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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review: Accel World vs. Sword Art Online: Millennium Twilight (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Clark A.

Ice will melt, water will boil, two similar IPs from the same creator will have a crossover. Unlike the gaming world’s zanier crossovers such as Pokémon Conquest, Accel World vs. Sword Art Online: Millennium Twilight is the type of collision that’s only natural. Based on two properties penned by prolific light novelist Reki Kawahara, both Sword Art Online and Accel World have an extensive list of overlapping traits. Chiefly, both feature futuristic digital worlds and narrative themes about overcoming trauma.

Related reading: Clark's review of the last Sword Art online game on PlayStation 4.

What’s remarkable, however, is that this crossover is more than one of contractual convenience. While it could have been a cynical cash-in on an obvious concept that fans would eat up, Accel World vs. Sword Art is genuinely worthwhile and leverages its source material with tact. While neither of Reki Kawahara’s works get mistaken for literary masterpieces in terms of raw storytelling, this fusion title taps into almost all of their mutual strengths. The result is a savoury dish that fans of either titular series can appreciate and aficionados of both can fall in love with.

The main Sword Art Online games have always aimed to recreate the imaginative landscapes of the VRMMORPGs (virtual reality massively multiplayer…you get the point) depicted in the source material, only with a single-player twist. This has historically meant guiding a petite party to hack and slash at fantasy enemies for experience points with either authentic mechanics that ones that ape the prototypical MMORPG. Even when impaired by budget restrictions and in-game stories that were content being fun romps, there’s an inimitable magic to it all. Flawed as they are, for fans of Sword Art Online’s anime, these games allow players to immerse themselves in familiar worlds and interact with beloved characters.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, Accel World hasn’t been nearly as fortunate when it comes to video game adaptations. With two Japanese exclusive games on the PSP/PS3 and a mobile offshoot, you’d be forgiven for not knowing they even exist. It makes perfect sense, then, that this relatively untapped property should be leveraged in another way. If the franchise is going unused in video game form, why not attach it to a series some feel is becoming stagnant?

Besides being written by the same author and sharing similar themes, why are Accel World and Sword Art Online so perfect for each other? Let’s examine the main characters of each franchise for starters. Sword Art’s protagonist, Kazuto Kirigaya, (more commonly referred to as his in-game moniker, Kirito) begins as a thoroughly charming and competent swordsman in the online world. He earnestly enjoys being a virtual swordsman and wins over countless ladies unintentionally. Upon being thrust into harrowing circumstances of life and death, however, the character becomes more overtly blemished and develops an edge. This brings the character down to earth a bit and enables more poignant interactions with other troubled sorts such as his girlfriend Yuuki Asuna and pal Asada Shino. Many of the character’s actions stem from his desire to become a game developer. 

From the get-go, Accel World’s Arita Haruyuki is almost an inversion of the highly successful Kirito. He’s an impossibly pudgy high school student who is habitually bullied, suffering from cowardice and self-esteem issues in equal doses. His lot in life changes when he meets a gorgeous classmate out of his league, Kuroyukihime (that being her persona - we still don’t know her real name), introduces him to a virtual reality video game with the power to influence reality. Haruyuki’s eventual claim to fame is not derived from his initial personality but a dormant potential that is slowly drawn out by companionship and high-stakes scenarios. Whereas Kirito earned the nickname The Black Swordsman through talent and bravery, Haruyuki’s status as Silver Crow (in-game persona) in the virtual world is a manifestation of his innermost potential. Unlike Kirito, Haruyuki doesn’t play video games because purely because he enjoys them. To him, they’re an escape from a mediocre reality and a means to express his only aptitude.


What I’m driving at here is that though these franchises are very much the same in principle, they’re rendered unique by how the characters think, feel, and act. Of course there are fascinating divergences in terms of how the virtual reality games like Brain Burst and ALfheim Online operate as well, but I don’t believe it’s simply the presentation of fictional game mechanics that draws people to each series. If you prefer one franchise to the other, there’s a good chance it lies with your ability to connect to its characters and the tone of the world they find themselves in.

Despite Accel World’s front row seat in the game’s title, this is a Sword Art Online experience first and foremost. Borrowing the assets and structure of 2015’s Sword Art Online: Lost Song (as should probably be expected of semi-niche games of this scope and budget), substantial chunks of the game take place in that game’s representation of the game ALfheim Online. This is where I suspect the bulk of Millennium Twilight’s criticisms will be directed as there’s no denying its similarities to a game that launched just a couple years ago.  

Accept the familiar structure and monster designs, though, and you’ll quickly discover that Millennium Twilight offers a fresh experience that stands out from the many fundamentally similar Sword Art games. The introduction of Accel World into the fold is a serious shot in the arm for Sword Art, contributing fresh locales, gameplay mechanics, and characters that carry pre-established back stories in their proverbial rucksacks.


Speaking of pre-established characters, it’s disappointing that the game does a worse job of introducing its cast and setting than the recently released Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization. Despite being one of several sequels, that game was a solid jumping-on point and didn’t even demand a viewing of the anime to enjoy. At the same time, it’s understandable given that the plot aims to introduce its selling point with the utmost haste. This game might be the trickier games in the series to start with, simply because so much of my enjoyment was a result of characters that I recognised.

