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Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment Review – Surviving the VMMORPG

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The Playstation Vita has gotten quite a few of these Monster Hunter-esque games, which is generally a testament to that series’ wild popularity. Sadly, a true MH game hasn’t hit the platform, and while Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment shares a few similarities with map layout and combat, it provides a very different experience.

Think of the now-missing .hack games, which Bandai Namco also supervised and published, and you’ll get a solid gist of what to expect in Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment. I’ll preface this review by saying that you generally don’t need  to be a fan of the show or light novel to know what’s going on. Story is secondary, but it’s still there and it’s quite awesome if you are a fan of the series.

I’ll try to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, but when there are spoilers I’ll preface them before your eyes lead off into their territory! The game is very true to the anime, and while I haven’t read the light novels (yet), I am a very big fan of the show – so I’ll probably end up gushing over the game, while also being too critical at the same time. Let’s find out together!

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So first things first, the story within Hollow Fragment takes place right after (SPOILERS) Kirito miraculously defeats Heathcliff, only to find out that defeating him did nothing. (END SPOILERS) Some weird glitches seem to being to plague the game itself, and the cast decides to just continue forward to floor 76.  This is where the story essentially becomes non-canon, where both newcomers and fans alike can rest easy that nothing weird can go on and deliberately change things – for better or worse.

There are some clever choices made with this deviation from the main story, specifically that the main characters are mysteriously prevented from returning to floors 75 and below, or with how their skills have been reset, due to the glitches that have appeared. It’s worth pointing out that Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment basically mirrors the same alternate take on the story, almost to a T.

As for the game being newcomer friendly, I think there is generally enough dialogue and banter between characters that doesn’t get too overwhelming, unless you really dig into it. The game starts off with (SPOILERS) Yui re-appearing, and promptly reminding Kirito and Asuna of their digital foster child. (END SPOILERS)  Being a fan of the series, I was reminded of their cute family, while newcomers will probably be totally weirded out, especially with the harem anime tropes that follow.

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Cue the obligatory fanservice.

At this point in the story, Kirito and Asuna are married in game, and yet the game seems to just poke fun at this with oodles and oodles of harem anime tropes. While I haven’t developed the relationships with the other girls enough to know of the repercussions with Asuna, but I will add that Hollow Fragment gives a fan the opportunity to finally realize failed romances with other females.

Here’s the weird thing, in my opinion. (SPOILERS) Various characters who are not in this story arc are just thrown into the mix, and yes they’re also hopelessly available to Kirito. These include Leafa (Sugu), Sinon, and even Yuuki. (END SPOILERS) It’s not a huge problem, but I just found it silly that these characters literally just poofed into Aincrad and just hit the ground running … despite the fact that they are now trapped in the game as well.

Overall I think the story within the game is definitely a meaty one, and there is enough dialogue to make it even feel like a visual novel at times. These generally tend to be played out through face to face dialogue between characters, through in-game cutscenes, and even via quick banter between characters both in and out of combat.

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There are some fun little mysteries that are teased along the way, like why the virtual MMORPG that has trapped the players for two years hasn’t ended yet, or who these new characters are (and what their motives are), or even the most obvious question – what is the Hollow Area? You’ll pursue the answers to these mysteries just like the characters did in the series, which is by destroying baddies.

Dialogue is mostly fully voiced, there are only certain segments where Kirito himself won’t talk, or his companions won’t, but for the most part I’ve been stunned by just how much voiced dialogue is here. To add onto how engrossing the dialogue is, yes the entire original voicecast has returned to reprise their roles, and they do it in spades.

To recap, the story is pretty deep and there is an absolute ton that you could do in developing relationships with the staggering 100+ characters that you can interact with, but if  you want to, you can just skip all of this and just smash monsters with your weapons. This won’t hinder your experience of the game in any way, you’ll just be missing out on dozens and dozens of hours of character interaction.

I did have a gripe with the localization done by Bandai Namco, specifically that there were small spelling, punctuation and or grammar issues here and there. These didn’t break the immersion, but simply made myself chuckle, as I’m an editor by trade.

These are trivial issues and should have been caught by the testers – like how everyone talks to Kirito in third person, which shows me that the copy editor simply didn’t feel like adapting the rough Japanese translation.

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One of the more fun things you can do right from the get-go is customizing your Kirito avatar, which can boil down to your display name, hairstyle, hair color, face type, eye color, and even your voice! I’m a purist, so I stuck with the default Kirito, but I did play as a blonde Kirito for a bit – I just couldn’t do it, it felt too weird as a fan of the series.

So if this game simulates an MMORPG, the combat must have gotten a lot of attention right? When you first start off the game, the combat interface can be somewhat daunting, there’s a very large amount of information assaulting your eyes at all times – very much like a real MMORPG.

Instead of entering an instanced battle like other RPGs, Hollow Fragment follows how the seamless battles of actual MMORPGs, meaning you see enemies on the playfield. Thankfully, the mandatory tutorials are informative and brief, so you’ll be learning what could set this game apart from other action RPGs on the Vita.

