Review: Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment (PSV)

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Title: Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment
Format: Game Card (Import Only)PlayStation Network Download (2.9 GB)
Release Date: August 19, 2014
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Original MSRP: $39.99
ESRB Rating: T
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is exclusive to PlayStation Vita.
The PlayStation Network download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy.

Gameplay:
In 2033, a brilliant engineer named Akihiko Kayaba released the Nerve Gear, a virtual reality helmet. Alongside the helmet he released a virtual reality MMORPG, Sword Art Online. Thousands of players eagerly logged in the first day the game was out only to realize that they could not then log out of the game.

All of the players were informed, through the game, that the inability to log out was intentional and that the Nerve Gear was set up such that if the player died in the game it would zap their brain, killing them outside of the game. The only way to escape the game, they were told, is to clear all 100 floors of Sword Art Online.

[Warning: the next paragraph contains spoilers for episode 14 of the Sword Art Online anime. The game also contains these spoilers.]

The Vita game starts off with an alternate ending to the Aincrad arc of the Sword Art Online anime. Instead of being freed when Kirito defeats Heathcliff in the boss room of Floor 75, the game continues. With no other option but to keep going, Kirito and the rest of the assault team decide to trudge on and try to clear floor 100. However, without Heathcliff to manage it, the Cardinal System that controls all of SAO begins to exhibit glitches and bugs. One such glitch teleports Kirito to an area of the game called the Hollow Area that was supposed to be inaccessible to players.

The story in the Hollow Fragment actually has two separate paths: one for advancing through the floors of Aincrad and the other for advancing through the Hollow Area. These two stories can be advanced in either order and the player can jump back and forth between them as they see fit.

In the story, the player fills the shoes of the main character of the show, Kirito, but can make some adjustments to the way he looks (likely so all players don’t look the same when playing multiplayer). Aincrad’s story isn’t particularly gripping but the story in the Hollow Area, which largely revolves around a new character named Philia, is pretty interesting. That said, advancing the story in the Hollow Area can be a chore, thanks to the game not always communicating the requirements to advance it.

If the fact that I had to spoil parts of the anime isn’t indication enough, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment really feels like a game intended for fans of the franchise. Those first two paragraphs of summary are about the only backstory the game gives the player after the tutorial area and obviously a 3 minute cutscene is hardly a stand in for 14 episodes of a TV series, so the summary only really manages to pick up the basic premise.

Character relationships and some of the terminology used in the show are glossed over and might leave newcomers scratching their head. Even fans of the series might initially be perplexed that the game adds in two characters that shouldn’t be in the story yet (Leafa from the Alfheim Online story arc and Sinon from the Gun Gale Online story arc). Their presence is mostly for fan service although the back story of how each ended up in the game is eventually explained.

Hollow Fragment also feels designed for fans due to the tons of references to the anime series in the show, for example Kirito has access to two certain other character’s inventories in the game as a call back to events from the show. Having seen the anime and, for the most part enjoyed it, I feel like these extra touches give it a nice bit of polish.

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Although the game is based on an anime about an MMO, Hollow Fragment is largely a single player game. Of course, you’re playing the role of a player in an MMO, so the game tries to emulate an MMO experience, much like the .Hack games on the PS2. The game does this by having other “player” characters to interact with. For example, you can come across other “players” fighting enemies who will ask you to help them level up or take down an enemy. You can also interact with the other main characters from the show by forming parties or through a conversation mini-game.

Gameplay also tries to emulate an MMO, with a huge tree of skills to learn, skill cooldowns, and the like. However, to keep Hollow Fragment appealing for a single player, the game is a bit faster than most MMOs and a bit more action based. Mashing the Circle button does a combo of Burst attacks, Cross is a dash/evade move, Triangle is a parry/guard move and Square defaults to a stun. Holding L or R gives access to two additional palettes of special attacks ranging from sword skills to moves that buff or debuff to skills for healing HP or regaining SP. Of course the player can customize these skill palettes with whatever skills they want.

Much like an MMO, enemies target the player who is doing the most damage over time although the player can use the “switch” command to juggle that aggro between themselves and their partner, similar to what is shown in the anime.

Put all that together and Hollow Fragment’s combat is an okay middle ground between the faster action RPGs (such as Ys) and the typically slower paced MMO combat. Lower level enemies don’t usually show a lot of the depth of the combat but fortunately there are a ton of bosses to fight in the game.

On the Aincrad story side, there is a boss on each floor plus a spattering of mid-level boss enemies. In the Hollow Area, there are five main sections each with a boss plus some optional bosses and mid-boss level enemies to seek out. In these battles, the necessity of managing the limited SP bar and enemy aggro becomes more apparent. Each floor’s boss battle in Aincrad is tackled in a raid, so a complement of six or seven other allies fight alongside you much like how these battles are often depicted in the show.

