After a long, hard day in the real world, there's nothing better than coming home, turning on your games console and picking up a game, letting yourself get lost in a virtual world. Even better (or perhaps even more meta), is Sword Art Online: Lost Song, a game where you play a guy who's playing a video game, so he can get lost in the virtual world. What will they think of next?
Based on a popular anime series, Sword Art Online, this is the third game in the series, the last one being Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment (also available on PS4). Continuing the story of Kirito and his group of friends, the game takes place in one of the most popular Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games of their time - only, as this is a fictional MMO, you'll actually be playing on your own, offline. It all sounds a bit confusing, but it actually gives Sword Art Online a really unique feel, as you follow a group of friends escaping the reality of their world, and logging into another, full of fighting, questing, making new friends and being reacquainted with old ones!
Sword Art Online: Lost Song is a game full of exploration and customisation. As you go about completing quests, you'll find hidden treasure along the way, some will turn out to be actual pieces of armour and useful weapons, while others will be materials used to craft better armour and weapons. It's pretty refreshing for a JRPG to drop so much loot, but we found that the weapons and armour we found were more than enough to keep our team kitted out decent gear, and ready to take on the baddies of ALfheim, the fairy and magic themed world from the anime TV series.
One of the first things you notice about Sword Art Online is that the characters speak in Japanese with English subtitles, so there's quite a bit of reading to be done. It actually looks and reads like a visual novel, with lengthy exchanges of dialogue to progress the story, punctuated by exploration and combat, which helps keep things moving at a decent pace. And, with a variety of difficulty levels on offer, it's easy for novices to pick up and play, too, with even the easiest level providing a bit of a challenge later on.
The aim here is to compete against Shamrock, a rival guild led by Seven (a young scientist and popular celebrity referred to as an Idol) to become the first clear "Svart ALfheim", the latest expansion for the ALfheim Online game.
Things start off easy enough as you explore the world, and admire the changes. It's mostly a question of sitting back and watching/reading the dialogue exchange between the main characters for a bit, as they've all just logged into the world for the first time in a while, and haven't seen each other in ages.
You soon learn the basics of how to equip certain bits and pieces of armour, change team members - and, most importantly, how to save the game! Fighting is explained as well, as combat's a little bit different in Sword Art Online. Here, battles take place in real time, button mashing style, only you have the option to either attack from the ground, or fly up into the air and perform aerial attacks. We absolutely loved this, as it gives you a lot more freedom than in other games - and the ability to scout things out from the sky is pretty cool too.
The fighting to begin with is reasonably relaxed, to the point where you can go up to an enemy and just stand there, letting your team to all the hard beating up work. However, the further you delve into the game, the more advanced the enemies become, and the more you need to start thinking about how you're going to go about fighting the enemies, which basically boils down to considering which weapons are best suited to giving the foe you're facing a jolly good thrashing.
Because the story carries on from the last game (and the anime), you could be forgiven for thinking it'd be a bit tricky to get into, but Sword Art Online offers plenty of explainations to help fill in the gaps for those experiencing the world for the first time. You're told enough background story to know who you are, where you are, what you're doing, and why you're doing it - which is really helpful, as otherwise the game would at least have the potential to be confusing.
It doesn't take long to really start to get stuck into the story, but there are plenty of ways to stay busy beyond the main plot. You can always hang around and do side-quests if you'd rather take things slow and enjoy exploring the area and collecting items. It also doesn't hurt to build yourself up a few levels, battling a few extra monsters to get as much of an XP boost as you can manage, ready for the challenges that lie ahead. You'll need all the help you can get when you come to the boss fights.
Each boss you come to is more difficult than the last, and at one point we found ourselves frantically using potions in order to recover our health, just to stay alive! This was when we were up against four dragons at once - and as well as my team of three, a gang of other, non-playable characters from the Shamrock guild showed up too...
We were hoping during our first attempt if we just stayed back the NPCs would finish the job, but after about 15 minutes of running around, avoiding the lashing tail of a monster 10 times as big as we were, we were forced to give up and start again. Seemingly, even the combined might of our team of allies and the NPC guild weren't enough to defeat the dragons. It took some well-timed drinking of potions, but we got past them in the end!
Of course, Sword Art Online isn't without its downsides, and one of the bigger issues is its saves. Having to head all the way back to your room in the inn to save the game is more than a little bit frustrating, as if we had to suddenly stop because we had to go out (in real life!), it can take several minutes of travelling through the in-game world to get back to the Inn - and it also meant that when we came back to the game, we'd have to travel all the way back to where we left off exploring.
And, while it's nice that they've tried to make the town seem busy and full of hustle and bustle, the characters who populate it aren't very lively, most of them just walking backwards and forwards, in a much more logical and orderly fashion than you might expect from something that's meant to feel like an MMO. It actually made us realise how much we'd enjoy an actual online version of Sword Art Online, but the costs involved perhaps make this an impossiblity.
Still, despite a few frustrations, Sword Art Online is a great JRPG that's well worth picking up. Not only is it entertaining to play, but the storyline is great, and a lot of fun to watch unfold. If you like role playing games, and like the sound of a battle system that lets you take to the skies, then Lost Song is worth taking a look at. Do you think Kirito can clear the latest ALO expansion before everyone else? Only one way to find out!