Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris (PS4) - ReviewThomas Froehlicher , posted on 17 August 2020 / 1,280 Views
With high awareness surrounding the series, a popular anime season airing right now, and favorable first contact at TGS 2019, what could possibly go wrong with Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris? Yet, nearly 90 hours after I started playing it, BandaiNamco's much anticipated action-RPG adaptation leaves a sour aftertaste in my mouth.
With Alicization Lycoris it had been announced that, for the first time in Sword Art Online release history, the story should strictly follow the TV show. Every Sword Art Online game before this had received an original scenario, but this time around the publisher wanted to take a different approach. Here's the first problem with that: while Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris does follow the first 24 episodes of the Alicization TV show, it actually changes course after that and develops its own plot, rather than adopting the second half of the TV series, 'War of the Underworld'. Kirito, the main protagonist of the series, awakes in an unknown virtual world called 'Underworld'. With no means of logging out, he takes up the various challenges of the Underworld, facing increasingly formidable foes in each chapter as well as making friends with other Alicization characters.
A lot of what happens in Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris is centered around a new heroine called Medina. She doesn't exist in the original novel and, even in the first part of the game, many extra scenes are added in order to introduce her and give her a relevant place in the already very large party of characters. This is quite welcome and definitely effective character development. Medina ends up being both a very strong and fun character to interact and play as. Amongst other things she's fond of cats and turns out to be an acute "tsundere" (which means she holds back her feelings for Kirito no matter what, while staying close to him anyway).
My complaint here is that this original part of the plot isn't very fascinating, unlike what's airing right now on TV. The events surrounding Medina after Kirito saves the Underworld the first time are far from intense and are badly paced too. Story progression ends up being really poor, as the main scenario is literally drowned in never-ending filler quests and far too much chatter. War of the Underworld, the canon story that viewers have been watching every week since last October (sans COVID-related delay), with its countless epic fights, numerous plot twists, and effective suspense, would have been from my point of view a much better option to conclude Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris with. As it is, with the Medina-focused scenario, barely anything happens over the course of dozens of hours and one inevitably gets bored.
There has been genuine effort to offer real time 3D cutscenes or CG movies. There are a lot more of these than in previous Sword Art Online games, and this does liven up the narrative experience. And yet Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris still mainly relies on 2D models for most of the dialogue. Six years of Sword Art Online games and several million sellers later, it still mostly plays like a visual novel. That's just plain disappointing given how standards have risen for JRPGs even in just the last couple of years. I think that significantly less writing (the text volume is enormous) and much more investment in visual and spectacular story-telling is needed here, even if the game is shorter as a result.
On the plus side, there are plenty of characters events. Some of them are really enjoyable too, shining the spotlight on allies who get little screentime on the TV show. You can, for example, spend some time with Sheyta, Fanatio, Rizel & Fizel and discover their backstories (Fanatio is absolutely terrific in this game). There are also quite a few sub-stories regarding Kirito's friends, including Shinon, Leafa, and Silica that you won't see anywhere else. Here again there are no cutscenes, but rather traditional illustrations as a reward. Unfortunately, these really feel like they've been toned down a lot. For those who remember Accel World vs Sword Art Online (a very good entry that I highly recommend), the pictures here are much less fun and risque. While there are a few exceptions, like the one above, many of them look blatantly ordinary.
The battle system is one aspect I had strong hopes for after the TGS demo. Those hopes were partly satisfied, partly shattered. The very good improvement compared to Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet is the large number of playable characters. Nearly every character you see in Alicization is playable, including very minor allies like Tieze and Ronie. It's also very easy to change the one you control during fights. This is wonderful for fans, all the more so because there are pretty models and motions for all of them (Asuna's 3D model is especially great). My only regret here is that characters don't have unique battle styles of their own, unlike in the anime. There are instead classes that correspond to the weapons used. In other words, characters are basically duplicates of one another in gameplay terms. For example, Fanatio and Asuna play exactly the same way because they both use the rapier, but in story canon they have very different powers, so this 'job' system feels really unnatural if you're fan of the series.
Every class of weapon has its own capabilities and a decent range of attack skills. You can add up to four characters to your party, each one having four attack skills. Those attacks can be connected in long chains by giving instructions to AI-controlled allies and the damage dealt will grow exponentially when you chain powerful skills together in a short period of time. It's pretty cool, but there's nothing more to it throughout the entire game. Magic spells are wonderfully animated and voiced, just like they are in the TV show, but they're also flatout ineffective! Auto-healing is widely over-effective (Final Fantasy IX all over again) and buffs don't make you feel like they make any difference. You just connect available skills from the very first fight to the very last one. As a result, combat really lacks real diversity of actions, camera work, and a strong fighting identity for key characters.
This kind of JRPG supposes that you play as a party and I hate the tendency in this game of constantly imposing duels on you where you must play as Kirito. Not only do you not necessarily have Kirito properly trained or equipped, but in a lone fight it's next to impossible to chain your weapon skills, meaning that these duels last for ages. It's absolutely tiring and I must admit that, while I almost always clear all of the games I review, I couldn't find the mental resources to go through the consecutive fights of the final part of Alicization Lycoris (which includes the worst of the aforementioned duels). The response time of commands is far too slow as well; you're supposed to dodge or back-step enemy attacks, but the latency and slow pace of battles make this feature essentially useless. There simply isn't the same level of dynamism you can experience in comparable action-RPGs like Tales of.
Exploration, however, sees solid improvements. Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris features a vast Xenoblade-like world divided in four big regions. The total surface is easily five times bigger than in Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet, and the level design makes it far more interesting as well. Instead of the flat and somewhat barren areas of previous games, Alicization Lycoris boasts a complex world made of diverse types of landscape and increased verticality. There are hilly or mountainous areas that you need to break through by observing your surroundings, small villages scattered here and there, statues to discover in order to power up your jobs, and more. It's really a beautiful world to wander around, not to mention that townspeople in every corner of the underworld have requests for you. Some of these are long-term quests that aren't limited to one area, but rather call for even deeper exploration to find out which kind of loot or trade you can find in distant places.
The intentions behind Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris were unmistakably good. The series has grown prettier than ever before, the world is amazingly large and compelling, the entire cast is playable, and the quest system is appealing. But all of those pleasantries can't make up for some disastrous balancing, a wobbly framerate, lacklustre battle system, and dreadful narrative. There's a solid base to work from but the development team ultimately failed to piece numerous promising elements together and produce a captivating adventure. A couple of patches have already been implemented and at least three more are due by mid-September in a (somewhat desperate) attempt to fix critical flaws, but stunningly microtransactions are fully open already and await the fan base's extra cash. No, BandaiNamco, this is not the way forward for Sword Art Online.
This review is based on a digital copy of Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris for the PS4
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