Thanks to the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus, the prospect of gaming in a virtual reality world doesn’t seem like a ludicrous idea snatched from a sci-fi movie. But until one of these makes its way to retail, we still have to settle for traditional gaming with a controller in our hand and our eyes glued to the screen. To kill time, there’s Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment for the PS Vita. You can’t immerse yourself seamlessly in the artificial fantasy world this game presents, but at least a “Game Over” here won’t result in a “Rest In Peace” in real life.
Based on the popular anime, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment from Bandai Namco recreates the massively multiplayer online game found in the series while injecting its own gameplay mechanics as an action role-playing game. For those unfamiliar with the anime or the light novel series it’s based on, Sword Art Online follows Kirito, “The Black Swordsman,” who is among the 10,000 players trapped in the titular virtual reality game, thanks to its mad creator. If they ever want to set foot in reality again, the players must clear all one hundred floors and the deadly bosses that await there. If they’re defeated in-game or their virtual realty headgear is tampered with in real life, their brain will be instantly fried by a strong electronic pulse. Mercifully, the PS Vita game only asks the player to complete twenty-five of those floors while providing an alternative take on the source material.
The game opens up with Kirito in a mysterious new land called “Hollow Area” that only he and the person of his choosing can transport to. It’s there that he meets up with Philia, a female treasure hunter with an infamous “orange cursor” that labels her a “player killer.” Wanting to know more about Philia and the Hollow Area, Kirito and his friends take advantage of the secret world and the rare items found there to help them on their quest to clear the game. For an RPG, this game is unsurprisingly long and stuffed with content, but that’s because this game is actually two. The majority of Hollow Fragment is actually a high definition port of the PSP game, Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment, while Hollow Area is more like an additional lengthy chapter.
If you chose to do the Infinity Moment portions of the game, you’ll find yourself exploring the aforementioned twenty-five dungeons that’ll eventually get repetitive with reused assets, simple puzzles, and uninteresting side quests required to challenge the boss of each floor. However, if you take the game’s advice of exploring Hollow Area first, you and Philia will go on directionless quests and partake in “Hollow Missions” that matter little in the end. It’s understandable why the game encourages the player to try out Hollow Area first, as that’s where all the new content in Hollow Fragment is, but unless you’re already familiar with the mechanics of the game, its unforgiving enemies and vague direction on where to go will try out your patience. The floors may lack originality, but they’re at least straightforward with their goals.
Speaking of mechanics, it’s easy to discard the game’s real-time combat at first glance as “Press ‘O’ to win,” even with the stamina gauge it has in place to balance strong and weak attacks. However, after learning the rhythm of when to initiate a normal or special attack, stun or block an enemy, or switch and encourage my A.I. partner, the complexity of the combat system become easier to appreciate. That’s not to say that combat is perfect, as bad camera angles, inability to target a specific enemy, and A.I. characters suffering from a serious case of “brain fart,” dampers the experience, but it doesn’t completely kill the thrill. One unsuccessful aspect of combat is luring one enemy away from a group by throwing a dagger, as his buddies will just join in, anyway, and will not stop chasing after you with one of the most unintentionally hilarious walking animation ever seen in video games.
The graphics are look good, with character models nicely representing the anime designs and amusing gestures during combat or conversation that help them feel alive. Granted, with characters getting stuck in front of a table or passing though another non-playable character, it doesn’t take long for any immersion to be broken. It’s also apparent that the game demands too much of the PS Vita’s hardware, as the frame rate commonly drops whenever too many NPCs or enemies appear onscreen. Musically speaking, the background soundtrack is pleasing, but a little dull every now and then.
English dub fans of Sword Art Online will be disappointed to hear Bandai Namco America have only included the Japanese audio track for the official North American release. It’s understandable from a financial standpoint, considering that the limited user base of the PS Vita may not be enough to fully compensate an English audio track. What’s not understandable nor forgivable is the frequent sloppy translation. There’s no excuse for a big company like Bandai Namco to put out text with poor grammar, misspellings, and words hanging below the screen, especially when smaller companies like XSEED can go the extra mile and provide an accurate translation for games more niche than Hollow Fragment — with an English dub to boot.
As expected of a modern Japanese RPG, there’s a dating simulation gimmick in Hollow Fragment. Considering the strong harem aspects associated with Sword Art Online and its large and attractive female cast, it’s not surprising to see this type of gameplay here. Based on how and when you respond in conversation with one of your female friends, you can raise her mood enough to hold her hand, carry her around like a just-married bride, or sleep next to her in a vaguely sexual bedroom scene that will have you asking, “Did we just do it?” Depending on your mileage, this will either be a dream come true or an embarrassing nightmare.
Personally, what bothers me is that Kirito is married to lead heroine Asuna and has a computerized adoptive daughter. It’s hard to take any flirtation sincerely and not think of Kirito as scum, knowing he’s committing virtual adultery. Yes, you’re not required to cheat on Asuna, but the game sure likes to shove it in your face that you could and it would be okay, because you’re an awesome chick magnet for some reason. Admittedly, I spent a great amount of my bed time with Lisbeth, the cute pink-haired blacksmith and rarely partnered with Asuna, so I guess I have no high ground to stand on here.
While most of what I’ve written about Hollow Fragment has been negative so far, there is fun to be had in this game. I wouldn’t have sunk fifty-six hours in this game if there was nothing redeemable about it. As mentioned earlier, the combat is engaging — particularly when battles are more personal but still high in stakes. The cast is varied and entertaining with their unique personalities and despite being unintentional, it’s damn amusing to see how far the story is willing to go, just to fill out the otaku-pandering checklist.
The cockamamie excuses the game pulls for Kirito accidentally groping one of his female companion’s breasts or get forcibly pulled into their breasts are just too ridiculous to find offensive. A particular scenario I’m still astounded by is when Kirito contracts food poisoning from his sister, Leafa, who may have the hots for him, because the first thing that comes to her mind when she see him shivering is to rub her warm boobs on him for the entire night. It’s unbelievably dumb, but I honestly couldn’t stop laughing at how ridiculous the entire scene was. Completing a dungeon just to see how the game will top itself with the next cutscene is really the true reward here and it never disappoints. If you’re unwilling to laugh at the over-the-top harem cliches presented, there are some genuinely entertaining moments of comedy and even some cute and touching scenes as well.
Diehard Sword Art Online fans will get the most pleasure out of Hollow Fragment and even forgive it for its technical flaws. However, it’s hard to recommend this game when there are plenty of superior RPGs available on the PS Vita. Hollow Fragment manages to squeeze out enough decent bits to spare it from complete awfulness, but not enough to rank itself higher than above average. With that said, when I finally completed the game, I couldn’t help but feel sad that the long journey was over. The game was far from perfect, but I can’t deny the attachment I ended having for the cast, so for a commercial product like this, that’s mission accomplished.