An interesting follow-up in the Sword Art Online series that swaps deep ground-based combat for simpler aerial thrills that make it decidedly more accessible and somewhat more enjoyable, too.
|Franchise||Dengeki Bunko; Sword Art Online|
|Physical English||Yes – EU/NA|
World-building & Story
After escaping the twisted experiment of Aincrad in the original Sword Art Online, our group of survivors led by Kirito are swept back into a new virtual world named Alfheim Online in Lost Song, where they aim to become the first guild to clear the new Svart Alfheim expansion content but get swept up in a new series of sinister events.
It quickly transpires that there’s more to this game than meets the eye, spearheaded by a virtual idol named Seven and her guild Shamrock, who dominate in terms of power on the server but hide something more worrying underneath. There is an overall plot here but it’s very much for fans of the series – without this you’re likely to get lost easily but you’re also likely to just not be that engaged as the story is slow paced and takes a while to build up to anything interesting (even then, the payout isn’t anything particularly special).
That means that most of the focus is solely on character development and in this regard at least, Lost Song shines brightly. The first thing I noticed is that this actually takes place in the same continuity as Hollow Fragment (the previous videogame) which splintered off from the anime and had our heroes clearing the remaining 25 floors of Aincrad due to a glitch in the code. This allows characters such as Philia and Strea to return and felt like a nice touch to me to establish a separate timeline within the videogames.
Of course, there is plenty of time spent with the main cast and each has their own side quest where they interact with Kirito – most of these are fairly forgettable, but characters like Asuna and Leafa at least had a handful of more interesting moments during theirs. Everything is suitably light-hearted and there’s lots of comedy sprinkled throughout (mostly through my favourite questing buddy Klein) meaning this isn’t one to invest in if you’re looking for tonnes of deep plot (although it will be for you if you’re looking for simple cutesy fanservice).
The setting of Alfheim Online (lifted directly from the second half of the first season of the anime) is interesting enough – it’s high fantasy, meaning this is a world of elf ears and magical spells, but there’s also an element of new frontiers thanks to the ability to fly. Its a shame that the areas themselves feel a bit quiet and desolate without the signs of life from other people question, but at least the hub city does give the feeling of a somewhat bustling hub city.
And really, this is where I feel like Lost Song misses the mark most – it doesn’t quite capture the feel of being an MMO the same way Hollow Fragment did. It’s enjoyable in its own way, but doesn’t quite shine as brightly as it could do (although I should mention here that the translation is significantly better here, making it far easier to follow in terms of plot and world-building!).
Presentation & Sound
A fairly beautiful representation of Sword Art Online’s virtual world, Lost Song may hit some generic notes in terms of graphics but on the whole it manages to shine on Vita.
The game kicks off with a rather gorgeous anime-style opening cutscene which sets the stage for Alfheim Online – sweeping green hills, soaring blue skies and exaggerated anime characters with elf ears and whacky clothing. There’s a handful of these anime scenes scattered through the chapters and they’re always beautiful – there’s a certain professional nature to the animation that makes it really pop off the screen and the character movement is extremely smooth (the 2D CG art is also lovely to look at, if a little fanservice-heavy).
Equally impressive is the in game modelling – there’s a smooth 3D design for all the characters (with a distinct lack of jagged edges which I found impressive), certain elements like Kirito’s cape or Asuna’s hair float in the wind as you move around and in general the designs are the larger-than-life fantasy kind found in the anime, meaning there’s plenty of little touches to give the title flavour. Enemies are also impressive on first glance, closely resembling those out of the series and featuring little rips in their coding as they’re damaged – but they’re res-kinned far too often giving much less impact to the later zones than the earlier ones.
Environments are simultaneously the best and worst thing about the presentation. When you first step into the virtual world of Alfheim Online and see the rolling hills for miles, custom landmasses in the skies and waves of foes that you can either glide past or engage, then it leaves a stunning first impression (this repeats for every new area which you unlock, which includes stereotypical desert and ice zones etc). I was also pleased that it seemed to run well for the most part, only dropping frames during some particularly hectic overworld boss encounters.
Yet on closer inspection they’re a lot less impressive. There’s no real texture work to things like the floors and ground (instead looking like a big colourless blob) and the world itself just feels a bit vapid and devoid of life. Hollow Fragment nailed the feel of actually being in Sword Art Online – random NPC’s wandering the areas you’re in, plenty of elements to interact with and forests and background elements as far as the eye could see. Things aren’t helped by the dungeons which are gorgeous dimly lit Spelunky-esque caves your first time around but look exactly the same on every subsequent discovery (at least the lighting in them is beautiful).
