The original Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment released for PlayStation Vita last year, and Re: Hollow Fragment is nothing more than an improved version of the same game for the PlayStation 4, a year after the original release. For those of you not in the know, Sword Art Online (‘SAO’ from this point forward) is a very popular anime based on a series of light novels about a group of players trapped in a MMORPG. With a premise like that, licensed videogames were a given. Re: Hollow Fragment released digitally on PSN with a price tag of $20, and it’s supposed to bring many changes and improvements over the Vita release. So, is it any good?
SWORD ART ONLINE RE: HOLLOW FRAGMENT
Published by Bandai Namco
SAO Re: Hollow Fragment’s story takes place after episode 14 of the anime, although in a parallel reality of sorts, since it doesn’t advance (and actually contradicts) the anime’s story. As such, pretty much every character that has appeared on the show up to that point makes an appearance, and even some characters that aren’t supposed to be there until later, or at all. There’s also a small (as in, over twenty minutes long) summary of the events of the anime up to that point for those who want to catch up as well, which is a nice touch. It even includes the original opening!
Two new female characters also join the cast, and they will, of course, be potential love interests for our main character, Kirito, also the main character of the anime. And yes, I said “main character Kirito” because that’s who you’ll play, canonically, during the game. Even if you have the option to customize your character’s looks and name (one of the selling points of the PS4 version was the ability to make a female avatar,) everyone will refer to you as Kirito during gameplay, and for all intents and purposes, you ARE Kirito. I actually started the game with a female avatar, only to restart a couple of hours later with the default character look. Why even give me the option in that case?
(Later on, I found out you can edit your avatar any time you want, as many times as you want, in the game. Oh well.)
Before and after.
The first thing you’ll notice upon loading Re: Hollow Fragment is that they didn’t hide the fact that this is an HD remaster of a Vita game. Character models are possibly the most detailed in the game, but only for the main characters. Everyone else looks low poly. Buildings are blocky and empty. Even if the textures are (mostly) better and the game runs at a, I gotta say, pretty inconsistent 60 fps (more on that in a moment,) it’s really nothing special on the graphical side of things. You’ll spend your time moving through same-y looking areas, fighting your way through same-y looking dungeons and fighting the same enemies, while your characters say the same voice clips over and over. The framerate has a really hard time trying to keep a steady 60 fps, especially on the game’s main city hub, where it will crawl down to sub 10 fps whenever there’s a crowd of people on the screen. Whether this is a porting issue or something that got carried over from the Vita game is anyone’s guess, however there’s no excuse for the game’s poor performance when it doesn’t even look very good. The game also does away with cutscenes, and for the most part character interactions are handled by static images of the characters with some degree of changes in their face expressions.
TRAVELLING WITHOUT MOVING
At the start of the game your party will be stuck on Floor 76 for story reasons. This floor acts as the main game hub and you can move freely through it, while interacting with other characters and NPCs. Your main objective is to complete all the floors up to Floor 100, in order to beat the game and return to the real world. But before you can beat a Floor, you need to gather intel on the Floor’s Boss. You do this by completing certain sidequests and killing special enemies on that floor. Once you’ve gathered all the intel on the boss, you can start an attack on it. The more intel you’ve gathered on a boss, the more chances you have to kill it without losing any party members. While you can only have one additional person in your party at any time, additional fighter NPCs will join you during boss battles, and you get a bonus for keeping them alive through the battle. Also, keeping the game’s rules true to the source material, you get a bonus item if you deal the final hit to the boss. Upon reaching a new floor, your main questline will be updated to search for the floor’s labyrinth and boss room. The main story of the game can be completed by beating Floor 100, but while you unlock new areas and equipment, you can still only freely explore Floor 76. Meanwhile, every other floor is limited to just the exterior areas, while item stores and such are just menus on a static background.
