Sword Art Online Last Recollection is the final entry in the SAO Gameverse. Last Recollection brings the story of the alternative continuity created for the game series to a close, and it may well be the last Sword Art Online game we see for a long while. Previous entries in the SAO Gameverse have been something of a mixed bag. Last Recollection is developed by Aquaria who are responsible for the very first entry Hollow Fragment, which was pretty fun, and the last entry Alicization Lycoris, which was not. This could go either way, so let’s take a closer look and see if Sword Art Online Last Recollection is more Aincrad or Alfheim.
The Story So Far
If you aren’t familiar with Sword Art Online, and more specifically the gameverse, then the story of Sword Art Online Last Recollection is going to be pretty inaccessible. This is a direct sequel to 2020’s Alicization Lycoris, and it pulls in characters from across the series with a Smash Bros-esque “everyone is here” approach. Of course not everyone is here, but it’s near enough with a grand total of 45 playable characters (including Kirito) of varying importance.
The basic premise that gets the ball rolling is that war between the Human Empire and the Dark Territory of Underworld is about to break out at any moment. Kirito and the gang, determined to prevent needless bloodshed, must set out into the Dark Territory to negotiate peace with its myriad factions. This is no easy feat. Those familiar with Sword Art Online will know there is all manner of chicanery going on behind the scenes. Forces back in the real world show up to interfere with the peace efforts, and just generally muck things up.
The broad strokes of the narrative line up with Sword Art Online canon, but with the gameverse’s own twists and additions. Don’t expect any real surprises though. Sword Art Online Last Recollection follows convention without deviation, and delivers the narrative arc and ending that just about everyone would expect. I’m not going to pore over the particulars of the plot, it’s a Sword Art Online story so it goes without saying it’s nothing special. It’s a competent execution of the formula.
Sword Art Online: Infinity Harem
Sword Art Online has a wide cast of characters united by a common belief that Kirito is the bee’s knees. Just the best to ever do it. Even characters who have dedicated their entire lives to killing him have only arrived at such motivations via their earnest admiration for his abilities. Sword Art Online Last Recollection adds another entry to Kirito’s ever-expanding waifudex, the dark knight Dorothy. She’s a gameverse original character who is the de facto protagonist of Last Recollection in the continued absence of any presence or personality from Kirito.
Before I go any further I would like to say that, contrary to how it may sound, I do like Sword Art Online. The series is like McDonald’s fries. You keep ordering on the off chance you get a fresh, crispy batch, even though most of the time they’re going to be anaemic, flaccid, and somehow slightly wet. Oh but when they’re good though, well they’re still not amazing, but it’s the disappointment of so many soggy chips that elevates that rare, golden, crispy, appropriately salted batch.
Anyway, back to the game now. I enjoyed Dorothy as a character. Her arc was nice, though of course it’s been done before. Dorothy is a dark knight who joins Kirito and his companions on the quest for peace. Her life in the Dark Territory has been a difficult one. She is the Child of Sin, the child of a woman from the Dark Territory and a man from somewhere else (spoiler territory). As the Child of Sin she is often discriminated against, and she’s struggled to find real friendship or warmth. She of course finds this friendship with Kirito and his assorted wives, but there’s the interesting wrinkle that if peace fails she, as a dark knight, would find herself on the other side of a war with her new pals.
Imagine All The People, And Orcs, And Goblins, And…
Dorothy isn’t the only new addition to the cast, we’ve also got Sarai and Kainan, two new characters from the Dark Territory. Sarai is a kind-hearted child who you are, presumably, inclined to protect. I’d like to say I’m above cynical manipulation, but I am not. It is sad when Sarai cries, and I want her to not do that. Kainan is a miserly merchant with a heart of gold, a trope to be sure, but a fun one. His VA does an excellent job too which really elevates his whole goofy character archetype. I love Kainan, he reminds me of my grandfather freezing the family to death to save pennies on heating.
