Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment leaps from the small screen of the PlayStation Vita and onto the PlayStation 4 complete with online play. Its handheld roots make this role-playing game undeniably rough around the edges, but give it some time, and you'll uncover a satisfying, addictive adventure that sports some nice touches here and there.
Following an alternate take on the hit novel and anime series in which players of a virtual reality game known as Sword Art Online are trapped within the software, Re: Hollow Fragment features most of the property's familiar faces. Fans will feel right at home from the start, but for everyone else, there's a lot of stuff to wrap your head around. From technical terms to backstory references, the whole thing will initially seem impenetrable to those who haven't at least sampled the source material.
Despite its inaccessibility, though, following on directly from a specific point in the franchise does allow the title to incorporate some refreshing and interesting mechanics. For example, you'll begin the game at level 100, as the playable protagonist, Kirito, is already a masterful player of Sword Art Online at this point. To an extent, this augments proceedings with a unique tone, as you won't necessarily feel like you're starting your journey as a typically amateur adventurer. Instead, you'll instantly have access to numerous well-rounded skills and attacks, and from there, character progression is yours to shape.
However, as mentioned, this set-up isn't ideal for newcomers. It can seem like you're thrown into the deep end from the word go as you're forced to understand the ins and outs of combat, exploration, and character development – and the shoddy text box tutorials don't help – but again, there's plenty of reason to persevere.
The flashy combat is one such reason, providing a fun system that becomes quite rhythmic after you grasp the basics. Mixing some traditional massively multiplayer online elements such as cooldown times and ability bars with a few real-time action mechanics like blocking and dodging, it's an enjoyable formula that perhaps works better than you'd expect. Because of its contrasting components, battles can actually be quite tactical as you switch between using offensive and defensive techniques. It's a combat system that takes a whole slew of statistics into account, yet there's still plenty of room for player skill and reactions, which gives way to some satisfyingly dynamic brawls.
Besides, just because you start off at level 100 doesn't mean that you've reached your limit. Levelling generally happens quite slowly as you grind your way beyond 100, but by utilising different fighting styles – each of which comes with its own set of abilities – you'll constantly be gaining skill points that you can use to unlock more techniques. There are entire skill trees to pick and choose from, and experimenting with different builds is an addictive aside, especially when you take abilities from other disciplines and find ways to make them work with your current loadout.
You're not alone in battles, either. There's a large roster of companions that you can partner up with, although many of these are generic non-playable characters. As such, the ones that are destined to soak up most of your attention are the girls from the source material who all seem to be madly infatuated with Kirito, and herein lies another of the title's more intriguing aspects.
By journeying with one of these secondary characters, you'll steadily increase your friendship with them, which eventually leads to unique dialogue and – you guessed it – inevitable romance. What's more, building relationships allows you to be better synced during combat, unleashing joint attacks more frequently. It's not a particularly deep friendship system, but the cast and their dialogue does help keep you invested in what is otherwise a combat-heavy dungeon crawler. Plus, the way that Kirito and the gang excitedly shout 'Level up!', complete with Japanese pronunciation, is just too adorable to ignore.
Meanwhile, if you don't fancy forming a team with a computer controlled party member, you can go online and fight alongside a friend or stranger. The online functionality's pretty basic, but it gets the job done, and exploring the world with a buddy will no doubt be an attractive selling point for fans, particularly when you're hunting and bringing down dangerous beasts together.
As for the actual plot of the release, there's not really all that much to mention. There's an overarching narrative about how the players of Sword Art Online fight to get to the final 100th floor of the virtual world and potentially beat the game, but nothing much happens on the way there. You explore each new floor, fulfil a few quests, take on the boss, and repeat. With 25 floors to conquer, it's a lengthy story but one without many twists or turns. In fact, most dialogue-driven cutscenes are more to do with the involved characters and their daily lives rather than their overall goal, and although this method of storytelling provides numerous light hearted moments that flesh out each personality, it's something that only fans of the original work will fully appreciate.
That said, there's plenty to do outside of the main story, too. Hollow Fragment on Vita introduced the aptly named Hollow Areas – slightly more challenging locations that are yours to explore at your leisure. These places are great for levelling up you and your allies, and they're packed with secret bosses and loads of good loot. Some of the most rewarding points of the release come when you find yourself exploring a dungeon on a whim, only to come across a full set of powerful equipment. It's dungeon crawling at its best, and the game provides these moments more often than not.
