SWORD ART ONLINE: Alicization Lycoris Review – Life is an anime, old chum

Platforms:

PS4, Xbox One, PC

Released:

July 10, 2020

Publisher:

Bandai Namco Entertainment

Developers:

Bandai Namco Entertainment, Aquria


Posted July 14, 2020

An action-adventure RPG for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, SWORD ART ONLINE: Alicization Lycoris is the seventh release from Bandai Namco in the Sword Art Online series. Enter a world where fighters announce the name of their attack before they perform it, virtual avatars have souls, and nobody knows how to talk to girls – Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris is a true anime-style JRPG, through and through. Is it the game of your weeb dreams? Let’s find out. System Call: Generate Review Element!

The story follows the Alicization arc of the Sword Art Online series, which is the third season of the anime. For those unfamiliar with SAO, it is a franchise of light novels, manga, anime and video games that could be described as the Matrix meets Final Fantasy XIV – humans play MMORPGs in virtual reality, tangling with nefarious plots to trap people in the virtual world and make them fight to escape. In this game, protagonist Kirito wakes up in the online realm called The Underworld. Suffering from amnesia (of course), Kirito befriends a woodcutter, Eugeo, who explains the laws of his world and some of his own tragic backstory. Together the pair set out to rescue Eugeo’s childhood friend Alice from the clutches of the formidable Integrity Knights, by… training to become Integrity Knights themselves. I swear it makes more sense when you play through it.

After the first chapter, the plot detours from the anime series into an original storyline written specifically for this game. However, the “first chapter” is more of an incredibly long prologue, so if you’re a fan of the series you’ll be delighted to faithfully play through the events of Season Three for at least the first ten hours. I was not familiar with Sword Art Online prior to playing Alicization Lycoris, but it was still a lot of fun to experience this world’s fiction and vast amounts of lore over a long period of playtime. Do expect to be confused and surprised at times – time jumps forward unexpectedly, and there are some things that only make sense if you quickly Google a character’s name to see if their backstory is relevant. On the whole though the game does a good job of bringing you up to speed. There is a tonne of dialogue and voice acting is only available in Japanese, so be prepared to settle down for a decent reading session if you’re not fluent.

On the gameplay side of things, you’re dealing with streamlined action JRPG combat and overworld exploration. You fight using a variety of Arts, as the series’ title suggests. Mechanics are slowly trickled out over the course of the first chapter, intertwining into a series of complex systems that you’ll gradually make sense of. This sort of slow-burn mastery is what I adore in JRPGs (ala Xenoblade Chronicles), and I think Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris does a great job of balancing complexity with ease of learning. You can take down monsters with your basic attacks, but initiating combos makes the process a lot easier. 

While the camera can be a bit wonky and requires patience, combat is particularly satisfying (especially once you’ve unlocked Sacred Arts, elemental abilities with a variety of fun effects such as summoning a brick of steel as an obstacle or creating an impenetrable mirror to protect your team).

There are also multiple duels throughout the game, forcing you to master the arts of parrying, dodging, and anticipating enemy attacks in order to whittle down their health bars. While these fights can be a slog, it always feels like an achievement when you beat a particularly nasty opponent and a big “Congratulations!” dances across the screen. Your knowledge of the games’ systems will really start to be put to the test after the first chapter ends, with difficulty spikes requiring you to delve into the party’s AI system to strategise effectively.

The environments are where Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris really begins to shine. The Underworld is stunningly realised, with just enough MMO-artificiality to keep to the aesthetic without cheapening its immersive biomes. There is an overwhelming amount of content to pursue in this game. Between side quests, crafting, affinity quests, grinding levels, raid bosses, daily quests, and the vague dating sim subgame that I’m too uncomfortable to look into, there is enough variety in the content to keep a player invested for dozens of hours. The story includes sections of traveling across the various zones of the Underworld and hunting beasts, while side quests range from crafting specific items to sparring with your pals.

