Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment Review

Title: Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment
Developer: Namco Bandai Games
Game Type: PlayStation Vita
Download: 3.0 GB
NA Availability: 
Digital Download

EU Availability: Digital Download
PSTV Support: Yes

Action RPG’s are plentiful on the PS Vita, but their variety is not.  If you take a look at the Vita’s collection of Action Role-Playing Games without looking at backwards compatible games, what will you find?  Ys: Memories of Celceta.  Ragnarok Odyssey Ace.  Soul Sacrifice Delta.  Toukiden: Age of Demons.  God Eater 2 in Japan.  The upcoming Freedom Wars and Monster Hunter Frontier G.  These are many, and there are others as well.  However, almost all of these are one specific type of Action RPG’s: Hunting Games.

Hunting Games are slowly taking over the handheld market.  Even Nintendo is jumping in the trend.  However, PlayStation Vita fans don’t have to fret for much longer, as there are more Action RPG’s coming, and some of them are quite unique and different from Hunting Games.  Some of them are almost in a genre of themselves, though some still feel that any Action RPG where you fight giant monsters is automatically a Hunting Game.

That statement is false, and a misconception about the review I am about to give you.  Namco Bandai Games have brought a truly unique Action RPG to the PlayStation Vita, getting its roots from a video game-themed anime series.  An Offline MMORPG for all intents and purposes, here is our official review of one of the most anticipated PS Vita titles of the year, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment!

Story

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment follows the story of the Sword Art Online anime, to a point.  It is difficult to explain the plot of this game without giving major spoilers.  For anyone who knows the story of Sword Art Online, Hollow Fragment begins just before the Aincrad arc of the anime ends.  To newcomers, Sword Art Online depicts a virtual reality MMORPG that traps its players in the game world, removing the Log Out feature and will fry their brains if their helmet is removed or they die in the game.

Kirito, a solo player whom works his way up the ranks and leads the people of SAO, is involved in a major system glitch in the SAO servers.  When everyone believed that they had beaten the game early, the system traps them in there further, requiring them to continue to climb up the last 25 floors of the towering Aincrad Castle that makes up the SAO world, hoping to finally clear the game and come home, safely, to their families.

This is where Hollow Fragment splits off from the anime.  It details their journey to the top of Aincrad, as well as a new area in SAO called the “Hollow Area”, where Kirito meets up with a mysterious woman named Philia, and he is able to explore and discover new workings and new plots in this massive world that no one had known about before he was suddenly transported there.

The story of Hollow Fragment isn’t a ground-breaking story, but it fits in well with the rest of the anime and background for it.  Bringing in new characters and old, fans of the anime will be happy to see Sinon from Sword Art Online II playing a role as well as seeing character development for characters that were rarely seen in the original anime, like Silica, Lisbeth, and Klein.

As such, though, it is recommended that you watch at least the first 14 episodes of the anime prior to playing this game.  They do a brief explanation of the world of Sword Art Online, but it will be much more enjoyable to watch the anime first so you know the characters.

Gameplay

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is unique in that it is two games in one.  When you get past the introduction of the game, you will have two things you can do.  You can travel up the remaining 25 floors of Aincrad, which is a direct remake of the PSP title, Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment, with some minor tweaks and changes.  The other thing you can do is travel to the Hollow Area and proceed through the story with Philia, which is content new to Hollow Fragment.  In essence, it is two games in one, and you can freely go back and forth between the two to progress however you would like.

Gameplay-wise, Namco has tried hard to make this really feel like you’re in Sword Art Online.  While there are no “online” features of the game, the atmosphere is trying to simulate that you’re really in an MMORPG.  You have an base called “Arc Sofia” that you can freely explore, with NPCs around here at every turn.  These will include major story characters, like Asuna and Leafa to dozens of random NPC’s generated for the game.

When you’re in Arc Sofia, you can explore areas, from the Inn where you can sell materials and rest to the shopping district to buy and upgrade weapons to the main area, where the Quest Guild and Teleport Gate resides, which can be used to go to different floors of Aincrad or the Hollow Area.  There is also an exit here to be able to leave and explore Floor 75.  The game is very open to what you can do and where you can explore.

When you go out into the field, you are allowed to take one partner with you.  This can be any of the story characters you may come across, be it Silica, Lisbeth, or any of the others.  You can also meet random NPC’s in the field.  Doing this and assisting them with missions will let you recruit anyone in their party, allowing the game to have dozens upon dozens of characters you can recruit.  Aside from battle, you can also improve relations with them and have affection levels, and even marry them later on in the game.

Once in the field, your job will be to take out enemies to fulfill quests and find the Boss Room of the floor.  Each floor has quests for you to accomplish and certain objects to find the Boss Room and object Boss Information.  Finding the Boss Room will require you to explore each floor, which, on its own, is quite large.  Each floor has a set of field and multiple dungeons you will need to traverse to be able to get to what’s called the “Maze Area” that leads to the Boss’s Room.  To be able to challenge the Boss, you’ll also need Boss Info, which can be obtained by defeating mini-boss enemies you find in the field or completing quests that require you to defeat enemies or collect items from Harvest Points.

Once you find a Boss Room and the Boss Info, you can challenge the Boss.  This is a unique area, as you will be in a room with the Boss, but you won’t be by yourself.  You will be there along with about a dozen other characters, fighting the boss together.  The bosses are harder than normal enemies, and learning how to fight them is a key part of the game.  There is also a “Last Attack” bonus for each boss.  Like in the anime, there is a unique item you can receive if you perform the final blow on a boss.

