Platforms PlayStation 4 Genre Role-playing Game
Platform Played PlayStation 4 Publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer Bandai Namco Entertainment/Aquria
Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment brings the original 2014 PlayStation Vita release to the PlayStation 4 console. Those who took the lengthy trek through Aincrad on their handheld device last year have few incentives to experience the adventure once more. Hollow Fragment on PlayStation 4 offers few extra modes and additions from its PlayStation Vita counterpart, but it is still a worthy love letter to fans of the Sword Art Online series.
The basic premise of Sword Art Online – players have been locked inside a virtual reality video game, with death in the game meaning their own death in the real world. Hollow Fragment is squarely aimed at those who are already fans of Sword Art Online, with only a brief introduction to overall basis of Sword Art Online. Instead of Kirito defeating Heathcliff and freeing everyone from their virtual prison like many SAO fans would know, Hollow Fragment introduces us to an alternate timeline. In this new event Heathcliff’s defeat doesn’t ring the end of Sword Art Online and Kirito and the gang must venture through the final 25 floors in order to complete the game and set everyone free. The alternate timeline allows fans of SAO to finally explore the final 25 floors of Aincrad which is reasoning enough for any SAO fan to love Hollow Fragment, but unfortunately the interesting alternate plot doesn’t deliver consistently.
Hollow Fragment’s main story rapidly feels like going through the motions. Upon clearing a floor, most victories will end with a small story based scene, providing small tidbits of the alternate timeline and why it occurred. The problem is these scenes are ridiculously short and fail to capitalise on what could have been an interesting new take on the SAO story. Hollow Fragment’s final floors certainly do a good job at sewing up the overall plot, but these last few floors only emphasise just how uninformative most of the game actually was. There are also many plot points and twists that left me scratching my head. These instances feel more like simple fan service rather than Hollow Fragment trying to deliver an interesting and unique take on SAO canon.
Clearing floors in Aincrad is the central process of progressing through the Hollow Fragment story. Each floor has players exploring the stage in search for the boss room, defeating the boss, and moving on to the next floor. There are also small quests and mini-boss battles that can be completed to gather intel on the upcoming boss encounter. The process of clearing floors becomes quite a repetitive task due to the fact that each floor is cleared in the same manner. Even side quests are simple missions which entail defeating a certain amount of enemies or collecting items. Some floors do offer slight variations on the method and these floors are certainly a nice change, but the variations are few and far between.
Fortunately, clearing each floor is made more entertaining due to the enjoyable combat. Players can recruit characters to help them in battle, with the ability to deliver orders and utilise their skills to help clear each floor. Combat avoids the button mash properties of many anime-based games and instead offers the ability to assign skills to a selection of controls. Utilising each bumper gives access to a large array of skills. Those searching for an in-depth combat system won’t find it here, but the large array of skills, different battle styles and satisfying animations make combat a largely fun practice.
Hollow Fragment struggles to mirror the epic boss encounters that can be found in SAO. Instead, they end up being a lengthy repetitive process. Most boss monsters don’t provide much resistance or challenge, rather, they stand still as you wail on them with skill after skill. These encounters were largely disappointing and I found myself dreading the end of each floor, knowing these battles were incoming.
Hollow Fragment is split into two sections: the Aincrad portion and a section known as the Hollow Area. This new area is like a massive extended dungeon, with tough enemies, boss encounters and rare items scattered throughout. Oddly enough Hollow Fragment begins by introducing the Hollow Area and the separate narrative it contains, but then the player is never pushed to complete this area. It felt like a weird choice to emphasise the importance of this new area only for it to become forgotten amongst the main story. I personally loved this new area, as it provided a great challenge and an interesting alternative to the somewhat repetitive set of events of clearing each floor within Aincrad. It’s a shame some players may miss this portion of the story entirely, since figuring out how to enjoy this area requires quite a lot of investment and exploration.
The Hollow Area is also the location of the new online multiplayer component. Players can now venture online in the new console version to clear missions within the Hollow Area. Finding a match is fast and the connection was solid throughout the half dozen missions I completed. The main problem I had with the online component is the implementation of teamwork inside missions. Players can teleport anywhere in the Hollow Area, but once they do it is almost impossible to find out where they are within the extensive dungeon. There is no way to simply spawn on a fellow player, teleport to their location or see them on the Hollow map in order to join them. It’s disappointing that the online multiplayer component doesn’t do a good job at keeping players together, making the process of actually fighting beside them a tough experience.
Upon starting Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment, players will be able to transfer previous save files from the PlayStation Vita version to the console iteration, this option is made clear and easy for any player to take advantage. Hollow Fragment doesn’t force players to control Kirito either, with options to create their own character available. The PlayStation 4 version also allows players to now create a female playable character if they choose. Visually, players can be quite diverse from one another with an extensive array of armour to choose from and an impressive selection of different weapons and styles. Want to play as a female character who specialises in two handed swords? You can. Characters can also be upgraded with new skills which can be assigned as you wish. Players can also continue their journey in the New Game+ options, with stronger enemies and their current levels brought forward to the next playthrough.
Aside from the short side quests on offer, players can also access optional Events. These Events involve interacting with characters who were introduced in the SAO universe and they do a better job at giving these characters a defined personality than the anime ever did. Characters who were merely introduced in the anime for a handful of episodes now get their own story arc, which eventuate into bonus battles once the investment has been made to complete these Events. I loved the fact that these Events allowed me to explore the day-to-day life in SAO and learn more about the characters that the anime didn’t have time to explore. It is a shame that a majority of this exploration of characters ends up revolving around their love for Kirito and awkward sexual moments. I don’t have a problem exploring this subject since SAO does revolve around Kirito’s love life, but when a large portion of the conversations end in such a similar manner it becomes less entertaining and more of a nuisance.
The visual conversion from handheld to console is quite noticeable, with textures on both the environment and foes lacking the detail that many anime based games have delivered on consoles previously. It certainly isn’t a bad looking game, but the visual fidelity hasn’t been improved with much significance when compared directly to the handheld original. It’s also quite noticeable that this was designed for a handheld experience. The consistent load times which were implemented for the on-the-go version do hold back the console version. These load times also plague the weapon upgrade system, with each upgrade attempt (successful or not) producing another load screen. There are also some noticeable frame rate issues during hectic battles and the crowded hub world, but for the most part these don’t affect the quality of combat.
Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment is not perfect, but SAO fans will definitely enjoy their visit to the digital world of Aincrad. Clearing floors and battling boss monsters lack the intensity from the anime, but due to the fun and varied combat exploring each floor remains entertaining. Unfortunately the new multiplayer features feel unpolished and lack the emphasis on team work that the anime has delivered.
Fortunately SAO fans will love being able to explore the personalities of the extended cast of characters from the SAO universe. While the new Hollow Area will also deliver a large amount of challenge and extended gameplay for dozens of hours once the Aincrad portion of Hollow Fragment is complete.
Fun and varied combat.
Extensive array of weapons and armour variety.
Exploring the personality of the extended cast of characters.
Bland boss encounters.
Poorly implemented multiplayer.