A JRPG is nothing without its cast of characters, and Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris delivers a wide range of personalities to fight and befriend. Most of the dialogue is accompanied by visual novel portraits, showing the stylised reactions of Kirito’s various buddies and antagonists. The relationships between Kirito and the various party members you meet are given lots of breathing space to develop and change over the course of the game. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic between him and Eugeo – there’s nothing quite like a wholesome friendship that grows throughout the game (and this, of course, would be the only reason for me to test out the dating sim elements). However, a few gross tropes do rear their ugly heads and mar the experience. At one point sexual violence is used as a plot device and handled awfully, a reminder that even though games have come a long way as an artform, there is still a lot of learning and growth to be made. I’m enthusiastic for games to tackle complex social issues, but there is a level of nuance lacking in this instance that reduces it to cheap emotional point-scoring.

Unfortunately a few quality of life features are sorely missing from Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris, and this does significantly impact the play experience. I appreciate that the voice acting is Japanese only (there is a LOT of text to be voiced) but the arbitrary limits on skipping through dialogue kills the pace of would-be climactic scenes. The confrontation with the first chapter’s final boss begins with around twenty minutes of unskippable dialogue – no action, just characters talking back and forth. Factoring in the typical repetition you can expect from anime dialogue, this is truly maddening. It would be less of a problem if you could pause the game whenever you liked: you can’t. And on PC, there is no Home button, so once you hit a cutscene you have to watch it then and there or skip it entirely. It’s not game-breaking, but I can’t believe that a simple PAUSE button is a feature I’m crying out for. Also, for seemingly no reason, you can only save your progress at designated points – it’s 2020, and I do not have the patience for this.

It is worth noting that other players have reported performance issues including framerate drops, impossibly long loading times, and input lag. For transparency, I played through the game on PC using a Wii U controller on Medium-High graphics settings. Some of the load times were quite long: around ten to twenty seconds to load into a new worldspace. I didn’t experience any other issues (apart from the mouse cursor appearing onscreen mysteriously and regularly) but your mileage may vary when it comes to performance.

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Criticisms aside, I’m enjoying my time with Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris. I’m about halfway through the 70ish-hour main story, and I’ve still got hours of side content to get stuck into. I haven’t been given access the online features, but it looks like you can complete quests and raids with a group of friends, which fits in nicely with the game’s MMO aesthetics. Unlike previous entries in the series, developers are supporting the game with free monthly DLC featuring raid bosses and quests. The Premium Pass can also be purchased for a whopping $72.95 AUD, and provides access to “two big DLCs” as well as new scenarios, weapons, and bosses. I’ll be sure to update this review if I discover any Premium features are particularly worth your money: for now, I’d advise all but the most die-hard SAO fans to stick with the base game.

SWORD ART ONLINE Alicization Lycoris

SWORD ART ONLINE Alicization Lycoris

PS4, Xbox One, PC
RPG

Positive:
  • Deep and entertaining combat once you've invested time in learning
  • Beautifully realised MMO landscapes with tonnes of content
  • Unique and lengthy story with enough divergence from the animated series to feel fresh
Negative:
  • Basic quality of life features missing, such as pausing the game and saving at will
  • Overabundance of unskippable dialogue regularly kills the pace
  • Adult themes are handled poorly and indelicately
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

6

Decent

There’s a lot to like about Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris, though it is unfortunately let down by its rough edges and frustrating design decisions. If you can forgive its quirks and you don’t mind wading through hours of visual novel exposition, you’ve got an incredibly meaty action JRPG to dive into with an impressively deep combat system, a gorgeous world, and a unique story. Fans of SAO will find more of the same to enjoy while newcomers must be prepared to have their patience tested for at least the first few hours – gamers not into lengthy anime storytelling should absolutely steer clear.



About the Author

David McNamara

David is a proudly queer theatre maker and singer. He spends most of his downtime with a controller in his hands and a lazy beagle on his lap.