If there’s any television show that should be a snap to make into an epic JRPG it’s the popular anime Sword Art Online. The entire is premise about being trapped in a video game, right? The story, characters, themes, and everything else about it is steeped in gamer culture. Being a fanboy of the series who has written extensively about it, when it was announced that the games were going to be coming to a PlayStation 4 near me, I knew that I’d be playing them at my earliest convenience.
That convenience didn’t come as soon as I’d hoped, but maybe that was for the better, as I’d nearly preordered Sword Art Online: Lost Song, but decided against it due to a little thing called Fallout 4 coming out at the same time. I’d have to say I made a good call because having finally stepped into the world of one of my favorite anime series for myself, I wasn’t exactly greeted with the level of quality I’d hoped for.
While the source material rewrote the book on modern cyberpunk and fantasy, the games seem happy to phone it in while avoiding giving the gamer the things they would almost invariably want from a video game based on Sword Art Online. With two games released in the West so far and a third coming this year, maybe it’s time to look at what’s working and -more importantly- what isn’t and dream that someday fans will get the game they deserve. Here are the four biggest problems keeping us from Nerve Gear Nirvana.
The Player Character
Right off the bat in Sword Art Online: Re: Hollow Fragment, the game invites the player to create their own character. This is a video game based on a fictional MMORPG, so character creation should obviously be the very first order of business, right? No surprise there. Well… maybe one. You see, once gameplay begins it becomes abundantly clear that you are not your character. You are Kirito, SAO’s earnestly bland protagonist.
So why bother? Your short, chubby, dark-skinned, heterochromatic, long-haired redhead warrior heroine appears in Kirito’s place in-game, but is replaced with the tall, lanky, short brunette-haired, brown-eyed, fair-skinned male protagonist in all story aspects, which is just weird and pulls you right out of any sense of immersion or investment concerning your character. I actually went to my room early on, found a desk where you can change your character’s appearance, and returned my avatar to the default. It was just too irritating and distracting to have such a massive discrepancy between cutscenes and gameplay. The sequel, Lost Song, failed to change this nonsense, and it looks like the next game won’t either.
When anybody watches the anime or reads the manga and imagined a video game based on them, I’m fairly certain they are all dreaming of creating their own character from the ground up and exploring the world of SAO on their own terms, having their own adventures. Such a potentially massive world and with great concepts shouldn’t be chained to one character’s experiences. It not only limits the story, but it makes me as a fan much less likely to make use of the variety of weapons available because Kirito always uses his trademark swords. It’d feel weird to give him a spear or sword and shield combo or a bow, as much as I kind of want to try them out as a gamer.
Add in the fact that the writing in the games is worlds below the source material and the story starts to feel like bad fan fiction involving great characters that had so much more depth in their original forms. The decision to focus on vapid versions of established characters helps create a mediocre experience that’s hamstrung by writers doing a crap job trying to write characters they clearly don’t get. Why not let just let players create their own character and make a new cast of supporting characters stuck inside of SAO and let the primary cast make a few special appearances instead?
This is where it goes from odd to plain damn weird. Kirito is married to Asuna. So why put harem dating simulation elements in the game when they are forcing you to play as a monogamous hero? And why is his sister one of the romance options? The content in Hollow Fragment was kept fairly vague in terms of actual sex (sorry, no glopping), but the fact that you are clearly dating the other girls and can hold their hands in front of Asuna and carry them into your bedroom for a snuggle time cutscene among other things is strange to say the least.
The mechanics themselves are irritating, bordering on moronic. I love the idea of hanging out with the other characters while contextually conversing with them and building relationships as you take in the sights around town together, but the conversations are literally gibberish and your options to respond to each remark are “Keep it up!” and “That’s it!” represented by “Nice!” and “…”, respectively, with one being right and one wrong. As lame as it is confusing. And I’m not even going to get into the bizarre and random flow of the inane dialogue you’re responding to.
But it’s still a great idea, even if the execution was truly horrible and out of place in Kirito’s story. But rather than improve on this germ of a good idea, they scrapped the whole thing for Lost Song. Maybe it’s for the better considering the juvenile nature of the writing and dedication to the established characters, but I think if they thought it through a little better and let players create their own character, a robust romance system would make a great addition to a future game.
