Review: Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment (PS4)

sword-art-online-rehf-ps4-review

Title: Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment
Format: PlayStation Network Download (9.1 GB)
Release Date: July 28, 2015
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Developer: Aquria
Original MSRP: $19.99
ESRB Rating: T
Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment is also available on PlayStation Vita. This game is a Director’s Cut of the original Vita version.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Editor’s Note:
Portions of this review also appear in our PS Vita coverage of Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment.

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 in such a way 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 one hundred 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.]

This Sword Art Online 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 Re: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.

… a bit faster than most MMOs …
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 is a little ho-hum as it mostly just involves progressing from floor to floor. On the other hand, the story in the Hollow Area, which largely revolves around a new character named Philia, is a bit more 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: Re:Hollow Fragment really feels like a game intended for fans of the franchise. Those first few paragraphs of summary are about the only backstory the game gives the player after the tutorial area. Obviously a three minute cutscene is hardly a stand in for fourteen 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 backstory of how each ended up in the game is eventually explained.

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Re: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. There are also plenty of less-than-plot-relevant cutscenes just to show character interactions. Having seen the anime and, for the most part enjoying it, I feel like these extra touches give it a nice bit of polish.

Although the game is based on an anime about an MMO, Re: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, in the field 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, who are usually walking around in the game’s main town by forming parties or through a conversation minigame.

Gameplay also tries to emulate an MMO, with a huge tree of skills to learn, skill cooldowns, and the like. However, to keep Re: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.

… has a trophy for playing over one hundred hours …
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.

The biggest problem with the combat is simply that it doesn’t evolve much. This is especially true for smaller enemies as even twenty-eight hours into the game the combat feels the same as it did 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 or researching implement skills can also help change up the gameplay a little but the base doesn’t ever seem to deviate a whole lot.

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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 with at least a few dozen 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.

An added bonus for the PS4 version is that the game seems to have gotten an overhaul to the translation. The Vita version was notorious for the machine translation but Re:Hollow Fragment seems to have been fixed. Characters lines are a lot smoother to read and the tutorials are a lot more helpful when they’re easier to understand. The only thing that still seems to be lacking is the conversation minigame, but I suppose there’s only so much they could do with the limited text bubble space.

… Enemies still pop in …
The other feature that Re:Hollow Fragment has is the ability to import a save file from the Vita. Importing only brings over character level, some items, and some of the relationship stats with other characters. Noticeably absent is the story progression. Even importing a save from the Vita starts the game over. I did find it rather amusing to be able to run straight through all of the early game bosses though. It’s also only a one time import that only goes one way. Cross-Save this is not.

Visuals:
Although Re:Hollow Fragment is now on the PS4, this was originally a PSP game. Overhauling the entire game for the PS4, considering how much content there is, was clearly outside the budget of the port. So while they have updated a lot of the graphics, including models, lighting, and textures, the game still looks only on par with a lot of PS3 games. As with the base game, the Hollow Area seems to have fared slightly better during the upgrade, perhaps because the content itself was also newer. The bosses in the Hollow Area actually look quite good.

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A few of the old graphical problems have unfortunately stuck around as well. Enemies still pop in depending on the distance from them, although the draw distance does seem to be longer than the Vita version. Loading all the NPCs in town still noticeably lowers the frame rate.

Technical specs aside though, there’s nothing too bad about the visuals. In motion, with all the flashy attacks happening, the game looks fine. The best part of the visuals is that the designs feel consistent with the rest of the franchise. UI design remains consistent with the UI seen in the anime while character and enemy designs all feel right in place for the universe. Even if it is just a Generic RPG World, it’s still nice that Re:Hollow Fragment feels at home with the anime.

… this version does have online multiplayer …
Audio:
The audio in Re: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.

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Online/Multiplayer:
Re:Hollow Fragment does include a multiplayer component, although 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 a few random Hollow Missions with friends. One limitation from the Vita version has been removed though: this version does have online multiplayer.

Unfortunately, the online is a duct taped add-on to the game that still seems very limiting. Going into the online shows the player all of the possible lobbies to join. Up to four players can jump into a lobby where they can buy things from vendors and wait for the host to start the game. The host can pick from just a couple dozen missions to run. Once everyone is ready, they are dropped into the Hollow Area’s control room map and must then teleport to wherever the mission takes place.

Without voice chat, coordinating even just the four people allowed in a lobby is a nightmare. The game doesn’t make it easy to find out what quest the host chose and because each person has to manually chose a teleport destination from the control room, it’s easy for a party to get split up when one person isn’t entirely in-tune with what’s going on. Add to that the minimal number of missions to run and the fact that the game dumps all players back into the lobby room after completing a mission meant the online mode wasn’t a huge draw for me.

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

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 Re: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 Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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