Preview: Sword Art Online: Lost Song

If there is one thing I can tell you about Sword Art Online, it’s that it is on Netflix. That’s it. That is the limit to my knowledge. And I’m okay with that. Or at least I was okay with that until a few days ago when Bandai Namco invited us to their office in Hammersmith, London to try out their upcoming game based on the aforementioned anime I know nothing about, Sword Art Online: Lost Song.

• Developer: Artdink
• Publisher: Bandai Namco
• Reviewed on: Playstation 4
• Also Available On: Playstation Vita
• Release Date: 13th November 2015

Luckily, from what I could gather from my time at least, no knowledge of the anime is needed to play Lost Song as it is a completely original story taking place in a game called Alfheim Online, but I imagine it helps. A lot. The two or so hours I got to play were from the beginning of the game, and had me controlling a character called Kirito, who I’m told is the main protagonist from the Sword Art Online anime.

This part of the game was essentially a prolonged tutorial, and offered a very thin vertical slice of the game as a whole, which I was informed by Gareth, the awesome PR guru for Bandai Namco, will have players creating their own avatars, and being given the ability to play online with friends in a similar fashion to Phantasy Star Online.

The game began with a run down of the basics of combat and movement. Alfheim Online allows its players a unique ability, which subsequently is this games most interesting (and satisfying) mechanic – flight. There are two types of flight in Lost Song; Float mode and Flight mode. Float mode is activated by pressing left or right on the d-pad. Doing so makes Kirito sprout some cool looking wings a ‘float’ up and down in a vertical line with the use of the X button.

Pressing up on the d-pad enters Flight mode, which is by far the coolest thing I saw during my time with Sword Art Online: Lost Song. Kirito does a back flip and a corkscrew as he sprouts his black wings and launches forward through the air. Holding R1 while flying makes Kirito dash through the air too, which made getting across the large open areas a lot more fun than if I’d had to run.

04

The transition from walking to flying is smooth, and the flying itself handles really well. Switching between float mode and flight mode in mid air feels great, and pressing down on the d-pad makes Kirito’s wings disappear, causing him to free fall, and switching from free fall to flight just feels awesome.

Combat is a mix of melee and magic skills. Weak attack is mapped to square, while triangle performs a strong attack. Holding down R1 brings up the skill menu, with pressing one of the face buttons while the menu is up performs that skill. The usable skill also change depending on whether Kirito’s weapon is out or sheathed, which can get annoying in heavy combat situations – more than once I found myself using an attack skill when I was trying to heal.

The circle button is used for defence – when used in conjunction with the left analogue stick, Kirito performs a useful dodge, and pressing circle and R1 together performs makes him guard. It’s possible to perform a lock-on with L1 too, but it has to be held down for a couple of seconds before it decided to do its job.

Several actions, such as sprinting, dashing, and dodging, use up stamina. Stamina replenishes quickly when it isn’t being used, and depending on the action it’s being used for can actually last quite a while so it never feels like a hindrance.

03

After the movement and combat tutorial had finished I had to make my way to a teleport gate, which like other important destinations and objectives, gets marked on my map. Teleport gates are used to access towns and other areas in the world of Alfheim Online, and I was heading to the first town of the game, the Floating City of Ryne.

After entering the teleport gate I was presented with a flashback, bringing me up to speed with the events taking place after the anime, leading to this point. These flashbacks, and other expositional conversations happen consistently throughout the tutorial, setting up the story for Lost Song and how it ties into the Sword Art Online lore as a whole, and potentially spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t watched the anime yet.

I encountered some laughably bad dialogue during these scenes, especially when characters forcefully use MMO terminology. It’s there to emphasise the fact that the characters are inside an MMO, but the end result are conversations that sound like rejected scripts from The Big Band Theory. There’s also a weird fairy girl that keeps calling Kirito ‘Daddy’, which is just creepy.

Once in the Floating City of Ryne I was introduced to the rest of the party, who should be recognisable to fans of the anime. The group splits into two, and Kirito’s group heads out to find and explore a dungeon in the area. Party’s can be changed and edited in the towns inns before entering the field – I picked one of my party members because she looked like a cat.

