Sword Art Online is an anime about 10,000 gamers trapped in a VR MMORPG where if they die in the game, they die in real life. So of course it was only a matter of time before they made a game about it. Unfortunately, if you aren't already a fan, there is little in this game for you but boredom.
The story of Hollow Fragment is an alternate universe story to that of the novels/anime. At the start of the game—the end of the first arc of Sword Art Online—Kirito faces off against the final boss on the 75th floor as he does in the anime. But at the critical moment, a series of glitches occur that allow him to cleanly win the battle. Instead of the game ending, it continues on—leaving the players no choice but to push on through the death game's remaining 25 floors.
Thus the event of the anime's—often disdained—second arc never happen. Of course, that doesn't mean the characters of that story are simply forgotten as the continuation of the online death game has changed their fates as well.
For the most part, the story of the game is told in visual novel-style cutscenes, all voiced by the actors of the anime. Many of these are optional and are little more than fanservice; but they are still enjoyable enough and are a welcome break from the gameplay after each boss.
Of course, there is one important note about the story. Last year saw the release of the PSP game Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment. Hollow Fragment is actually the exact same game but with graphical updates and additional content. But as Infinity Moment never saw a Western release, it's unlikely anyone outside of Japan will mind the reuse of story.
In addition to the main game carried over from Infinity Moment, Hollow Fragment contains a brand new expansive open world area. It is filled with new quests, monsters, and environments that add over thirty hours of playtime to the already lengthy game. There is also a new side story complete with a new partner character that deals with some of the death game's PVPers (read: murderers).
But perhaps the most notable new feature is the ability to play with up to 4 players via the game's local ad-hoc mode. While you can't coop any of the returning Infinity Moment content, the Hollow Fragment open world becomes coop enabled as soon as you complete the game's short tutorial.
The biggest major change made from the PSP release is the completely retooled battle system. In Infinity Moment, all the skills you could use were relegated to a pop-up menu that you'd constantly open in battle to perform special attacks and skills. However, this has been streamlined in Hollow Fragment to three sets of button shortcuts—basically allowing you to only have 12 skills equipped at a time. While this does take out some of the freedom of the game, it also forces you to play strategically as well as keeps you out of cumbersome menus in battle.
But the real step in the right direction is the new burst bar. Previously, you were only able to attack automatically at a speed dependent on your type of weapon or to use special attacks. However, the burst gauge allows you to make extra attacks and combos as it fills up. More than that, by utilizing the switch skill (wherein you and your partner swap accumulated threat) you are given a temporary boost to the gauge filling speed, allowing you to attack continuously for a short time. This does wonders to speed up the time it takes to finish the battles.
Unfortunately, even the (welcome) addition of the burst gauge does little to change the fact that the battle speed in Hollow Fragment is ponderously, painfully slow—and it only gets worse the farther into the game you go. Simply put, grinding through the trash mobs on each floor is some of the most boring, monotonous gameplay I have ever experienced. A group of three monsters can easily take a minute or two to dispatch—a minute or two where you do nothing but mash the burst attack button while you wait for your SP to get high enough to finish off the monsters with a special attack one after the other. And as the floors are more than a little large in their own right, that means you will be fighting dozens upon dozens of groups of these enemies on each floor in a repetitive hours-long grind.
The boss battles are also quite lengthy—10 to 20 minutes apiece—and while they are generally easy, the individual bosses do tend to ramp up in difficulty the lower they are on life. And let me just say, there is nothing more frustrating than losing a slog of a boss battle 15 minutes in and realizing you've got to start again from scratch.
Let me be frank: if you are a fan of Sword Art Online, there is a lot to love in this game. It is built around an excellently entertaining twist on the story you know and love and features tons of fully voiced scenes with all your favorite characters. The enjoyment you derive from the story aspects is the only thing that will keep you motivated through the unending trudge that is clearing each floor of the game. So if you are not already invested in Sword Art Online, you'll likely be bored to tears by Hollow Fragment.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment was released in Japan on April 23, 2014, for the PlayStation Vita. It will be released in North America this summer.
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