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Sword Art Online is one of the most popular anime in recent history, based on a series of Japanese light novels and centering on a group of players who find themselves stuck inside of a virtual reality MMO where death in the game also means death in the real world. Now Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment for the PlayStation Vita takes center stage, which is a game based on an anime based on a light novel that takes place inside a game. Mind…blown.
In the Sword Art Online anime, the titular virtual reality MMO basically has the launch event from hell. All of the players discover that they are no longer able to log out and the only way to regain their freedom is to clear the 100th floor of a massive dungeon. To make matters worse, if they happen to die in the game, the VR headset they are wearing will fry their brain in the real world…Neat!
Without getting too spolierrific, the quest actually ends on floor 75 in the anime. Rather than have players go through that same story, however, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment asks the question: What if something went wrong and the story progressed all the way to floor 100? So, instead of treading familiar ground, players are now being treated to a whole new tale, including familiar foes and friends from the anime and even a few additions that you might not expect.
Originally released on the PSP as Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment, Hollow Fragment is actually an upgraded version of that game with the requisite smoothed out graphics, as well as a whole new extra world and story to explore. As the main hero, Kirito, you will join the quest for the top of the dungeon, exploring floors 76-100 in the hopes of finally beating the game. Through the new content, you will also be able to enter a “Hollow Area,” where a new female companion and yet another massive world are introduced, complete with its own gear, enemies, dungeons, bosses and missions. In short, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is a big, big, big game.
But all of that content is useless if the game isn’t any fun to play, and your enjoyment of Hollow Fragment will greatly depend on your ability to look past quite a few unfortunate blemishes. Put succinctly, Sword Art Online had the potential to be an amazing game. As it is, however, what we are left with is a very competent hack-and-slash RPG adventure with a few shining moments paired with a few poor design and localization hiccups that tarnish the fun.
Beginning in the negative column is an extremely rough translation. I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a game with so many errors in grammar, punctuation and clarity. The English translation is enough to get you through the game, and you’ll occasionally read through entire chunks of content without any big issues throwing a wrench in the dialogue, but then you’ll suddenly slam headfirst into poor translation after poor translation; a real shame given how wonderful the Japanese voice acting is.
Also not doing the game any favors are a poor tutorial system and a lack of direction early on in the adventure. You’re basically thrown into the deep end here, left to figure out a lot of the game’s systems, objectives and mechanics for yourself. This wouldn’t be too terrible if so many of those systems and objectives weren’t so confusing in their own right and, again, had a poor translation not made what little instruction there is even more difficult to follow.
In other words, you’re going to have to do a bit of work to get into Sword Art Online, and I feel like watching the first arc of the television show is almost mandatory for your enjoyment. The game does a decent job of filling in the back story as the campaign unfolds, but I think you might need to already have a love for these characters and this world to help convince you that the extra effort is worth it. Check out a few faqs and do a bit of research, though, and you should be good to roll.
Once you figure out the basics, though, you’ll discover a game that actually does a great job of recreating the feel of an MMO within a single player RPG. There is some light co-op available in the Hollow area but, for the most part, you’re going to be tackling this world with your digital buddies and that’s it.
Your main hub of operations is a town called Arc Sophia. Each floor of the dungeon technically has its own town, but the only one you’ll get to explore is the one on your starting floor. That would be more of a disappointment if there was more to actually do in the town. Arc Sophia is built on three main streets, including one that basically grants access to your inn, a shopping district with only a few available merchants, and a plaza built around a teleportation device that you’ll be using to get from floor to floor.
I should take a moment to mention that there is also a light dating sim to explore, but I didn’t waste much of my time with this particular aspect of the game. There are about 10 main love interests available, all of whom you can take into the field of battle at your side. You can buy them gear and treats to up their mood, then take part in an absolutely confounding conversation mini-game in the hopes of growing closer to the individual character. The end result is a “bedroom scene,” were the characters lie next to you in mildly suggestive poses during a more intimate conversation. It’s all rather silly but actually fits with the anime’s harem nature, so I suppose it’s there for those who feel like diving in.
The majority of your time will be spend in the field of battle, though. When you’re exploring the main world, each floor is an interlocking series of environments that eventually lead to a dungeon and final boss. To get there, you’ll need to prepare for battle by taking on a handful of side quests (gather this, kill that, go here), leveling up your skills and tackling various mini-bosses. Once you’ve completed all of the necessary objectives for a floor, you can move onto the boss and even further up the tower. These additional missions have merit, though, as their completion will grant you access to additional information, such as the boss’ attack patterns and weaknesses.
You’ll occasionally get emails from your fellow adventurers, too, who usually need you to help them gather certain items or get through a tough group of monsters. They’ll appear organically on the map and choosing to help them out will strengthen your team’s ability to fight those pesky bosses.
In the meantime, you’ll also be able to freely investigate the Hollow Area, which has mysteriously appeared within the game. This region is built as a single sprawling map, which you will explore region by region while taking on another story arc in the hopes of discovering its many secrets.
Like I said, it’s a massive world overflowing with enemies but, thankfully, the combat system is here to save the day. You have access to 10 basic weapon types, each with their own set of skills, strengths and weaknesses. Teamwork is key in combat, as your partner can be utilized to distract monsters and join in combo attacks. Holding the L or R button grants access to your customizable palette of commands, which allow you to dish out orders to your teammate or activate your various abilities, items and buffs. Your teammate will also shout out requests from time to time, and you’d be well served to follow them. While smaller enemies can be easily handled without much thought, all of these interlocking systems make for very rewarding combat with bigger enemies that play out almost like an action-based puzzle. And while the graphics themselves aren’t all that impressive, the ability animations are actually really well done and give you plenty of flashy things to look at.
I’m kind of torn when it comes to Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment. It’s a massive game, but there’s no hiding the fact that the majority of your time will be spent exploring endless chains of environments that, while visually distinct, also aren’t that visually interesting most of the time. You’ll unlock treasure chests by the dozens, battle enemies by the hundreds and keep pushing forward until you reach floor 100. The shopping and shopping aren’t all that compelling and the dating sim aspects are bare bones.
Being a fan of the show, though, I couldn’t help but be drawn back into the world and characters of the series. The combat is oddly addicting and, even though the exploration is pretty basic, it’s always interesting to see what monsters/environment/boss is waiting around the next bend.
Then there’s the added bonus of a massive patch that’s slated to arrive in September, though I can’t take content that’s not currently available into consideration here. Still, it’s worth noting that said patch is going to fine-tune a lot of the game’s smaller issues (like a pretty wretched Hollow Area map), as well as add in a whole new section of content from the show’s most recent season, which takes place in another game called Gun Gale Online.
If you’re a fan of the show, I think there’s plenty to enjoy in Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment despite its many rough edges. If you enjoy beating the crap out of hordes of enemies, exploring countless maps and don’t mind putting in a little extra work to figure out what, exactly, you’re supposed to be doing, then you’ll also get plenty of mileage out of this game. All others should proceed with caution. I managed to enjoy my time with Sword Art Online despite its flaws. Others may not be so lucky.
Players: 1 (4 via adhoc)
Platforms: PlayStation Vita
Developer: Bandai Namco Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games