First things first: Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment isn’t online, but it is an MMO. How? Well that’s all part of the story. Essentially, 10,000 players are trapped in a virtual reality MMO, and dying in-game is fatal in real life (after this I’m never touching an Oculus Rift). With nothing else to try, the players band together to beat the game, a sprawling 100 floor dungeon, and after defeating the 75th Floor Boss they discover that one of their Guild leaders is actually Kayaba, the game’s creator, who trapped them there. Kirito – the protagonist of the anime and the game – duels with him.
The first arc of the anime took the story to this point, but Hollow Fragment diverges: a glitch causes Kayaba to disappear and the players remain trapped. Still stuck and with their one lead gone, they decide to clear the rest of the tower.
Clearing each floor boils down to finding the boss’s lair, completing a certain quest and defeating a semi-boss monster in a dungeon area. Fetch, collect and kill quests are all present, along with a levelling system and unlockable skills, while the floor boss fights feel like raids, with a handful of other NPCs fighting alongside you to bring it down. It’s strange, because it has all the trappings of an MMO, but without the other players to interact with. Hollow Fragment makes up for this with over 100 companions, NPCs you can pair up with when you venture into the wilderness. They all have different skills, and will level alongside you as you use them.
They’re actually useful in a fight as well, and combat is simple but fun. The face buttons have an attack, dodge, stun and parry, which all use up the Burst bar at the bottom of the screen, preventing you from hammering “slash” with impunity. Holding L/R switches the face buttons to mappable skills, power attacks that draw from the SP bar. These become your mainstay, with some of the later ones able to dispatch most enemies easily. Your companions become part of this system; they’ll attack on their own, but will also listen to your orders – again mapped to the d-pad – and occasionally give you advice or calls for aid. Doing as they ask deals a joint attack, essential during boss fights, and you can even congratulate them if they perform to your liking, causing a short stat boost.
Kirito’s signature weapons are a pair of swords, but you can purchase new ones from the town hub on the 75th floor, including maces and axes, and equip your followers with anything you see fit. Unfortunately, changing weapon can leave you feeling massively underpowered, as Kirito – level 100 when you take control of him – is fairly far along the dual-wielding skill tree and at the first rank of everything else.
In fact, the starting point of Hollow Fragment creates a few problems. While it makes total sense in the context of the world, starting at level 100 makes it feel like you are picking up halfway through a story. Likewise, for the first few floors, enemies range from about 70-90, easy pickings for you and your followers, and it just lacks challenge. Followers themselves are hampered, as they too start at different levels. Kirito’s wife Asuna is the highest ranked, in the 90s at the start, while some of the others are as low as 60, making them useless.
Technically, none of the above is original – the story and gamplay is ripped from last year’s PSP outing Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment, but with some cutscenes swapped around and crisper HD graphics. To remedy this, Hollow Fragment introduces a glitch area of the SAO world called the Hollow Area, complete with new characters and powers. While the floors of the main game are largely linear, the Hollow Area is a sprawling open world, with different bosses to fight and a mixture of enemies drawn from the rest of the game. It can also be tackled with three friends, but only via ad-hoc multiplayer, which I imagine will be useless outside of Japan.
As I mentioned above, the graphics are crisp in HD, particularly the manga-style cutscenes, and enemies are vibrant and imaginative. Hollow Fragment also makes great use of the fact it is a gameworld to provide a range of environments one after another. Japanese voice acting underpins the story, but it’s let down by shoddy translation in the subtitles, to the point where you’ll find it difficult to follow what’s going on, which in turn put me off the story.
Things could have been polished up a little more across the board. For example, one quest wouldn’t let me complete it because I didn’t have room in my inventory for the reward. It took ten minutes of clearing it out – even though I did have plenty of space – then going back to turn it in later before I noticed that the reward was 6 potions, while I had 5 in a stack already. Nowhere did it tell me the limit was 10, and it didn’t automatically start a separate stack in a different inventory space. A small annoyance, but one that shouldn’t really happen nowadays.
The plot is introduced a little slowly as well. Hollow Fragment gets you straight into the action, teaching you the ropes, but this puts the story on the backburner – it’s over an hour before an optional flashback sequence tells you what’s going on.
VERDICT: If you’re a fan of Sword Art Online then this is a must buy, with it’s alternate reality separating it from the series. For everyone else, Hollow Fragment provides a decent RPG experience on Vita. Later levels become a little grindy, but it’s aided by solid – albeit a little easy – combat and carried along by an imaginative and occasionally humorous storyline.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.
Review code provided by publisher.