You can use the boring default auto attack, or you could go rogue with a manual combat style. Similar to Infinity Moment, you’ll be dishing out combos with special attacks mixed in between, which you have to use at your own discretion. If you’re smart enough with your skills, you can take down baddies and small area bosses that are higher in level than you.. it’ll just take longer.

I really enjoy the combat in the game, but I feel like it can turn out to be a bit repetitive after you’ve been playing Hollow Fragment for longer periods of time. You can level up your individual skills and unlock new abilities, but like a real MMORPG, this takes time. With the aforementioned resetting of your skills, you’re basically at zero when you start your adventure, but this also means you can pursue other fighting styles, if you’re so inclined to do so.

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Some of the cooler features that were added with Hollow Fragment are the likes of your Burst Gauge, which leads to you being able to unleash deadly Burst Attacks. The more you energy you have in your Burst Gauge, the more damage you can dish out with those finishers.

Coming from this, if you hand out too much damage, just like a real MMORPG, your risk meter will start to heighten. This is basically how aggro works in the game, meaning you need to learn to switch between party members so the enemy’s attention isn’t on one person.

I didn’t have an issue as far as difficulty goes for the majority of the areas and monsters, and I personally don’t think you’ll be wanting to smash your Vita unless you’re completely new to action RPGs. So long as you continue to level up the weapon tree of your choosing, you’ll continue to squash your foes.

Yes, there are skill trees in the game, one for each of the ten different weapon types. These can range from the iconic dual sword style that Kirito is known for, to maces, and even spears. Each weapon drastically changes his weapon style, and you need to make sure you’re not neglecting your training.

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As you level up your weapons you gain skill points, which can be used to unlock new skills that you can use in battle. However, don’t get confused as you also have skill points in battle, which are basically your lifeline as far as using secondary abilities go. The various skills that you can utilize run the gamut from simple flashy/high damage attacks to healing abilities and even buffing your HP or SP.

You have to make sure that you manage your SP well in battle, otherwise you’ll be unable to dodge (which uses SP), or use vastly important abilities like buffs, combat abilities, and so on. Keeping an eye on both your stats, SP, and burst – as well as your partner’s, is key to winning. If you run out of SP, you’ll still be able to attack with simply physical blows, but your DPS will be vastly lowered in comparison.

Let’s jump back a few thoughts, one of the aspects of gameplay that I really enjoyed was the almost flawless partnering when in battle. When you get overwhelmed or low on SP, you can issue out the order to switch, making your party member hop into the fray in your place.

Progression between the floors of Aincrad and the Hollow Area are different in the sense that the Hollow Area feels more like a mysterious playground, while Aincrad feels more like a dungeon, each floor complete with an end boss. It’s fun to switch between the two areas, and to chase after the hottest loot in each – although the Hollow Area tends to have better rewards.

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So the gameplay is fun, but what about the virtual world of Aincrad? I want to make a note that Hollow Fragment is built with the same engine as Infinity Moment, meaning there are limitations to what can be done with the game world itself.

If you’ve been looking at these screenshots, you’re probably either admiring the character models, or possibly frowning at the textures and environment design. If you’ve played any of the recent monster hunting games on Vita, it’ll be hard to really look at the environment in close detail.

I know it’s not fun to nock off points for the game’s visuals, but there were times when I simply wish more attention could have been given to the world itself. The game performs beautifully, and I rarely saw any potential slowdown or graphical issues – I just wish the world of Aincrad could be more fully realized.

2D character portraits that are used in dialogue are beautifully done and very well animated, and this is also mostly true for the character models themselves. However, when you put them into the actual environment, they kind of stick out like a sore thumb. Monster designs and combat effects are generally very nice to look at, as are the attack animations.

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So this is a massive review and I want to finish up by talking about the length of the experience you’ll get with Hollow Fragment. There is a massive amount of content here, and that’s even if you just blast through the world of Aincrad or the Hollow Area.

If you’re somewhat of a sadist and decide to try getting that coveted platinum trophy, you’ll be at this for easily close to a hundred hours. The core dungeon crawling/monster fighting progression will probably last you around 70-80 hours in total. There’s even four player multiplayer, although that is limited to local ad-hoc play.

In case that doesn’t sound like enough Sword Art Online for you, then rest easy because Bandai Namco is bringing over the massive post launch patch that easily adds another 30-40 hours of content. This addition of content is free of charge, of course.

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If you’re a fan of Sword Art Online, just buy the damn game already. It has its flaws, but the overall experience with Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is very, very fun and completely engrossing if you’re a fan of the series.

If you’re a newcomer and are just looking for a new monster hunting grindfest on the Playstation Vita – that’s here as well, although you might get a bit bored if you’re just chasing after loot and strong monsters. There’s a lot of both, but it can feel repetitive later in the game.

I went into playing Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment with caution as to how the game could possibly recapture the essence of the source material, but it does that admirably – even with something as small as the inability to actually “quit the game”, which is something that’ll stick with me for a long time, just like the series itself.

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment was reviewed using a code provided by Bandai Namco. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

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Brandon Orselli

About

Big Papa Overlord at Niche Gamer, Nicchiban, and Pretentious Media. Italian. Dad. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry. I also write about music, food, & beer.