The Hollow Area is a little different.  While Aincrad is a constant cycle of traveling through each floor, doing quests, finding the boss, and then proceeding to the next floor, the Hollow Area is an open world.  The floors of Aincrad are large with dungeons, but are small compared to the huge open world of the Hollow Area, where story can take place or you can just explore to collect items and train your characters.

Actual Combat is handled on the fly.  You will find enemies out in the field, and you will be able to engage them freely.  You also will not go to a separate battlefield for the battle.  It will be from right where you are, further simulating the MMORPG environment.  You will be able to lock on, perform 3-4 hit combos, as well as performing cinematic finishing moves, called Burst Attacks.  You can also equip skills to use to boost your stats, heal your party members, or even drastically raise your Maximum HP and Regeneration Rate.  Once an enemy is defeated, you will receive Experience and can level up to increase your stats.

Skills are obtained through Skill Points, which are awarded for weapon proficiency.  There are ten weapon types, each with their own Skill Tree.  Kirito will start off with Dual Swords, but can switch to anything he wishes, from Two-Handed Swords to Maces to Spears.  Each will change his fighting style as well as the 8 skills you can set to use during battle.  Leveling up Weapon Proficiency with Skill Points will increase the damage those weapons do as well as being able to learn both Burst and Support Skills for those weapons, though Support Skills can be equipped even when that weapon type is not.

The biggest aspect of combat to manage is SP.  Your Skills and even dodging will use up Skill Points (outside of the points used for unlocking new skills), and that will get drained very quickly.  It will regenerate over time, like health, but you won’t be able to do anything but physical attacks if it runs too low.  The goal of the game is to judge SP levels and be able to manage it as well as constantly calling your partner to give you more as well as having them “Switch” with you when you run low, allowing the enemy to lock onto them while you regroup.

The game also has multiplayer options.  However, despite this being an MMO game, the multiplayer options are strictly Ad Hoc / Local multiplayer.  So, if you want to take some friends through the Hollow Area, it will need to be someone in the same room as you.

This is a game that will not be a quick run to finish.  Assume you don’t try to rush through the game and explore the story scenes in each area, each of the 25 floors of Aincrad will take you about 1.5-2 hours to complete.  If you take into account gaining skills and weapons to better assist you with taking on the bosses, the Aincrad section of the game will take you roughly 40-50 hours to complete, more if you work on the NPC quests as well.  Tie in the Hollow Area’s storyline and exploration, and that total will jump up to about 65-70 hours.

One thing to note is that the 30-hour Update that Namco brought to the game in Japan and Asia is coming to the Western releases.  When it does, expect this game to last you at least 100 hours, if not more.

Controls

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment has some pretty extensive controls, and will be using every button on the PlayStation Vita, as you play through the game.  It also has touch controls, though there are button alternatives for those controls, if you do not wish to use the touch features that are built into the game.

Controlling Kirito is done with the Left Analog Stick and the Right Analog Stick is used to move the camera.  The D-Pad will also be used in the game, giving commands to your AI partner, such as praising them to get an SP boost or asking them to Switch with you or go on the Offensive/Defensive.  The Start/Select Buttons are used to bring up menus, like the customization menu or the menu to change the camera angle or the Event List (very nostalgic of an MMORPG).

The Face Buttons will be used for your combat.  You can set skills to any of the Face Buttons, and that includes your physical attacks, guards, dodges, burst attacks, and support skills.  You can simple tap the button to use them, or hold down L or R to go into a different equipped pallet and press the button to use that skill.  Outside of combat, the X Button is used for interacting with objects and people, and the Circle is used to exit a conversation of menu.  The R Button is also used outside of combat when in the “Relationship” talks with an AI partner to increase their affection level and bring them closer to you.

All in all, it isn’t a bad control scheme.  It takes some time getting used to the fact that you can equip 12 skills all at once, as well as moving and using the D-Pad for Partner commands, but once you get used to it, the game gets much simpler.

Presentation

Presentation has its highs and it has its lows.  Visually, the game looks smooth and clean.  When you first look at it, it seems like what looks like a remastered PSP game that was made for the PS Vita.  Essentially, it is, as it uses the base engine that was used in SAO: Infinity Moment and improved the visuals to smooth everything out.  Because of this, all of the visuals look smooth and colorful, making it difficult to find a jagged edge in the character models much of anywhere.  It is a very visually pleasing game.

How the game plays, however, can throw some people off.  Arc Sofia, for example, is an NPC-heavy area.  There will be times where you will be near the teleport gate with as many as 20+ other NPC’s around you.  During this, the frames will slow down a fair amount.  It’s not going to freeze the game, but it’s hard not to notice.  The same thing happens in a few of the dungeons.  It can be a little frustrating to get used to, though the 1.03 Update will smooth that out greatly.

The game plays and feels very good, other than that.  The Load Times never go over about 4 seconds, and, even when the frames drop, the gameplay stays steady, not allowing for jumpy lag sections.

Overall

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is a huge game.  Combining the remade Infinity Moment with the new Hollow Area and dozens of recruitable characters, this is a game that will last you a very long time to beat.  While there are some frame drops in certain areas of the game and the translation is sloppy, you will not find a game on the PS Vita with this much content and, with the 30-hour Update on the way, it will only give you more to do from there.

The PlayStation Vita Review Network Rates Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment an 8/10.

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