Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment was published by Bandai Namco Games and released in Japan on April 23, 2014, Hong Kong on May 29, and North America on August 19 (with Europe and Australia following on the 20th) for the Playstation Vita.
For those unaware of the source material, Sword Art Online takes place entirely in a VRMMO (Virtual Reality MMO, using new technology called the NerveGear, a headset capable of intercepting all brain communication to the body, translating that movement into the game) that has been turned into a death game - upon logging in, the ten thousand players find that they are unable to log out, and are told by the creator Kayaba Akihiko that dying in game will mean you die in the real world. The series follows a beta tester of the game known by the user handle Kirito and, for the sake of this article, his exploits within Aincrad, the world within the SAO game.
Hollow Fragment - and it's predecessor, Infinity Moment - actually takes place in an alternate timeline from the source material. In the Light Novel and Anime series, the game comes to an end when Kirito and Kayaba have a duel on the 75th floor of Aincrad, in which Kirito wins and everyone is logged out. In the games, however, Aincrad appears to glitch when Kirito lands the finishing blow, and the death game continues. Thus, the group moves on to complete the game as intended, since they have no other choice.
Luckily for North Americans, Hollow Fragment also contains a High Definition version of Infinity Moment, the PSP game released in 2013 in Japan, which means NA users can finally experience the story laid out within IM. A downside from this is that there are technically two stories within the game, and aside from a couple small connections, they are largely independent. Because of this, I intend to review both portions as separate entities.
The gameplay for both portions are deceptively simple. You're given three sets of skill palettes: the four face buttons naturally, and a set tied to the four face buttons for both the left and the right trigger, bringing the total of quickly usable skills to 12. Further, the left and right triggers also allow you to issue orders to your party member through the D-Pad. The default Circle button is tied to your 'Burst Attack', which is basically a sword combo which culminates in a changeable Sword Skill. While it is possible to get through most, if not all, of the game using just this attack, it is far more satisfying to vary your attacks according to the opponent. As such, the game is at once an Action RPG and a Tactical RPG. In many fights, I find myself switching - Down on the D-Pad during combat, and an ability that basically transfers all aggro from you to your partner - frequently with my party member, moving from attack to support with ease. This allows you to heal up between major boss attacks - or even allow your partner to take the damage which may kill you. One has to be mindful however, since if either you or your partner dies, it's game over and you have to start from the last autosave, which is far more annoying that you might think. Still, I've found the AI partner much hardier than myself at times, so it comes down to knowledge of your opponent and your skill at issuing orders during combat.
As mentioned previously, the story is made up of two parts. The first that I'll cover is the Infinity Moment story line. This starts immediately after the assault team moves up to the 76th floor of Aincrad. Arc Sophia acts as your base of operation, since the team quickly finds themselves unable to return to the lower floors due to the glitch that occurred when Kirito defeated Kayaba. Soon, the girls that Kirito has befriended during the game previously also come to the floor and are trapped. The story progresses simply: beat the floor boss and continue to the next floor to do it all again. Luckily, each floor has it's own flavor, which makes each floor fascinating to wander around. My only gripe about this portion of the game stems from the size of each floor, but that stems from the limitation of the original PSP hardware as opposed to being indicative of the game itself. The environments that I've seen in the lower areas are unique enough to make each new floor fresh.
The second part of the story is the Hollow Fragment story line. This is where many players will spend the bulk of their time, since it's absolutely massive. The story line begins as soon as the game begins, and is how the game introduces you to the basic gameplay. Kirito is suddenly teleported to an unknown area, where he meets an Orange player named Philia (Since this is a death game, PvP is generally frowned upon, but many players thrived on killing; the normal cursor color is green, while players who have committed crimes, such as theft or murder, have orange). She begins to attack Kirito, but then a large enemy appears and you have to kill it and this fight acts as the basic tutorial for the game. The Hollow Fragment story is very much a story about Philia, so in order to progress through it, you have to have her in your party. It takes you through five major zones within the Hollow Area, which is a testing ground for the Cardinal System - the main governing program for Sword Art Online - and developers. As expected, items found within the Hollow Area are far more powerful than many items on Aincrad, which means that if you're looking for a challenge in Aincrad, it's best to do much of that first. I chose to do the Hollow Area first, which means I'm basically steamrolling my way through Aincrad.
