Games that are based on anime can be very hit or miss. Oftentimes, they rely on fan service to fans of the show that will simply fly over other people’s heads, and it can even be content that defines whether or not the game experience will be good or bad, especially if it’s heavily embedded into the core story.

The video games of Sword Art Online (I’ll abbreviate this one as SAO: HR from here on) has this in spades, but not just because it’s following one of the biggest anime series going at the moment, but also because the games have their own continuity, defying the plot past a certain point yet expecting you to know certain cues from the arcs that come later on. It requires a deep knowledge of the different characters to get anywhere, and while the game does provide you with some flashbacks to detail what happened in the last two games (Hollow Fragment and Lost Song) it still leaves you to recognize the relationships between the different characters.

First-timers into the SAO series are probably going to be confused about Kirito’s relationship with Asuna and Yui, so I’ll spoiler it here quickly; Kirito (real name Kazuto, who is 16) and Asuna (17) are lovers who are married in-game, and Yui is an AI from Aincrad who they adopted as their child. If that doesn’t click with you at all, consider another game; this series has long been criticized by some as a harem story.

So how is the gameplay then? Well, for those familiar with the games so far, it takes a turn back towards Hollow Fragment with its emulation of a pseudo-MMORPG interface, with attacking being governed by the Square/X and Triangle/Y buttons, and a pop-up ‘palette’ with all your special moves, abilities and potions at hand. Unlike most MMO’s however, you don’t just stand there and trade damage; the game requires you to keep on the move and look for cues to stay out of the way of incoming attacks. Kirito is not invincible this time around, and just standing still will lead to a quick KO, forcing your allies to help you back up. Teamwork feels more essential this time, made better by the increased party size (to four this time around) and the use of typical RPG roles such as Tank, Attacker, Healer, Buffer and so on. While I dislike the idea of locking certain roles behind different weapons, it does force you to try out different weapon and powers, and encourages you to be more than just a carbon copy of Kirito, especially as you can freely customize the look of your character at any point in the game. Not that you can just rip his style off from the start; Dual Wielding is not an early ability this time around.

Annoyingly, the level of ‘visual novel’ sections is once again pretty high. Even as someone who has watched the series, I would argue that these rarely add anything to the plot other than ‘all these women like Kirito, and Klein is a klutz’. It can get unbelievably grating to pay attention to, but thankfully they seem so far to be completely optional when they pop up in your event list. I haven’t had one stop me from proceeding through the world yet, but something tells me that some hidden goodies will be hidden behind the whole thing, and that’s a shame. I hate seeing the same character interactions played out over and over with slightly different dialogue, especially when they involve little gameplay.

The art style of the game is what you would expect from an anime game; it emulates the series pretty well, and the characters all look like you would expect. Even the random characters (that are meant to be real people in this story) can have a variance of appearances and their own style. As for the world itself, it is meant to be a world based off of the original story’s world of Aincrad (called Ainground this time) and it does well to emulate that style without just feeling like a copy-paste job from Hollow Fragment.

But overall, Hollow Realization does little to break the mould of what you expect out of an anime game. And this one is tough to enjoy if you haven’t already been enjoying the series (both anime and game) up to this point. It’s not bad; it’s just not worth it unless you’re a fan of Kirito and his harem.

++ Well-refined gameplay
+ Stays true to anime style
- Non-fans might struggle with plot
-- Visual Novel sections