There are a lot of anime series that I don’t follow, including many highly-regarded ones. Sword Art Online was one of them, and that definitely had an impact on my enjoyment of this great title. With some games based on franchises, you don’t need everything spelled out at the start of a game -- Batman, Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse, are all characters that people are familiar enough with that they don’t need an origin in every game. Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment could have definitely done with a little more backstory…
Full disclosure, I was part of the way through this review when I decided to watch the anime on Crunchyroll. It increased my enjoyment of the character interactions tenfold. Also, because the game is absolutely massive, I haven’t managed to play the 100+ hours required to finish it all.
You start off in this single-player massively multiplayer online-alike game by customising your character. This proves to be useless, as the narrative (being based on a franchise) forces you along a set course with a pre-set character model through the cutscenes, and not allowing you to truly personalise the character. Speaking of, a lot of them are in the style of a visual novel, meaning you don’t even see your character. Whereas I slammed Omega Quintet for the same thing, in this case it’s acceptable seeing as this was originally two handheld games -- and there’s much less meaningless nattering...
That’s right, not only do you get Hollow Fragment, which is actually the second title in the franchise, you get the first which didn’t reach these shores: Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment. When you first start a new game, it actually gives you the option of syncing with your PSP on the off-chance you actually played the Japan-only title.
RE: Hollow Fragment takes place in an alternate reality after the middle of the Sword Art Online anime. Instead of being freed after the 75th floor, they must fight on to the 100th. Unlike the name would suggest, it is a single player game, but more akin to Phantasy Star Online than just the art style. The NPCs all act like MMO players, gathering to chat, going out to fight monsters, and suchlike. And just like an MMO, there is a hell of a lot of lost framerate when there are a lot of people on-screen at once in a hub… But whereas a struggling server can be blamed for lag in normal circumstances, this is offline and on a new-gen console…
You’re introduced to Kirito (choose another name in character creation, it doesn’t change a thing) as he appears in the Hollow Zone, and is quickly attacked by Philia, a character not in the anime. She turns out to be an Orange player, meaning she has committed some kind/s of crime and may not be trustworthy. Of course, I only found that out by watching the anime -- at the time I was completely lost why he might not trust ‘an orange player’... And this was in the first ten minutes of gameplay.
The cutscene ends with Kirito returning to his friends, now on the 76th floor and unable to reach any floor below. So if you’re a fan who wanted to visit Kirito’s first house on the 50th floor, or the woods where they found Yui, you’re fresh out of luck. It turns out that Philia cannot travel to Aincrad, the main area of Sword Art Online (SWO for short), but Kirito doesn’t have time to ponder on that as he’s quickly accosted by every female he’s ever met, and his buddy Klein.
It turns out that a glitch just before Kirito won his duel at the end of the anime, has caused them to remain stuck in the game. It’s two years since they entered the game, and everything they had built up for themselves on the lower floors is basically gone, so they have to create a home base on the 76th floor: Arc Sophia.
Once that’s all been established, you’re introduced to the fact that you have two different storylines to approach. One is the Hollow Area, which is all connected and only for high-level players. The other is the Infinity Moment story, where you must clear the floor bosses to open up the next one.
You will need to go through a lot of the floor clearing before you can tackle the Hollow Area, because although Kirito starts at level 100, there are enemies only two sections into the area that are level 120 and higher. Apart from missing about eight out of every nine attacks, there was one enemy which was literally taking zero damage per hit...
The battle mechanic is quite unusual, compared to other JRPGs I’ve played. As you attack, it uses your stamina meter, which replenishes over time. How long that takes will depend on how focussed on you the enemy is -- a threat level of 5 means that you’re going to have less powerful attacks for longer. This can be reduced by using the Switch command with your party member (so long as you have one), which makes the enemy focus on them for a time instead . There are special attacks aplenty which you can use without stamina, but each one then has an individual cooldown period and like in many MMOs, each attack or item needs to be binded to a quick-key for easy use.
I found the battle system quite fun, which was the greatest bonus an RPG can have. If I’m playing something for 100 hours, especially when it involves so many battles, then I want to have fun with it. You have to battle your way through floors, battle across the Hollow Area, join in battles with NPC’s to help them level up…
Speaking of which, there are various NPCs who go into the field and send you a message, asking for help. Kirito is known as a great swordsman, so he gets asked a lot… And everyone who sends you a message is someone you can party with, to help build up their level and their relationship with you.
You can have one person in your party, be it one of the heroines of the anime, or an NPC you helped out. This is because everything you do has a chance of building up your relationship with them. Why do you need to do that? To get in bed with them, of course! You have to speak with an information broker, as it’s not stated outright in a tutorial, but one of the Special Information items tells you all about it. By increasing the relationship level, you can walk around Aincrad whilst holding hands. Increasing it further still allows you to carry them! But watch out, they might get embarrassed! So instead, take them to your room to carry them. Then carry them to the bed. Then talk to them whilst laying on the bed -- hey, put it in first-person camera mode to make it more intimate! And if your relationship level is high enough, something special might happen…
So (he said, changing the subject), the first-person camera mode can be equipped at any time, instead of the third-person view, but it only remains active until you enter a fight. It shows off the nice graphics very well when you’re literally face-to-face with the other characters. I’ve seen screenshots of the PSP version of Infinity Moment, and it’s a massive improvement as you’d expect.
The sound design is also top-notch, with effects from the anime as well as the Japanese cast reprising their roles. The music won’t have you dancing, but it certainly fits the game, changing when you get into a fight and being calm in the hub town.
There is an online multiplayer mode, but it’s instance-based and kind of exactly like Monster Hunter. You join a party, then go out to complete a mission together in the Hollow Area. You can take one of the heroines with you, meaning that a party of four can technically have eight people in it, just four are player-controlled and four are AI. You can create or join a party, or just go solo with your chosen party member. The good thing is, that experience is carried over into the main game.
The only problem with this game, because it’s very well made and fun to play, is how dense it is with Sword Art Online mythos. The option of seeing a highlight reel, or actually being told some of the information, would have made it much more enjoyable for me, before I began watching the anime. There are tons of things that aren’t even touched upon; such as why Yui calls Kirito ‘daddy’, or the letter in his inventory from Sachi. I’d love to score this fantastic RPG higher, but it is just too esoteric for those who are unfamiliar with the franchise.
However, if you plan on watching the anime, then you should definitely get this. The battles are fun and challenging, the writing is hilarious and heartfelt in all the right places, the length of both individual titles makes it well over 100 hours in total… I recommend you watch the anime, or read the manga, then play this.
Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
A huge game that's fun to play, but far too dense with the source material for those unfamiliar to enjoy. Go watch the anime, then buy this!