Release date: September 30, 2022
Publisher: Bandai Namco
If you were into anime in the 2010s (and probably even if you weren’t), it’s likely that you’ve heard of Sword Art Online. An immensely popular series of light novels by Reki Kawahara, it has since spawned several shows, movies, and, of course, video games. The world of Sword Art Online seems to lend itself perfectly to a video game format, and the series has capitalized on its MMO premise to release several titles across various platforms over the years. Alicization Lycoris is the most recent game of the franchise, releasing in 2020 on other platforms, and has now finally made its way to the Switch two years later following Hollow Realization and Fatal Bullet. But if you pick it up, will you want to log out?
Alicization Lycoris opens with a bang, thrusting you into Kirito’s battle against the game’s antagonist, the Administrator. But before you can see the outcome of the final clash of blows between the two, the game then takes you back in time a little to when Kirito first arrived in Underworld, with no idea of how he got there and unable to log out or contact any of his friends. Kirito teams up with Eugeo to find a way back to the Real World while Eugeo searches for a girl named Alice, who was taken away several years ago. To do this, they need to join the institution in charge of Underworld, which is more sinister than it first seems. The first chapter of the game serves as an adaptation of the third season of the anime (the “Alicization Begining” to “Alicization Uniting” story arcs of the light novel) and from the second chapter onwards tells an original story featuring all of Kirito’s friends from past anime seasons as well as a new, game-exclusive character, Medina.
Unfortunately, the game suffers from severe pacing issues in its opening hours, with very brief bursts of gameplay and long loading times interspersed between a lot of very tepid dialogue and exposition, as the game tries to tell the story of an entire anime arc – and sufficiently explain a lot of terminology and concepts that have taken much longer than that to properly explore and flesh out – in a single chapter, which will take upwards of fifteen hours to push through if reading and watching everything, something newcomers to the franchise will need to do if they want to understand any of the dialogue moving forward as it serves as the foundation for the game’s original story. Although the cutscenes themselves can be entertaining at times when the action heats up, the majority of it is told with static anime portraits and endless walls of text, which is far less engaging, and quickly becomes tiresome when it can take upwards of thirty minutes to get through a single scene at the worst of times, only for another long scene to follow on from that.
The gameplay segments cemented in-between these mostly involve you travelling to the same map repeatedly to slay a few monsters with only a couple of new game mechanics being introduced and a very limited number of side activities, making them feel less like tutorials and more a silent acknowledgement that starting a game off with several hours’ worth of cutscenes might not have been the best idea. Even as someone who has enjoyed the Sword Art Online anime series in the past and has a high level of tolerance for slow starts in video games, I struggled to get through parts of the game’s first chapter due to the glacial pacing and sometimes irrelevant nature of the dialogue. The game is nothing if not thorough in explaining and expanding upon literally everything, for better or worse.
For those who are already familiar with the anime or light novels Alicization Lycoris offers Lightplay Mode, which abridges (and I use that word very loosely) the story up until the beginning of Chapter 2. Lightplay Mode aims to cut down on the padding in the first chapter with shots taken from the anime and a short narration explaining events between some (but not all) of the gameplay segments, so it feels more like a tutorial chapter than a condensed anime arc, and there is a greater focus on setting up Medina’s backstory and character, something that is easily lost in amongst all the other cutscenes outside of this mode. Unfortunately, even in Lightplay Mode, the first chapter of the game takes around eight hours to complete, which is a long time to wade through dialogue you are already mostly familiar with, and it does little to help the game’s pacing in the opening hours.
Once you push through the first chapter, however, Alicization Lycoris becomes quite the enjoyable experience, as the game opens up and allows you to explore at your own pace. You are given access to several new gameplay systems, characters, and sidequests, and what you choose to do from that point forward and the order in which you do it outside of the main story quests is entirely up to you. After being frog-marched through an entire anime arc this can feel somewhat overwhelming, but thankfully the game has comprehensive tutorials for each aspect of its gameplay that you can review at any time, as well as an encyclopedia that details key terminology, characters and their relationships to one another, and allows you to view past story events. Upon reaching Chapter 2, I couldn’t help but feel as though selecting Lightplay Mode should have allowed you to begin the game at this point, rather than forcing you through those opening hours, because all you need to know is contained within this Encyclopedia, and it is much easier to digest when presented in this format.
