Sword Art Online; just the name draws so many feelings from those even remotely familiar with anime… but whether you hate it with a passion or love it more than Kirito loves Asuna, they’ve made it into a game and brought it West – so I suppose it’s time to find out how it translates.
Let’s start with the story, shall we?
Hollow Fragment’s first story revolves around an alternate universe take on the events of the anime, splitting off from the canon story as of the fight with Heathcliffe in episode 15 (the end of the first story arc). If you haven’t watched the anime, you’re probably thinking “uh, what?” at this point – but no worries, I’ll bottom line it for you; stuck in a virtual-reality based massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, you (as the protagonist) must navigate your social life and the toughest floors of the tower of Aincrad (the virtual world you’re in) in order to get back to reality alive.
Joining you on this journey to the top are your friends and companions – including male friends Agil and Klein, as well as female friends Asuna, Leafa, Silica, Liz, Sinon, Strea, and Yui. Picking from the more seasoned adventurers* of these friends (*read; not Agil, Silica or Yui), you must party up in a pair or go it alone, taking on twenty-five progressively harder floors, over two dozen floor bosses and everything Aincrad has to offer in the way of mazes, monsters and traps.
If you’re wondering how the game will address the issue of not everyone playing the game having watched the anime however, it’s probably easiest to simply show you – as it’s executed as a little prompt that pops up soon after the game starts. Choosing “Recall” will load an event scene rundown, depicting the story as it lead up to your current situation.
That first story-line and method of progression (the floors & boss system) is accompanied by another story-line involving a previously hidden area called the “Hollow Area,” and a lost female solo-player by the name of Philia who can’t seem to leave it. Unlike the Aincrad area which uses floors, the Hollow Area uses teleportation stones to denote area markers on a semi-open labyrinth, and features a dungeon system which is a network of linking areas separated by area bosses and gates. The whole thing is quite large, and in terms of playable content and explorable area may even rival the Aincrad portion when it comes to completion time.
Looks like it’s time to move on to game mechanics and combat. 🙂
Hollow Fragment uses a button-assigned pallet system with right and left trigger modifiers. If that sounds complicated, it’s really not; you simply assign skills, items or abilities to the X, square, O and triangle buttons with the left or right triggers bringing up a new set of assigned buttons upon holding (giving a total of 12 spaces for assignment). Most skills or abilities cost SP, of which a 300-point gauge constantly refills on your HUD. Top skills cost upwards of 150 SP – meaning two in a row would completely deplete your SP – while some of the lesser skills only cost 25 or even 0 SP to activate (there’s an auto-attack system which if left to its own devices will slowly eat away at the enemy’s HP with beautifully flowing attacks for no cost to any of your gauges).
Accompanying the SP gauge, there’s another gauge which relates to attacks called BURST. This gauge is depleted with some of the lighter attacks and skills (ones that can be used in combos), and when brought to zero will not allow you to do much damage without using a SP-based skill. Balancing being the attacker and support via the switch command (down on the d-pad, or the touch screen option) will help you keep your SP and BURST gauges filled and allow you and your partner to deliver a continuous tag-team style stream of attacks.
I also mentioned that you can assign items to different button placements, and usable items range from health potions, to SP potions, to status fixes or attribute buffs. Most of these have multiple levels of use (ie; a small, medium and large style health or SP potion), though some are simply designed to amplify or fix a specific attribute. It’s worth noting that leveled potions like SP can be stacked to produce a combined effect, so if you’re struggling on an area and you can use any combination of small/medium/large potions to get an advanced effect.
Skills and attacks are unlocked through the mastery of different weapons and fighting styles, with each style having a skill ladder to go through. Styles of weapon mastery include dual wield (sword), rapier, scimitar, sword, dagger, club, great axe, spear, katana and two-handed sword – with the only other weapon mastery in the game a “hidden” one well suited to an out-of-canon player (hint hint!). Mastering a style will lead to more damage being done by your attacks, and more sword skills unlocking for purchase with experience points – so it’s worth noting that sticking with a set weapon style will get you further much faster than changing it up.
Another way to advance your damage delivering skills is to level up, which is done though gaining XP by defeating monsters or completing quests. When you start the game, it’s assumed that Kirito (or whatever you name the main character) has already fought through 75 floors and has leveled up to 100, with the various partners available having their levels scattered across a fair range around his. Part of how far you’re going to get in battle has to do with your own level, but the level of your battle partner(s) can be just as important – so be sure to level them up with some grinding before taking them into some of the tougher areas. In this game you not only have to take care of your own HP, but your partner’s as well – if either of you hit zero HP the game will dead end and load your last save.
Now, I can talk about ways to fight and try to explain game mechanics all I want… but the bottom line is that unless I write you an intricate guide we’re just scratching the surface. While the game is certainly not an MMORPG (it only has ad-hoc multiplayer ffs!), it does seem to feel like one in the complexity of the battle system and controls – so while it’s great to have gotten the just of combat and game mechanics in my review, you’ll have to play around with it to really get a feel for the best ways to go about playing from your personal perspective. I ended up grinding in the Hollow Area until I could just chop down anyone in my way without resorting to playing defense (all about the attacks, even with regards to my partner), so it’s evident that whatever your play-style you’ll find a good way to go about it if you experiment a little.
Moving outside of battle, additional options are available to the player – with square bringing up the event menu, touching the map in the HUD activating the full area map, and X when standing in front of another character bringing up the “party up” menu. When you’ve already partied up with another character, X will bring up an interaction menu – allowing you to check your partner’s status and gear, as well as interacting with them socially.
