Sword Art Online is a popular anime series about gamers getting trapped inside an MMORPG. As the story goes, the release of Sword Art Online is treated as reverently as Dragon Warrior, with gamers all over the nation waiting in line to pick up their copy of the game. A sophisticated VR experience, SAO is a sword and sorcery adventure set in Aincrad, a multi-level dungeon world. In a fit of unknown malice, the game’s creator removed the Log Out button to prevent players from leaving. Challenged to reach Aincrad’s 75th level, the player base comes under the realization that death in the game kills their physical body, lending the story a proper sense of sense of urgency. Not since Kevin Flynn’s abduction to the Game Grid has our pastime been so ruthlessly turned into a fight for survival.
SAO: Re: Hollow Fragment has a unique place in the SAO franchise. Originally released on the PlayStation Vita, Hollow Fragment was a sequel to Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment for the PSP, itself a side story from the main SAO anime. Its origins are bendy, but the key take away is that Hollow Fragment picks up after Kirito and his Assault Team defeat the game’s developer who was revealed to be the villainous mastermind. Destroying their tormentor doesn’t free the players from their prison. Instead, the survivors are confronted with another set of floors to conquered.
Re: Hollow Fragment latches onto those with a significant understanding of the SAO media franchise. It greatly assumes you’ve played the last game by keeping the introductions and recaps short and sweet. Characters that fought alongside Kirito return with little fanfare and immediately take positions at his side. With the setup moving at such a brisk pace newcomers are left in the lurch, powerless as it grabs you by the wrist and drags you along. I struggled with the first hour of the game, trying to separate one character from another and the traits that define them.
Fortunately, the non-story portion is more universal. Progression in SAO is defined through primary and secondary quests that reward items and experience points upon completion. To reach Aincrad’s 100th floor, Kirito and his Assault Team must seek out each level’s dungeon boss. They can’t charge blindly into battle, given how death is treated, so the characters must uncover information about the boss monsters, such as its weaknesses and abilities. Side quests are short, MMO-style “get X of Y” and “kill Z” quests that reward extra cash and items for weapon modification. Beyond Aincrad, Kirito gains access to the Hollow Area, a sort of level-within-a-level, occupied by tougher monsters. It’s also the hunting ground for Philia, a young treasure hunter who avoids players because of her Orange Cursor, which indicates her murder of another player. A mostly nonessential zone, the Hollow Area offers its own challenges and rewards, along with a chance to help Philia clear her status.
The gameplay doesn’t follow the structure of older, more traditional role playing game and opts for an action-based combat system intended to capture the battles depicted in the show. Skills and abilities are mapped to the controller’s face buttons and like a proper MMO, their use is governed by cooldown timers. Battles play out by either initiating combat with traditional RPG-like monsters (giant wasps, spiders, boars, etc) and working through Kirito’s moveset of offensive and defensive skills. Numbers litter the screen with each hit, and because the story is set after the characters have reached level 100, it’s jarring to see such mammoth numbers at the beginning of the game.
The odd sense of inflation among character stats and economy is both uncomfortable and nifty. Uncomfortable because it’s psychologically difficult to play the role of a weak character when special attacks do over 10,000 points of damage. Emboldened by such striking numbers, I found it easy to fall into the pit of attacking higher level monsters without any regard to their own strength. It doesn’t help that the opening areas are riddled with enemies that barely stand a chance against your party. But when you encounter the game’s first powerful monster, suddenly everything is not so easy. The notion of starting the characters at their highest level is weird as a gameplay mechanic, though it is a great piece of continuity I’ve rarely seen in a game, let alone an RPG. It makes sense that Kirito and his friends already have an enriched skill set and make money hand over fist. Because RE: Hollow Fragment is a direct sequel to Infinity Moment, starting off at level 100 shows just how far these kids have come in their fight for survival.
You’ll rarely fight alone in Aincrad. Other SAO characters will fight by your side (though only one at any given moment) but there is no direct control over their actions. Rather, you influence and develop their skills through a series of distraction and strike commands and the occasional pat on the back for when they launch a particularly devastating assault. If you praise your teammates after they use a particularly devastating or effective attack, they’ll be more inclined to do it again. They are great for launching flank attacks or drawing a monster’s attention away from you to heal up or reassess the situation. You’ll want a nice balance between fighting enemies and knowing when to have your partner step in to mitigate the effects of risk. The more you attack, your level of risk increases and that has the effect of boosting attack power for the sake of significantly weakened defense. It’s an interesting risk/reward system that’s easy enough to manage. The AI characters are more than just human shields -- in fact, the game ends if they are killed in battle. Death, as it pertains to gameplay, is annoying because of how fragile AI characters can be. The game’s lack of a manual save option doesn’t help much, either. SAO does autosave often but almost always when you enter or exit a dungeon. This means you’re forced into replaying whole sections of a dungeon and recollecting loot if you or your partner is killed in a fight.
Again, Re: Hollow Fragment is a re-release of the version originally developed for the PlayStation Vita. Updated for the PlayStation 4, the developers boast better localization, improved graphics, a multiplayer mode, and a tweak to the character creation process that offers a chance to play as a woman. Multiplayer sessions do not work in the main game, though you can partner up with other players to take on self-contained missions set within the Hollow Area. If you’re itching to mimic the experience of playing an RPG together with friends, like in the show, this is a decent - if seemingly superficial - option. The game’s visuals are pretty, if simple, and the framerate has a tendency to take a dive when exploring Aincraid’s main city or navigating through crowded dungeons. The cutscenes, on the other hand, are stellar. Rendered with the in-game engine, the characters carry themselves and walk around like computer generated models but the quality of their cel-shaded skins blurs the line between hand drawn animation and digital art like no other game before.
Ultimately, Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment proved to be a hard nut to crack. From a gameplay end, I had no problem getting a hang of the real time combat and RPG structure. However, because this is my first SAO game, I found myself a stranger in a strange land, lost in a world I didn’t quite understand and populated with people who had already developed strong connections and relationships with Kirito. Showing its roots, Re: Hollow Fragment has a lot of dialog exchanges among characters via dynamic character portraits. Conversations often switch between inane fluff to barely digestible info dumps peppered with anime-style “Who talks like that?” manners of speech. Clearly, Re: Hollow Fragment is designed specifically for stalwarts of Sword Art Online. If they haven’t already played the game on the Vita, the digital-only PlayStation 4 version offers more content and a whole new set of levels to conquer. Everyone else should tread carefully.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.