Review: Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment

Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment is an action-RPG meant to serve two crowds: those who adore the anime that bears the same title and those who want to play an MMORPG without the online part. Think of Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment as a JRPG similar to that of .hack from years back, where players assume the role of a hero inside a feux-MMO. In this, we are presented with a game that has all the trappings of a massively-scaled roleplaying experience, minus most of the social elements. Think that sounds interesting? Well then, Hollow Fragment may be for you.

Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment takes place in an alternate storyline from the Sword Art Online anime storyline. Here, the player controls the main character Kirito, who has been trapped in a MMORPG where dying in the game will lead to his death in real life as well. The kicker is that players create their own Kirito, with very limited customization options, making for an experience that is one part individualized and one part not. It’s weird to have the world respond to the player as if they are the hero of the show, yet… are not? It’s odd. Like, no matter what the player’s name is, they’re always called Kirito in the singleplayer… Yep… That’s a thing. And its awkward.

So, basically character creation is more for the multiplayer component and not the story. At least now, however, players get a chance to choose their gender–something not present in the original Hollow Fragment. It’s just too bad, then, that it’s nigh impossible to tell a male character from a female one. In fact, the only defining qualities seem to be in the stance that they assume when standing around, their voices, a few additional hair types and the fact that the female character’s shoulders aren’t as broad as their male counterpart’s. Regardless, the character creation at large is lackluster no matter the gender being chosen.

The story in Re: Hollow Fragment is not a good one. It’s not interesting, especially for those who have watched the show, primarily because it’s non-canonical and doesn’t follow the series at all, and difficult to follow for anyone who hasn’t watched the first few handful of episodes of the anime. At least the localization has been nearly completely re-translated. For the uninitiated, when the original Vita game launched last year, it had one of the absolute worst localization jobs we’ve ever seen. No seriously — that’s not hyperbole, that’s objective fact. Thankfully, this version has scrapped the original script and re-worked it outright. As a result, it’s so, so much better.

Folks who didn’t play the first, and thereby have no point of reference, may not be as impressed seeing as the writing is extremely bland. The translators added very little flavor text, stuck to a more literal localization and as a result subtracted from the various characters’ personalities. What’s most unfortunate is that the game is super talk-y. It’s one of those games where one can tell the original writers just loved to read their own words and poured them on. Hell, it’ll take folks 30 minutes just to get into the first ‘real’ gameplay segment.

Truthfully, this game isn’t about its story as much as it is the combat. As mentioned, it mimics an MMORPG, just as the show does. As such, its formula and setup are rolled out in the same vein: players wander around a hub town, acquire quests from quest-givers who don’t have anything interesting to say, go into the field, kill X of monster Z, come back to town, turn in said quest, upgrade gear, level up, acquire new skills…rinse, repeat. It’s a cadence that some will undoubtedly like. In fact, we liked it. It finds its rhythm in combat as players will learn skill rotations and how to dispatch foes quickly. It’s a shame, though, that each time things get going, a quest is over, resulting in having to return to town. But, during those moments when the story crescendos to a boss fight, the game hits its peak.
For more on how the core mechanics play out, check out our original review of the game.

Other than the re-worked script, what else is new for this enhanced port? Well, for starters the framerate has been increased and more stable than its predecessors. Despite being on the PS4, however, the thing chugs at times. Embarrassingly so, at that. Sure, there’s greater graphical fidelity overall now, with slightly sharper textures, more environmental details, and marginally enhanced character models–though don’t get us wrong, the game still very much so looks like a PSP game on current gen hardware — the framerate dips in strange, unacceptable places. A game that looks so poor should not slow to a crawl during traversing the town square. Worst part is, the framerate issues are inconsistent. Sometimes players will get a solid 60FPS and the game will look wonderful. At other times? Well, have fun playing at well below 20FPS. Get a lot of characters on the screen at once? Well, good luck.

Now there’s also greater clarity on the map. It’s easier to tell where the player is and in which area each quest is located. Something else that’s been altered is the combat itself. There are now cooldowns on certain sword skills that didn’t seem to be there in comparison to the original game, so players can’t spam the same attacks over and over again. And if we’re not mistaken, even some of the skill names have been modified. It’s too bad, though, that the combat is super repetitive and still remains fundamentally the same. At first, things don’t feel insultingly mundane. After a while, folks will be cycling through the same skill rotations to the point of tedium.

Moreover, there’s just not much strategy to the combat. In true MMO fashion, it’s: stand in front of target, mash skills that are mapped to the face buttons, and that’s about it. And since there’s so much fighting, we would’ve liked more variety in battle encounters. This leads to the issue of a lack of challenge throughout Sword Art’s story. We rarely found ourselves scrambling for our lives, and aside from the occasional boss battle, everything could be easily handled on the first go-around. Those instances in which we did die, we just over-leveled our character and it was easy-peasey.

For Re: Hollow Fragment, there’s now an online multiplayer that supports up to four people. This should really be thought of as the main attraction in Hollow Fragment. Folks team up, take on quests, topple huge baddies, acquire loot, and do all the things one would associate with an MMO-lite a la Phantasy Star Online. In our time online, it was a smooth experience and super enjoyable. The game was meant to be played with others; its where all of its features feel the most complete and satisfying.

Even without the multiplayer aspect though, the game features a ton of content. For $19.99, it’s easily one of the best dollar-to-content ratios out there. Folks could easily spend hundreds of hours here, trouncing enemies and gearing up to be a right badass. Of course, to do that, one has to weather the storm that is mind-numbing boredom.

Closing Comments

Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment is entirely average, which is frustrating because there are elements of greatness sprinkled throughout its somewhat mess of a product. For those who obsess over anything and everything Sword Art Online-related, there’s plenty to like here. For those who want a massively multiplayer roleplaying game, minus most of the social aspects of a traditional MMO, there’s not much to do besides the same thing over and over for 100 hours. This might be tempting to pick up with three friends, as the online really is the star of the show, but just wait until this fall when SAO: Lost Song launches and play that instead.