It’s always difficult to gauge your expectations for anime tie-in games. On one hand, if you’re a fan of the series in question, the idea of being able to interact with the characters, lore, and action of a world you love is intoxicating. Then on the other hand, what if the game itself is a cobbled-together mess, using your pre-established affection for the content as spackle to hide the cracks in its design and execution?
In the case of Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment, a Playstation 4 port of a Vita game which itself was ported from the PSP, it’s pretty safe to call this entry a firmly mediocre success. The game isn’t bad by any means, but really falls short of what it could have or maybe even should have been.
For those few who might have an interest in the game but know squat about the series it’s based on, Sword Art Online (or SAO as it’s called in short both in the series and by fans) is an anime series that first debuted a few years ago to great success and acclaim. Since 2012 it’s already had two 20+ episode seasons and a movie adaption, and is still going strong alongside the light novel series it’s based upon.
Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment takes place within an alternate plotline beginning at the end of the anime’s first story arc in the middle of season one (Episodes 1-14), but it still includes characters from the franchise’s entirety. In an attempt to avoid spoilers for the show (which, as a warning, is actually impossible while playing the game if you hope to understand it at all) I will not go into details regarding RE: Hollow Fragment’s inciting incident and summarize.
After being inescapably trapped for years within a fully-immersive MMO game where the death of your avatar executes your living body, our hero, Kirito, finally corners the big bad responsible for it all. Under the belief that defeating this adversary will free the players he challenges him to a duel. However, despite his apparent victory, the game continues with the original objective still intact: At least one of the players of Sword Art Online must clear the final 100th floor to activate the “Log Out” option and set its population free.
The cause of this failed attempt at salvation appears to be a glitch, which not only nullified Kirito’s act of valor, but also summoned players from other similar games into SAO, corrupted the data of SAO’s top players, and granted Kirito access to a special hidden area called the Hollow which only he can freely enter and leave.
The haphazard reasoning for the appearance of the series other characters notwithstanding, the story of Re: Hollow Fragment works well within the confines of SAO’s original lore. Kirito gambled and for reasons beyond his control he failed. This re-established the original goal shared by himself and the other members of the Assault group, who’d taken it upon themselves to lead the charge and clear all of Ainclad’s 100 floors to set everyone free. It’s a sad tale for our heroes, but makes a pretty interesting story. It’s more or less immediately after the plot of SAO RE: Hollow Fragment is established that it shows its larger hand, and that’s a mixed bag to be sure.
When the game begins you are given the option to create your own character starting with Kirito as a base. This character generator is considerably robust, including male and female options, dozens of presets for eyes, lips, faces and heads, and even color sliders where applicable.
However, when the game begins, you will quickly find out that your time and effort in this regard doesn’t matter. Well, no… they do matter, but only for about half of how much you probably thought they would.
No matter what voice you picked or eye color you choose – Kirito, is Kirito, is Kirito. Your customizations will only appear during the battle scenes and world map explorations. All the cutscenes will show Kirito as he was originally envisioned for the anime.
This direction with customization makes sense for the multiplayer aspects of the game, which are limited to online co-op once unlocked. Most players prefer controlling unique avatars over pallette-swapped but otherwise identical ones. But considering this game’s multiplayer options are far from immediately available and the majority of the experience is a solo affair, these options mostly succeed in disrupting your immersion the further from the original Kirito you get. And, in RE: Hollow Fragment, immersion is more important than you might expect.
The majority of RE: Hollow Fragment’s exposition and narrative takes place in the form of animated slides with voice-overs – and there are a lot of them. Depending on how much you enjoy the combat system, you can easily spend about twice the amount of time listening to what Kirito and his allies have to say about their situations as opposed to being in the situations themselves. Even if you attempt to skip through these sequences it can still take a while depending on where you are in the game’s larger narrative and what events might be taking place. This creates an inescapable scenario where even if you like the story RE: Hollow Fragment has to tell, you can easily get bored with how it tells it. This issue is exasperated by RE: Hollow Fragment’s auto-save feature which, among the many other elements, operates in an awkward fashion in an attempt to better engage you with SAO’s theme.
The characters in SAO: RE: Hollow Fragment are supposed to be players trapped in a game of their own. Their options and capabilities are limited, and in turn, so are yours. RE: Hollow Fragment takes a method approach to this, and limits your user control to better reflect the plight of the characters. Autosaves are generally fired whenever you transition from one screen or area to the next, and once they happen your previous data is overwritten and there is no going back. There is only one save available per PS4 profile, so mistakes are not forgiven and bad situations stay that way unless you can escape them in game.
