To someone unfamiliar, Sword Art Online might seem like the most backwards property ever. After all, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is a game based on an anime based on a light novel series about players trapped in a fictional game. Hollow Fragment on PS Vita marks the second time for the franchise to fold back in on itself and enter an actual game world, and while it contains many refinements over its PSP predecessor Infinity Moment, it’s still very much a fans-only affair.
Hollow Fragment kicks off with Kirito battling the final boss on the 75th floor, just like in the anime, only the fight comes to an abrupt conclusion when the boss ends up glitching out, handing victory to a confused but relieved Kirito. Thus, he and the other surviving players in this high stakes, death-is-final MMO are free to advance through the remaining floors. Much of the direct path from that point features content from Infinity Moment with some much-needed tweaking, but there’s also a foreboding new region to explore in the form of the mysterious Hollow Area.
This makes an already substantial experience one that can suck away countless hours, and some of those hours are indeed fulfilling. The combat has been streamlined nicely, with shortcuts allowing for smoother battles and less fussing with menus, especially during the more demanding showdowns. There are some thoughtful systems at play here, such as the Burst meter and the ability to switch places with your partner in battle, balancing the weight of the threat at hand. When you hit just the right rhythm in Hollow Fragment combat can be pretty fun, but there are many, many moments throughout that turn it into a brutal slog.
The brutality of that slog doesn’t necessarily have to do with the game’s difficulty. Hollow Fragment is forgiving when the right paths are taken, and from the beginning the game implores you to take your time. Lure out enemies. Split up groups. The idea of pulling should be familiar to anyone who has played a similar adventure loaded with squads that need to be divided and taken off one by one, but when you have areas teeming with wildlife, or strongholds filled to the brim with enemy fodder, it can take its toll. It makes it tough to enjoy exploration or finding new treasure when even the lowest rung enemy can take a while to beat down. Your average battle will have Kirito and his partner of choice hacking away at some poor schmuck until one or both of your skill moves finally takes them out.
It’s tough to describe how repetitive it is given that this is a genre known for repetition, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I like RPGs, and when it’s implemented well I don’t really mind grinding. It doesn’t help that any given floor or environment here can be relatively huge, and most every room contains a small handful of enemies at the very least. Bosses aren’t too tough for the most part, but they can take a really long time to beat thanks to the ungodly amount of hit points they have. Even those who fancy themselves brave enough for the grindiest of grinds might want to put something on in the background between story sequences.
It’s those bursts of story that will keep Sword Art Online fans hooked on Hollow Fragment through even the most endless of quests. While the occasional nicely animated cinematic is interspersed, the bulk of the story is told through visual novel style scenes, each featuring the original voice talent behind the characters. Those heavily invested in the world will love seeing how this alternate path plays out, as they unfurl the mysteries of the Hollow Area, the new character Philia, and the notorious player-killing group known as Laughing Coffin. The way some of the characters such as Leafa and Sinon are thrown into the game is kind of forced, but they are welcome additions nonetheless.
Players who want to take things further with characters can also focus on the dating sim lite elements of Hollow Fragment, which can lead to some… interesting results. Outside of boosting your compatibility with a certain partner there’s not much need to get too into it, but it’s there along with plenty of other distractions to keep you playing outside of the main campaign.
Most of the care put into developing Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment definitely went toward making it something fans would want to get their hands on, letting them leap into the virtual world just like their favorite characters, but without the threat of perma-death. It’s too bad the bulk of the game tasks players with whittling away at even the most insignificant of enemies,—offering little reward for the job-like task—because the overall presentation is pretty solid. On the plus side the Taiwanese version features English and Chinese text, so at least you won’t have to grind your way through without knowing what’s going on. The English subtitles can be a little “bootleg anime DVD” at times, but it’s the best option at the moment for those who can’t read Japanese.
If you’re a Sword Art Online fan you’re likely already leaping at the reminder that Hollow Fragment exists. When put against Infinity Moment this is certainly the superior package, but be aware of what awaits you when you log in to this adventure.
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Developer: Bandai Namco Games
System(s): PS Vita
Thanks to Play-Asia.com for providing a copy of Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment for review