Smooth combat and fancy flying isn't enough to resurrect this mundane IP.
Apparently, the creators of Sword Art Online want the popular series to infiltrate every type of media available, as Sword Art Online: Lost Song is the third SAO game to be released. As such, the idea of playing a non-MMO game where I control a boy who's playing an MMO is a confusing concept reminiscent of the level-within-a-level theme behind Inception. Unfortunately, the lackluster storyline combined with repetitive gameplay results in a game that will only appeal to fans of the series.
The story takes place shortly after the events of Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, and once again follows Kirito as he sits back to play an MMO. This time, he ventures into Alfheim Online's expansion, titled Svart Alfheim, with the intent of beating it before a rival guild known as the Shamrocks can do so. Sadly, Kirito isn't stuck in the virtual world or being tormented by an evil oppressor, so the motivation for continuing with the game is based more on actual gameplay than an interesting story. In fact, I've seen more conflict between a seasoned WoW player trying to tame his bulging waistline than what exists between Kirito and his supposed enemies.
Thank goodness the combat features smooth controls, smartly-mapped buttons, and a wide variety of moves for all three party members. In addition to the standard use of stamina for physical attacks and blocks and mana for special and magic moves, each character can use three different types of weapons. For example, Kirito has access to a versatile single-handed sword, two fast blades, or a powerful two-handed sword. Each weapon type can be improved through use, and this also unlocks new abilities in that particular fighting style. Conversely, raising each character's level will increase passive skills and also add new magic abilities. This is all standard fare for modern RPGs, but the highlight is being able to smoothly transition between physical and magic attacks during combat.
SAO: LS is the first game in the series where players can control characters other than Kirito, but this feature isn't fleshed out as much as it should be. It's possible to switch between all three party members at will, but players can only control one character at a time. If the player's character is defeated, they have to wait and see if the A.I. for the other two characters can resurrect them or defeat the enemy on their own. This wouldn't be so bad if customization wasn't limited to only determining which moves can be used and not when they're used. For instance, being able to set a character to heal teammates when they drop below 40% would literally be a lifesaver.
New to the series is the ability to fly around using retractable wings, which not only adds variety to exploration, but also makes it more fun! With the press of a button, players can take flight to explore and also to fight enemies. Similar to other MMOs I've played, it can be cathartic to simply fly up to a floating island in the sky, land on it, and observe the surroundings. Flight controls during combat can be tricky at first, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it. Granted, combat in the air forces players to hover rather than fly freely about, but it's still cool. I just wish that there wasn't a height ceiling for the first half of the game because hitting it is an instant reminder that I'm playing a game and not exploring an alternate universe.
Too bad that combat suffers from the all-too-common blend of frequent enemy encounters with little variety in enemy design. It might be fun to fly around and fight engorged bat-like creatures for a while, but the fiftieth battle with these trifle creatures is much more of an annoyance. It doesn't help that the landscape is littered with enemies that can't be avoided, similar to an MMO. Add the fact that dungeon design is boring to begin with and that dungeons and even bosses are recycled, and the result feels like I'm playing a last-gen RPG with modern visuals. I imagine this can be attributed to the fact that Sword Art Online: Lost Song was originally created on the PS Vita. One of my pet peeves is when developers make a game for both next-gen consoles and either last-gen consoles or modern handhelds because the result is the lowest common denominator rather than what's best for each platform.
It's only natural to expect some kind of online social experience when playing a game based on an MMO, and in this regard, SAO: LS doesn't disappoint. While players don't have their choice of joining hundreds of other visible players running around the area, they can initiate a match finder to locate other people for both coop and versus modes. Co-op consists of replaying battles against more powerful versions of the bosses in the single-player adventure. Just like an MMO, success is based on player helping each other rather than going Leroy Jenkins. Versus mode includes 1v1 brawls, but the more interesting version is engaging in fast-paced 4v4 battles. Players will either strive to work together and become a strong team or do their own thing and quickly disband. This is the kind of combat that can easily make or break online friendships.
In summation, fans of the series will come for the single-player story, but they'll stay for the online multiplayer goodness. Conversely, gamers like myself who aren't familiar with SAO will find Sword Art Online: Lost Song to be just another lackluster MMO based on a popular animé.