Thankfully, there is an admirable effort to characterise both the Accel World and Sword Art Online cast. This is true even outside the lengthy visual novel portions. During battle, you'll frequently hear characters from each world engaging in casual conversation. Pair Kirito with Silver Crow and you'll see the latter crawling out of his socially awkward teen shell due to their shared passion for technology. When Kuroyukihime chats with Kirito, she’s legitimately intrigued about the origin of his nickname, The Black Swordsman, and alludes to her own backstory (which is significant in that the two don’t fully trust each other early on).

Dialogue between characters from the same franchise also plays off their history and personality flaws. Haruyuki finds himself feeling inferior to the flying fairies of ALfheim Online but Kuroyukihime is there to mentor him.  Whereas many crossover games either don’t allow characters to meaningfully interact or do so through the most banal exchanges imaginable, I generally found myself invested in the interactions between the characters of these separate worlds. Not all are what I’d call expertly written, but the majority convey a strong sense of who the bit players are as people. Characters are actually cognisant of the people around them, yet not merely expelling flavour text. Random exchanges in the field can be become redundant after a while, but the upside is that freshening up your party every so often yields something beyond gameplay diversity. New conversations broaden players’ understanding of the game’s many lovable faces or present references for hardcore fans to latch on to.


As far as the actual storyline goes, Accel World vs. Sword Art Online opts for a fairly transparent setup. While playing ALfheim Online one day, Kirito and Asuna hear an announcement that all users must log out of their accounts due to maintenance. Finding this suspicious (and willing to risk their lives despite two of being trapped in a video game), the pair decides to stick around. Sure enough, shenanigans are afoot and a masked woman kidnaps the couple’s digital child, Yui. A mechanical being named Black Lotus confronts the two but soon realises the error of her ways and reveals herself as a player from another online game. She doesn’t reveal which game just yet, but I’ll let you guess based on the title.

Given that there's a substantial time gap between the years in which Sword Art Online and Accel World take place, the writers of Millennium Twilight had to ram in a time travel plot to make it all work. The worlds of Brain Burst, ALfheim Online, and a third force 1000 years in the future become intertwined. That third party includes our “villain”, Persona Vabel. The game's story progression is mainly based on trying to rescue Yui. Along the way, the player assembles all the scattered Accel World and Sword Art Online characters into one super party. While the plot is more of a convenient template with which to connect the two universes, there is an element of mystery regarding Persona Vabel’s motives and identity, as well as what the future holds.

As previously mentioned, the game takes its overall structure and design from Sword Art Online: Lost Song. There are more nuanced gameplay systems under the hood here, but the most remarkable difference has to do with the inclusion of the Accel World protagonists. Because the game takes place primarily in the world of ALfheim Online, a VRMMORPG built around a flight mechanic, nearly every Accel World character is forced to operate quite differently from the fairies. It was a plot point back in that series that only a couple characters can handle the miracle that is flight. As such, the developers implemented a system that allows the bulky, mechanical characters to leap great distances and teleport from target to target as you lock on (loosely imitating the concept of Brain Burst). The fairy characters can’t warp around, but they’re blessed with more precision to their movements.


While there’s a learning curve to manipulating the ground-bound characters, there’s also great appeal to their rush-down style that forces them to adapt to environments. Besides, there are plenty of traditional dungeons to explore and you generally have the option of traversing the world on foot, so putting together an Accel World team is not just viable but enticing due to their reliance on jumping for sustained air time. It’s just unfortunate that the computer’s artificial intelligence when controlling these characters isn’t fisticuffs without some prompting and hoping.

As an aside, it’s quite pleasant being able to ditch Kirito as a mandatory playable character unlike some Sword Art games. While his status in the story obviously cannot be revoked, you can elect to play as him for about an hour and spend the rest of your time experiencing the rich cast to their fullest potential. With a gigantic roster of playable characters, there’s all the reason in the world to shake up the formula. Certain party members do have similarities in attack patterns, but the overall degree of variety is greater than ever with the introduction of a new gameplay style for half the roster. My favourite of the bunch is Accel World’s Silver Crow, as he’s granted the liberty to soar through the sky whilst firing laser beams and teleporting as he pleases. The game's various difficulty options and ability to quickly grind old characters up to relevance by replaying boss fights for experience makes it endlessly appealing if you love to max out your characters and enjoy these games at your own pace.

Even though this isn’t a game with the same scope to its exploration as a legitimate MMORPG (which is to say it's relatively empty compared to them), I found myself appreciating the wide open spaces and endless opportunities for combat. The game is more about the real-time combat, the grind, fan service, and character interactions. The beauty of flying through the sky without a care is immense and this is the kind of game that will put the PS4’s share button back to work. Despite many of an older title’s limitations returning here, I feel as though Millennium Twilight is the matured version.


Accel World vs. Sword Art Online offers more of the same to those who already sunk a decent amount of time into Sword Art Online: Lost Song, but the world is thoroughly rejuvenated by Accel World’s fresh blood. By providing a serviceable story as a driving force and then honing in on meaningful character interactions, Millennium Twilight becomes essential for Reki Kawahara fans. Those unfamiliar with both properties may occasionally find themselves occasionally mystified by plot points and fanservice alike, but hopefully this game will serve as a gateway drug.



- Clark A.
Anime Editor


Review: Accel World vs. Sword Art Online: Millennium Twilight (Sony PlayStation 4)
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