Sword art Online: Hollow Fragment is a new action rpg/raid style game/dungeon crawler/visual novel/dating sim for the Playstation Vita Handheld System, i.e. that thing you don’t have but totally should own. Now. NOW! But yes, it is all of those things. All of the things. All the times, forever and ever, amen.
SAO: HF takes place after the series proper, though the game is non-canon for reasons that will become both obvious and also exceedingly creepy as you play. An enhanced port/sequel, a pesequal if you will, SAO: HF contains the entire PSP SAO: Infinite Moment game, the new Hollow Fragment campaign, and a free patch coming in late September that adds another thirty hours of gameplay to the already fifty hour game. All in all, one play through should take you around one hundred plus hours, especially because the Hollow World makes no bloody sense. More on that in a bit.
In addition to the main story, there are a multitude of (some more than questionable than others) romance options. That and the metric crud ton of optional bosses, skills to unlock and rare loot for you to be involved with and you’ve got a game that will last you for quite a while.
Now, I know it sounds like I’m throwing a lot of shade on Sword Art Online, but, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that you can copulate with your sister/cousin or a tween idol if you so choose. So…yes…some aspects of SAO are exceedingly creepy. Now, as I understand it in the light novel and anime, the prior of which I have read one page of and the atter of which I have seen three episodes of (but have read the overall synopsis for), Kirito himself in the series proper does as much as is humanly possible to avoid the creepy stuff, but in the game you have the option of taking hold of his life like some sort of puppeteer and veer his life away from his beloved to his…cousin sister…so…yeah….
Anywho, before we go on let me just say that if you don’t want the show to be spoiled for you, maybe don’t play this game or read this impressions article, what with the whole being set after the show thing.
So, what is Sword Art Online? SAO is an anime about 10,000 people who get trapped in an online game, 3,853 dying in the first month. This virtual reality fantasy game becomes a game of survival wherein if you die in the game, you die in real life. What’s more, if anyone attempts to remove the gear that links the players to the game, their brains will be fried instantly. So…sucks to be them. The only way to leave the world of Sword Art Online is to either climb to floor one hundred or to slay the person running the game.
Now, while the anime ended up with Kirito killing the big bad’s face off, the game goes “What if they were tricked and still had to reach floor one hundred?”
So you play as The Black Man, er, the Black Swordsman as you fight to explore this strange new world, as well as the Hllow World. You can create your own avatar from a handful of severely limited character creation options, but…this doesn’t really matter because you’re Kirito anyways. In every cutscene and FMV sequence you’ll see Kirito, and everywhere in the game everyone calls you Kirito as well. So…not really sure why you can customize your avatar, but I always love anything that offers me character creation! And to be honest, we’d all be whining if they didn’t have it, so, darned if you do and darned if you do am I right?
Now, because this game covers so many broad genre’s, I’ll briefly review it as each one. HERE WE GO!
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment as a Visual Novel
One thing you’ll notice right away about SAO: HF is that it is a game of extremes. Like, when it’s a visual novel, it just plain will not shut up. And, when it’s an action game you will wander the Hollow Forest for all of eternity because the map is awful. Anyways, I sincerely hope you really, really liked the harem parts of SAO, cuz that’s pretty much the whole beginning of the game after the magnificent opening fight between Kirito and Phillia.
Now, I’d like to tell you more about the Aincrad story, but I can’t really because I spent a good amount of time just watched like five girls fawn over Kirito while his wife got (exceedingly understandably) upset the attention the other girls fawned over me. I’m not sure how to rate the story, as I’ve never been into harem anime. Even the mysterious new girl who can mask her presence from Kirito, which I guess is a big deal, immediately falls into “OHMAGAWD KIRITO IS SOOO HAWWWWT!” territory. Heck even Phillia has a barely contained crush.
The other thing that makes the story difficult to get into is the translation. Pretty much everything you heard is true; it’s not quite as bad as “Every people’s dun been nice’s to me since my papa’s dies” from Legend of Heroes, but it’s still pretty bad. I can see the logic in a lot of the translation choices, such as everyone speaking in the third person, but a lot of it is just…the grammar is just…
It’s not great. It’s not great at all.