But there’s much, much more to Re: Hollow Fragment, because the game introduces -and owes its name to- a new area of the game world, the Hollow Area. On the tutorial, Kirito is transported to this area, which is isolated from the rest of Aincrad, and meets Philia, one of the game’s new characters, before returning to the main area of the game. From that point on, we can freely teleport there. The Hollow Area is a large, mysterious place that includes different enemies and challenges than the rest of Aincrad. It also includes the “Hollow Missions,” additional, smaller sidequests that mostly consist in killing a special enemy or a group of them. Beating Hollow Missions grants you Hollow Points. You can then spend those Hollow Points on Implementations, which are nothing more than unlockable combat perks. The character Philia is only available in the Hollow Area as well, since she is locked out of the main game due to story reasons. So, while you can easily ignore the Hollow Area, the fact that implementations and Philia’s storyline are only accessible through it gives you enough incentive to at least give it a try.
USE A SWORD SKILL, KIRITO!
Combat is probably the best aspect in SAO, doing a great job at being true to the source material as well as being pretty damn fun on itself. You’ll fight enemies in real time, chaining normal attacks with special abilities, called Sword Arts (duh!). Attacking depletes your Burst bar, which basically acts as stamina, while Sword Arts and some regular attacks also have a cooldown period. Since some of your skills can stun or hit multiple enemies at once, you’ll have to keep an eye on both parameters in order to get the most of your combat skills. Combat is also affected by the Risk mechanic. Basically, the more your Risk level is, the more damage you will get, but so will the enemies (it’s gets a bit more complicated than that, but this will do for the purpose of keeping this review short enough.) If you have another character on your party, you can send commands to them, asking them to go defensive, or to withdraw from battle if needed. Also, using “Switch” during battle allows your partner to take the lead, while your Burst bar replenishes. If used right, it can also interrupt enemy attacks, providing a cool element of risk/reward to battles. On the downside, most enemies take more damage depending on your positioning, but this doesn’t quite work since sometimes hitting an enemy on the same spot will do much less damage. Also, since there’s no visual feedback at all, it’s hard to know whether you’re hitting a weak spot, or figure out why an enemy is taking significantly less damage all of a sudden. But even with these minor gripes, combat is really fun once you get the hold of it.
But not everything in SAO is fighting, and here’s where the game unfortunately takes a nosedive for me: the dating sim aspect.
KIRITO THE PLAYA
Pretty much every character that can join your party in SAO is a girl. Except for Philia and Strea, who are new to the game, all of them are from the anime. And all these girls really, really want to bone Kirito. Many sidequests in the game involve socializing with these girls in order to get closer to them. The closer you get, the better they will perform in battle when fighting at your side. Sometimes they’ll ask for an item, sometimes they’ll ask you to go somewhere with them. Sometimes they just want to talk to you about their issues, in an incomprehensible minigame in which they just repeat non sequiturs and depending on you picking between the same two answers every time their happiness level will rise. And most of the time it’s really, really boring.
Some of these sequences go on for way too long, and they all follow the same pattern: girl X asks Kirito for help with thing Y, Kirito helps girl with thing, girl thanks Kirito and then accidentally makes a comment about how much she really wants Kirito, Kirito doesn’t hear her, girl blushes. It’s supposed to be funny, most of the time it’s not. As the game progresses, these sequences get raunchier and you’ll starting getting more clichéd situations like Kirito accidentally grabbing a boob, or the girls accidentally losing their clothes, because apparently even virtual universes actively plot to see them naked. Also, due to the game’s confusing autosave system, sometimes I’ve had to watch these sequences play over from scratch after quitting the game, since the game doesn’t save automatically after they’re done. The whole dating sim side of the game feels like unnecessary pandering that doesn’t add anything to it, other than maybe providing some tame fanservice which, in a world where Google Image Search is a thing, ultimately feels like a waste of time.
No, you haven’t entered DeviantArt by mistake. Yes, these are from the game.
Oh, did I mention one of the girls who wants to bone you is your sister? Because yeah.
Flaws and all, there’s a lot to like in Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment. Even if the remastering job could (and should) be better, the sheer amount of content alone makes the $20 price tag feel like a steal. Some creepy pandering aside, the game has a lot of cool character moments, but the combat is when it truly shines. Fans of the anime will feel at home. Everyone else though? Unless you’re really starving for a JRPG, you could probably skip this one.