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.
What’s interesting is that Hollow Fragment could have afforded to keep its gameplay explanations simple because at its core, it’s a generic action-RPG. As Kirito, you traverse the terrain or dungeons and walk into enemies to begin fighting them. During battles, you can hit the Boost button to increase the frequency of standard attacks, correctly time blocking to avoid damage, use items, and execute Skills for more powerful attacks or add buffs. Basic orders can be given to the one other character allowed to be in your party, who is of course a girl for the dating sim element. There are treasure chests with loot to gain, fetch quests with plenty of backtracking, and bosses to defeat. Leveling up allows you to learn more skills and increase various stats. Currency earned is used to purchase items, weapons, or new stat-changing apparel. All in all, Hollow Fragment is standard RPG fare that only reaches mediocrity when at its best. Combat is irritatingly repetitive and lacked any sense of empowerment or the need for much strategy. A lot of the game’s enemies lacked variety as the same approach could be taken when fighting most of Aincrad’s monsters. Another bad choice arrived in the form of auto-attack being on by default. A few times, I became so bored to the point of falling asleep, only to wake up a minute later and find Kirito still defeating enemies.
The user interface is reminiscent of MMORPGs: a few meter gauges on display, attacks and skills mapped to quick-access square icons, and so on. While it’s a cool aesthetic touch, it isn’t necessary or the best idea on the Vita’s small screen or control layout. A more perplexing design decision to me was that some icons on the screen offered touch screen support while others did not. Had Hollow Fragment allowed remained consistent by allowing players to touch on all on-screen buttons, the MMORPG interface would have worked more in its favor. The game tries desperately hard to be like an MMORPG but lacks the joys and tribulations of communicating with a bunch of real-life players. Everyone else is a NPC, including the female companion in your party, and thanks to every character’s generic, limited dialogue, this rendition of Aincrad feels hollow and lonely.
Fan service honestly is one of Hollow Fragment’s few accomplishments and the only reason anyone would spend dozens of hours playing. Exploring Aincrad and seeing everybody of the main SAO cast in a full 3D game world, even in a far from fully realized form, was initially a cool moment for me. The pre-rendered 3D cutscenes are pretty to watch but tease the SAO gaming experience we want. The dialogues that take place in visual novel form offer bits of enjoyments between the stretches of monotonous gameplay. Plenty of fans will enjoy the ability to court one of Kirito’s several female acquaintances, especially if they aren’t on Team Asuna. More than once, dialogues between the characters discuss the large female demographic of Kirito’s friend circle and are amusing at first before you realize it’s typical harem anime drivel.
For most people, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is far from worth your time. There is very little gratification to be found and newcomers will have a hard time caring about the characters or any of the events unfolding. The PS Vita may not have a large software library but there are surely other games to check out. Sad to say, Hollow Fragment is here largely as a poor product to quickly cash-in on a recent popular anime franchise.