In an age where we have Project Morpheus lurking right around the corner, Sword Art Online, the popular Japanese anime about gamers entering a virtual gaming world, has resonated with many viewers – especially the gaming crowd. Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment makes its way onto the PlayStation Vita in the form of a third-person action role-playing game that attempts to create a world as vibrant and alive as its television counterpart. But with a premise already so appealing to gamers, has it made the transition to Sony’s handheld with success?
Before even logging in to the hub world, it’s made blatantly clear that this title is meant for fans of the anime. This is mostly because it does a poor job of easing you into what the fictional MMO at the heart of the series even is. Instead, it throws you into the insanity right away, as it retells the ending of what occurs on the 75th floor of the in-game, er, game. With a slight plot twist, you now get to continue onto the 76th floor, grinding all the way up to the elusive 100th floor.
In truth, the title seems to understand its audience, so it’s not an especially bad thing that it doesn’t explain all of its narrative intricacies. However, with that being said, be prepared to read through a lot of dialogue boxes with lots of tutorials. At times, it almost feels like you’re being pulled into a lecture rather than an action packed video game. Alas, while overwhelming at first, all of the clutter becomes clearer with some practice.
Even though the story veers away from the plot in the anime, the game is still played from protagonist Kirito’s point of view. Oddly enough, though, there are some character customisation options, including different hair styles and colours. Sadly, this portion of the experience is so undercooked that it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Moreover, the game appears to have been held back in an attempt to stick to its source material. Starting you off at Level 100 – at this point in the anime, Kirito is extremely powerful – may seem like a simple numerical choice to appear accurate, but it’s more than just an arbitrary number, as the sheer amount of experience needed to increase your level, even for the first time, takes a lot of patience. It may seem like a silly complaint, but level grinding feels even more bogged down and tedious than it has any right to be.
Despite this, there is a solid game here, with a lot of love for its fan base. Combat is not exceptional, but it’s serviceable; you have an action bar, a special bar, and specials mapped out on all of the face buttons, with more options available on either shoulder button. Battles are simple enough: make sure your bars don’t run low and use your specials effectively. You can even take a partner with you, with plenty of familiar faces to choose from. Or, you can take a real friend, too, courtesy of ad-hoc multiplayer.
Depending on how you choose to approach a battle, the combat can become a tactical affair or just a button mashing mess. More difficult enemies and bosses will force you to think quickly on your feet, although it still doesn’t measure up to the finessed fighting seen in the anime.
When you’re not out exploring or fighting enemies, you’ll probably spend your time in Arc Sofia – the only town in the game, which acts as your hub. All of the goodies needed before going into combat can be found here, with plenty of friendly faces to strike up conversation with. You can build up relationships with the people that you encounter, but while fans may get a kick out of some of the dialogue, there’s nothing especially memorable in this portion of the game.
You’ll also pick up missions here, which don’t offer a whole lot of variety. Reaching higher floors requires you to slaughter floor bosses, which can only be fought once you’ve gathered enough intel. This format means that you’ll be adequately prepared for battle once you get there, so there’s plenty of opportunity to practice your skills.
Why is it called Hollow Fragment, though? Well, this is where it gets a bit more interesting, as this is a district that no one knew existed within the fictional game before. With hidden secrets in store, this unmarked territory provides plenty of surface area to explore with lots of hidden dangers that may be hiding valuable items. It provides a different pace from the floor scaling formula, which is appreciated.
And for those that are truly invested in this virtual world, there is plenty of replay value, too. In addition to the level grinding and copious boss fights, there’s also a New Game Plus mode, allowing you to playthrough the whole campaign again with all of your gear intact. Of course, whether you want to run through the single player a second time will purely depend on how much you enjoyed it the first time.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is let down by its desire to stick too closely to its source material. In attempting to recreate the fictional game at the heart of the animated series, it fails to really deliver on its own merits. Though a lot of the gameplay is forgettable, fans of the anime will certainly find fun in reliving elements of the television show. If you’re not already familiar with the series, though, there are better RPGs on the Vita to consume your time.