I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been looking forward to this Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment Review . I’m a relative newcomer to the anime series (only having watched the first two story arcs recently), and although I’m not an advocate of the second story arc – I’m not one of the haters. Sword Art Online is a series I’m very fond of.
This being the case – Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment is the perfect game for me. It’s very much a game for the series fans, but for the uninitiated, I guess I should give you a quick overview so you have some context.
Sword Art Online is an anime series where a bunch of kids get stuck in a Virtual Reality MMORPG. If they die, they DIE, and if they don’t reach the 100th level and finish the game, they all die. That’s basically the first story arc – which is set in a place called Aincrad. The second story arc is the one that a lot of people don’t like. That’s set in a game called Alfheim Online, and it’s less ‘kick-ass-swords-and-combat’ and more ‘fearies-in-a-flower-garden’. The Third story arc, Gun Gale Online (which is currently running) is a little more gritty, ‘kill-people-with-guns-in-arenas’ – and feels like a pretty big departure from the previous two story arcs in atmosphere.
A super-brief overview for sure – but it’s important to know Hollow Fragment’s place in all this. Hollow Fragment takes place in the Original SAO story arc – specifically, when main character Kirito reaches floor 75. Without spoiling anything, it’s at this point Hollow Fragment takes a massive diversion from the anime, asking players to fight their way to the 100th floor, which essentially means continuing to quest, MMORPG style, with the cast of the anime series.
This part is the original PSP game ‘Infinity Moment’ – the ‘Hollow Fragment’ bit is a whole new game, or rather a whole new area for you to explore, introduces new character Philia and also allows for multiplayer raids with friends who also own the game. You’re essentially getting two games in one then – and frankly, there’s a staggering amount of content in here, hours upon hours questing and exploring and character interaction with the cast of SAO in their Aincrad story-arc guises.
If you like that Story-arc, then you’re not going to be disapointed here. This is basically SAO fan service (in both senses of the word) they’ve even gone so far as to have Laefa and Sinon (the female leads of the other two story arcs) literally fall from the sky so that they can be a part of the game. Hollow Fragment isn’t even trying to pretend that it isn’t anything other than an excuse to extend your enjoyment of this particular part of the SAO universe.
The worry, of course, is that it’s happy to rest on it’s laurels and deliver a mediocre game, laced with characters skits an titillating CG. Mercifully, I’m pleased to say that Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment is a really great RPG in it’s own right.
I have to say that it wasn’t in the least what I was expecting gameplay wise. Hollow Fragment is an odd game, in that it’s an MMORPG simulator. It’s a game that’s pretending to be an MMORPG when it’s not. On paper that sounds like a horrible idea, MMORPG mechanics are not known for being fun in their own right – with the long term enjoyment of those games coming from human interaction and co-operation.
Hollow Fragment (for the most part) doesn’t have this, and so it has to rely on its battle system, characters, story and quest structure to keep you entertained. Hollow Fragment’s combat has changed over the PSP version, with the introduction of the Burst System – which makes it feel much more like real-time combat.
Stabbing at circle attacks and uses a little of your burst gauge. You can chain five attacks in quick succession to trigger a Sword Art at the end of the chain – and once your burst is spent, you have to wait for it to charge back up.
This is fine if your risk rating is low, but if your risk is high – which will happen if you’re wailing on enemies – your burst takes ages to charge back up.
The solution is to ‘Switch’ characters. They’ll then lead the attack, taking heat and lowering your risk rank allowing your to charge back burst much faster. Along with this, you also have skill palettes assigned to the shoulder triggers, face buttons and d-pad. These range from buffs, status attacks, sword arts and heals etc. Figuring out which of the many, many skills available you’d like assigned for quick-use becomes something of an art in itself.
It’s a satisfying system – striking the balance between the immediacy of real-time combat, and the need to be a little slower and considered in your actions. You can power through lower level enemies by mindlessly stabbing away, but once you hit more powerful foes, you’ll need to be much cleverer in how you use burst for dodge, switching out characters, choosing the right attack and combining powerful attacks with your party to the best effect.
Early on, I found myself dying a fair amount in the Hollow Area, simply because I wasn’t concentrating properly or using skills efficiently enough, and for me that was a good sign – a sign that the combat system had sufficient depth and complexity that could hold my interest.
The other main component to Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment is the dating and relationship system. There are a lot of girls in SAO, and Hollow Fragment takes the opportunity to let you get a little closer to your favourite characters. It’s a fun element actually, and one that, I’ll admit, I found myself getting way more into than I should.
Invite a girl to your party and you can walk around town, sit on park benches together and engage in ‘conversations’ (I use the term lightly) that will improve their relationship with you – ultimately you can hold hands, carry them – bridal style – go on dates and engage in a little pillow talk (see above!)
Which leads me to perhaps one of my main concerns with Hollow Fragment. I think how much you enjoy this, is going to depend almost entirely on how much you enjoy, and know, SAO.
It’s hard for me to comment on how enjoyable Hollow Fragment will be for anyone who’s never watched the anime, as I’ve seen every episode to date and enjoyed them.
Hollow Fragment contains a lot of character dialogue to read though. This is fine for me. I like the characters, and I like the fact Hollow Fragment gives me the opportunity to enjoy an awful lot more of them – particularly as characters like Lizbeth, don’t get a huge amount of air time in the anime.
Likewise, there’s not a great deal of explanation of who these characters are and what makes them important.
In fact, Hollow Fragment’s initiation into the game world and universe is has a pretty steep curve. It took me a good while to settle into it, to feel comfortable with it – for anyone coming into the game blind to SAO, it will feel like being handed an account to an MMORPGs who’s previous owner has invested hundreds of hours into, and then be expected to just get stuck in.
But as I said, I’m not not qualified to comment from a position of ignorance, so if you’ve never watched SAO, then maybe your should take the advice of a Hollow Fragment reviewer who hasn’t watched the anime either!
What I can comment on however, is my overall feelings for this game – and I have to say, they’re resoundingly positive.
Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment is, for a game so obviously made to please fans, if far better than I had any right to expect.
It’s a huge game, both in terms of gameplay time and gameworld size – and really manages to get the atmosphere of being in SAO right. It explores its main cast of characters exhaustively – and, surprisingly, has some deep RPG mechanics and plenty of quests to back it up. Deep enough that you never feel cheated in terms of content.
There are some technical issues I should perhaps comment on, namely, camera movement is sometimes less than ideal at the most inopportune moments and the framerate takes a dive from time to time. Oddly, the fact that this was previously a PSP game doesn’t really bother me – as it’s such a clean and vibrant gameworld, bursting with colour. It’s a very happy, cheerful game – which makes me not particularly bothered about the overall texture quality when compared to bespoke Vita releases.
I think special mention has to go to some of the artwork and the cut-scenes in this game. Frankly, some of them are just unbelievably gorgeous, pin sharp and of an astonishingly high quality. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of the anime is in for a treat in this regard.
And so I guess this is what it really comes down to. If you were to ask me if this is the standout RPG experience on Vita then of course there are better examples, sure – but it still manages to hold it’s own perfectly well in its own right – with the added bonus of having a game world and cast that I really like.
Chances are if you’ve read this far, then you’re already an SAO fan, looking for an RPG for your Vita. If that’s you, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll be disappointed with what Bandai Namco have provided you here.
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