The third game in the Sword Art Online (SAO) series, and the first for the Playstation 3 console, Sword Art Online: Lost Song does a passable job at bringing the world of Alfheim Online to life. Review and (minor) spoilers follow~
Full disclosure: As of writing, I have not played the first two games, Infinity Moment and Hollow Fragment, but have watched the anime up to the completion of the Gun Gale Online arc, and have read till volume 14 of the novel.
A quick introduction: this game is a direct continuation of the plot of Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, taking place in the world of Alfheim Online after Kirito and team’s escape from Aincrad in the previous entry. The gameplay centers around a new area called Svart Alfheim, where Kirito finds himself competing against an idol and her guild in unlocking new areas and completing quests.
The first thing you’ll notice during the quick tutorial the game puts you through at the beginning is the ability to fly in this game. And what an ability it is. You have full freedom to ascend/descend and fly about in the field maps of the game.
Naturally, with flight comes aerial combat, which to its credit is also rather smooth. Locking on to enemies ensures you keep vision while flying, and your character automatically approaches the target by moving forward while locked on. Skills are not complex to execute, done mainly by holding down R1 and pressing a second button on the D-pad or the shape buttons, which you can define in the navigation-friendly menu.
The game also encourages you to cycle through the large (by typical RPG standards) roster of characters by giving them unique conversations while exploring on the field, and rarely does the game lock you to any one member of Kirito’s
harem group, so you can play as whoever you like (for the large part).
There were complaints about the English localisation for the previous game, and I’m glad to say the problems are largely addressed in this release. Liberties taken in translation are largely seen as an attempt to add appeal to the conversations, and there’s nary a grammatical error in sight.
You can appreciate some of the finer details the game gets into, such as certain NPCs that will respond to your emotes which you can perform with R2 (presumably to make communication easier during multiplayer quests).
The animated sequences, while few in number, are gorgeous when they come on, and the environments and characters are well designed. You also get a few costumes to choose from over the course of the game, and any changes to wardrobe or weaponry will reflect on the character, a very welcomed touch.
There’s quite a noticeable bit of loading going on in Lost Song, but the one that will annoy you the most is every time you want to save the game. Unlike other RPGs, where save points are aplenty and scattered across the world map or town areas, this game only has ONE save point, located inside the inn. The problem with that is if you are out in the field (or worse – in a dungeon), you need to first return to town then head to the inn, both instances requiring the game to load. Making any changes to your team members also requires you to enter the inn. And because the loading does take a couple of seconds each, the time wasted quickly adds up.
The plot (or lack thereof) is the next sore point. The antagonists in Lost Song are laughably bad, and could be said to be there only to add to the fanservice that this game stands for.
Twists Minor bends in the narrative are spelt out in full for you before the reveal, and much of the banter between characters have nothing to do with the plot.
One other thing you’ll notice is how grindy the game is. Characters all start at level 100, maxing out at 999. Magical skills and weapon skills have their respective levels, and only through using them repeatedly can you raise those levels. Certain abilities (such as the all-important Starburst Stream) have to be unlocked through increasing skill levels, so you’ll be mindlessly mashing buttons in the meantime. It’s also not immediately apparent what raising the skill levels of certain abilities do (for attack spells, the damage and continuous casting increases, but for character boost spells, you can’t really be sure).
Enemy designs are a mixed bag. Most bosses are simple palette-swaps of each other, though at least they are pleasing to the eye. You do get the occasional unique enemy that helps keep things feeling fresh though. Perhaps due to the addition of flight, the developers sacrificed the number of available maps to explore, limiting it to just 4 main areas.
Lost Song introduces a new character creation option, allowing you to create your personal character across all the available races, though the customization is limited (only 2 types of hairstyle, hair colour and skin colour), and gender is locked based on race chosen (Female Spriggan, Male Salamander etc.). It’s a nice addition, but as party members outside your adventuring party of 3 do not gain experience, you eventually fall back to playing as Kirito again (because the game forces you to use certain characters at different points of the story for solo duels). “Wasting” an experience slot for the created character is therefore detrimental to progression.
The ability to enhance your weapons (up to +10) in the game also comes with a catch – enhancing past +5 has a chance of failure. No doubt it is to mimic the MMOs it is based on, but with all the grinding for skills and levels, adding another level of grind for the ingredients of weapon enhancement feels rather brutal to me. Granted, you are unlikely to use this function until the optional battles after the main storyline, as the higher tier (10 tiers in total) weapons you pick up over the course of the game quickly outclasses any enhanced weapons you might be using.
So long as you are not expecting a grand story from the game, series veterans will find much to like about Lost Song. The standout feature is of course flight, and all the additional nuggets of interaction you don’t get to see in the anime/manga/novel. Newcomers will
probably definitely be lost because of the sheer number of characters in the roster with no option in-game to view their backstories and how they each relate to Kirito.
Sword Art Online: Lost Song is good fanservice for fans, and fans only.