The anime phenomenon Sword Art Online presents a world every gamer has fantasized about at one point or another. That is, a world with the technology to virtually transport you into a video game, complete with all five of your earthly senses. And while there's no way to tell if and when we'll ever experience that technology, there are games like SAO, aka Sword Art Online, that are so immersive they make you feel like you're wired up to a FullDive machine.
As the VR games at the center of the anime and manga are MMORPGs, we'll mostly be looking at games of a similar ilk. But more broadly, these are the games we think SAO fans looking for a similarly captivating experience would enjoy most. SAO canon would tell you the NerveGear is coming in 2022, but on the off chance that's a touch optimistic, at least you'll have plenty of time to enjoy these games like SAO.
Elder Scrolls Online
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Stadia
Elder Scrolls Online is one of the best and certainly most active modern MMOs you can jump into, and one of its unique qualities is how truly alive the world feels. Vibrant community and social aspects aside, Tamriel is a continent with a landscape and ecosystem so diverse that you'll find yourself avoiding progression simply to explore its farthest reaches.
Everywhere from the arid, sun-bleached hills of Elsweyr to the colorful forests and glimmering cities of the Summerset Isles begs for attention, thanks in-part to fully voiced NPCs. Exploring the world and taking on quests slowly reveals the fascinating lore in which Elder Scrolls Online is so richly steeped, making Tamriel an excellent place to become immersed for fans of the series and newcomers alike. Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited is utterly massive and multicompartmental, and real-time combat and extensive life skills add another layer of immersion to the experience.
Final Fantasy 14
Joining Elder Scrolls Online at the forefront of modern, triple-A MMORPGs is Final Fantasy 14. Comparing the two, Final Fantasy 14 benefits from some of the most epic boss battles and visually-appealing action I've seen in an MMO, not to mention a story truly befitting of the Final Fantasy name.
The most recent expansion, 2019's excellent Shadowbringers, brings Final Fantasy 14's world-building, character development, and story to a soaring crescendo, making now an ideal time to dive in. Better yet, SAO fans will feel right at home wielding massive swords and donning extravagant medieval garb while they tunnel through massively deep dungeons. Though new players might find its complex rotations and systems intimidating, Final Fantasy 14 is active enough that you're sure to meet a beater along the way to show you the ropes.
What more could SAO fans want from a game than the only MMORPG singularly developed for room-scale virtual reality? By that virtue alone, OrbusVR is the closest you can get to living in Aincrad, at least until something like the NerveGear launches and takes control of our consciousness.
Of course, OrbusVR doesn't rely on its VR underpinnings and stands on its own as an expansive, robust MMO with plenty to see and do and a relatively active social hub. OrbusVR: Reborn expanded and polished what was already a promising VRMMO as released into Early Access in December of 2017, and continued updates in 2020 make now a better time than ever to immerse yourself in this vibrant, colorful world.
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth
If what you're looking for in an SAO-like MMORPG is a vibrant social hub, you can do no better than the undisputed titan of the genre, World of Warcraft. With a player base that more than doubles the next-most active game (via Altar of Gaming), WoW is a social network of new and lifelong friends as much as an MMORPG.
Of course, there's a reason so many people play WoW - it's an excellent video game with unparalleled polish and scale. Blizzard has spent over 15 years continuously developing WoW, adding new races, polishing the graphics, and expanding the explorable world. But it's the community, a part of which has literally grown up and made lifelong friends in Azeroth, that colors the world and makes WoW feel more real than any other MMORPG around.
RuneScape is another MMORPG that benefits from its extraordinarily long history, boasting a community of players almost 20 years old. It's also one of the only MMOs from the genre's early history that's still being consistently updated today.
RuneScape 3 is the most recent iteration of the game, having been released in 2013, though veterans can relive the glory days in OldSchool RuneScape. Either way, SAO fans will enjoy an active and social playerbase, a rich, imaginative world, and a strong focus on PvP. RuneScape is also one of the more accessible options on this list, as you can play most of what's on offer for free, and it's browser-based so you don't need a gaming rig to run it.
Platforms: PS4, PC
If the hack-and-slash, point-and-click style of combat seen in many MMOs bores you, TERA should be pinging your radar. Succeeding in TERA requires careful thought and precise timing almost as much as leveling up, adding an SAO-like depth to PvP and PvE that's nearly unrivaled in the genre.
For the price of entry (nothing), TERA offers a lot to see and do, in-depth customization options and leveling, and a fairly active community to quest and do PvP with. As mentioned earlier, the combat system involves a fairly steep learning curve, but it never feels clunky or unbalanced, which is a rare enough incentive to give it a try.
For a game that initially released way back in the MMO glory days of 2004, Mabinogi is still surprisingly active, which has only made its world more rich with community culture. Naturally, you won't find as many players as Elder Scrolls Online or Final Fantasy 14, but the players you will meet are usually passionate and willing to help you succeed, and plenty of community events make socializing an essential feature of the game.
The developers call Mabinogi "the most expressive MMORPG adventure," and I don't doubt that it is. You can be a rockstar, a master chef, a lazy beach bum (my preferred occupation), or take the conventional approach and run through dungeons with a crew. At least in tone, Mabinogi's anime-like style and personality make it the most similar MMORPG to Sword Art Online still active today.
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim VR
Platforms: PS4, PC
Skyrim is great, but have you tried Skyrim VR? Thanks to the brilliant work at Bethesda, grounding dragons, completing quests, and exploring the vast expanse of Skyrim isn't just viable with a VR headset strapped to your face, it's enjoyable in its own right and exponentially more immersive. Plus, it's probably the closest thing to a VRMMO like Sword Art Online you'll find at present, and with Skyrim VR you don't die when your character dies.
Mind you, this is pretty much the same Skyrim you remember from 2011; it hasn't been remastered or redesigned in any significant way. That said, Skyrim's visuals have aged extraordinarily gracefully, and Bethesda has done great work adapting the controls to suit the VR platform, making Skyrim VR an accessible way to re-experience the game with an added layer of immersion.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Gamers looking for a game like Sword Art Online should know there are actually games based on the series - plenty of them, in fact. Better yet, the latest release in the series, 2018's Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, earns a spot on this list even without considering the obvious affiliation. Somewhat ironically, it's also the only game in the list that isn't an MMORPG.
Fatal Bullet is set in the world of the Gun Gale Online VRMMO from the second season of SAO, but the game itself is a third-person shooter and RPG (though you can also use swords). Vastly improved character customization over the earlier games and fast, fluid, challenging action make Fatal Bullet the most fun you can have playing a Sword Art Online game.
MapleStory 2 is by far the cutest game on this list, which is always a plus when you're talking to fans of anime. But there's a lot more to MapleStory 2 than big, glinting anime eyes and cuddly little monsters - in fact, there's an extraordinary amount of depth and content for a free-to-play MMORPG. There's an incredible range of customization options, including clothing, chat bubble designs, mounts, and houses, which you'll use blocks to construct.
Questing is smartly balanced to provide the organic progression you need without a ton of extra grinding. In the meantime, life skill activities like fishing, cooking, and playing music can provide temporary stat buffs and experience points. If you're looking for an MMORPG like Sword Art Online but haven't found anything worthwhile that's sufficiently anime, MapleStory 2 is your best bet.