However, it's not all good news for Kirito and pals. Undoubtedly one of the title's biggest flaws is the fact that you can't manually save your game; your progress will only be saved automatically when you leave an area, and as you can imagine, this can potentially lead to bouts of frustration since you can be felled by groups of high level enemies during a stint of dangerous dungeon delving. To make matters worse, it's game over if your partner bites the dust during combat. While this makes sense given the source material's harsh permanent death rule, it still feels cheap when an ally is taken down because they refuse to sidestep a particularly powerful blow. Fortunately, though, these occurrences are rare, as the artificial intelligence is generally quite capable.
On a different but equally disappointing note, it's a bit baffling that you're free to create your own avatar – male or female – yet you're always cast as Kirito during story sections and cutscenes. It's a prime example of half-hearted implementation, and it's a shame that such a feature wasn't overhauled for this re-release.
Elsewhere, on the presentational side of things, Re: Hollow Fragment certainly looks like a handheld port. Textures are consistently muddy and environments are basic, but the attractive art style just manages to hold things together. Sadly, the release does suffer from framerate drops now and again in the bustling hub town, which is annoying seeing as the game's visuals clearly aren't all that demanding.
Audio-wise, most of the title's cutscenes are voiced, and the Japanese voice actors seem to do a great job across the board. Likewise, the soundtrack is enjoyable, sporting numerous catchy tunes, but it's the electro-rock battle themes that steal the show.
Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment could afford to be a little more welcoming to newcomers with its opening hours, but get through the initial confusion and you'll find a charming RPG that boasts an enjoyable battle system. Meanwhile, a solid supporting cast prop up a middling story, and some great dungeon crawling moments will keep you coming back for more. Despite several unnecessarily daft design choices, jumping into the shoes of Kirito can be a lot of fun, and for the game's budget price, it's easy to recommend to anyone who's up for a spot of anime adventure.
God, I really need to delve into this game to be the Kirito kun I always wanted to be.
@Arjan127 You'd absolutely love it, I reckon.
@ShogunRok well yes, always been interested in hollow fragment. Lost song, too. Will eventually get them both.
I had the vita version and the localisation was god awful in some places, has it been improved in this version?
@AhabSpampurse Yes, they completely redid the translation for this and it's pretty much flawless now. I believe the Vita version also has a patch which does the same.
The level 100 thing's interesting. The .hack games handled it differently, in the original quadrilogy you started as a new player but imported your character into each consequent game. In .hack//GU you were a high level, notorious player but something weird and related to the overarching plot screws up your character and puts you back to level 1.
Maybe in this, if they really had to use the canon main character, they could've had a prologue at the start of when he was a new player to ease players into the game, then it switches to him being level 100. It could be optional. It just sounds a bit odd how they do it here, like your friend's just handed you the controller and told you to carry on with his 60 hour game of FFVII when you've never played it before.
I can't personally say to what degree but I do know that that's one of the improvements. They've given it all a once over.
@ShogunRok @Matroska cheers guys, I'm downloading it now
Is this game PS4 only? If so, then I must play it for sure.
"Undoubtedly one of the title's biggest flaws is the fact that you can't manually save your game; your progress will only be saved automatically when you leave an area, "
That's intentional, to give a little sense of permadeath like the show had.
@NeoTechni It may be intentional, but it's still questionable game design. On the plus side it adds a hint of tension. On the minus side, you can lose a chunk of progress when the AI decides to gang up on your ally and they do next to nothing to defend themselves.
I've never got the appeal of this fake MMO jrpgs, I don't like real MMO's so why would I want to play an offline game about being trapped in a MMO
What really frustrates me here is that I'm not really interested in getting this on PS4, as I don't have the time for it, but would really like to play the Vita version. HOWEVER, for some reason the updated PS4 version costs half the price of the Vita version, which is still over £30!
@DualWielding I think there's two angles to it. Back in the PS2 days of games like .hack it was a way to replicate the MMO experience for people who wanted to play something like that but didn't have the means.
Outside of that, it's just a narrative tool to tell a certain type of story. No different really to any other stories that focus on someone being sucked into a world other than their own, and then having to fight to get back to their own world.