Now, the Hollow Story is well written, it’s just got an abysmal map that will apparently be getting fixed in the late September patch, so, there ya go.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment as a Dating Sim
Is creepy. To recap, Kirito is married to Asuna, apparently happily, and they sorta have a child together. Despite this fact, and no it’s not just a show and manga thing as the game brings their marriage up constantly, you ahve the freedom to and are encouaraged to hook up with other girls. And date them. And then sleep with them.
Again, you’re married, have a kid, and your blushing bride gave you her (digital) virginity, but whatever, you’re a legendary hero so, ya know, shack up with whoever you please.
Oh, and let’s not forget that one of your romance options is your sister cousin, who is madly in love with you, and another is a pop star who looks like she’s twelve.
Hollow Fragment has the capacity to be an exceedingly creepy game.
Now, canonically Kirito loves Asuna to the point of being willing to murder for her, and both have stated they’d kill themselves if the other was murdered in the game. But, whatever, Hollow Fragment Kirito half the time won’t even introduce her as his wife to other girls, much to her chagrin. Also run on sentence because I can.
You date girls by participating in a boring and confusing minigame where the girl says a random portion of a phrase to which you either respond with positive affirmation, or by staring at her in macabre silence with intense disapproval until she’s shamed into picking another topic. Keep doing this in addition to adventuring with them, shoring up their fragile self-esteem in battle (more on that later), and eventually you can hold hands. From there you can do a bridal carry over a threshold, and then rock the casbas.
With not your wife, if you so choose…
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment as an ARPG
Is wonderful! Finally I have something nice to say! Combat is somewhere between PSO and A Realm Reborn. Kirito in the show is a straight up swordsman, master of the dual blade style that is unique to him, but HF Kirito can freely wield axes, spears, big ol’ swords, katana type swords, the whole nine!
Combat can be quite overwhelming, as you’ll begin with an obscene amount of skills, 12 to be exact (not counting the ones you don’t have room to apply to a palette) and you’ll also have a ridiculous amount of tutorials shoved down your throat at once. As is the Japanese RPG way. Always. In addition, you’ll have to manage your ally with nine different commands and constantly make her feel good about herself if you want to live.
In battle you’ve got a burst gauge, which is something like a momentum meter, that drains as you attack. Once you hit four or five attacks (that do next to no damage), you’ll be able to bust out a more powerful skill that does the real damage. I’m not quite sure why they made the combat like this, but, you’ll get used to it.
As the burst meter drains, you won’t do as much damage and your aggro will increase. As your risk gauge increases, your burst meter fills slower and slower, so you have to use the switch command just like in the show to have your ally jump in front to draw their attention.
You can swap three different palettes of skills that you are free to customize however you please. I’ve found the spear to be my favorite weapon so far, with its cray AoE attacks and lengthy combos, but you’ll have plenty of room to explore. You can find new weapons by defeating powerful mini-bosses, or by buying them (which you should never do in any arpg or dungeon crawler ever) at the stores in town. Each weapon has a multitude of skills to learn, and as you kill more enemies you’ll unlock higher tiers of skills.
Each weapon has a different specialty, such as spears focusing more on crowd control and buffs while swords are more focused on various ways to destroy your foes more directly.
Back to the self-esteem thing, those powerful arts drain SP to utilize, which refills very very slowly. The only way to fill it faster, aside from using items (dear Lord using items takes forever), is to constantly praise your allies. Every time they do something, you have to flash them a thumbs up so they feel good about themselves. Every time you praise them, every time they do something, they feel better and then you get 40 SP back.
Battle is an elegant dance of setting up your skills, utilizing your buffs, raining down combos and team attacks, and praising your allies. I know it may sound tedious, but it is a great deal of fun, to the point that I didn’t mind wandering for five hours in the hollow forest aimlessly because the map is obscenely useless.
So, what more can I say? The music, oh my goodness the music is phenomenal. You’ll find a menagerie of swing jazz, classical, and rock to accompany the gorgeous graphics, fast load times and intense combat. If you can get past the option to date your cousin sister or tween idol then you’ll find a ridiculously fun game. Only you can decide if having the option, an option that is so far never shoved down your throat, is enough to keep you from playing.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is available now on the PS Vita system as download only title for $40. You can play by yourself or with up to three of your friends. A full story review will come later, and please look forward to my Infamous: Second Son review this week as well.