After hitting the PlayStation Vita at the back end of last year, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment makes its way to the PlayStation 4. With some tweaked graphics, translations and a host of previously released DLC, Bandai Namco’s RPG offers a great deal but falls short in a few areas that could have set it apart.
Game: Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (review code provided)
Once a collection of Japanese novels turned successful TV anime, Sword Art Online will quickly make fans feel at home with a familiar cast and sensibilities in SAO: Hollow Fragment. If you’re like me and new to the series then stepping into the game from nothing might leave you scratching your head initially because of its ‘game about a game’ scenario and several references to past narratives. In short, protagonist ‘Kirito’ is stuck inside fictional MMORPG Sword Art Online with thousands of other players and can’t log out until someone defeats the final boss on the 100th floor; death in game means death in real life.
The narrative does get hazy and relatively thin amidst the breezy anime fun and immersing Japanese dialogue. Whilst it’s genuinely enjoyable to soak yourself in the atmosphere, there’s a plethora of cutscenes that really hammer home its inaccessibility to newcomers due to lengthy conversations and character appearances of which the game assumes you’re already familiar with. In fairness, if you are already familiar with them then you’re in for a treat. Animated story scenes are superb and whilst the static subtitle images don’t quite match up they’re visually decent and hold up pretty well. Don’t expect too many major narrative twists, though. Hollow Fragment’s story is deep, but uneventful for the most part.
The Vita origins are still apparent visually, especially in general gameplay – it’s far from offensive looking, though. Graphics have that distinct ‘last-gen’ feel and for all the analogue goodness of the PlayStation 4 controller, you may as well still be using the direction pad on the Vita, such is its clumsy camera controls. There’s some texture pop-in and general tearing that put a downer in some areas, but it’s not too deterring once you factor in all the onscreen movement from enemies and abilities flying around. As I’ve mentioned, it’s not a bad looking experience by any means, however, the graphical upgrades could have probably gone a little further.
The RPG gameplay is certainly unique as you enter game. You’re not the typically fresh-faced, unskilled adventurer thrown into conflict, but a seasoned pro complete with a high level and a whole bunch of cool abilities. This is both an awesome and an intimidating prospect. You’ll feel powerful and involved, but as you’re first thrown into combat you’ll have several palettes of skills, intertwined with ability bars, a Burst Gauge, character maneuvering, HP/SP, combos, special moves; I could go on. The game tries its best to cram your brain with information as quickly as it can, but like the narrative, new players will have a learning curve.
It’s a learning curve worth powering-through, though. The mechanics are real time and free flowing and can be immensely engaging once gotten to grips with. The Burst Gauge activates your abilities and work in conjunction with a risk system that increases damage received the longer you’re being targeted by enemies; fading into the background to let your teammate take the brunt will lower it making the whole fight quite tactical. Factor in blocking and dodging mechanics and you’ve got a whole lot to think about from a technical and tactical perspective.
Despite your high level you’ll still be able to earn experience points and unlock new techniques, eventually customising your setup to incorporate your favourite abilities. The combat does make up the main bulk of the game so it’s great that there’s plenty of depth and experimentation to be found here. There’s really not many games of this type that make the battle experience as captivating as it can be in SAO: Hollow Fragments and when you’ve found your rhythm, it really is a lot of fun.
There’s a degree of exploration involved that’s partly intentional and partly a result of poor guidance. The Hollow Areas, Hollow Fragment’s contribution to the party, act as distractions from the main story and have a ton of bosses, loot and leveling up opportunities. It’s easy to lose focus in these areas trying to find your way through them without being pointed in the right direction, but they’re definitely rewarding despite the lack of manual saving which can lead to some frustration when you get lost or fall upon a super tough enemy out of the blue.
In between all the tussling and looting you’ll be able to spend some time in town refilling supplies or hanging out with the huge amount of support cast that’ll be travelling with you through the game. You’re married in game, but the morality of the situation never holds any substance as you’re free to acquaint yourself with most of the females you’ll meet in an effort to build relationships. It’s not a deep system by any means, but it aids you combat by allowing a higher frequency of combo moves between you and your teammate. If you feel like something more authentic there’s an online co-op of sorts that allows you to play with your friends with variable mission options and modifiers; it doesn’t add a great deal to the experience, though, but a nice option nonetheless.
Despite the slightly mediocre visuals, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment’s typical Japanese anime presentation is as quirky and entertaining as you’d expect and will inevitably delight fans of the genre, especially if you’re already acquainted with the series itself. There’s a lot to get to grips with and it really isn’t welcoming to new players in the slightest, but with all the added DLC from past releases, an interesting premise and some fighting mechanics that keep you constantly thinking, Hollow Fragment will certainly reward those who can persevere.