So I got this game last Friday and have played it a bit since then. I think I agree with this review overall. The game opens right in the middle of something, then bombards with what felt like about an hour of visual novel cutscenes about things that will mean nothing to you if you're not familiar with the anime or novels. I mean, you can infer stuff but it doesn't really resound emotionally since you have no attachment to these characters and the game operates on the basis that you do; it makes little attempt to introduce them or get the player to feel for them.
One thing the review didn't mention that I feel really stands out is how weird the movement controls are. Kirito seems to go from a standstill to about 60mph in a split second. He slides and glides all over the place like an air hockey puck, not really seeming to make contact with the ground. When the analogue stick is fully pressed he seems to have two speeds that change without rhyme or reason: too fast and way too fast. In long straight empty corridors this is actually appreciated, but in towns and more twisty and turny areas, it feels like trying to set a land speed record in a hedge maze.
I also have to say that as an exploration of MMORPGs, in terms of using tropes and elements from them in a satirical or reflective way, it really falls flat compared to the .hack games. You can't log out, that's a critical part of the plot, yet that means there's none of the .hack-style quitting the game and checking your emails, BBS, news, etc, which all relates to your actions in the faux-MMO and the plot in general. The stuff that made it feel like you really were playing a game within a game. SAO HF really lacks that sense that you're diving into a weird MMO. Instead it feels like the world in SAO is the only reality, thus it's just like any other JRPG.
That all sounds quite negative but I'm still enjoying it. It mainly functions as a kind of RPG waifu sim, which is fine, but it's just sad to see a .hack-like come out all these years later and actually seem to have moved backwards in terms of everything from plot to gameplay to graphics. Still, it's priced accordingly so you can't really complain.
I bought the game without knowing any of the SOA Story, im completely new to it - and for players like me this game offers very little to get into the SOA Universe. Characters and Gamesystems are almost not explained at all which makes the start confusing and a bit overwhelming. The game sure is fun once I got into it - its a bit superficial, the Dating Sim/Visual Novel elements are mostly full of cliche and embarassing situations, and the overall technical performance is also "last gen", graphics, environments, technical limitations/pop ups and so on draw the game down a bit, but since its a RPG and the core game mechanics are fun, one can look past this.
I think the game clearly is made for Fans of SOA, but surely not a good starting point for newcomers.
@consolfreak1982 i thought it was utter garbage, i grew up watching anime reading manga and playing jrpgs in the 80's and 90's and i couldnt like it even a little bit
@bobbycracky now after Watchin the series the game is even more disappointing lookin back, idk why but I’m still tempted to get hollow realization since it’s always on sale and supposed to be improved but on the other hand There’s so many high quality jrpgs that are so much more worth investing time in them ... probably better to stick to the series for now (season one it is)
@Matroska I'm sure you have seen the series by now, but the lack of leaving the game is part of the plot. They could have added it into the Land of the Fairies (Alfheim) arc or Gun Gale arc, but not in this one.
@Jayofmaya Yeah, I did say that but probably wasn't clear enough. Probably got lost in my wall of text, ha.
"You can't log out, that's a critical part of the plot, yet that means there's none of the .hack-style quitting the game and checking your emails, BBS, news, etc, which all relates to your actions in the faux-MMO and the plot in general."
I know it's part of the story but not being able to log out means it feels less like you're a guy playing an MMO and more like just a guy in a fantasy setting. As you say, the games set in Alfheim and GGO (and in Hollow Realization), logging out is possible canonically but you still can't do it in the games. Its just a shame. That was something that added so much to .hack//IMOQ and .hack//GU.
Also none of the games have a girl as good as Alkaid from GU which is another flaw. 😉
@Matroska Woops, missed that part. My bad. Yeah, that's a missed opportunity, really. Considering the show had them out of the game, too. Would be cool to have to fight someone as student Kirito like at the end of the Land of the Fairies arc.
I used to have one of the ps2 .hack titles, but I never got round to playing it. Perhaps I will give it a go finally
@Jayofmaya The original 4 have aged like milk but GU still holds up pretty well if you're okay with things being anime as hell.
@Matroska Thanks for the suggestion! Well, I watch a decent amount of anime, so shouldn't be a problem
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