Part of how Sword Art Online Last Recollection differentiates itself with its respective arc in the anime is the exploration of the Dark Territory. There is something of a focus on the various peoples inhabiting the area, including orcs, goblins, ogres, and Dark Territory humans. What exactly is different about Dark Territory humans? Well, take a punt. The exposition here is bland. You don’t get to spend much time with any one group and the information the game chooses to dump on you is just dull. The various races feel remarkably indistinct.
The goal of immersing you amongst the people of the Dark Territory is of course to provide motivation for the goal of peace. It doesn’t land particularly well because your interactions all boil down to “do this group a favour, now they like you” or “beat these guys up, now they respect you”, it’s painfully shallow. Obviously the ultimate takeaway is there are good people just trying to get by on both sides of the divide, an obvious and rote message, but at least it’s normal. The psychosexual mores of isekai harem series like Sword Art Online are often so depraved that delivering a droll message of universal humanity and friendship is on the better end of things.
I don’t want to rail too hard on Sword Art Online Last Recollection for being cliché. I wasn’t expecting any incredible storytelling. It’s frustrating though that there are the component parts of an interesting narrative. The pursuit of a peace deal between the competing interests of the Dark Territory is fertile ground for intrigue and complexity, but it’s all wasted. The true enemy reveals itself and it’s a plain conflict between good and evil that we’ve seen a thousand times before. This is the end of the Gameverse, do something interesting with it.
The last ten hours of Sword Art Online Last Recollection’s story was exhausting. As the narrative devolves into fighting against the incoherent big bad I was losing the thread. The game realizes too late that it forgot to give any focus to Alice, who is the main target of the villainous forces. She takes a huge backseat, as do most of the characters frankly. Dorothy gets the bulk of screentime and development, which isn’t so bad but it does leave much of the cast feeling like nothing more than theoretical manpower for the conflict.
I did enjoy the fanservice moments of characters like Klein and Agil showing up to join the fight. It’s a cheap thrill, but it works. It’s just a shame that their role in the narrative is just being present. So many characters are present but feel completely disconnected from anything going on. Of course, not every playable character is going to have a big role to play in the story. They’re here to add variety, to expand the player’s options, and keep the gameplay fresh. Except, none of that is the case.
45 Characters, One Playstyle
The massive roster of playable characters is an attractive prospect for Sword Art Online fans. I know I was excited going in to play with all my favorite dudes. Unfortunately, there is a fatal lack of variety in play across these characters. Their skillset and playstyle is governed by their weapon, of which there are 13 varieties with a skill tree for each. Still a pretty substantial variety though right? Wrong. Regardless of what weapon you use, you’ll be doing the exact same thing with marginal differences. Mostly you’ll be pressing square repeatedly.
Sword Art Online Last Recollection is the most boring action combat system I’ve experienced since Alicization Lycoris. Across all weapons you press square repeatedly to run through a combo of strikes and skills. Hold R1 and you can activate skills. There is a system of combos and combo extensions to increase your damage output, marginally, and skills have some additional effects to consider. Some skills can be used during enemy moves to counter them and deal big stagger damage, and this mechanic works about 80% of the time. Once you stagger an enemy you can launch them, beat them up in the air for a damage multiplier, then once they hit the ground you can unleash a finishing move for big damage.
Boss enemies’ health pools are so obscenely inflated that you’ll be grinding them down for ten minutes with the same boring loop. There is no challenge present that I could find. Even cursory engagement with the game’s systems allows you to survive just about any fight. Want to fight an enemy fifteen levels above you? Go for it. The only difficulty presented by increased enemy ranks is staying awake during the twenty five minute slog that awaits you. As long as you’ve got some basic setup done on your tactical arts you won’t die. Oh yeah, tactical arts.
Sword Art Online Last Recollection is replete with cumbersome mechanics and systems that are pointless and ill-fitting for its genre. The tactical arts system allows you to modify your teammates’ behavior in battle, giving them instructions on what to do and at what time. It also allows you to tap L1 in battle, pausing the fight and bringing up a list of customizable instant commands for you allies. Load these commands up with buffs, heals, and debuffs, and then you’re done. There are hundreds of options, and you only need a fraction of them. It’s all just pointless adornment.
