Publisher: Bandi Namco Games
Release Date: August 19th, 2014
Available On: PlayStation 4
You would think making a video game about an anime about video games wouldn’t be the most difficult task. Apparently it must be a lot harder than I thought. Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment, a PlayStation 4 updated re-release of a PlayStation Vita remake of a PlayStation Portable game (try saying that five times fast), only manages to make me lose all interest in its source material and in the game itself.
A long time ago I borrowed my friend’s copy of Final Fantasy 2. Out of curiosity I decided to load up and play his data to see what he had done. I had no clue what was going on at any point, either gameplay-wise or story-wise. Strangely enough, Hollow Fragment would leave me confused in almost the exactly same way. In Hollow Fragment you play as Kirito, a young man trapped inside of an MMORPG where getting killed causes you to die in real life. The game picks up basically in the middle of the plot: Kirito has just killed the game’s creator on the 75th floor of a dungeon, but the group needs to advance to floor 100 of the dungeon to go free. It’s clear the game expected me to have some knowledge of Sword Art Online going in, because it does absolutely nothing to try to explain anything to me. I don’t know who these characters are or why I should care for them, I don’t know anything that has happened before the start of the game (with the exception of an extremely brief explanation), and I can’t figure out what was going on at any point. Even if I could, the story never actually went anywhere. Instead I was treated to scene after scene after scene of the female party members lining up to try and sleep with Kirito. It’s also worth noting that the game features a character creator which is a bit weird as Kirito will always show up in his default outfit in all the cutscenes, so I’m not sure the point of changing it.
The gameplay doesn’t really fare much better. Hollow Fragment is an action RPG where you control Kirito and team up with another character to fight monsters and clear levels. Combat is fairly simple. Kirito attacks automatically whenever he is standing still. I was able to dodge with X, stun enemies with square, and use “burst” attacks with circle. Each use of a burst attack used up some of my burst bar, which refilled automatically. How quickly it refilled depended on how high my risk bar was, which was how much attention a monster was paying to me. I could lower my risk bar by swapping positions with my partner, though it would put them in the line of fire for a bit. Additionally there are skills that Kirito can use, each of which are visually impressive and caused massive amounts of damage. That said, figuring this out was totally up to me. The game’s tutorial made no effort to explain the mechanics with much depth so I was left just experimenting until I figured out what I could.
The basic gameplay loop is pretty simple. Each time I got to a new floor I would have a list of goals I needed to meet before the assault team was ready to take on the boss. This would include things like completing certain side quests, exploring certain areas, killing minibosses, and raising the assault team’s collective level. Every floor would come down to the same loop: explore until I found the boss dungeon and the boss room, teleport back to town and make sure I had filled all the requirements to fight the boss, then fight the boss so I could go to the next floor. The boss fights themselves are probably the most exciting events in the game. The boss fights would involve the assault team, which means each boss fight was full of AI allies that would join you in the fight. In reality this meant about six or so people would run to the boss then stand still while using basic attacks, so I often almost wished they would just sit the fights out. Bosses would telegraph their attacks to make them easier to dodge and counter, and often felt challenging enough without going overboard. Yet the amount of work to get to these highlights often didn’t really feel worth it.
Similar to the story was the fact that the game also strongly feels like I just picked up my friend’s data and kept playing here as well. Kirito already starts off at level 100 with a large chunk of his ability points already aligned. The majority of them are placed into the twin-sword skills which makes me question why I would ever bother using anything else in the game. Sure I could get a warhammer, but it would take so long to give me the ability to even fight the basic enemies that I don’t know why I’d bother. With half the twin sword skill tree unlocked already, I was also wondering how long before I would run out of things I could unlock. It did take forever to actually earn enough XP to unlock anything though, as the enemies I encountered were, for quite a while, well under my level. The early levels were hilariously easy as my level 100 character wiped the floor with the generally level late 70s to early 80s enemies. On the other hand, most of my companions couldn’t keep up. Some of them started close to my level, but others were in the 50s or 60s. With characters so low leveled I can’t imagine bothering taking them out to train them ever. All of this continues to lead to that strange feeling that I’m not actually playing my own game.
This is assuming the game would let me play, of course. More often than not I would find myself constantly assaulted by long pointless cutscenes. Finish a floor? Hope you’re ready for 15 minutes of poker for who gets to spend the night with the main character. Wander into a weapon shop? Here’s 15 minutes of the weapon shop owner hemming and hawing about how to get the main character to fuck her. The worst offender was when I tried to leave town to get a floor rolling only for the game to make me sit through a character’s efforts to level up (to appeal to Kirito of course), followed by teleporting me to a lower floor so I could fight some easy enemies to help her level up, then a cutscene of her messing up and having to be saved, and finally a big apology. I just wanted to clear the floor, but now I have to go to work with nothing done. Hollow Fragment’s worst offense, over everything else, is its refusal to respect your time and to constantly find new excuses to trap you in long drawn out pointless sessions of Kirito’s ever growing (and always creepy) harem.
Maybe fans of Sword Art Online can forgive these problems and find something to enjoy here. For everyone else I have to just flat out recommend avoiding Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment. It’s not a game that seemed interested in me playing it, just one that waved some decent (if unexplained) mechanics around at the end of a stick to try and tempt me through more horrid cutscenes.