Even if you are unfamiliar with the extensive character roster of Sword Art Online, the game offers you ample opportunity to get to know all of them, with a relationship system allowing you to deepen your bond through repeated interaction, sidequests, and, eventually bridal carrying them to your bed once their affection with you is high enough for special scenes. It’s a very clunky and shallow way of developing your relationship with them, as Heart to Hearts involve randomly selecting the same choices over and over until their affection is high enough for you to progress, but it fits the more light-hearted side of the series and results in plenty of scenes that showcase each character’s personalities and quirks after you’ve gotten through the initial process.
Alicization Lycoris is an action RPG with a real-time combat system, with enemies visible on the map for you to engage with or avoid as is your preference. The game is set to Semi-Auto mode by default, which only requires you to press Y to string combos together, but switching to manual will afford you a greater deal of control, as timing your attacks will result in different combinations. B allows you to dodge, and A to guard, with additional bonuses if you manage to time these perfectly to avoid enemy attacks. Holding R in combat will bring up your skills, which are assigned manually, and can be executed if you have sufficient SP. Like your regular attacks, these can be chained together for greater effects, both by yourself and with your party members. Attacking an enemy will also fill the Risk and Hazard gauges, which affect how much damage you do and how much damage you take, adding an additional layer of strategy to the gameplay and encouraging you to be more cautious, but rewarding you if you are more aggressive.
Combat is in my opinion the game’s greatest strength, as it has sufficient flexibility to function as either a faster paced hack-and-slash title or a more technical and methodical one, and the AI is surprisingly competent no matter how you approach battles, and can trigger effects, draw aggro, and heal you and each other without too much prompting. You can also switch between characters in combat if you would prefer to micro-manage everyone yourself, and set up commands for both specific actions and party-wide behavior if you would prefer to stick with a single character. The game’s tutorials on combat, also accessible at any time from the main menu, are comprehensive and easy to understand, and whilst the game only introduces the basics to you briefly in its opening chapter, it provides you clear instructions on how to use them, and also won’t punish you if you don’t on the default difficulty setting.
Exploring Underworld, the game’s setting, is also an enjoyable and highly accessible experience. The map can be a little difficult to navigate as it doesn’t provide a detailed explanation at the surrounding terrain, but the game compensates for this by providing you with a guiding arrow system that will visibly lay out a path for you to follow to your current objective if you need it, although the route this takes towards your goal can be unnecessarily circuitous at times, meaning you may just be better off using the compass at the top of the screen to navigate if you can clearly see the route ahead of you. The minimap suffers from similar lack of detail when it comes to depicting the terrain, but it clearly marks points of interest for you, which includes things such as quest markers, treasure chests, and fast travel points. There are a lot of different markers, but these can be filtered by type to prevent unnecessary clutter, and you can also set your own waypoints to travel to. Each area of the game felt to me as though it struck the right balance between being big enough to explore, but not so big that a lot of that time would be spent running from one place to the next, and fast travel points are sufficiently generous so that if you die you won’t lose too much progress.
As you would expect, the game has a wealth of side content for you to undertake, and for the most part this is rewarding and satisfying. Alongside the more in-depth sidequests, there are also Service Quests. The rewards for these are small and there is little variety to be had in them – usually either slaying a particular monster or retrieving items you can find from gather points – but these all contribute to your Renown for that area, and the higher your Renown, the better your chances of success at crafting are, or the higher your shop discount. This extra reward to the standard fetch quests makes them feel a little more worthwhile, and they’re also quite convenient: NPCs are usually clustered around fast travel points, and you can pick up as many quests as you like (although only one can be registered as an active sub-quest) and complete them whilst you adventure.
Of slightly more significance are the Relic quests, which are scattered around the map and given by statues, and give you skill points to spend on your skill tree, allowing you to develop your characters. Whilst characters all have their own unique skills, they share the same overarching skill tree, meaning you do not have to teach each character every skill individually. This makes it much easier to swap out party members and keep them relevant, as well as customise their builds. This was something I appreciated in my playthrough, as it allowed me to have a reasonably strong party at all times, without having to spend more time than necessary grinding to bring a character I wanted to use up to par.
