When an anime about people playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game becomes a hit success, what’s next? The answer is a role-playing game about people playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. The .hack series did just that so this decade’s most popular anime franchise about players stuck in an MMORPG, Sword Art Online, would be leaving money on the table if it didn’t follow suit. Unfortunately, unlike last decade’s .hack games, Bandai Namco failed to fully grasp the golden opportunity they had with Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment. The end result is the disappointing fate of most games based on an anime: unmemorable and frustrating to play.
Sword Art Online originated as a Japanese light novel series written by Reki Kawahara and spawned a popular anime series in 2012, with a second season currently airing. The first story arc centered on gamers entering the titular MMORPG, which required an advanced headset named Nerve Gear that linked with the brains to simulate all five human senses. The world of SAO takes place on Aincrad, a floating castle in the sky, and is a fantastic experience until the players discovered they are unable to log-out. The game’s creator, Akihiko Kayaba, appeared to inform everyone that they are trapped inside SAO and the only way to leave is by surviving all 100 floors of Aincrad. Additionally, if your Nerve Gear is tampered with or you perish in the game, you die in the real world. The story followed Kazuto "Kirito" Kirigaya, an experienced player, as he journeyed through SAO with a girl name Asuna, and then eventually defeated Kayaba Akihibo on the 75th floor, ending the game early.
Hollow Fragment delves into an alternate timeline by exploring what if SAO didn’t let its players go after Kirito triumphed over Akihibo. With the players having settled comfortably into SAO over a two-year span up until this point in the story and no major enemy left, there isn’t a whole lot of urgency among the characters to complete the game as they have all become very comfortable with living in Aincrad. That attitude transferred over to me as the player as I never felt any driving motivation to complete the remaining 25 floors other than to trigger dialogue between characters or progress through the dating simulator component, where Kirito can develop a relationship with one of the many female cast members. Overall though, Hollow Fragment’s story comes across as being nothing more than fan fiction. Take for example that Kirito’s cousin/adoptive sister Kirigaya shows up as Leafa, her avatar from the second story arc’s MMORPG game named ALfheim Online, in Hollow Fragment. Why? Because siscons (Japanese slang for people with a little sister complex) also need a relationship route to shoot for I suppose.
Even more of a letdown is Hollow Fragment’s gameplay due to its underwhelming, tiresome experience. One of the SAO anime’s biggest strengths were the intense, well-directed action sequences. Kirito really felt powerful when he slashed through enemies in major battles and some fight scenes would leave you cheering for more. Instead, you may find yourself bored out of your mind during Hollow Fragment’s slow-paced combat and campaign or confused on how to get started. Straight from the get-go, the game does a downright awful job teaching the player the different facets of its gameplay. A lot of the information is quickly conveyed in dense text thrown at you and the game doesn’t design its early progression in a way that coerces you to mix combat up or try different tactics. A number of fellow gamers complained they do not understand what they are doing in Hollow Fragment.