI ally while waiting, which can make some fights more difficult. The game also isn’t very good at dropping new players near the host player, so a few times I joined a game and had to trek to where the host was on the mission.

There are even a few other nice online features. Other players’ custom characters can apparently show up in your game as wayfarers. They can even be recruited and romanced, which is certainly… odd. The custom AI records that you make can also be shared online and there are some daily network missions to tackle which allow you to open everyone’s favorite item: loot boxes. There is a shop which is supposed to allow players to get around the loot boxes, but even a month after launch it still isn’t open.

Conclusion:
Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris is a textbook definition of an uneven game. It starts off forcing players to relive ~twenty-four episodes of the anime, which seems good for non-fans, but it skips enough to not be very comprehensive to non-fans. Then it veers off suddenly to become a unique story, I guess for the fans of the show to get something new?

And while the game has a lot of stuff in it, both in mechanics and content, I can’t say anything was engrossing enough to really draw me in. Things like customizing the AI only serve to show how bad the AI is without it and the long, tedious missions undermine any fun from the combat. Even the 1v1 battles I liked the most become tiresome when you do a whole bunch back-to-back in the story.

I may sound a bit too negative, as I did have some fun with the game. Exploring the world of Underworld is enjoyable, especially doing so concurrently with the anime based in that location. Personally I don’t think I’m drawn in enough to finish the game (also because I have other games in the ol’ backlog), but I didn’t entirely hate the time I spent on Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris. Ultimately, I think I would hesitantly recommend it to hardcore SAO fans, especially any who particularly enjoy a long game to sink their teeth into, but it might come with some caveats along the way.

Score:

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* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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