ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Sword Art Online: Lost Song - An Ode to SAO (Review)

It's a bit hard to believe that what began as a formerly Japan-exclusive low-budget PSP title has now become an annualized multi-platform series for all regions, but here we are: Sword Art Online is just that popular, whether or not you are of the opinion that it deserves to be. And truth be told, following a painfully mediocre second anime season and two pretty 'meh' ports of the pretty 'meh' game that was Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, it was something of a mystery as to how Bandai Namco felt it could guarantee indefinitely more titles moving forward. As a result, the recently-released Sword Art Online: Lost Song for the Playstation 4 and PS Vita almost flew under my radar.


Instead, now I'm the one doing the flying, and honestly enjoying every minute of it.


For yes, Sword Art Online: Lost Song is all about flying. It's rare for videogames to allow this level of freedom of movement, but it's here in this game, and simply put, it's fantastic. The technical obstacles of such a mechanic are fairly obvious, but rather than remind you of them, Lost Song leaves you wondering why videogames aren't about flying more often. It's clear that developer ArtDink put a ton of care into making sure flying both feels good and works well, and not only did they succeed, but actually made flying the perfect example of what makes Lost Song enjoyable at all: everything about it just works.

Flying aside, there's not a whole lot here that you haven't done before in other games, and trust me, you'll be doing a lot of it over and over again in this one. Fly around the world map, enter dungeons, find boss, defeat boss, move on to next world map, rinse and repeat. But it's the fluidity of function that pervades every mechanic that keeps the game fun even hours into the experience. Gone is the awkward and poorly fleshed-out battle system of Hollow Fragment, gracing us instead with a much more streamlined, more action-oriented system that certainly doesn't bother to reinvent the wheel, but neither does it let anything go to waste as did the previous game. While you can only take two party members with you at any given time, there are roughly 20 playable characters in total offering a wide range of play styles through different weapon classes and configurations of both physical and magical abilities. Each character is limited to two or three weapon types, but this is actually a good thing in that it adds to the overall strategy of the game and the pleasure of trying out new characters and their respective play styles. Unfortunately your reserve party doesn't level up together with your active party though, so if you have any intention of logging in to multiplayer matches you'll probably want to stick to just your three favorites for the campaign.

Yes, you heard correctly: Sword Art Online: Lost Song is actually, well, online this time—to some degree, at least. Players across the globe can team up to take on special quests together or compete in PvP matches both of the deathmatch and 1v1 duel varieties, but it's still a far cry from being an actual MMORPG. On the bright side, online activities are completely region-free, though this does put North American players at a disadvantage since the rest of the world has already been leveling up for some time. Suffice it to say I got destroyed in my first match at level 175 (starting from level 100), but oh well—that's just online gaming for you. Fortunately leveling is appropriately fast and offers a wealth of treasures to bring back to town and convert or enhance into usable gear. Fetch and hunt quests also offer additional incentive to grind—and when it's an excuse to fly around, why not? Flight mastery is an essential skill in non-dungeon combat, and learning to use it well makes even menial tasks feel fresh and fun. Certain areas and even dungeons themselves disallow flight altogether which is kind of a bummer, but on the positive side being subject to the laws of gravity forces you to rely on other mechanics to take down bosses and try out new weapons instead of getting too comfortable with one set of skills. And considering almost all dungeons use the same graphic assets as all other dungeons this sort of added spice is absolutely necessary. You might start to feel like you're running the same quest over and over—and that's because you really are—but the game always manages to change things up just enough to not only be forgivable, but actually quite a lot of fun.

There's no doubt Sword Art Online: Lost Song lacks the clout to compete with the multiplayer prowess of Star Wars: Battlefront or the depth of Fallout 4, but despite such heavy release competition it still addresses a crowd neither more mainstream game can: Sword Art Online fans. While it probably won't draw in newcomers to the series, Lost Song scratches the JRPG itch in a dry spell for the genre and does it well enough to be worth any Sword Art Online fan's time. It may be less of an MMO simulator than its predecessor, but the tradeoff is well worth it. And hey, if you ever forget that you're supposed to be playing an MMO, just leave it to the story to remind you.


The premise of Sword Art Online: Lost Song's plot is simple: clear the game. No, really: the only reason you or any of the playable characters care about reaching the finish line reach the finish line. Sure, a few kinks are thrown in here and there, and side events offer ample opportunity to enjoy the characters outside the context of the main story, but suffice it to say the stakes here are nothing like the death game of the anime's first and best season. Instead, Lost Song wants you to feel like you're sitting down with a group of friends to play the latest expansion in a hot MMORPG, and it just so happens that all your interactions are scripted. It does so with varying degrees of success. The story is delivered at a constant clip so you're never left without the illusion of purpose, but many players will likely find it laborious and unexciting on the whole. All the visual novel cutscenes are entertaining enough for fans of Sword Art Online's cast, but they tend to repeat themselves, offer little in the way of emotional engagement, and hold the player's hand a little too much for the sake of those who aren't familiar with MMO terms and conventions. Don't get me wrong, though: despite the shallow plot and presentation, Lost Song manages to feel more like Sword Art Online than the last anime season, and more importantly completely redeems the fictional MMO Alfheim Online into a world I genuinely want to spend time in...instead of remember as 'the arc everyone hated'. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the English translation is flawless this time around.


Sword Art Online: Lost Song is available on the Playstation Vita, Playstation 3, and Playstation 4, although the second option won't be coming to the west. It's no easy feat to scale a single game across such a diverse range of systems, but rest assured each platform plays well and looks great—even the Playstation 4 version, which was given a pretty decent overhaul to take advantage of Sony's latest hardware. It's not exactly next-gen by any means, but it's still a big step up from the Vita and PS3 in terms of both visual detail and framerate, making this undoubtedly the best version of the game to get. The Vita version holds up well though, and is honestly the first game in far too long to take full advantage of the handheld's capabilities. You will experience some dropped frames here and there but the overall experience is solid, and cross-save with other versions means you can take your game with you on the go and then pick back up where you left off on your PS4 when you get home. There's no cross-play though, so multiplayer bouts are strictly segregated by console. It's questionable whether the game is really worth buying twice to have on multiple platforms in the first place, but in a world where the Playstation Vita goes mostly ignored by its own developer, any form of support that doesn't come in the form of Remote Play is a welcome sight indeed.


Sword Art Online: Lost Song is a pricey game for the offering, but not a purchase that I regret making in the slightest. It's a fun, lighthearted JRPG with wings, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Compared to Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment it's a massive step forward and a great first effort from Bandai Namco in annualizing Sword Art Online as a game series. While it does leave something to be desired in the area of dungeons and storytelling it's easily enjoyable enough to last players the duration of its campaign and some online battles to boot. Lost Song is an ode to its parent series and little more, but well worth the attention of its very specific target audience.