There’s a full range of Japanese voice acting here (which is emotive and impressive) and while music isn’t anything special, it fits the theme well and sounds pretty nice with a handful of stand-out tracks that really elevate the soundtrack.
Gameplay & Content
Shifting away from Hollow Fragment’s more layered gameplay for a faster action-RPG approach, Lost Song builds on Artdink’s many strengths to make an enjoyable game that mixes a number of elements to great effect.
The first thing you’ll notice when playing is how open everything is – you start off in a little hub town from which you can take quests, upgrade your equipment and choose your party members before teleporting to one of a handful of zones which act as the main levels. These are big sprawling open zones where you can generally go and do what you want – there are materials to collect, caves to explore, enemies to fight and best of all, you can do it all while flying through the skies.
See, one of the biggest advantages of the shift in setting from Aincrad to Alfheim Online is that it allows for aerial movement, which is a small change but makes the game feel completely different. Calling on their experience with Macross, Artdink have ensured that the movement here is generally impressive allowing you to enter flight mode, hover mode or walking mode at any point depending on the situation (subject to an altitude limit which is eventually raised allowing you to fully take to the skies and discover new dungeons which you couldn’t reach before).
Combat is handled through a fairly simple system – you attack with square and triangle, dodge with circle and can pull off a variety of special moves by a combination of the right trigger and face/direction buttons (locking on to a foe is achieved by holding L). There are little extras like a union gauge and stamina bar while sprinting, but it’s a significantly more simple system than Hollow Fragment – yet was one I actually preferred thanks to the fact that it was so accessible (good if you’re coming back to the game after a break) and was just fun to use (mowing down waves of enemies was pretty enjoyable).
Of course, with a limited movesets things can become stale quite quickly but the developers alleviate this by allowing you to change the playable character away from Kirito – you can make your own (although options are fairly limited) or choose from a wide cast that includes basically everyone important from the anime including my favourites Klein, Lisbeth and Silica. The problem with the combat is the camera – due to the game’s open nature it can be a little all over the place, which sometimes makes it difficult to attack who you want to.
The main gameplay flow involves taking quests from the town and finding the next ‘trigger event’ (usually from talking to a certain character), before heading out into each zone. You’ll usually have to explore the caves (there are 3-4 per area) which feature boss fights and contain key items used to activate some kind of mechanism which unlocks a large raid boss – beating these will allow you to progress to the next area. While it didn’t feel quite as faithful to the anime as its predecessor, it was enjoyable if a little formulaic after the first couple of times through.
There is a decent chunk of side content though – you can collect materials to improve the stats of your weapons (and appraise dropped weaponry in Lis’ smithy), undertake extra quests for special rewards and dual certain enemies for rewards. There’s also character-specific quest lines which usually involve seeing a number of visual-novel style cutscenes before fighting a boss – they’re linear, but are nice enough for fans of the series to spend more time with these characters. Sadly, the latter half of the game after you raise the altitude limit does feature a lot of repeated boss fights – but at least you can come at these with different party setups (they’re a lot more difficult too).
The raid bosses are probably the best aspect of Lost Song. Although you’ll only ever have a party of three (the AI here is decent although did have a habit of standing in awkward positions and dying on harder encounters – luckily they seem to have an unlimited stack of expensive revival items), their giant statute and multiple health bars makes them formidable and you will need to adapt to their attack patterns if you want to succeed. They give a fantastic feeling of spectacle and held immerse me in this MMO world, giving me a reason to keep pushing forward.
There is a multiplayer component here too, allowing you to take part in bonus quests in a party with real-world players. Obviously, when I tried this in 2019 there were very few other people to play with – but when I did manage to connect, the experience was smooth and enjoyable (it’s a shame this game never found an audience similar to other Vita titles like Freedom Wars).
Significantly more succinct than Hollow Fragment, a playthrough of Lost Song will only take around 25 hours to complete although there’s plenty more to do if you’re looking to reach 100% completion. This felt a much better length and I preferred it far more – it didn’t overstay its welcome and I felt satisfied when I was done with it which actually helped me to keep pushing towards the conclusion.
An enjoyable take on the Sword Art Online universe that offers accessible action-RPG gameplay, fantastic world exploration through the new flight mechanics and gorgeous graphics that really suit the package. Lost Song may not feature the most engrossing story and is a little rough and repetitive around the edges, but it’s still a Vita game that I’d recommend checking out if you’re just looking for a purely fun time.