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The biggest problem with the combat is simply that it doesn’t evolve much. Especially for smaller enemies as I’m now pushing twenty-eight hours in the game and combat feels the same now as it did when I was in the first hour. Bosses alleviate some of this by having weaknesses. For example, targeting a boss’ arm and destroying it can stop them from using a certain attack. But even with the weaknesses, most bosses don’t feel particularly different to fight. Changing to a different weapon style can also help change up the gameplay a bit.

One area the game excels in is content. Aincrad’s twenty-five floors each have half a dozen rooms at minimum and take at least an hour or two to clear. An NPC in the main town will give quests for Aincrad’s floors for even more things to do there. The Hollow area of the game is gigantic as well. At least a hundred different maps to explore and randomized Hollow Missions to complete. Add to that the Implement system for powering up your character, quest lines that unlock events with other characters, and plenty of loot to find and suddenly it makes sense why the game has a trophy for playing over one hundred hours.

On the other hand, one area the game is substantially lacking is in the translation. The whole thing seems like it was run through Google Translate rather than having an actual translator. Sure, it’s never too difficult to figure out what the game is trying to say, but it is bad enough to slow down comprehension and can make some of the already vague quests even more annoying to figure out. The poor translation significantly hampers the conversation mini-game, which very tough to figure out and thus difficult to navigate. You only have two responses to each prompt in the mini-game though, and getting one wrong doesn’t have any drawbacks, so guessing is fine. The tutorials’ translations can be difficult to understand as well; I’d suggest reading through the game’s manual after doing the in-game tutorials. It does a bit better job of explaining things.

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Visuals:
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is actually an updated port of the PSP game Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment and the graphics are where this shows the most. They aren’t quite down the level of the PSP, so some work clearly went into updating the game, but they’re also not great. This is especially apparent in the Aincrad areas, where textures look particularly low quality and are reused very frequently. Once you’ve seen one labyrinth area, you’ve seen them all.

Perhaps because they’re using these lower textures, draw distances on the environments are pretty good, although enemies still pop in and out depending on their distance. The divide between that old content and the new is apparent in the Hollow area, which is new for Hollow Fragment. Environments here look better, are bigger and even occasionally have additional effects like water on the ground or fog.

That’s not to say the visuals are completely terrible. The game still looks fine in motion and runs smoothly for the most part. Loading a couple dozen characters when in town can chug the framerate, but outside of that I didn’t have any issues. UI design remains consistent with the UI seen in the anime while character and enemy designs all feel right in place for the universe.

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Audio:
Audio in Hollow Fragment is pretty average. Cutscenes and major events are voiced, though only in Japanese, while some minor events are not. From what I could tell, most of the characters retained the same voice talent from the anime so the characters should sound familiar.

Strangely, most of Kirito’s lines are unvoiced, perhaps to allow the player to imagine themselves in his place or because his voice can be changed during character creation at the start of the game (this changes the voice he has during battles).

The soundtrack is middle-of-the-road. Most tracks feel like the typical RPG background music and nothing really stands out in either a good or bad way.

Online/Multiplayer:
Hollow Fragment does include a multiplayer component, although the it’s very limited. It only works in the Hollow Area and not in Aincrad, it is co-op only, and it can’t be used to advance the story. It’s just for tackling Hollow Missions with friends.

But the biggest limitation is that the mode is ad-hoc only meaning it doesn’t work over the internet. This would sound like the kiss of death for a Platinum, given that there are a couple of multiplayer related trophies, but fortunately the multiplayer mode can be accessed using AI controlled partners instead of actual people. The AI controlled partners can be selected from the other “player” characters in the game. They even keep any experience they earn while in the mode, so it can be a great way to level up multiple other characters at a time.

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Conclusion:
While some adaptation or tie-in games seek to expand a franchise’s fanbase, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment feels like a game mostly designed with only fans of the franchise in mind. Fortunately for those fans, Hollow Fragment manages to be a decent RPG and doesn’t come across like the typical phoned-in franchise tie-in game (with the exception of the lazy localization effort).

I’m not sure that the game has nearly as much grip for newcomers though. The main plot won’t be too hard to follow but I’d still highly recommend watching at least the first fourteen episodes of the anime before diving into the game.

Although Hollow Fragment has its flaws, it is also strangely addicting and with the wealth of things to do and a world to explore there is plenty to keep players busy. Now if only my boss would accept “I couldn’t log out of the game” as a valid excuse for not being at work.

Score:
7.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Vita’s built in screen capture feature.

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Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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