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Once I entered the field (an area called Wogslinde, Island of Meadows), things took a turn for the chaotic. Sword Art Online: Lost Song is a primarily single player action RPG, but due to the story and the license it is based on the main style of play is that that of an emulated MMO, similar to another, older, Bandai Namco series, .hack.

The problem is it seems to have been designed by someone who has never played an MMO before. For a start there are far too many enemies in any one place at a time, they swarm Kirito and his party, and a lack of any real feedback in regards to character growth really detracts from not only the MMO experience, but the RPG experience as a whole.

Kirito starts at level 100, and I managed to level up several times in as many minutes without realising it. It never felt like my party was getting stronger, and the enemies became an annoyance, feeling closer to an environmental hazard than something that served a useful purpose. Eventually I gave up fighting them and flew off, ignoring as many enemies as possible and never feeling I was being punished for doing so.

The combat during these fights began to feel slow and clumsy too. The lock-on began to feel all but pointless, and the sheer amount of enemies that can attack at one time eventually turned combat into confusing struggle. At least there are area of effect attacks to spam for a while, at least until Kirito’s skill points run out.

05

Kirito and his party eventually arrive at the dungeon, only to find they can’t get in. They are in need of a tablet to open the door. Someone suggests they go to the farm in the area to look for clues. Once at the farm there’s a really nice investigation mechanic that kicks in. Several markers appear on the terrain drawing Kirito to places of interest that can be explored with the push of the circle button. Once investigated they trigger an even and I found the first half of the tablet needed to open the dungeon door.

Unfortunately this part took longer than it should have thanks again to the sheer number of enemies that feel like attacking Kirito and crew at once. It’s annoying to the point of frustration due to the enemies ludicrously fast respawn time, which I imagine would be nice if I was trying to level up, but poses a problem when being attacked from all angles while trying to look at a door.

Next it’s off to fight a Wyvern and acquire the second half of the tablet. I flew to the island marked on my map and the boss appeared in all its glory, then the fight just kind of happened. It was done in a few moments and didn’t really feel like a boss fight at all, more like a regular monster with more hit points and a couple of mates with it.

I now had both pieces of the tablet, so flew back to the dungeon and entered. ‘Dungeon’, it would seem is a bit of false advertising on behalf of Alfheim Online, what it actually is, is a couple of branching paths with dead ends, a treasure chest, a door, and another ‘I’m not sure if it’s a boss’ boss battle. After the boss was defeated the chapter ends, and with it so did my time in Alfheim Online.

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Sword Art Online: Lost Song isn’t a pretty game either. In fact, it’s safe to say it’s rather bland, for a Playsation 4 title at least, with boring textures and horrendous pop up from both enemies and terrain, like the Vita version had been lazily upscaled and thrown onto a current gen console. I did a bit of research about the visuals and it turns out that the Japanese version of Sword Art Online: Lost Song was released on the PlayStation 3, making the PlayStation 4 version something of a lazy port.

It’s a shame really, because the sheer power of the PlayStation 4 could have been utilised to make the world of Lost Song appear expansive and populated instead. It isn’t all bad though, there are some nice graphical touches, such as the enemy models wireframe becoming visible with every hit that add some charm to battles and make the world actually feel like the characters are in a game.

Here’s the thing. Despite my grumbles about it’s sub par (at least for current gen consoles) visuals, and clunky combat, this is actually a game I really want to see more of. There are so many nice ideas in here that I feel could and possibly will be expanded upon in the full game, especially the character creation and multiplayer aspects of it.

Sword Art Online: Lost Song looks like it has potential to at least be fun, if nothing else, and fun is the main reason we chose gaming as our hobby, right? It just feels like there’s more going on under the hood than the first two hours allows us to see, which is a pretty obvious statement when talking about an RPG, I know, but it doesn’t make the point any less valid. The game is only a few short weeks away from release, so until then I think I’ll be binge watching the anime in preparation, maybe the answers I’m looking for a hidden away in there somewhere.

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