Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment - Impression

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment

Platform: Vita
Developer: Bandai Namco Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: 08.19.2014

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The latest RPG to hit the PlayStation Vita is Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, a title promising a faux-MMO experience on the Vita. The title is a spin-off from the highly popular light novel and anime series, which revolves around players being trapped in a virtual reality MMORPG. Hollow Fragment puts players in the role of the series' main character, Kazuto Kirigaya (aka Kirito), slightly after the end of the series' first arc in a diverging plotline from the main series. The first fifteen hours of the game has allowed me to get some good impressions, which so over has been that this title offers generally decent gameplay that is overshadowed by some significant caveats.

"Hollow Fragment offers generally decent gameplay that is overshadowed by some significant caveats."

A major issue immediately comes to the fore in the localisation, which is frankly awful and harkens back to the Bandai releases of The Legend of Heroes' Gagharv Trilogy. The writing is poor, oddly structured, and chock-full of grammatical errors. It seems entirely possible that Bandai Namco has based the North American version of the game on the pre-existing Asian English version, in order to achieve the minimum cost. The game even still uses the traditional Japanese control setup of the circle button being used for confirm and cross used for cancel. Unfortunately, without the necessary editing, the result is disastrous. Place names are sometimes different between the logs and the map, the tutorial is near useless, and the game's conversation system is nearly impenetrable.

The game is also rather unwelcoming on those new to the series or expecting a deep plot. It contains massive spoilers for anyone who hasn't finished the first arc of the series (the first half of the first anime season), and expects that players already know nearly everything about the characters and what happened in the first part of the game. That's not even getting into the couple of characters imported from later parts of the series. The fact that it is intended for fans is also apparent from the very high fanservice-to-content ratio. Nearly all of the event scenes focus on the female characters in the game being in love with the main character. This is despite him being clearly spoken for with one of the heroines; why she seems ok with all of this attention is another issue entirely. If the event scenes were decent written this might be less of an issue, but when coupled with the poor localisation is just seems to devolve everything to pandering irrelevance.

There are two different plot threads in Hollow Fragment. The one players start off in is the Hollow area, where Kirito is mysteriously teleported. Here he meets a new character called Philia. The other area is a continuation of the original Sword Art Online arc, where players are required to advance up a massive tower. After somehow ending up on floor 76 following a glitch, Kirito and his allies find themselves unable to return to lower floors with no choice but to press on to level 100 at the top. Despite the game's advice otherwise, players will likely want to spend at least some time advancing up the tower first to help get accustomed to the gameplay, due to the opponents here generally being considerably lower level. The two different threads are rather at odds with each other, at least in the early portions, the Hollow area features generally unclear goals and direction but gives players much more freedom to explore. Meanwhile, the main tower features much clearer goals and progression at the cost of being considerably more repetitive without many events of interest happening so far.

On the positive side, the actual gameplay is solid. There appears to be less attention needed with regards to tactics and weak spots than just going on an all out offensive and relying on being high enough level. Although players will need to manage SP, which can be gained back in more significant chunks by praising the AI partner as much as possible. Boss fights do bring in some tactics, although this has so far simply involved taking out various parts of the boss before focusing on the main body. Battles are generally exciting, if a bit repetitive after a while, and the controls and skill system work very well. Using items, however, is made more difficult than necessary by the very high use time and proneness to being interrupted.

There is at least a lot of content. So far around fifteen hours has got me through six of the twenty-five floors in the main game's towers and a very small portion of Hollow Area's content. Loot and chests are pretty abundant, and even in the tower sections there's still plenty of exploration needed. At the moment Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment it's still difficult for me to be able to recommend it to anyone who isn't already a fan of the series, but if the gameplay continues to hold up against the narrative challenges then it has a good chance of being a worthwhile proposition.

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