Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris attempts to revamp the franchise and breathe new life into it, with very polarizing results.
Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris starts players off with a bang, and for fans of the anime, it’s quite different from how the series starts. After a very basic tutorial that introduces the block, attack, and Sword Skills, you’re thrown in the season’s final battle against the all-powerful Administrator. The fight itself is impossible to lose, as nothing happens if Kirito’s (the protagonist) HP is depleted.
The mechanics of combat are simple and don’t require much effort to learn. However, the controls for combat are rather subpar. Somehow, the controls are both slippery and floaty, meaning it’s difficult to maneuver Kirito without him sliding around and completely missing the enemy. There is an upside to this opening battle and combat in general, at least — it feels incredibly satisfying when you land a skill. At this point in Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris, there are tons of skills to choose from and they all have that nice anime flashiness to them, not to mention the substantial damage they hit for.
Once the Administrator’s health dips below a certain amount, her and Kirito engage in a final heated clash of swords.
After a bright flash of light, Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris‘s main story actually begins with a de-powered Kirito who’s been thrown into a mysterious but somewhat familiar virtual world known as “Underworld.” He soon meets a young man named Eugeo who helps him get accustomed to the village and the world at large. As Kirito explores more, he realizes what makes Underworld so special: the A.I. that populates the world behave just like humans and are completely unaware of their status as fictional beings.
Under the belief that Kirito is essentially a chosen one who is dropped into his world by the gods, Eugeo tours Kirito around his village and shows him the Gigas Cedar, a giant tree that drains energy from his village. It is his Calling — a special goal given to each villager to work towards each day or die trying — to cut down this tree with a power axe. Kirito tries to help but discovers how daunting the task is. Eugeo then reveals that his family line has been working toward this goal for 300 years now.
As Kirito and Eugeo work and train (with the former’s goal of figuring out how to complete the latter’s goal quickly so he can be escorted into the main capital) we also find out about Eugeo’s younger sister, Alice, and how she was taken away by an Integrity Knight for violating the taboos of the land. The plot switches its focus to saving her and it continues from there, following the general story beats of the anime with the exception of a new female character named Medina who joins the roster a bit later on.
The plot develops slowly, and I mean at an absolute crawl at times, as Kirito uncovers more of the secrets permeating the world. Though the pacing is off, I enjoyed watching their relationship mature and Kirito get to know each major villager. And because Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris has far more breathing room to spend on developing the characters, they feel more fleshed out and it’s much easier to become invested in their world and growth. Eugeo, of course, benefits from this fleshing out the most, unlike in the anime where they barely have enough time to get a sprinkling of chemistry before the story whisks them along.
Alicization Lycoris still features the classic mechanics of the series, such as building Renown. By either speaking with NPCs or by completing quests, you can increase this stat which determines how people perceive you. This also affects your Affinity with them as well. It’s similar to the stat found in other Sword Art Online titles, which has the same effect of allowing the player to recruit more party members.
This is also an important feature for the usual dating sim mechanic that is present in any SAO game. By answering questions correctly in the heart-to-heart minigame for each eligible bachelorette, you increase their Affinity toward Kirito, which can unlock a special ending and scenes with them. As usual, if you’re invested in that sort of thing, it’s there, but if you elect to ignore it, there’s no penalty against you.
Kirito and other party members possess several stats: System Control Authority, Weapon Type, Ex Skills, Persona, Anima, and their current Affinity with Kirito. There’s also Proficiency, which correlates with how often you use a weapon. Raising this stat, or its Bond, is important for mastering certain abilities. Requiring Kirito to essentially level up his weapon usage is a visceral way to earn his power and skill, and it matches perfectly with the more organic fantasy setting of Alicization Lycoris that rewards a hard work ethic.
You can also affix equippable abilities, called Attachments, to armor which can have a range of passive effects. More powerful Attachments tend to also have a temporary usage period to mitigate any overuse. Although these stats suffer from the same issues as other SAO titles, in that they’re often convoluted and not very useful, it has been far more streamlined in Alicization Lycoris. The UI is also much less cluttered and easier to navigate which is a refreshing improvement.
Combat consists of controlling Kirito as you give directions to your normally AI-controlled party during any given sorte. Your team can perform special team-up skills as well, which are vital for some of the stronger foes. And while the combat has been completely overhauled and simplified to allow for a seemingly more accessible experience, it is not very good. As stated before, the controls are often floaty and imprecise, despite the decent lock-on mechanics. And though skills are satisfying when integrated with normal combos to devastating effect, landing those skills can often be an exercise in frustration thanks to said skills having little weight and impact, as well as being difficult to time in the first place.
Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris is an experimental title to be sure. It eschews the tried and true conventions of the franchise and instead attempts to create a more unique experience. The beginning, despite its glacial pacing, is also refreshing in its focus of drawing out the personalities of both Kirito and Eugeo while creating a charming world that you slowly become invested in. Even the inclusion of Medina is interesting since she’s the first herald of how the story will alter from the second half of the anime. Her character itself is intriguing and I found myself wanting to learn more about her and her importance to the plot.
The biggest roadblock with the plot, though, is the same as in the animated version. Once you hit the Sword Mastery Academy, the plot takes a noticeable nosedive. The newly introduced characters are bland window dressing solely there to service Kirito’s (and to a point Eugeo) own arc.
Though I will admit that once again the title’s slower pace makes the characters a little more endearing in this incarnation, there is no excuse, however, for this game to still have the infamous sexual assault scene from the anime. And while it doesn’t graphically depict said scene, this would have been a perfect opportunity to completely remove it and create an entirely new scene that serves the same character arc purposes, since it’s already established that this game will be diverging from the original story.
Alicization Lycoris‘s best feature is its multiplayer, which you unlock after clearing the first chapter. It features a pretty competent character creator (decent options that are standard in any SAO title) to go along with the enjoyable mission and side quest-based gameplay that’s often a welcome break from the occasional monotony of the main game. It’s a shame that such a fun part of the game is hidden behind over 12 hours of initial gameplay.
However, neither the single or multiplayer can hide the technical and graphical issues. It’s important to clarify that these are easily the best-looking graphics to date in a Sword Art Online game. The environments are uniquely designed, vibrant, colorful, and sometimes even pretty. But there are plenty of poorly rendered textures and the pop-in is extremely noticeable. Even worse are the frame rate issues, which for a turn-based JRPG would be forgivable, but are absolutely unthinkable in an action JRPG where timing is vital and slowdown can cost you a hefty chunk of dealt damage. Fixes have been coming to at least improve the abysmal FPS, so hopefully, those who already purchased the title will have a better experience moving forward.
Overall, credit is due to Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris for trying to change up the far too familiar formula of the franchise and offer both veteran and new players a brand new experience. But the problems in the plotline, gameplay, graphics, and technical issues impact it significantly. Although it’s not a bad game at all, it’s also not a very good one and becomes difficult to recommend to anyone outside of series fans.