After 30 hours in Sword Art Online: Lost Song, I can safely say it’s the most surprising game I’ve played this year. I mean that in the best possible way, too. Lost Song is the game everyone wanted from the beginning.

That’s not to say the previous game, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment wasn’t any good; quite the contrary, actually. It just didn’t feel like the right kind of game for SAO; it was more RPG than action. Lost Song shifts that balance in the other direction, resulting in a game that feels like a better fit.

Like Hollow Fragment, Lost Song isn’t part of the Sword Art Online canon. It takes place inside of ALfheim Online, the VRMMO from the series’ second major story arc. In this version of the story, Kirito has already met characters from the second and third arcs within the original Sword Art Online incident.

In Lost Song’s alternate take on the SAO story, Kirito and company begin taking on Svart Alfheim, a new expansion to ALO. Along the way there’s plenty of new characters, a new rival guild and a plot that feels like it could be right at home within SAO’s lore.

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Look and Feel

Lost Song absolutely nails how an SAO game should look, sound, and feel. Everything from the font to the sounds to the design of the game’s UI is lifted straight from the anime; that menu sound gets me every time. Slashing away at foes—or getting slashed yourself—shows damage in the form of the series’ trademark red and white mesh damage pattern. Enemies shatter into luminous white triangles after you defeat them and make that perfect sound at the moment they disperse.

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Artdink also did a fairly decent job recreating the look and feel of a bustling online world in an offline game. It’s kind of like the .hack series in a way. When you’re in the game’s hub town, randomly generated “players” will dot the map, casually conversing with each other about mundane topics like armor, gear and monsters. That’s kind of cool on its own, but what I really enjoyed was finding other AI-controlled players fighting random monsters, and occasionally asking for help with them.

I know it’s said often, but Lost Song looks and feels like the anime it’s trying to replicate. More importantly, it feels like the game the anime’s trying to replicate, albeit without the cool VR stuff.

Flight

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While fans might enjoy the Aincrad arc more than the ALfheim arc, creating a game around the adventures in the decidedly less lethal ALO arc is better thanks to the inclusion of flight.

Flying in Lost Song is intuitive, simple and fun. Pushing up on the d-pad will send Kirito into a sort of slow, meandering flight. If you hold down R1 in mid-flight, you’ll fly faster, but it’ll deplete your stamina bar. Fortunately stamina both depletes slowly and replenishes quickly, thus making watching it kind of a non-issue.

When you first start out, each area will have an altitude limit, blocking you from freely taking to the skies. Later on, however, you can remove those limitations in each area and gain access to fly as high as you’d like. That’s when things get really fun. Flying around Svart Alfheim is a blast. Taking off and finding new dungeons to explore on floating islands, or dragons to battle in mid-air is exciting every time. I challenge you not to smile the first time you go flying at full speed down through a canyon and back out again. Artdinks could have upped the speed a bit for my tastes, but I still don’t tire of flying around everywhere I can, even after countless hours.

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Supporting Cast

To say this game has a large cast would be an understatement. Just about any major player you can think of from any of Sword Art Online’s story arcs is selectable. There’s a few over a dozen characters, ranging from Kirito’s paramour, Asuna, to more obscure players like Argo, an information dealer who didn’t play an exactly pivotal role in the series. You can also create up to three custom characters who you can drag along with you on your own adventures, but I’ll talk more about them in a bit.

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At any given time you can have three members in your party, with one being the character you control and the other two playing a support role. If you want to go solo, you can also drop any additional characters from your party. Honestly though, you may not want to. I found that my AI-controlled party members were pretty smart, which threw me for a loop. If I was attacking an enemy, they’d help me out as long as they weren’t going to get clobbered in the process. More importantly, if one of them died, the other would revive them. Many times support characters would heal me at a critical moment, or even revive me if I myself had died, so I wouldn’t have to start over. In most games I find myself cursing the “allies” I’m forced to carry, but in Lost Song I found myself grateful for their assistance more often than not. In fact, I can’t think of a time they got in my way.

Light RPG Elements

You can’t really have an Action RPG without some RPG elements, and Lost Song is definitely an Action RPG. It’s all pretty much standard stuff here: defeating enemies will gain you experience and you’ll level up. You can find or buy new weapons and gear. You can also upgrade those weapons so they dole out more damage.

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Each of the game’s characters is also able to learn skills, most of which are ripped from the anime. Kirito for example starts off with his trademark dual-wielding ability from SAO, along with a couple generic moves and spells. Each character can learn a variety of weapon skills based on which weapon types they’re adept at using, some magic skills that include support spells and elemental attack spells and passive battle skills. Most skills level up through use and become more powerful as they gain levels. You can map a total of eight skills that aren’t passive to both the d-pad and face buttons.