There is something truly asinine about settling on an action combat system, and then doing sparse work on the action itself, opting instead to offer a massive selection of ‘strategy’ elements that would be far more interesting in, say, a turn-based combat system. These strategic elements just don’t mix with fast-paced action, perhaps they could but they don’t here. The AI isn’t reliable enough for the behavior customization to be useful or fun. I lost count of how many times my teammates stood dead still sucking their thumbs, as if they’d lost all interest in the ongoing fight, and who could blame them I suppose.
There’s so much more I could go over, but it’s all just piss in the wind. There’s a gauge that limits your ability to use those L1 instant commands, but it’s incredibly easy to keep it full at all times by perfect dodging or guarding (the windows for this are massive). There is the chain burst system that rewards chaining skills together with a damage multiplier, but again it’s incredibly simple to use and the multiplier feels meaningless when enemies have HP pools so bloated they would make any MMO blush. I guess we should talk about progression and customization, I bet you can guess where this is going.
As you progress in Sword Art Online Last Recollection you will acquire skill points, new gear, and increase character affinities. None of this has any impact on gameplay. Each weapon type has a skill tree, but all weapon skills bar one are unlocked by default. The skill tree instead unlocks minor enhancements to weapon skills, passive effects, and combat skills like buffs or heals. Progressing down these trees feels hollow as nothing you unlock is going to change how you play, it will only ever provide marginal boons.
Equipment is where your progression will be the most significant, which is a dreadful indictment. There is no upgrading or crafting of equipment, it’s just straight predetermined enemy drops and chests. Most equipment you find will be a downgrade from what you already have because there is no consistency in distribution. Weapons have a flat damage stat and that’s about all that matters. Armor and accessories are similarly simple, they can affect a number of stats, but I opted to equip whatever gave me the best damage output as survivability was never once a concern.
Playing Sword Art Online Last Recollection I never felt I was going anywhere. There were no goals to aim for beyond progressing the narrative. Yes I could take on some optional bosses to grab better equipment, and I did on occasion, but it was always a disappointment because it never provided a tangible benefit. I could see a theoretical increase in stats, but it doesn’t translate to the player experience in combat. Upgrading my skills gave me more options in combat, but it never evolved the core loop or added any interesting mechanics or considerations. There is customization in theory, but it’s meaningless in practice. It’s stagnant.
When you aren’t trapped in a long, dull fight, you’ll be exploring Sword Art Online Last Recollection’s world. The scope has been wound in from Alicization Lycoris, and now the world is separated into a series of smaller separate maps. The Dark Territory has a fair bit of variety in its landscapes and vistas, which I appreciate. There isn’t much to do in these separate maps though. There are collectable points that give you skill points, unique monsters that you can fight for gear, and the obligatory JRPG side quests.
The side quests offer XP, cash, and some reward like a piece of armor or a dye you can use to customize Kirito’s outfits. Only Kirito’s outfits by the way, other characters do have a few additional outfits to collect but you can’t dye them. The content of the quests themselves is fairly typical, though there are some longer quests with many stages to finish. If you were hoping for fun, I’m sorry to tell you they are not. I did a lot of side quests in the first 20 hours before finally reaching the conclusion that I ought to just crack on with the main quest so the homogeneity of the whole affair doesn’t see me off.
As you travel between story destinations there is always some rudimentary roadblock that is solved by exploration or puzzling. Sometimes these roadblocks give you a little glimpse into the history of the Dark Territory, but they’re mostly just tedious. The puzzle elements also appear in the dungeons that pop up in the late game, and they’re mind numbing. Less puzzles and more processes. The dungeons are indistinguishable from any other map to be frank, the only difference being they’re more linear and densely packed with enemies.
The previous entry in the series, Alicization Lycoris, was afflicted by feature bloat and there has been a shift away from that with Sword Art Online Last Recollection. The scope has been tightened significantly, and that could be good if the final result was a smaller but stronger experience. That isn’t what we’re left with though. Elements like the dating and fishing minigames have been cut, the scope of the world has been reduced, and the equipment system has been dumbed all the way down. In their absence you’re left with nothing.
