Sword Art Online is as meta as things get. It started life as a light novel which was set inside of a VRMMORPG itself set in the not so distant future. Then it was turned into a manga, and later it was adapted as an anime and video games. In fact there's already been a few video games based on SAO. This one, Hollow Realization, however, may be a better starting point for those unfamiliar with the other examples of the fiction as it is an origins story of sorts, and it's an entirely new story that has been developed under the supervision of the creator of the original novels, Reki Kawahara.
A strange new (or is it an old?) server for Sword Art Origins pops up and Kirito is invited into the beta test. He is sent mysterious messages by a girl called Premiere. A seemingly ordinary quest takes a strange turn and the adventure that is Hollow Realization is on its way.
"One of Hollow Realization's themes is AI," says producer Yosuke Futami. "And AI is one of the key features in the game. When you are playing with other AI characters, those AI characters will follow you and find out how you play, how you behave in the game, they'll learn a lot and behave just how you did. So when you play online in multiplayer with up to three other players you will find their AI characters also join in the battle and you will find out how they behave, how they act during battle."
There was a slightly awkward moment during the presentation of the game during Bandai Namco's recent European RPG Tour as Yosuke Futami introduced pretty much the entire supporting cast (made up of female characters) by referring to them as either cute, or in the case of Sinon, as "very cool... and cute". It was said in joking manner, and perhaps that's simply how it should be taken. Regardless of how you feel about the idea of being surrounded by a bunch of cute AI females, the main character Kirito can be replaced with a character of your own creation and design, male or female, as you'd expect to in any MMORPG. For fans of the fiction it makes sense to stick with Kirito, but for those who are new to the fiction perhaps it makes more sense to create a character of your own. Either way it's entirely your choice.
That first thing that struck us as odd when playing this game is how it simulates the MMORPG experience. At its core this is a pretty straight forward co-operative action-RPG, but the interface and the way you use abilities is more akin to an MMORPG. There's also the rather odd sensation of not just running around with your own group, but also seeing an AI controlled group running around taking out mobs. The menus are also very much designed in a way that brings MMOs to mind, and as such they come across as something that would belong on a PC. It feels a bit wrong, yet it is purposeful and this is the experience the developer wants to create. It takes a little getting used to.
Many of the special abilities boost the other players in your group and much of the gameplay revolves around setting up these synergies and taking advantage of them. During the demo we felt a bit overpowered in terms of the opposition we faced, so it didn't take much to down the enemies and it didn't require any advanced combination with our group (the other characters were controlled by AI as this was an offline demo). It'll be interesting to see how the difficulty scales as the game progresses.
Hollow Realization is coming out on both PS4 and PS Vita, an odd combination for what comes across as a rather ambitious RPG. Producer Yosuke Futami also admits that recreating the visuals on PS Vita has been a challenge, as PS4 has been the lead platform. He did mention, however, that given the success of the previous titles on the PS Vita platform there is a sense of gratitude for their support and they are working hard to make sure Vita players get an experience that is as close to the PS4 as possible. We only got to see and try the PS4 version firsthand and it's hard to imagine how the developers will manage to fit all of this onto the handheld.
To complete the meta experience that is Sword Art Online, will there ever be a VRMMORPG based on the fiction? Yosuke Futami is hopeful and says the team talks about the possibility of this all the time, but obviously it's still something that's far off in the future.