Battle is somewhat difficult to understand at first, even with the forced tutorial that you must complete before the game starts properly. That said, once you get the knack for it, it becomes much more fun, with challenge relying almost entirely on your ability to make decisions quickly. In a wonderful change from previous games, you are able to issue basic commands to your party members, which tell them to dodge, heal, or focus on a specific enemy. Heavy attacks are telegraphed by enemies as well, so it’s easy to figure out the best course of action to take. There are also NPCs out on the field with you now, so instead of randomly attacking you, they’ll be off fighting enemies on their own; time it right and you can end up getting that little boost of extra help you needed to kill a tough boss.
The game is a mix of action and visual novel, with a majority of the gameplay being action-based and the stuff that moves the plot forward being told in a visual novel fashion. Sadly, a huge chunk of the action that moves said plot is also in visual novel format. So you can read a big chunk of text about an awesome fight with a boss, accompanied by grunts and shouts, but you don’t actually see anything, which can leave you feeling incredibly disappointed and underwhelmed.
Every MMO has its standard features and SAO: HR takes all of the most tedious and painful aspects of a common MMO and pastes them in as-is with no thought as to whether or not it would serve to make the game better. There are skill bars to use numerous abilities that you unlock, but they make the UI cluttered and the gameplay frustrating. There is only so much maneuvering you can do with a PS4 controller compared to a mouse and keyboard. Quests can’t be tracked, so you can choose to open up two different menus to see your progress or hope that you catch the quick and tiny update in the corner of the screen. Most annoyingly of all, a huge chunk of the game is standard boring MMO quests that you accept from a quest board. Go fetch me x of this hard-to-get drop! Go kill x of this enemy! It’s all pointless busy work that belongs in an MMO, not in a $60 single-player MMO-themed game.
Introduced in this game is something called the “affection system”. Summarizing to the best of my ability, it is a system where you can alter the speech patterns, fighting choices, and skill gains of your party members depending on when you choose to compliment them on the field. Unfortunately, this system, which could have been really interesting, is barely explained in the game and a search online will lead you to other players around the world being absolutely baffled on how it works. I was able to make one party member sound a bit more cheerful instead of shy when she chose to say something, but beyond that? No idea. It’s frustrating because this system seems to be the only proper way to help nudge your team into working well with each other without having to tell them what to do…but it’s left as a guessing game.
There are also bugs abound ranging from “enemy you have to kill is stuck in the wall” to “this cutscene ended and the game had to close and restart itself because it hiccupped” that haven’t been fixed, so that’s definitely something to think about before making the leap to play this game. I, personally, had to spend time dealing with enemies sinking into the ground or spawning inside of rock walls, which turned two minute fights into five minute frustrating experiences.