Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Virtual Visit to the Sword Art Online Museum

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 3, 2022

Sony has taken the museum experience for Sword Art Online (the anime / light novel / manga / video game / merchandizing phenomenon) and put it in… Virtual Reality. (Click the link if you are interested in participating.) It can be played with PC VR (using Steam), and it can also be visited using a phone app.

It’s about the closest thing we’ve had to an official massively multiplayer VR version of Sword Art Online.┬áTo which I say, “Well, about time!” I mean, I’ve played a couple of the SAO games. I thought Hollow Realization was pretty good. I like the anime. I’m pretty fond of the new Sword Art Online: Progressive novels. It’s all good stuff. So … being able to visit an online museum (open from February 22 through March 11) and participate in a couple of events sounded cool.

For those not familiar, Sword Art Online is a … let’s call it a franchise at this point… of novels, manga, anime, movies, games, etc. about virtual reality. The original storyline was about a “full dive” VR game where the lead designer / producer hijacked the system to fry the players’ brains if they died in the game, or if anyone tried to remove their headset from the outside world. The only way to escape was to beat the game, by clearing all 100 floors of a gargantuan dungeon / world. Naturally, as VR has become a consumer thing, players have wanted to see this world become a true VR Massively Multiplayer Game.

So instead, we get this. I went ahead and paid for a membership, because … hey visiting a VR Museum exhibit is one of those things I always wanted to try (and we have a few experiences in VR kinda like that, which I have enjoyed). And, like I said, it’s the closest thing we’ve got to an official SAO MMO. You can go in and interact with other patrons (there are usually about 2-6 others when I have logged in late at night). There is a “free” option for anyone to visit, and some exhibit areas restricted to paying members.

So what does the “free” visit get you? With just a free download, you have a chance to wander around a VR version of the Town of Beginnings and talk with other VR tourists. Oh, and you can get a group together to take on the Skull Reaper, the deadly boss of the 75th floor that was pretty much the ultimate real battle in the Aincrad story. More on that in a second.

The Town of Beginnings is really just the central / arrival area. It’s not a “perfect” version of the entry plaza. More of a touristy representation of it. There are ads and posters and places where Yui will appear in fairy form to provide some audio commentary or instructions. On Saturday there’s supposed to be a live visit from ReoNa, one of the vocalists who have done the opening and ending themes for the show.

One of the big features of the Town of Beginnings is a giant wall that lists the names of players who have won the boss battle. Yeah, that’s my name up there. I eventually got my name on there twice. The boss battle is a pretty simplistic version of the battle against the Skull Reaper on level 75. As in the anime, you have your group join up in the dungeon in front of the hall to the boss room. There are some weapons provided in the hall so that nobody needs to accidentally go in unarmed. There are also some target areas in the dungeon hall to practice on while you are waiting. Once everyone is ready, you can go into the boss room. The boss is triggered by entering a blue circle in the middle of the floor. When that happens, the exit seals shut, preventing anyone else from entering the fight. The Reaper kills a couple of NPCs (really just unmoving dummies), and then runs around the room trying to kill everyone. Amusingly, guns are allowed, as Gun Gale Online was part of the SAO series.

The boss fight itself isn’t anything particularly impressive. As a game, it’s … a fun museum exhibit. But it IS a multiplayer boss fight, unless you insist on trying to solo thing thing.

A paid ticket allows access to the exhibit halls. These I believe are VR recreations of the exhibits from the “live” exhibit in Tokyo in 2019, except with the luxury of VR the halls are a bit more fanciful and contain a number of interactive elements you can play with. For example, you can grab most of the weapons from their display and play with them (and even … *ahem*… cart them with you and use them in your fight against the Skull Reaper…) There are lots of stills and storyboard illustrations from the anime, as well as notes about the storyline and insights from the author.

There are some secrets, like hidden or hard-to-get-to treasure chests with clues (for what? I don’t know yet), and things like targets you can shoot at with one of the guns from the displays.

The VR game provides you with a built-in camera, complete with a selfie mode. That’s pretty convenient. If you tie your account in with your twitter account, you can even automatically tweet out your photos. Yeah, I didn’t do that. Your avatar is basically an androgynous figure in a poncho. Free visitors only get the default poncho and lettering color. Ticket-holders get more. You can change your avatar (and nickname) every time you visit.

There are some bugs in the software. As a limited-time release, I wouldn’t count on any but the most serious ones being fixed. I am sure that phone app users won’t enjoy the interactivity that VR players can enjoy, but at least they can visit the exhibits as well.

So… was it worth it?

If you are not an SAO fan, probably not. It’s a niche exhibit. As I said, it is the closest thing we’re likely to see to a massively multiplayer VR SAO game for a while (amusingly, in the fiction the game launches this November). I enjoyed the exhibits as a paid ticket-holder, but if it’s a choice between that or a $30 VR game… a real VR game without a two-week expiration window would probably win out. It was fun reading the author’s comments, especially as he seems pretty self-deprecating and surprisingly candid about the weaknesses of the stories he wrote. Anyway, in the end, I have enjoyed the experience (and I may return over the next few days until the exhibit ends), but I’d not say it’s a “must-see” even for SAO fans. I think you’ll know if this is the kind of thing for you.

And while this is not a true substitute for the real thing in person, I can see “virtual reality museums” being a thing in the future. In some respects, SAO was perfect for this as an animated world without real-world artifacts to put on display. It’s a virtual museum for a virtual world, which means the VR version of the exhibit may even be the superior version. Intriguing, huh?

 


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