There’s nothing really groundbreaking here, but it’s still a competent system. Every one of your characters starts out at level 100 (!) and can level up all the way to 1,000 if you’re willing to grind enough. Levels come easily enough and provide an appreciable boost to your stats. But Lost Song still leans much more to the action game end of the spectrum, as it’s still possible to take down level 700 enemies when you’re in the low 200s if you play your cards right with relatively little danger.

Combat Controls

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment had a combat system that leaned more towards RPG than action. In Lost Song, that has been completely reversed. The game plays much more like a traditional action RPG, with two dedicated (light and hard) attack buttons, a jump button and a dodge button.

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Dodging enemies is one of the most satisfying moves in your aresneal. It’s quick, responsive and has a real sense of speed to it. Holding the analog stick in a particular direction will make your character swing that way as they dodge, making it possible to circle around an enemy and attack them from behind as they recover from their strike. It’s one of those moves that makes you feel like a badass.

Holding the R1 button lets you select a number of skills you’ve set for use in battle. You can also block attacks to completely nullify their damage, but you can only do so for a limited period of time and enemies are capable of crushing your guard if their attacks are strong enough.

Battle has no particular rhythm and can sometimes be pretty chaotic. Enemies will ambush you in as large numbers as can manage to reach striking distance. This can mean you’re battling dozens of foes at times. You can use L1 to lock onto an enemy, but unfortunately the lock on camera isn’t the greatest. Flicking the R-stick will switch between targets, but I found myself not using it often.

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The only real issue with Lost Song’s combat system is that there’s some noticeable lag between button presses and on screen action. It’s a fraction of a second, but it’s enough to feel frustrating at times. Over time it’s easy enough to adjust to, but it’d be nicer if characters’ attacks didn’t have such long start ups.

Visuals

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One thing struck me when I was playing: Sword Art Online: Lost Song is surprisingly pretty. I expected it to look like like an upscaled PS Vita game, as is the case with so many licensed PS4/Vita titles these days, but I had apparently forgotten to account for the game’s PS3 release. Indeed, Lost Song looks like an upscaled PS3 title. It’s not like textures were replaced or anything—the game is still fairly dated looking by PS4 standards, but to call it ugly would be doing it a disservice.

While Lost Song may not capture that anime feel as well as some older Naruto games or Dragon Ball Xenoverse, it still manages to get the job done. You can look at sufficiently far distance over the islands you’ll be exploring, and see enemies dotting the landscape from high above the clouds. Little effects like characters’ outfits and hair moving in the wind, or tall grass swaying in the breeze is a nice touch you don’t often see in licensed anime ports these days.

Multiplayer

What would a game pretending to be an mmo while offline be when you take it online? A fairly standard multiplayer experience, that’s what. After completing the first few missions in story mode, you can enter the tavern and connect to other players. There’s a lot of potential here, given the nature of SAO in general, but sadly it’s the one part of the game that feels a bit half-baked.

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Multiplayer in Lost Song consists of finding a lobby, which is basically its own instance of the game’s hub city. Each instance can house up to 16 players. You can do everything you can do in the town in multiplayer, but you aren’t allowed to leave. Instead of grouping up with the other 15 players and getting to travel around Svart Alfheim kicking ass, you get to choose a quest from a quest counter and join up with up to three of your fifteen potential comrades and go on a single mission together before disbanding.

Weak.

I was hoping for so much more. The idea of being able to take on this world and fly around and explore with a large group sounds like an amazing idea! There are some seriously tough monsters out there, and sure, 15 players would be a bit of overkill, but that would just be a matter of scaling the strength of enemies in response to the strength of the party. Something lots of MMOs do in the real world.

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Squandered potential or no, the quests they do offer are pretty fun and can be challenging. Most of the multiplayer quests I played were boss rush style battles in which myself and the rest of my party fought two or three consecutive bosses from story mode for cash and prizes. I would have loved for a way to keep my party together and run additional missions. If you have a good group, coordinating with them is kind of a pain. Voice chat is enabled in the lobby by default, but it’s proximity chat. It’s not a bad system, but it could have been so, so much more.

Character Customization

What sounds better than being able to create your own avatar and run missions with Kirito and crew in ALfheim Online? Nothing, right? I love making my own character in famous anime games. When I heard you could do the same in Lost Song, I was excited.

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Sadly, Lost Song’s character customization is among the worst I think I’ve ever seen in any game. You can choose to make a character belonging to any one of ALfheim Online’s factions, but your gender will be preset. Wanna be a male spriggan? Too bad. Wanna be a female salamander? You’re SOL.

I guess you can at least select your hairstyle, so there’s that.

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Sword Art Online: Lost Song came out of nowhere. It’s a surprisingly great game that’s a blast to play. If you give it a fair shake, you will enjoy it. If you’re a fan of the series, this game is a huge step in the right direction to making the perfect SAO game. You will love this. It’s a fun action RPG on its own, even without the license. If you’re looking for a fun casual game to fill the gap between now and 2016’s big hitters, this is the game for you.


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