Yes, there was a time when I loved JRPGs. But times change. The glory days of Squaresoft are long gone and unfortunately, most Japanese role-playing productions these days feel downright antiquated. This outdated feeling, so prevalent in Sword Art Online: Lost Song , doesn’t merely come from the unimpressive, even lackluster visuals; rather, it stems from the very core of the game, which is thin and repetitive. It’s unfortunately representative of the ‘90s, almost as if the developers were dead-set against the idea of technical and design progression. All this being said, there is some fun to be had in Lost Song and if you’re a confirmed fan of the hit anime series, it might be worth a try.
Just don’t be surprised at the mediocre graphics, which are sort of jarring after playing the AAA blockbusters that have hit store shelves this holiday season. Remember when certain JRPGs from Squaresoft represented new high watermarks in the world of interactive visual excellence? Well, like I said, times change. Although some of the effects and character designs are pretty slick, the overarching level construction and color palette just looks grainy, blurry and outdated. Amid a few explosive battle effects are poor textures and a general repetitiveness of design that rapidly grows tiresome. The silver lining is that it all runs relatively well, with only a few very minor hitches in frame rate.
The sound is only a little better, as the soundtrack fits the premise but doesn’t stand out, and the voices range from poor to average. Again, the combat effects take center-stage and give the experience a much-needed boost, which in turn bolsters the immersion and appeal. Even so, I keep wishing Japanese developers would put more effort into just about every technical element, from graphical quality and clarity to inspired scores and top-tier actors. We’re seeing improvements in the big-budget games but when it comes to JRPGs, especially those that cater to a very specific group of fans (who are undoubtedly more lenient when it comes to technical performance), there’s a definite lagging. I should add, however, that nothing here is glaringly bad , per se. It’s all just…underwhelming.
Despite the title, there is a single-player campaign in this game. Like the anime in question, Lost Song takes place in a fictional MMO called “Alfheim Online,” where players zoom into the air and battle all manner of baddies and face down opposing human foes. You can venture forth on your own if you wish, so I tackled this first and the results were a great deal less than extraordinary. It was entertaining for the first few hours but after you’ve settled into a comfortable and successful routine, you start to realize that the gameplay is just a rinse-and-repeat system and the landscape rarely changes significantly. How many times can I beat the very similar opponents and even bosses using basically an identical strategy? It made me yearn for the days when JRPGs actually forced you to think.
The control is decent, though. Flying up into the air is as simple as tapping the up arrow on the d-pad, and the flight mechanics are accessible and responsive. The camera isn’t perfect, especially when chasing down the quicker mid-air enemies, but combat thankfully isn’t a chore. Just hold down the R1 button and tap face buttons or d-pad arrows to switch between devastating sword skills and awesome magic attacks. You can also block and dodge and as you might guess, battles typically become somewhat predictable. You know, attack, attack, attack; then block and dodge as needed. Do that over and over and you should be fine. It’s true that certain assaults work better on certain types of foes but really, such understanding isn’t crucial. This is why the game is a little too brainless for me.
The combat can indeed be fun, though, and I’m willing to bet fans of the anime might be more tolerant of the repetitiveness. Even so, I’m not so sure they’ll tolerate the shallowness of the game at large; so many of the dungeons feel exactly alike and too many of your enemies are just faceless cannon fodder. Factor in the relative ease of the fighting, which, as I said, doesn’t require much in the way of attention or brain power, and you’ve got a decidedly “thin” adventure. The whole thing just feels anemic. Even when you figure out a cool way to take down a boss, you never feel as if you did anything a bright 8-year-old couldn’t manage (well, provided that 8-year-old has some solid video game experience). Even from an action standpoint, learning the simple attack patterns doesn’t take very long.
Fans of the anime might appreciate the narrative because it’s an original story but once again, the art of storytelling continues to suffer in the land of JRPGs. The plot starts out promising enough: There’s this mysterious group called Shamrock and their intriguing leader Seven, and Kirito and his clan are involved in some way. There’s some enticing secrecy woven into the story but unfortunately, due to mostly faceless characters and erratic pacing, the player starts to lose interest all too quickly. On top of which, towards the second half of the 20-hour adventure, with the tedium of the overly repetitive gameplay having a compounding negative effect, our interest in the story keeps declining. Lastly, the story is clearly only for “Sword Art Online” followers because the writers don’t bother with character intros.
The awkward and uninspired cut-scenes with bad dialogue do little to amp up the excitement meter, but at least your teammates are pretty useful in the field. You can sample any combination of three fighters from over a dozen playable characters, and there’s a nice customization feature as well. Swapping characters and getting involved in their development does add some spice to your quest but in the end, the entire campaign falls flat. The upside is the well-implemented multiplayer, which is quite possibly the saving grace for die-hard fans of the series. You can team up with up to three other players in co-op or versus mode, and the servers run like a charm. It’s also much more involving and challenging to fight a human player due to the predictability and repetitive nature of regular AI battles.
If you’ve got friends who enjoy this anime and you like the accessible, slam-bang nature of fast-paced multiplayer with a bit of depth, you probably won’t be disappointed. The game starts to open up and show you what it’s made of, even if that only proves just how shallow and underwhelming the campaign really is. Plus, the tight and intuitive controls make multiplayer fun a breeze; you’re not cursing poor programming or clunky systems for your failures (even if the camera can still be a problem). However, I doubt the multiplayer alone is worth the cost of admission for most gamers. It just doesn’t feel like it’s worth $60, but it’s feasible that at $40, the Vita version could be a decent buy. You really have to be a confirmed fan, though.
Sword Art Online: Lost Song is easy to get into and offers plenty of entertaining combat, along with an appealing multiplayer mode. The controls work just fine, as do the online servers, and the thrill you get in wasting huge foes is worth noting. But the campaign falls well shy of modern-day standards, with lackluster technical elements, and we have to suffer through a blasé storyline with characters only hardcore fans will recognize, and an overarching repetitiveness in both game design and combat. I guess I could say it comes recommended to those aforementioned fans, but I’m not sure this is what they want from a Sword Arts Online game. Then again, if you only care about the multiplayer, it might be an okay buy. All depends on your viewpoint.
The Good: Some special effects do qualify as “special.” Mostly entertaining and accessible gameplay. Tight, intuitive controls. Solid multiplayer that runs quite well. Good for the fans…?
The Bad: Lackluster technical elements. Poorly constructed and boring story. Shallow, repetitive gameplay and recycled environments. Campaign just doesn’t cut it.
The Ugly: “How do people not get bored after 15 hours of this?"