Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment gets the look and feel of Sword Art Online down very nicely. It’s a pity, though, that the end result is a game that’s so crushingly boring.
Sword Art Online as an anime series has had considerable crossover success outside Japan, and so it was pretty inevitable that games based around an anime that’s based around online MMOs would emerge. Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment isn’t even the first game based on the series, but it’s the first to make it outside of Japan. The first game, Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment was a PSP-only title, and it’s been recompiled in high definition form in Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment alongside the new Hollow Fragment content.
As with everything Sword Art Online, you play as Kirito, a master gamer and the most fearsome player in the online world of Aincrad that the game simulates. If you’re familiar with the series you’d be well aware that he’s essentially a bit of very unsubtle wish fullfillment, in that he’s a ridiculously overpowered, dark, moody player with women swooning all over him every second he’s not slicing and dicing digital enemies. No, this isn’t terribly refined storytelling within the anime, and that crosses over into the game, which splits its action between Sword Art style combat and a lot of plot development with RPG undertones.
Mind you, if you are familiar with Sword Art Online, you’ll probably find Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment to be a highly confusing mishmash of several storylines and characters, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise interact. Taking a divergent storyline allows the developers to do what they like with different characters, but it’s certainly not canonical if that kind of thing bothers you.
You technically don’t have to play as Kirito, which is to say that you can muck around with the character name and some visual attributes, but he’s still really Kirito and he’s going to act the exact same way regardless.
The one thing that Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment gets right is the visual look. Kirito and his counterparts are well animated, well voiced and everything looks and runs as you’d expect if you’ve watched or read the source material. That rush of seeing characters fight in the way that you’d expect does have some allure, as does the prospect of a very deep looking skills and stats system with plenty of content to back it up.
The problem is that this thrill simply doesn’t last.
Sword Art Online as a series has some fun with the concept of onscreen player menus, but in Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment you’ll often find yourself fighting obtuse or poorly worded menu structures. There’s even some outright translation botches in there as well, which is very unsatisfactory for what is a full priced product.
Even once you get past the menus, you’re faced with combat choices that are at first poorly explained, so you’ll more than likely waste a few hours getting to grips with how to properly combine attacks with your companion NPC character. That’s the secret that underlies Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment’s combat system, because with proper combos and careful enemy selection, you can hack huge digital chunks out of health bars with ease, but going in full force but with no plan will only see you chip away at the edges.
The problem here is that combat is flashy on the surface but ultimately terribly dull. Enemies have no AI at all, and while that’s evocative of the whole MMO aspect that Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is trying to emulate, it means that there’s really not much “challenge” to the game at all. You’re either a lot more powerful than enemies and will therefore triumph every time, or weaker and therefore liable to die if you even try, at least until you work out the basic strategy for combination attacks.
There’s only so long you can take on the same foes over and over again before it loses its charm, which means that Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment rests on the storyline aspect of the game. As noted, it’s a canonical mess, but even if you’re happy to ignore that, it’s also hackneyed nonsense with an awful lot of wish fulfilment on the side. You could make the case that this is also true of the anime and manga, and you might be right — but that doesn’t make for a game that’s all that much fun to play.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is available in Australia as a download title only with an asking price of $59.95. For the record, I’ve reviewed a copy provided to me by the local distributor. At $59.95, with such a trudging and dull combat style, it’s going to be of interest to only the most die-hard Sword Art Online fans, and even then they’ll have to make a lot of compromises to get any real fun out of it.