Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment Review
Hard to judge due to its bipolar characteristics, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment comes out in the midst of the frenzy of PlayStation Vita games set to launch for the remainder of the year. It’s safe to bet that the game fills all the stereotypes that are wrong within the anime medium and the game is tailored made to pander to the whims and whimsies of the audience it is oh so created for.
Despite these easy-to-make assumptions, Hollow Fragment stands out with redeemable traits that stand amongst its JRPG colleagues as an unique individual. However, whether this means it’s easy to overlook its glaring flaws is up to each individual player to decide.
At its core, Hollow Fragment plays like a traditional MMORPG, but it is bound by its offline gameplay despite the 'Online' in Sword Art Online. Kirito is the game’s central protagonist with multiple heroines that fills out the rest of the cast. When Kirito is stuck in Sword Art Online due to the crazed actions of the game’s developer, Kayaba Akihiko, he is tasked with clearing all 100 floors of the game to escape.
The caveat: if you die in the game then you die in real life. Fast forward 75 floors Kirito faces off against the final boss in a weird twist of fate. However, unlike the anime, the game doesn’t end there. The game’s narrative hinges on Kirito clearing the remaining 25 floors to escape from the death game.
Despite this intriguing narrative preface, the story doesn’t really go anywhere interesting. Kirito meets up with his female companions from time to time to have terrible romantic encounters while trying to solve the “mysterious” figures that pulls at the strings of the game.
It’s entirely uninteresting and if you were coming into Hollow Fragment to enjoy some sort of grand narrative adventure then you won’t find it. Heck, you won’t even find a subpar one.
What the game does throw at you is a combination of excellent gameplay filled with some mind-numbingly terrible writing. When you’re not clearing the remaining 25 floors, and trust me we’ll eventually get there, Kirito - meaning you - spends time in town wooing your femme fatales for their affection.
Accompanying the process of wooing is chatting with them via conversation sessions where you respond “Indeed” and “right” and torturing yourself through the terribly scripted cutscenes where Kirito accidentally touches their breasts and buttocks. Needlessly to say it’s extremely in poor taste considering when one of these are a 14 year-old...
Usually the town’s activities are boring and filled with the mundane going-ons of typical MMOs. Get quests, talk with certain people, buy items, and then leave. Of course there’s the occasion of taking a girl to your room to do whatever the heck teenagers do. As a whole the town does act as a hub of sorts. It’s going to connect you to the remaining 25 floor’s explorable areas as well as the Hollow area.
The Hollow area is an explorable zone found outside of the normal 25 floors of the game’s world Aincrad. Here you will find monsters that are typically more dangerous but filled with more mysterious goodies laying around for you to uncover. In a sense, the 25 floors feel more like an apparent goal post kept in front of players going to finish the game while the Hollow area feels more like an elaborate area designed for players to explore in a more traditional sense.
While traveling through the diverse settings of Aincrad and the Hollow area is cool the novelty wears off quite fast. The bland textures and the same old narrow corridors with reused assets get tiring after a while. Exploration could’ve been a strong point in the game but sadly it’s not. Additionally traveling feels rather tedious as you don’t have the luxury of using fast travel items back to town. Each Teleport Crystal costs a hefty sum so unless you’re making some serious dough, you’ll most likely be paying the fine with time.
What is exceptionally strong about the game is its very interesting combat system and the auxiliary systems surrounding it. If you’ve played MMOs before then you’ll fit right in. The game deploys an active combat system revolved around the usage of skills.
Depending on which weapon is equipped you’ll have a pool of active skills to choose from. The usage of the skills rely on the SP meter. While you only have a limited about of SP to utilize there are ways of replenishing them. Combat relies on a fine balance of utilizing your active sword skills and refilling the SP gauge so you don’t run dry in the heat of battle. Needless to say, the combat system is extremely fun drawing you into the various fun encounters the game has in store. That moment when you no longer have SP and you feel like you’re not doing anything worthwhile to a boss can feel a bit boring.
Fortunately, that moment when the boss attacks and you parry the attack will leave you ultimately satisfied as you negated the damage as well as refilled the SP meter. Oh, the sword skills are extremely cool to watch as well. Whether it’s parrying, dodging, or stunning, Hollow Fragment has numerous active skills that make the combat feel lively.
Part of what makes the combat so exciting are the various weapons you have to use at your disposal. Swords, scimitars, spears, hammers, and more are all at the tip of your fingertips. Each has its own share of advantages and disadvantages and focusing on only two or three weapons will probably help you the most in the long run. A rapier will focus on accuracy while daggers will offer speed. There are different ways of approaching combat and it’s up to you to decide how you want to play.
Ideally you don’t want to tackle fights alone on the offset chance you encounter a tough enemy and end up dead. To combat this, an ally can partner up with you to focus on dishing out double the damage but more importantly utilize the Switch mechanic. Switches are used to change aggro from an enemy. Taking too much damage? Switch with your partner while you replenish your health or SP gauge. In addition to changing targets you will lower your risk meter. In the middle of the screen is the Risk meter which range from level 1 to 5.
The higher you go the more dangerous it is for you since you will take more damage and be left useless when utilizing stronger auto attacks called Bursts. There are numerous things to micromanage during combat. The health of your ally, your SP gauge, health, burst, risk, buffs, parry cooldown, and more.
It’s all about flow and making snap decisions when they matter most. In this sense, Hollow Fragment feels like a tightly knit game with a lot of fun behind it. This is obviously supported by the meaty journey you will be facing whether it’s exploring all of the Hollow area or the entirety of the 25 floors filled with side quests.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment may be a bipolar experience to many. On the surface you will encounter a script that is terrible beyond words (and this is excluding the translation and grammatical problems), fanservice that isn’t even remotely tasteful, and characters that are uninteresting at its core.
However, if you’re in it for the pure gameplay of it then you’ll find a deep combat system that is exciting, a ton of content waiting to be uncovered, and a world that is somewhat fascinating to be in. The game’s enjoyment will be dependent on how willing one is to overlook its shortcomings and praise its high points.