Of course, the game also has all of the systems you would expect of a fantasy MMO: fishing, crafting, and cooking are all side activities you can engage in, and while none of them are as fully developed or involved as the game’s combat, each has just enough depth to be worth doing, and are tied to service quests, meaning that if you wish to experience everything you will be spending some time doing them. Whilst not all of the systems are fully fleshed-out, none feel as though they waste your time if you choose to engage in them, or make you feel like you are missing out if you would prefer to instead focus on the story or other side content. Overall, Alicization Lycoris offers the potential for dozens of hours of content once it opens up and allows you the freedom to explore.
But the number one question on everyone’s minds in regards to Alicization Lycoris on Switch is probably this: how well does it perform? The game is somewhat notorious for not running as well as it should on other platforms, and with Switch ports there are often sacrifices made to get the game onto the system, and this does not always pay off. Unfortunately, this is where things fall apart for the game, so much so that it makes it extremely difficult to play at all.
Visually the game falls far below modern standards. Textures, where they exist at all, are flat and blocky, and visibly load in and out with any movement. Character and enemy models can be surprisingly crisp and detailed when viewed up close, but unless you are in an in-game cutscene or zoomed right in and there is barely any motion, these too quickly become a blurry, pixelated mess. In combat, the game delights in showering you with special effects which, as well as destroying the game’s framerate and resulting in some truly terrible input delay, make it extremely difficult to tell what is going on on-screen. You can disable a lot of these in the game’s menu, but it only allows you to keep better track of what your character is doing, and doesn’t improve the framerate in any noticeable way.
While exploring the overworld, pop-in is extremely noticeable: enemies, environmental objects, and NPCs will all spring up out of nowhere and blink out of existence. Environmental objects can also be partially cut off if you are too close to them, leaving you with half-visible trees and walls. In handheld mode, objects are sometimes rendered piece-by-piece depending upon your distance from them, which can result in some extremely bizarre visual effects on screen.
You would think that these visual sacrifices would result in at least a consistent frame rate, but unfortunately you would be wrong in this assumption, and those who expect at least a consistent 30 FPS in the games they play won’t find that here. The game noticeably drops what few frames it has with the slightest provocation: entering a battle, NPCs wandering into your field of vision in a more densely populated area, or even just adjusting the camera slightly. Loading times are long enough to be noticeable, clocking in at anywhere between five and twenty seconds depending upon the event. This time adds up and, in the earlier hours of the game especially where you are constantly interrupted by cutscenes transitioning from one area to another, is quite frustrating.
Also worth noting is the presence of not one but two in-game stores: the SAO Shop, and the CUBE. Nothing in either of these is essential, and at no point during my playthrough did I feel as though purchasing something would dramatically change my experience, but the SAO Shop does offer several cosmetic items and “time-saver” mechanics such as limited-time EXP boosters to be aware of. The game does reward you with currency to use in the CUBE if you complete daily quests, but these are used in a gacha-style system: if you want to buy something specific, you need to purchase another currency, SAO coins, with real money. If you pull a duplicate item through the CUBE store you’re rewarded with tickets that you can use to exchange for some specific items in the SAO Shop, but there are three tiers of tickets, which you will be awarded depending on the rarity of the item. This makes the tickets themselves feel more like an afterthought than a meaningful inclusion, as you will have to accumulate a lot of them – or be extremely lucky and pull a lot of rare duplicates, which is in itself a contradiction – to make use of them. If you find this sort of thing distasteful, this could become an unwelcome distraction and is worth keeping in mind.
Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris is a very frustrating game. There is the potential for a great experience here, but it first requires the patience to slog your way through a poorly delivered and badly paced adaptation of an entire anime arc (regardless of whether you’re familiar with it or not) and even once you have overcome this initial hurdle, the myriad of technical issues that plague the game prevent it from ever reaching the heights that it clearly could have if it ran at a consistent frame rate, or had even slightly improved visuals. This is not a game I would recommend even the most die-hard fans of the series pick up on the Switch, especially if they have the ability to play it on literally any other platform. Sacrifices to get this running on the system at all were inevitable, and if those sacrifices had resulted in a better performance experience this would be a more neutral rating because the pacing of the game improves noticeably after the first chapter, and there is an excellent world to explore here with a solid combat system to back it up. But as it stands right now, this is one you’re better off not logging into at all.
Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.