Even when they're at their best, games based on anime have a tendency to feel more like fan service than fully-realized interactive experiences. It always seems like I'm missing something by not having an encyclopedic knowledge of a particular series, and the core mechanics are rarely strong enough to carry a full game. But that's not the case with Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, the brand new single-player focused faux-MMO exclusive to PS Vita. What could have been yet another generic cash-in is actually a deep and involving role-playing adventure that is surprisingly ambitious.
Before you ask, I have absolutely no experience with the Sword Art Online anime series. I also haven't read the novels, which have been running since 2009. In fact, it wasn't until after somebody casually mentioned the anime on Twitter that I realized this wasn't a fully original video game series. Sword Art Online is not just a fun portable role-playing game, but one of the best anime-based games I've ever encountered.
Despite what the title would have you believe, Sword Art Online is not a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. In fact, it's not even an online game. Although there is a multiplayer component, this is primarily a single-player experience that sees our hero, Kirito, trapped in a fake MMO. It has all the trappings of a game like World of Warcraft (battle logs, raids, loot drops, etc.), but this is something you can play by yourself without even being connected to the internet.
As somebody who doesn't play a lot of subscription-based online role-playing games, this single-player story driven approach intrigued me. It's clearly smaller than your typical MMO, but the developers have done an excellent job making it feel like the different floors are part of a much larger world. Sword Art Online definitely captures the spirit of an MMO, and in some ways is even more fun.
It helps that we aren't forced to perform all the monotonous tasks involved with starting an online RPG. There's no grinding to do or boring early game nonsense, because we start the game having already done all that. From the moment we step into this fantasy world, our hero is already level 100, sporting powerful weapons, magic and abilities. He's fighting through a tower made up of 100 floors, and we're dropped in on the 76th. This is merely a piece of Kirito's MMO adventure. Thankfully it's the most interesting piece.
Each floor is a unique setting that feels ripped out of many other traditional online role-playing games. Kirito will fight through forests, dungeons, caves, deserts, mountain sides, valleys, swamps and just about every other location you can think of. These floors have their own enemies, as well as a nasty boss fight that comes at the end of a lengthy labyrinth. Once you (and a team of a half dozen soldiers) have defeated the boss creature, it's off to the next floor for a new set of challenges.
Although the floors look different, there are a few things that tie them all together. For one thing, they all play out almost exactly the same way. In order to challenge each boss, players will need to complete a series of tasks exclusive to that floor. Usually this means collecting a certain amount of rare items, killing a specific type of enemy or going after the several mini-bosses hiding around the stages. They basically want you to fully explore every nook and cranny of these floors before gathering the troops to go on a virtual raid.
The good news is that Kirito is not alone in this adventure. There are a number of other fighters he can pair up with to take on the wide variety of enemies found on the last 25 floors. These computer-controlled helpers will level up, use items and step in whenever our hero needs a rest. It's not immediately clear how much of a role these secondary characters end up playing, but you'll be happy they're around when a horde of ogres arrives.
The problem is that the game does a horrible job introducing you to the many, many elements and mechanics found in Sword Art Online. Sure, they'll offer a few slide tutorials, but they are often too vague to be helpful. The game spends only a few pages trying to explain complicated combat mechanics, something that took me a few hours to fully wrap my mind around.
This is not one of those games where the hero has two attack buttons and only a few special moves. Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment offers an incredible wealth of things to do. The basic attacks are mapped to the face buttons, but players can change what the face buttons do by holding the left and right shoulder buttons. Not including the eight commands you can give to your computer-controlled partner, players are able to use a dozen different attacks at any time.
Some of these attacks use the Burst meter, which measures the length of your combo. Once that's depleted, you'll need to switch places with your partner and let them continue the assault. If you can get the timing right, you'll be able to create these long combos that take off large chunks of the enemy's life. On the other hand, simply hacking and slashing is weak, so the game forces you to learn how to work together to defeat even the most basic baddies.
If that wasn't enough, there's a second meter to pay attention to during combat. Magic and special attacks drain the SP gauge, something that slowly refills over time. There are dozens of spells and abilities to use, but they need to be used sparingly. Learning when to use each spell is just as important as getting the combo system down, and it can be all the difference in those tense boss fights.
Although we start with quite a few options, the fun is leveling up your proficiency with each of the weapons. There's a huge collection of killing devices, including daggers, swords, scimitars, rapiers, clubs, axes, spears and even katana blades. Each weapon has its own leveling system, which allows players to purchase new abilities and hone their skills. I can only imagine the amount of time it would take to earn every ability and master each of the weapons.
The truth is, I could get lost in the weeds trying to explain all of the mechanics and customizable options found in Sword Art Online. While certainly not as involving as a real MMO, this game comes shockingly close.
For as ambitious as this game is, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment gets a few things wrong. The most egregious is the story, which takes a great concept and ruins it with hours of the mindless conversations. It's bad enough that the dialog is poorly translated, but there's entirely too much of it. The first few hours felt like nothing but one-on-one conversations, none of which were as exciting as going on raids and killing large boss monsters. Perhaps my opinion would change if I watched the anime or read the novels, but I found most of the cast to be unlikeable and too chatty.
I also wish there was more variety to the quests. Too many missions revolve around killing a certain type of enemy in order to collect their loot. I know this is a staple in real MMO games, but the developers needed to mix it up a little more. The same is true for the dungeons, which begin to look the same after a while. With such a long adventure, you have plenty of time to see where the developer cut corners.
You'll also run into a lot of bad checkpoint problems, especially when playing the Hollow Fragment parts of the game. It's too easy to kill a bunch of tough enemies, open all the treasure chests and then get killed quickly, only to lose a significant amount of work. This kind of thing wasn't a regular occurrence, but it happened enough to leave a lasting impression.
Speaking of the Hollow Fragment portions of the game, it's a shame Sword Art Online doesn't put a larger emphasis on the multiplayer modes. The game does offer the ability to play with friends (or computer-controlled characters you call your friends), but only in a local ad hoc setting. And even then, the multiplayer sections are limited when compared to the regular story mode. I like the idea of a single-player MMO, but still feel like there's room to bring a friend or two along for the ride.
Fans of the series will be quick to point out that much of this game is a remake of the PSP release. Visually speaking, that makes a lot of sense. The graphics are fine, but they won't blow you away like other role-playing games on the PS Vita. The audio is repetitive and there isn't enough spoken dialog. All in all, the presentation is a little flat.
It's nowhere near as consistent as I would have preferred, but I can't help but recommend Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment. It has an ambitious nature that pays off, making it one of the few anime games that feels like a fully-realized experience and not trite fan service. When it comes to games based on fake-MMO games, this one is the best.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
It's questionable how accurate this is, but this is all that's known about Cyril Lachel: A struggling writer by trade, Cyril has been living off a diet of bad games, and a highly suspect amount of propaganda. Highly cynical, Cyril has taken to question what companies say and do, falling ever further into a form of delusional madness. With the help of quality games, and some greener pastures on the horizon, this back-to-basics newsman has returned to provide news so early in the morning that only insomniacs are awake.