This also means that if you read and listen your way through 20 minutes of story and don’t walk into another area, you better hope you glanced that autosaving banner in the corner of the screen, otherwise next time you play you’re going to be doing it again. This also applies for ending your Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment playing for the day, because since the characters can’t simply log out, neither can you. You either have to hike your way back to a relatively non-descript journal object to exit to the title (I never got a tutorial for this, I literally just stumbled over it.) or you need to just close the program and jump back in wherever you last left an impression on the title’s memory.
Still, as weird as it is, Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment does seem like it was aware of its own oddities when it was being designed. Saves are frequent, but they are also pretty quick. It might be a bummer if you have to go through a long cutscene for the second (or third, or fourth) time, but it does keep you up-to-date with what’s going on without having to scroll through a mission log. And the characters, although they can overstay their welcome, are still their charismatic anime selves. Also, the slow pacing of the storytelling does counterbalance that of the combat – which is full steam ahead.
When Sword Art Online RE:Hollow Fragment puts you in battle, it’s pouring bottled lightning into your hands. The action is fast paced and complex, requiring you to find a balance between button mashing and real-time strategy.
Combat is conducted using a combination of auto-attacks, button-activated class skills, and timed team combinations with your partner. There is a lot to master here, and experimentation is greatly rewarded with experience bonuses and special item drops for excelling in battle. Enemies who have proven unstoppable juggernauts and have wiped you out time and time again can topple in minutes with a simple change to your party and tactics. The feeling of crushing your opponents is thrilling, albeit a bit redundant once you’ve mastered the tricks and the challenge starts to diminish. Fortunately the Hollow area, which largely works as an advanced challenge map and where you start the game, exists almost specifically to address this.
In the Hollow area Kirito and a partner of his choice can battle all manner of strange enemies from all across SAO’s lore, including scaled down variants of the powerful floor bosses that must be defeated to proceed through the game. There are also special items and systems that can be unlocked here, and RE: Hollow Fragment’s approach to design requires you to find a lot things out as a player by finding them out in the game as a character. This can potentially include entirely new ways to play.
But getting right down to the nuts and bolts of Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment, it never shakes that feeling of just being an enjoyable novelty that only fans can really appreciate. It’s graphically sub-par, which might be expected from a Vita port, but is still only about as polished as something you would find on the PS3 or even a high-end PS2 title. The camera is manageable, but still operating on a digital level of sensitively in contrast to its largely analog interface.
The characters move with a similar level of abrupt severity, which conflicts with times you may be trying to sneak past an enemy instead of drawing all their aggression by charging straight into them.
As stated before, the action is a lot of fun, and it is also supported by a selection of crafting systems and full on customization for your Kirito. But you are playing as Kirito, and as such you will be starting the game in his narrative world-state; which means you are married to NPC Asuna,you are the solitary user of the dual-wield sword class, and you are the strongest player in the world of SAO.
This means that although the game treats you like you’re a newbie, at the same time you are the best and unmatchable, and even though you can change skills and talents, why would you? Just like with the avatar customization in the beginning, the more unique you make your Kirito, the less unique you make him in the world of SAO, which feels awkward. What is also awkward is since Kirito is married to Asuna, and your avatar(at least in your head) may not be “Kirito,” when you take part in the dating-sim mini-games this title is littered with, you’re going to be in for a lot of strange encounters.
The large majority of Kirito’s companions are women, and (in true-to-form anime harem tropes) all of these women love Kirito to some degree. These girls keep a veiled distance from Kirito out of a grudging “respect” for Asuna, but really don’t want to keep their distance and are anxious to indulge in some form of unconsummated affair with him. This in itself may not bother you (as a fan of the show it was one of my less favorite elements, but also one I expected) but if you’re a female player who may have even made a female avatar of Kirito, it might be irritating, especially during your 10 minute cutscenes.
Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment, is the kind of game I suggest researching a good bit before you commit to buying, regardless of how much you like the show or how much fun an owner already says it is. There is indeed a lot of content here, and as a fan of the franchise myself, I can say it does capture a lot of the anime’s energy and style. But it does also very much feel like a port, and not one that takes full advantage of what the PS4 has to offer.
For every interesting choice there seems to be some sort of counter-choice that makes that earlier accomplishment moot. It has a great battle system, but you have sloppy camera control to engage with it. It has an interesting story, but it’s shoved down the player’s throat in an exhausting way that complicates functionality. It has lots of customizable options, but they often seem like weird or wrong choices. I often found myself wanting to play RE: Hollow Fragment as a fan, but then once I started I wasn’t entirely sure why I had or what I wanted to do.