Outside of the separate stories, Hollow Fragment adds many other systems that were not in Infinity Moment. For instance, while it wasn't explained very well within the game, Hollow Fragment adds something called an "Implement System". The basic premise of this is that you are given certain requirements, and upon completion you'll unlock skills, items, and weapons. Some of the strongest items in the game are gated behind Implements. The requirements range from completing a thousand sword skills to taking five hundred thousand damage. Upon completing a requirement (of which only one can be 'checked' at any given time), you are given access to the subitems connected to it. Some of the implements are very grindy, and I've found myself zoning out while farming them out during hollow missions - random spawn missions that range from killing a boss to heading to an area without getting into battles.
As well as adding the Implement system, Hollow Fragment also adds Ad-Hoc Multiplayer into the game. Ad-Hoc is very limited since you have to be near other players in order to do so, but at least there's a multiplayer system here that was lacking in the previous PSP game. It is also possible to go into multiplayer alone, which allows you to bring up to four other player characters with you, so it makes killing some bosses much easier. It was also brought to my attention that chest you have not opened in single player appear in multiplayer, and opening them there does not open them in single player, making it easy to farm chests for lucrative items or cash. It was further brought up that this was a glitch that has been fixed in the JP and HK versions of the game, and will be fixed in a big patch coming to the US on September 23. Glitch or no, it's a good way to gain cash early on, so early adopters will be able to easily and quickly farm for these drops to pad their cash flow.
Finally, completing the Hollow Fragment story opens up a dungeon call the Concealed Area. It's basically a one hundred floor dungeon as of writing has no checkpoints, so if you want to complete it, you must do so in a single bound. The aforementioned update will add checkpoints, which will make it much easier to complete. I haven't yet hit a level where I feel comfortable actually using this place, but I've read that it's the best source of XP in the entire game, so once I finish the story I'll probably be farming this place.
There's also a small 'dating sim' type game here, where you basically woo the heroines within the game. They never really explain this within the game, but getting the heroine's affection level to five gives a trophy, so it's something a trophy hunter must learn how to complete if they intend to receive the platinum for this game. It's highly recommended to do this portion while doing something else, since it's very easy to get bored by it all. Aside from the trophies, there's very little need to do this portion, so you can generally ignore it. Further, each heroine has four alternate costumes that are unlocked by praising them when they use a skill that falls under one of three parameters: Attack, Defense, and Buff. As before, this is fairly grindy, so I've been doing this while farming Implements, since you can force the heroines into one of those paths beforehand and raise her parameters during the grind.
Aside from the few gripes I've mentioned above, there is one that I still find myself shuddering from: the translation. While it is better than the English translation within the HK version, it's still *very* Engrishy. There are times where I cringe reading a line. Some lines are better than others, but far too many are horrid. I wish Bamco had taken a bit longer on localization for the sole purpose of ironing out the translation. The game itself is very solid, but the translation makes it very hard to recommend to people who aren't familiar with the series - also the spoilers from the opening sequences are pretty huge.
Verdict: due to the nature of this game, I'll break it down into three categories:
- If you watched or read SAO before, this game is a good addition the the mythos, despite being a separate entity.
- If you haven't watched or read the series previously and plan to, I would recommend staying away from the game until you've done so, since there are spoilers within this game.
- if you don't care about spoilers and enjoy hours of mindless gameplay, this game is definitely for you.
Finally, it's also a game very much aimed at trophy hunters, due to the nature of some of the trophies. All in all, it's a game I'll end up returning to from time to time once I finish it, since I very much enjoy the ability to spend hours farming in a game that's fun to play.