If you live in Asia (or any civilized society, actually) then you will surely at least have heard of Sword Art Online. The popular anime series revolves around Kirito, a gamer who, along with 999 other beta testers, got his mind trapped in the virtual VMMORPG, Sword Art Online. The only way to escape the game world is to reach its hundredth level and defeat the boss there.
This is where you will find yourself when you boot up Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment: in the heart of Aincrad, the world of Sword Art Online. Hollow Fragment takes place midway through the anime series’ first arc, albeit along an alternate story plot that involves a mysterious new level, the Hollow Area.
An action RPG that takes closely after games like Monster Hunter and Ragnarok Odyssey Ace, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment puts you in charge of Kirito, the series’ protagonist, who is responsible for sleuthing out the twists and treasures of the Hollow Area. Accompanying him is a mysterious girl, Phillia, who seems to be trapped in the Hollow Area.
Kirito can move freely between the main town Arc Sophia, and the Hollow Area—possibly due to a crest that mysteriously appeared on his hand. This leads to him being able to take up Hollow Quests, which have objectives that can only be fulfilled in the Hollow Area. Completing these quests rewards you with better skills and drops to help you eventually conquer Aincrad and escape Sword Art Online.
The Sword Art Online universe
Technically, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is very good. We’ll have more on that later. However, it is also a game made for fans of the light novel. Players are thrown into the thick of action upon booting up the game, with zero explanation of who Kirito is, what Aincrad is, or who Kirito’s harem of babes are.
The Hollow Fragment story itself is actually all right: it picks up on level 76, and you’re given enough context of what’s happening, with enough confusion generated regarding the Hollow Area, but the game assumes that anyone who picks it up is automatically a Sword Art Online fan.
This does work in favor of the fanbase, though. If you like Sword Art Online then you’ll get a kick out of wandering Arc Sophia, checking out Aincrad’s levels, and teaming up with familiar faces to wreak some havoc in the field. Characters in Hollow Fragment are almost fully voiced, and all of them come with a variety of expressions, so it won’t stretch your imagination too much to pretend you’re actually within Aincrad. And that’s not even the best thing about the game.
Fighting in Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is complex, yet easy enough for players new to action games. Attacks are performed by mashing the O button, and are governed by two meters: the burst meter and the SP meter. The burst meter governs how much damage you can dish out, and is in turn governed by the threat you generate (Sword Art Online is an MMORPG after all). The SP meter allows you to perform special moves, and while it is slow to regenerate on its own, a successful parry replenishes enough of it for you to unleash a devastating attack. In practice, battles are pretty straightforward: you just need to keep an eye on your meters and your health.
Apart from the meters, combat in this action RPG made to represent an MMORPG is still quite similar to its massive multiplayer genre cousin. Enemies appear in groups and you must pull them in order not to aggro the entire mob; threat levels reset when you swap your frontline position with a party member, and you will encounter fellow gamers fighting against the local wildlife.
It’s in Aincrad’s floors themselves that Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment feels more and more like an MMORPG. Each floor has a boss that can only be approached once you gather enough data. Once enough data has been gathered, you must then discuss how best to approach it with other groups fighting in the area. There will be leaderboards charting how many elite, harmless, or dead players there are in battle, and all these players will have their own individual levels. I’m immediately reminded of the Fel Reaver and similar world bosses in various MMORPGs.
To play or not to play?
With all this said and done, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment does present an interesting conundrum. On one hand, it is a game that fully utilizes IP that people know and love, and turns it all into one rollicking action-based adventure. On the other hand, it’s an action RPG representing an MMORPG.
Therefore as someone who isn’t a fan of the Sword Art Online series, my biggest question is: why don’t I just play an MMORPG? The pulling, the groups, the world bosses—I can get all of that in an MMORPG, and then some.
But then again, in an MMORPG, I am no Kirito with his Asuna and harem.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is available on the Playstation Vita.