Sword Art Online: Lost Song offers fun, but repetitive, action RPG gameplay
After Japan has had access to the game for months, North American players finally get the latest iteration of the Sword Art Online saga. With the anime series recently invading Hulu, it's likely this will be the first entry for many RPG fans finally giving the franchise a shot.
In the third major title of the series, hero/teenage gamer Kirito and his sisters move away from the game's namesake to a different online world called ALfhiem Online, which has just received a major update ready to be explored. Of course he'll come across many other gamers in the course of his adventures, most of whom are anime fairy catgirls.
An Existential Crisis
As a sequel to a game where the protagonist is trapped inside a deadly MMO, Lost Song inadvertently raises some serious existential questions. I haven't seen all of the anime, so maybe some of this is covered there, but the premise of Lost Song left me scratching my head.
After you've been stuck in a massively multiplayer nightmare that really kills you when your online persona dies, why would you go back to another one? It's unintentional, but the idea speaks to some serious mental health issues, as well as questions of addiction in the MMO community. If you were locked in a VR version of World of Warcraft that really killed people and you then subsequently escaped, would you seriously move on to Guild Wars next week?
There's also a weird meta aspect to consider here, since you're playing a group of teenage MMO enthusiasts playing an online game. I feel like they've taken us down a rabbit hole they didn't intend. Imagine a game where you played kids playing EverQuest. If you'd think it might be difficult to connect with those characters or really get drawn into their story, you'd be right.
Sword Art Online: Lost Song Combat
While in ALfheim Online, Kirito and his crew get to explore MMO-inspired areas and grind through a whole lot of enemies, with the brunt of the gameplay making it essentially an action game with heavy RPG elements.
Unlike in a turn-based RPG, there's total freedom of movement during combat as you block attacks and then use spells and sword skills. A stamina meter balances it all out, forcing you to dodge and move away from enemies for short periods while waiting for your stamina to recover. It's a good time for a while, although the system does get repetitive with clear patterns emerging in evading and using specific attacks to take down each kind of enemy.
You get a team of three different characters to take with you on any given quest to delve into a dungeon or explore a floating island. The overall cast of characters is quite large, so there's a good deal of variety on that front. Kirito can also focus on three different builds: one-handed weapons, two-handed weapons, or dual-wielding.
What sets Lost Song apart is the ability to fly around the world map straight from the start – a power that doesn't usually get unlocked in RPGs until later stages. Much of the game is built around this ability, with combat taking place on the ground and in the air. The flying dragon bosses are actually one of the high points, breaking up the repetitive battle structure. The other high point is the inclusion of multiplayer, where you can battle directly against other players.
Sword Art Online: Lost Song Story
If you couldn't tell from the screenshots, the graphics aren't amazing. But that also means the game can essentially be the same on the PS3, PS4, and PS Vita, and they do have an “old school” nostalgic feel.
The draw of RPGs usually isn't the graphics but the story, and unfortunately that isn't quite up to snuff either. There are some amusing moments in the interplay between the players as they discuss being in a game. “You have that 'must level' look in your eyes!” is one such instance that had me laughing. But in other cases, the dialog really falls flat.
Kids talking about how excited they are to get a rare item drop after beating a quest isn't exactly engaging, and sort of just makes you wonder why aren't playing a real MMO with your friends so you can have those conversations instead.
Over time, the game brings up backstory of what came before (particularly helpful if you don't already know all about the Sword Art Online series), swapping into the real world for some story-driven dialog segments. Again bringing up the divide between games and reality, here you get to see the players in their “real life” versions as opposed to their fan-service avatars.
Lost Song is sort of stuck in an odd in-between state as it simulates an MMO, but is actually a single-player action game. It has the repetitive nature of a MMORPG but lacks the elements that make those games worth playing. On the single player side, it doesn't have a strong story or imminently memorable characters.
The combat is alright, but lacks the more interesting combos and options available games that dive more fully into the action side, like Dante's Inferno or Darksiders.
That being said, if you love PS2 era RPGs or are a fanatic for the Sword Art Online universe, then sure -- give it a shot. Otherwise there's plenty of more engaging, less repetitive games out there.