Ask most folks who watched the Sword Art Online anime series, and they’ll likely tell you that the show’s weaker moments usually coincided with events set in ALfheim Online (ALO), a fairy-themed virtual reality MMO that protagonist Kirito and his friends move to after the titular Sword Art Online game is shut down.
That sentiment’s generally held true throughout both of the anime’s seasons so far, marking ALO as a curse of sorts for the franchise’s narrative integrity. This puts Sword Art Online: Lost Song in a bit of a pickle since the whole damn thing is set exclusively within ALO. Can Sword Art Online‘s second game outing survive the bad omens and prove itself where its cousins in print and on TV stumbled?
Sword Art Online: Lost Song (PS4, PS3, PS Vita [reviewed])
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
MSRP: $39.99 (Vita), $59.99 (PS4)
Released: November 17, 2015 (NA), November 13, 2015 (EU), April 28, 2015 (SEA), March 26, 2015 (JP)
[Note: This review is based on the English-language version of Lost Song released in Southeast Asia on April 28, 2015. While there may be some differences between this version and the North American/EU ones, we expect the core experience will be highly similar, if not identical.]
Let’s not mince words: Like its predecessor Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, Lost Song is meant for existing fans of Sword Art Online (or at least of Hollow Fragment), and few else outside that sphere. In fact, Lost Song‘s main plot virtually ensures that only those invested Kirito and the gang’s adventures and interactions will find fulfillment from the game’s narrative.
But first, an aside: When it came to the anime and novels, the reason the ALO-set story arcs felt so weak was the overriding sense that the show was treading water. In contrast to original’s grand hook of “dying in the game means death for real”, the goal of Kirito playing ALO to search for Asuna carried not nearly as much weight. This was exacerbated in the second season, which followed up an excellent murder mystery set in Gun Gale Online with Kirito and his pals literally just doing a raid and some quests in ALO for a nice sword. It came to pass that when ALO was onscreen, Sword Art Online became less about exciting adventures and speculative future game design than essentially watching a bunch of nonexistent Let’s Players play a nonexistent game.
Lost Song falls afoul of ALO’s curse as well, with even its central story afflicted with the same sense of meandering and lack of stakes. Still placed in Hollow Fragment‘s alternative timeline (which saw the cast stuck in SAO for much longer than in the “canon”, and adding characters like Sinon under different circumstances), Lost Song sees Kirito and his posse moving to ALfheim Online right on time for the game to debut “Svart ALfheim”, its first expansion, consisting of five massive floating islands. Being the top-class gamers they are, the crew resolves to be the first to burn through it.
The quest for “world-first” (a motivation familiar to anyone who’s played an MMO) eventually brings them into conflict with Shamrock, a massive guild run by Seven, an idol/scientist (!) who’s taking the opportunity run a big social experiment within ALO. If the whole premise of Lost Song‘s plot sounds like the kind of inter-guild “drama” that plays out on forums and social media feeds for actual games today, one wouldn’t be too far off.
This puts the bulk of the game’s narrative appeal in the interactions between cast members new and old, told via entertaining Tales of-style vignettes, in-game events, and lengthy personal quests, some of which adapt storylines from the canon like the well-received “Mother’s Rosario” arc. In a nice touch, these events are mostly encountered semi-randomly and often without explicit prompting. A minor thing, to be sure, but one that channels the “live” qualities of MMO play, where impromptu encounters and stories grow even against otherwise static environs and content. Ultimately, though, those invested in seeing the characters of Sword Art Online again, sporting their ALO-styled redesigns and touting long-running in-jokes, will get their fill, but players seeking epic adventure or the kind of JRPG saga that ends with the heroes saving the world will come away disappointed.
It doesn’t help, either, that Lost Song doesn’t work very hard to introduce players to the characters themselves. In some ways that’s to be expected, seeing as this is a sequel to Hollow Fragment and mostly features the same faces (with a few more added), but curious folks who just want to know what the fuss over Sword Art Online is all about would be better served by picking up Re: Hollow Fragment (the “Director’s Cut” PS4 port of Hollow Fragment), or just watching the anime.
Narrative pitfalls aside, Lost Song is at least less of a slog to play, mechanically, bringing some new, entertaining gimmicks to the table. The combat system ditches the auto-attacks, casting times, and menus of Hollow Fragment for a straightforward, directly-controlled action-RPG setup.
Players can string together combos of light and heavy attacks, controlling any three of up to seventeen playable characters (they can even replace Kirito as the leader!), each wielding a number of weapons with signature skills and magic. Special moves and magic can be triggered by combining shoulder and face buttons. New attacks, spells, and passive effects can be unlocked by leveling up their weapon skills through use, and assigning them to preferred button combinations. A Union gauge fills up in battle, and when triggered enables devastating “Switch” attacks involving the whole party.
While simpler and arguably less deep than Hollow Fragment, the new system is more engaging and wastes less time. Most low-level foes can be dispatched in seconds, and fighting large bosses rewards mobility and effective use of buffs and debuffs to chop away at their massive, stacked health bars. AI companions fight and support effectively, and need little in the way of handholding unless severely under-leveled.
New gear can be found in the field, or bought, identified, and upgraded at Agil and Lisbeth’s shops while Side Quests and Extra Quests can be accepted at the hub town’s tavern. Side Quests usually fall into the “Kill X number of Y enemy” category, but Extra Quests usually pose an additional challenge, involving big takedowns of one or more boss-class foes for better rewards.
And then there’s the flying. Being a fairy-themed game, ALO plants wings on all its characters to enable long-distance travel and a level of verticality rarely embraced in the RPG space. Lost Song gladly obliges, featuring huge, open-world maps populated by roaming enemies and dotted with dungeons at varying altitudes. Players can switch from running on the ground to hovering to racing through the air with a flick of the D-pad. While a bit fiddly at first, this mobility quickly becomes second nature and makes a genuine difference when fighting outdoors, as aerial dashes can be used to set up powerful charging attacks, and hovering up high can put safe distances between players and ground-bound foes.
Fighting indoors, however, is more of a chore, as most dungeons prohibit flying and often take place against large numbers of enemies spawning in ways that cause the combat camera and lock-on function to freak out unpleasantly. Worse still, the dungeons themselves are so bland and unimaginative that I initially mistook them for being procedurally generated. Having players visit these dungeons in order to progress just hammers home the apathetic level design.
And there’s even multiplayer, making Lost Song the only Sword Art Online game that’s actually, well, online. Local and online play sessions are available, including a PVP versus mode, and team battles against roided-out versions of the single-player bosses. It’s an alright option to have, but there’s little compelling reason to engage with it. Players can use custom characters, but the customization options are so limited that anything created just resembles the generic NPC characters littering the hub world.
For better or worse, Sword Art Online: Lost Song replicates both the highs and lows of its predecessors. Existing fans of the series will find plenty to like in the further adventures of Kirito and his MMO pals, despite a dull main story. The revamped mechanics also support a steady drip-feed of Sword Art Online fan service mainly by not getting in the way too much.
Unfortunately, Lost Song stumbles hardest when trying to engage players outside that sphere of pre-existing investment, and in some ways ends up an even less suitable jumping-off point for newbies who want to get in on enjoying the franchise. My advice to those folks would be to watch the anime or try out Hollow Fragment first. If they’re still jonesing for some more of this motley crew of irredeemable MMO nerds when they’re done, then Lost Song will be music to their ears.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game acquired by the reviewer.]