Review: Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment traps fans inside an MMO simulator
My experience with Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment has been all over the place. The PS Vita exclusive excels as a single-player game with tons of hours of gameplay, an amazingly fun local multiplayer mode that delightfully imitates a real MMO experience, and, lastly, as a cheating simulator. Only when these three powers combine do you get the full experience of Hollow Fragment. Note: a lot of the stuff I’m going to be talking about in this review will spoil the manga / anime, so if you plan on reading / watching SAO, don’t go any further.
***SAO Anime / Manga Spoilers Ahead***
I’m going to be blunt: I’m a Sword Art Online fan. Being a fan is a requirement to get the full level of enjoyment out of this game. If a very similar game was re-skinned but had nothing to do with something I love, I wouldn’t have put as much time into Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment. While the game does explain the first half of the first season of the anime, the game doesn’t come close to covering everything you’d need to be brought up to date to where the game starts.
From the point directly after the boss and Heathcliff fight on floor 75, the game enters an alternative timeline from what is canon. With that, the game brings in two future characters from later episodes (Leafa & Sinon) and introduces two brand new ones (Philla & Strea). Due to this, the game assumes your main character is exactly where he was at that point in the show. Kirito is therefore the SAO user to dual-wield, has a “daughter” Yui, and is married to Asuna. From the start of the game, this is all established.
Similarly to what is canon, basically every woman Kirito comes in contact with is infatuated with him. They talk directly, subtly, in person, and through in-game messages voicing their concern or desire for you. This is where the game becomes a potential cheating simulator. You, as the player, have the option to stick to Asuna or play the field. Any of the main heroines are potential love interests that you can take back to the room you and Asuna share. While you’re not necessarily having sex, you are sleeping in the bed you share with your wife with suggestive half-naked women. The irony here is that sometimes they tell you to treat Asuna better and not to cheat on her.
The process of courting the ladies involves you running around the city and waiting for them to want to talk to you via yellow text. While you can talk to them at any time, you get huge bonuses when they want to talk – go figure. This will bring you into a mini-game that takes longer than it should. I say that because after you do it a few times, it becomes pretty tedious. On top of that, I’ve come across multiple examples of poor grammar or phrases that don’t make any sense whatsoever. It’s my understanding that this is how the Chinese version was, but I figured it would have been updated for the US release.
Overall, the game really makes you feel like you are in the world of SAO. The city is populated with NPCs that walk around and have conversations. It’s the minute details that does it for me. For example, every time you enter a party, accept a quest or turn in a quest, Kirito swipes his hand downward and accepts like he would in the show. My favorite feature of the game is that if you swipe down on the Vita it brings up the menu – like I said, it’s the little things. Then the menu actually looks like the SAO menu; the best part is the ‘Log Out’ button is grayed out.
The combat system is overwhelming at first. Despite the hurried tutorial, it takes some getting used to with a good amount of trial and error. Once you ‘get it,’ it’s rather enjoyable. I was really turned off by it at first, but after understanding how it works, I enjoyed it more. The pacing of the combat is still slow. Every time you do burst moves you have to sit there and watch; more than likely, it is the same burst move over and over again. While they look cool the first few times, you get tired of them quickly.
You’ll take one the heroines with you everywhere you go, sort of like a buddy system. You can mix it up or take the same girl every time. It can be the one you’re romancing, or someone else entirely. You can even start taking non-heroine characters to level up so they don’t perma-die in boss fights. The encounter at the end of each floor is a massive battle (much like the show) that feels similar to an MMO boss fight. You always have the option to run solo, but I wouldn’t suggest it. Praising your partner gets you ton of SP, plus you’re losing a huge chunk of support and damage. Like the show, you can ‘switch’ with them so they take the brunt and you can take it easy for a bit.
Although the game throws you in the shoes of Kirito with all of his abilities up to this point, there are still plenty of customization yoptions. Although dual-wielding is powerful and unique to Kirito, you don’t have to use it. Use any weapon you want and level up those trees if you so wish. Although Kirito starts a certain way, you can transform him into any sort of character you want. Skills are remembered for different weapon sets, so swap between weapon sets whenever. I’ve already made a tanking set for when I play online.
Speaking of multiplayer, it's ridiculously fun. The negative part is that it is AD HOC. So unless you are with your friend, you can’t participate in it. You take your partner into the multiplayer with you and you can take up to three other human players with you. So with four humans and four partners, you can have up to eight characters in one dungeon. That is quite powerful. I’ve only played with one other human and that was intense; I can’t imagine four. Although you’re all playing your version of Kirito, you can take on standard RPG roles – again, adding to the MMO feel. Like I mentioned earlier, I made a tanking set with taunts, threat gain, and defensive boosts.
Part of Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, is, well, the Hollow section. This is one of the new aspects added from the PSP version. This is the only area you can do multiplayer. While this may seem like a small add-on, the Hollow area is ridiculously huge with countless hours of exploration, dungeons, and bosses to defeat. I can’t get over just how big the map here is. You can head to a central hub where you can teleport to any teleportation area you’ve discovered. There are new quests, implants, and all sorts of ways to spend your time. Hell, even just exploring the whole area is massively time consuming.
So yeah, there's a lot going on in Hollow Fragment. You have twenty-four floors to conquer, relationships to forge, a dating sim, an alternative SAO story, a free-range area to explore at your own pace, multiplayer, and character customization in a mostly single-player game that imitates a MMO really well. The biggest negative is that being an SAO fan is necessary to enjoy the game in its entirety; so much knowledge is assumed. The game certainly gives you your money's worth with how much time it would take to fully clear the game. If you’re a fan of SAO, enjoy RPGs, and like games with countless hours to put in, this is a definite purchase. If you have friends in the same boat, absolutely get it. I know you’ve always been curious to learn just what's lies at the top of Aincrad.
Historian, teacher, writer, gamer, cheat master, and tech guru: follow on Twitter @AndrewC_GZ