I don’t personally mind losing all the fluff, but when the core experience hasn’t been improved upon and nothing substantial has been added I ended up missing the frills. There is still a character affinity system, but affinity is only gained via fighting with a given character in your party. Maxing out affinity will unlock new outfits, finishing arts, and some short character episodes. Those episodes are little VN sections that show Kirito and a character getting closer and doing fun little activities together. They’re nice, but a bit light and repetitive.
There’s postgame content of course, though again light and repetitive. There are “divine beasts” you can fight after slogging through enough unique monster battles, and you can unlock more equipment and skills by grinding the same bosses over and over. You could run the game’s four dungeons again if you can bear it. There is a multiplayer element, though cut back from Alicization Lycoris. There is no co-op play for the main story, but you can team up with other players to fight unique monsters. The matchmaking is pretty clunky, and there isn’t much of a point without a goal to aim for beyond just getting a little bit stronger to do the same content a bit faster.
No Bang, But There Is Flash
Where Sword Art Online Last Recollection is a bit more impressive is in the visuals. A lot of character design is of course holdover work from the series, but the new characters definitely have a lot to love. Dorothy’s dark knight design is solid, with some thought given to match up with her backstory and personality. Kainan is probably my personal highlight. For a merchant character who doesn’t fight and mostly plays the role of guide, he has a lot of presence.
As I’ve mentioned there is a good deal of environmental variety, and the fidelity of these landscapes is a fair step up from Alicization Lycoris. The character models in Sword Art Online Last Recollection are an improvement on the rest of the series too. In previous entries they’ve had a plasticine quality to them which is gone here. They meld well with the environments, they’re detailed and stylish, it’s great.
Whilst I didn’t enjoy the combat I can’t deny it looks impressive. You’ve got some great animation work, with some flash and flare added that gives skills and series favorite moves some real kick. Things can get quite cluttered with all these flashy effects going off at once, but luckily the combat is mindless enough that not being able to tell what’s going on isn’t that much of a problem.
The Music Is Nice At Least
The music of Sword Art Online has always been a delight. We’re over ten years out now and Crossing Field is still a banger. Sword Art Online Last Recollection doesn’t disappoint in this area. The soundtrack is consistently strong throughout, with plenty of variety too. The game knows when to go all in with fast, heart-pounding beats, and when to slow it down with more somber or breezy tracks. As the game takes place in Underworld you’ve got a lot of tracks with haunting choirs, church bells, and organs, which I loved.
The voice acting work is top notch, much of the voice talent have been playing their respective characters for years now and that experience shows. The new characters are backed by some solid performances too, I’d especially like to highlight Kainan’s VA, Kentaro Tone, who did a wonderful job bringing the character’s goofy personality to life. Voice acting is a bit limited, only appearing in main story cutscenes of note. There are side conversations that are voiced only by grunts and short clips, which is disappointing but not a deal-breaker. It’s Japanese audio only too, which might be a turn-off for some.
In the end, Sword Art Online Last Recollection is a disappointment. The enticing promise of 45 playable characters is undercut by the monotony of combat, and the story is decently executed but entirely trite and predictable. This is the last entry in the Sword Art Online Gameverse, and I went in really wanting to love it. I’ve developed an appreciation for the game series over the years, in spite of its flaws. But I can’t find much appreciation at all for this. The game took me about forty hours to clear, and all I can say is that was about thirty hours too long. At least it’s mercifully short compared to Alicization Lycoris.
For diehard fans of the series perhaps it is worth picking up eventually, if only to see the journey through to the end. But for the majority of players who might be interested, I can’t recommend Sword Art Online Last Recollection. There was potential here, but it’s squandered. For the last entry in the series, this is no swan song. More like a goose gurgle.
SWORD ART ONLINE LAST RECOLLECTION IS NOT RECOMMENDED
Thanks to Bandai Namco for providing a PlayStation 5 review code for Sword Art Online Last Recollection.
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A man described by critics as “pretty normal” and “memorable in the abstract”. He has committed his life to the consumption of anime and games, against the advice and wishes of his family and friends. Now writing about his passions, hopefully for your enjoyment.