The social elements of the game involve talking with your friends while being partied up, as well as being bolstered by things like in-game praise, giving them items, buying them food and working together to attack. There are five standard levels of social interaction; null, acquainted, friendly, intimate and perfect match. These levels correspond with how close you are to a respective character, and once you hit level 5 you can initiate a bedroom scene by performing a bridal carry up the stairs in an empty Agil’s tavern (getting you to level 6) and then taking the character to your room and going through a few prompts to truly max them out (level 7!). Every character you can add to your party can be leveled up to have this initiate (including Klein), though aside from gaining certain quests and seeing some fanservice scenes this addition adds nothing to your fighting skills or the active portion of the game. Literally the only method in which social interaction benefits the player is giving your partner praise for doing something right, which will net you a 50 SP bonus on the field.
Aside from the battle elements and the social interaction, there’s also a shopping area on the main floor where you can buy and sell items, armor and weapons. In addition to buying and selling weapons, you can also take owned weapons to Liz’s metalsmith shop for upgrades or even have her create a weapon for you from scratch if you have enough materials. Yes, in Aincrad everything still costs something – and you’ll either be paying with Col (the cash currency) or materials for any actions done through NPC shops, depending on the particular service you’re getting.
A less personable version of these shops (other than Liz’s) is also available through each of the Aincrad teleportation gate levels, with higher levels offering more options and better equipment (other than level 100, which doesn’t have a shop and level 76 where they’re physical instead of a menu). No shops are available in the Hollow Area, so any shopping needs there will have to be met by exiting the area and using an Aincrad shop – a bit of a convoluted solution to say the least.
Now it’s time to get to the technical bits.
The graphics in Hollow Fragment are decent, aside from some issues with a lack of anti-aliasing which results in some jagged edges (especially when viewed upscaled on the PlayStation TV). The characters are well modeled and can be zoomed in on quite close with the right camera tricks, revealing that they’re low on features but high on the quality of what’s there. Characters in game don’t look exactly the same as their anime counterparts due to one being 2D and the other 3D, but the 3D representations are instantly recognizable as who they’re supposed to be and they’ve done a great job in regards to conversion likeness.
3D bosses and monsters on the other hand vary in quality, with some looking quite blocky and others looking quite good. I found that monsters which were present on the field looked much better than the bosses (especially in the Aincrad area), which ended up making the boss battles seem a bit lacklustre as they didn’t seem to have the same quality as the more common battles. As for the 3D scenery it’s nothing to call home about, but it definitely doesn’t look bad either; maps (though not too intricate) offer a lot of varying textures and unique-looking paths, and draw distance is pretty decent.
Taking a look at the 2D aspects (event scenes and visual-novel style story elements), they generally looked great on both the Vita’s screen and in 720p on my PlayStation TV; what wasn’t looking so great however, was the translation and grammar in most of these scenes. The game audio plays in Japanese, so the main method of storytelling to non-speakers is through subtitles – which are unfortunately formatted horribly. The translators and/or editors didn’t seem to understand the difference between an apostrophe and a hatch mark, nor the simple nuances of the English language or even formatting; text in these scenes often contained spelling mistakes, grammar errors (both in word tense, and punctuation), and even ran outside the text box on occasion. While it’s true that nearly all of the text was understandable and/or decipherable, this was clearly the product of a far-from-perfect translation and a lack of quality editing and/or testing… which is a shame because this is where a lot of the score deductions are going to come from.
Moving on to the sound in the game, as stated before the spoken audio portion of the game is actually in Japanese – so unless you’re someone who speaks Japanese you probably won’t have any idea what they’re saying. That said, I’ve always preferred the Japanese inflections to those of the English translated version of games (even before I was partially fluent), and this one doesn’t disappoint if you’re looking for good Japanese audio and/or inflections of emotion.
Getting away from the subject of a Japanese voice-over, we move on to the other two big audio portion contributors; the sound effects and the in-game music. These areas are actually done quite well – with the attack sounds being quite fitting, the menu tones true to the anime versions, and the music for the separate areas often catchy and/or vaguely familiar to the ear. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better set of background audio if I tried, as it just seemed to fit so perfectly (a good sign that the creators paid attention to the canon despite going outside it).
Okay, enough with the technical bits, it’s time to get down to what I thought of the game.
Taking all that I’ve written and played up ’til now into consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hollow Fragment is both an awesome and a clearly flawed game. Offering well over a hundred hours of content (even for the most skilled, dedicated RPG player), a varied and fully customizable load-out (including many different weapon masteries) and a ton of unique and varied areas to fight through – you’ll almost forget that this isn’t a MMORPG when you look down and see how many hours you’ve put into combat. That said, the translation quality, the fact that the social element and most of the story bits (other than a few key moments) are pure fluff, and the low graphical quality in a few notable areas take away from what is otherwise a well thought out and worthwhile to play title – noticeably bringing it down a peg. If this game had the polish and forethought it deserved, it could easily approach a perfect score… but the lack of a shine on this one leaves me a bit wanting sometimes.
Bottom-lining it, I’m going to recommend Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment to anyone looking to get a TON of RPG content for their money, anyone who enjoyed the anime, and anyone who loves MMORPGs but can’t seem to get them on the go; if you’re looking for a great story, a good translation, or amazing graphics however… this one might fail to impress.