So how best to do combat in a game based on an action-packed anime based around a fictional MMORPG? The first two games use a hybrid real-time turn-based system favored by classic games like World of Warcraft and Knights of the Old Republic, which sounds perfect, but is surprisingly dull in execution.
First off, the enemies are extremely plentiful and weak, weak, weak so you can button mash or auto-attack your way through most any encounter, at least for a good chunk of the game. Being Kirito means being OP as hell, which equals boring combat. At its most complicated, you just cycle through activating your sword skills (which are sorely lacking in variety) and waiting for the cooldown to finish to activate them each again. The most exciting thing offered by fighting in Hollow Fragment was the ability to compliment your partner’s performance, making them more likely to favor the actions you praise them for. Lost Song offered airborne combat, which is cool, but hardly a world-beating innovation. Beyond these little gimmicks, fighting is pretty much just grinding as a means to an end when it should be the funnest part of the game.
In addition to more of a challenge and better realized and defined combat techniques, what these games need more than anything else is larger scale. Hollow Fragment had parties of two, the sequel only increased this by one, and the next game appears to have four member parties and fully real time combat. Boss battles gather larger parties, but it’s mostly just for show. Even with each game slowly increasing the party size, with the actual combat being so bland the key to making future games awesome will be stronger challenges and a strategy component.
Hollow Fragment hinted at guild management, but the player never got to do any of it. But what if you could? Recruiting NPC’s and building multiple parties to assign to gather materials and intel across the virtual world while choosing, training, and equipping your own party members en route to less plentiful but more challenging enemy encounters would go a long way to adding a sense of intrigue and satisfaction to the combat. Watching your party execute your strategies as you direct them and chip in with your own abilities would be way more fun than just watching your cooldown meters as you effortlessly mow down hordes of enemies that respawn almost instantly and can’t even threaten you to complete endless arbitrary “kill x number of y enemies” quests.
The Central Theme
What sets Sword Art Online as a series apart from most anime featuring invincible sword-swinging heroes is its dedication to its themes and social messages. It’s one of the only works out there that treats geek lifestyles as something other than a joke to be snickered at and presents literally living in a video game as a possible legitimate alternative to the real world for some people. I mean, life isn’t ever fair, but what if it could be?
In video games there are rules that must be obeyed and conscious balancing so that everybody has a fair shot. And with virtual reality right around the corner, how long until we get a game like SAO where you could potentially live, love, and even sleep inside of a video game world you understand with like-minded people rather than deal with the unpredictable horrors of socializing in the real world?
I have yet to see or hear of any of these elements presented meaningfully in the games. Although for the continuation of the Aincrad arc in Hollow Fragment it might not make sense, I feel like the ideal SAO game would have an Assassin’s Creed element where the player is able to log in and out of the game to accomplish things irl as well as in-game too, similar to the second season. Seeing the real lives of the characters and contrasting their struggles and real life personalities with their in-game avatars would be a fantastic device for exploring the concepts of the source material using the very medium it represents.
Let’s go back to the whole “romancing your own sister” thing for a second. In the first season, Kirito joins up with Leafa to rescue Asuna and there’s clear romantic tension between the two of them, but it isn’t until later that he realizes that Leafa is actually his own sister Sugu’s avatar. In the show, this was another interesting commentary on the nature and possible pitfalls of virtual life, but in Hollow Fragment, it was just lame and icky. Kirito and Leafa recognize each other are instantly in that story, but it didn’t stop the writers from deciding a cliche “whoops, I fell and landed on your boobs” groping scene was the best way to handle that situation. Every story aspect of a great SAO game should point back at the main theme of comparing and contrasting people’s real and virtual lives. Anything else comes off as just a pile of juvenile harem tropes.
This year will see the release of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, which will take gamers back to a rebuilt version of Aincrad. It’s hard to say how that’s going to turn out, but hopefully future games with the property can expand the experience a bit beyond hack and slashing and really dig into what make SAO such a special and unique property instead of making it just like every halfass shonen anime property out there.