The Sword Art Online series has managed to create a minor phenomenon. The interesting blend of action, humor and good old fashioned pathos it brings makes for an interesting brew for anime fans and gamers alike. Of course, being a show about being trapped in a game, it makes sense for Bandai Namco to jump at it like a coin filled block. Amazingly, it has not been milked to death yet, as this is only the second game iteration (the PSP and Vita games were the same). Even more amazingly, it’s really fun.
For series fans who did not play the other game, Infinity Moment (Hollow Fragment on the Vita), prepare to be confused. Lost Song is actually a sequel to that title, not the “side story” it bills itself as. Think of it as a continuation of a branched story path that began on level 75 in the anime. I did not realize this at first, having missed the original game. There were references to events and actions taken that confused the tar out of me, leaving me to wonder if Netflix has a really bad translation on file. Fortunately, there is a pretty good primer to be found that resolved that issue. With this new timeline comes a reduction of the stakes. Kirito, Asuna, Klein and all the rest of the folks are simply playing ALfheim Online for the fun of it. Logging on at the release of the new content expansion found in the spell check breaking Svart ALfheim, they are simply back for the fun of it, wanting to clear the entire expansion as quick as possible. The lack of peril to the story can put players off at first, but let’s just say these are the classic characters being written by the original writer. It’s worth it.
The combat and action is where this game really manages to create a superlative experience. Taking place in Alfheim, characters are able to fly. Taking to the skies here is a breeze, with the ability to switch between flight, hover, and ground mode with a simple tap on the direction buttons. It’s not long before players are soaring though the air, diving low to take out a few land based trash mobs, only to pull up to continue to a quest marker. The freedom this brings allows players to forego dealing with unwanted nonsense to get to the next event.
The controls themselves work excellently. The group all have their special skills that can be used by holding down R1 and pressing the assigned button. This focus on not over complicating matters allows the player to paint a picture of damage that feels very much like the show. Using Kirito’s Gale Slicer to down an enemy and immediately follow up with a combo on the foe behind is an incredibly simple matter. That isn’t to say that there are not a couple things to get used to. In most games with a dash move, I tend to double dash, hitting the button twice. Here, this is mapped to allow the player to enter into flight mode. It makes sense that it is set up this way, but it still lead to moments where it appeared that the character was trying to drill for oil using only their head.
This all leads to the number one highlight of this title, the boss fights. These can be true tests of skills and planning. It is possible to create a party of three to allow teammates to reduce challenge by keeping the player healed or buffed, but each of these monsters can be taken solo, as well. Think of it as an adjustable difficulty. No matter the party configuration, some of these battles get intense. An early sky based battle against a huge dragon was a highlight. Dashing in to land some strikes, and then trying to get out of the way of the resulting hissy fit made for a great time. By the end, my teammates, Asuna and Leafa, were down. Trying to resurrect them would have spelled my doom, and the jerk just wouldn’t leave me alone enough to pop some healing. The accomplishment felt from the win was well earned.
While combat, and to a lesser extent story, carries the experience quite well, there are some glaring issues. The highest on the list would be the environmental and enemy recycling. The tile sets for the numerous dungeons get reused quite a bit. While it would make sense for one world to share similar features in caves, it makes less sense to travel to a new sky island to find the same geological tendencies. When travelling to a desert island, it simply makes no sense for the first cave entered to have the same moist, moss covered walls as the grassland caves. Be prepared for the RPG crutch of palate swaps on the enemies, too. These designs get reused quite a bit, something that is even acknowledged in side quest text.
The most glaring sign that corners were cut for budgetary reasons shows through in story moments. With very limited exceptions, the story is told via the “static portrait and text” method. This leaves too many of the humorous moments and story beats to the imagination. Understanding that it would be ridiculous to ask that every moment be animated, it is common for titles like this to at least show a static picture to coincide with events and dialogue. Lost Song does a paltry amount of this, but nowhere near enough. It chooses instead to push one still character sideways along the screen toward another to indicate some form of physical interaction. Or it does nothing, the more common solution.
This is an accursed shame, because the art direction here is gorgeous. Everything here is bright, vibrant, and engaging. This is a world that is pleasing to the eye. The character animations are well done, recalling the styles and moves used in the show. Because what is here is of such a high quality, not seeing it fleshed out as well as it could have been is simply disappointing.
Finally, and this will vary based on the player, but there is no English voice acting. While it is understood that the cost would have been prohibitive for such a niche title, it is missed when dialogue is imparted in the heat of battle. It’s a trial to read and fight hordes of monsters at the same time. Plus, some have grown used to the nuanced English acting in the series. It’s tough for those people not to want to hear the same actors again.
Sword Art Online: Lost Song has so much going for it. The battle and flight systems are top-notch entertaining time sinks, the artistic style is nothing short of gorgeous and being able to hang out with characters from the show, with dialogue written by the creator, is an engrossing experience. The issue lies in how Bandai Namco did not take full advantage of the talent available to them. This title is simply hamstrung by a lack of investment. The decision was made, for better or worse, to not create an experience that lives up to its true potential, instead recycling assets and hoping for the best. The end result is a title for series fans only. Those who are not invested in the universe already would be better off moving along.