As someone who binged their way through Season 1 of the anime on Netflix recently, I’ve been craving more Sword Art Online. The tale of Kirito, fighting for survival in the online worlds whilst trying to save those closest to him, resonated with me far more than I was expecting (despite the second arc getting a little… weird… in parts.) It was enjoyable, emotional, and filled with great action sequences. Yet, the idea of a game made me nervous. Could the combat of the show – where players become their avatars in a VR simulation – truly translate to an input system of analog sticks and shoulder buttons? Perhaps more importantly, could a game successfully build upon the story and characters in the virtual world of Aincrad?
While newcomers are provided with a brief story catch-up to get up to speed, the truth is that Re: Hollow Fragment is a game for existing fans of SAO. However, fans should realise that this is a “what if” scenario instead of a continuation of the existing storyline, as the game diverges from the end of the first story arc in Aincrad. **Sword Art Online spoiler warning** Instead of finding freedom after defeating Heathcliff on floor 74, Kirito and the surviving players remain trapped in Sword Art Online. While the new goal is to clear the remaining 25 floors of Aincrad in hopes of truly escaping the game, Kirito also discovers a mysterious new zone called the Hollow Area. Providing new challenges to best and weapons to earn, it acts as a new subplot for players to explore.
In truth, the game’s narrative isn’t the real focus – the relationships with the other characters are, and this leads to some rather confusing moments. For example, every female character now swoons over Kirito, constantly after approval and acting jealous whenever he even so much as glances at anyone new. While it certainly provides some humorous moments, it becomes old quickly and eventually aggravating when you consider the established canon had addressed most of these feelings already. It’s a shame because the conversations with established characters like Klein and Lisbeth are a joy to a fan such as myself.
This isn’t the only confusing aspect in Re: Hollow Fragment, as the added character creation suite ultimately comes off as pointless. While players can choose to create a male or female avatar with a decent amount of options available, they will still be referred to and look like Kirito during (the overly long) cutscenes and conversations. While I can appreciate the customisation helps for online play (which we’ll get to later) it just comes off as half-baked in other areas. As a result, I would have much preferred to have been fixed to Kirito full stop, frankly.
And don’t even get me started on Leafa and Rinon being there for no apparent reason other than to play to the fans. Ugh.
With Re: Hollow Fragment being a port of the Vita version, I felt the translation from handheld to home console had been done rather well, considering. The visuals certainly aren’t the most impressive on the big screen, and some might find it a shame that there wasn’t much more done to give it a cleaner look. That said, the art style helps alleviates such issues thanks to the fact it really does look like Aincrad. The dungeons and open fields’ use of vibrant colours help in that regard, the combat effects have a familiar flair, and the enemies have that sinister feel to their design that fans will recognise. It’s a shame then that the game suffers frame rate issues when in the home hub of Arc Sophia, to the point that returning there ends up being more annoying than a relaxing break from the action.
When it comes to the combat, I actually found it was one aspect of Re: Hollow Fragment that grew on me over time. Along with an AI partner of your choice from the many characters available, players will use abilities and issue commands to defeat enemies, using the shoulder buttons to access different options. The Switch mechanic featured in SAO takes some getting used to – in fact I found it rather cumbersome to begin with – but with a bit of patience I found it actually translated fairly well. Matters do get more complicated when there are multiple enemies, though, and this did lead to the discovery that if an AI partner dies it’s game over. It’s understandable considering the perma-death nature of the narrative, but because saves are only registered from the start of a new area the restarts might test the patience of some players.
If you can overcome these issues, then you’ll find that Re: Hollow Fragment is filled with a huge amount of content to get through. Each of the 25 remaining levels of Aincrad takes a fair bit of time to clear, but it does start to get rather repetitive, even with the huge map of Hollow Area to conquer as well. The quests that are picked up don’t really inspire either. There’s also the social sim element to dive into if you want to befriend (or more) the cast of characters. I personally found this aspect to be rather weak, but I can appreciate how spending time with side-characters might be just what some fans are looking for.
One major addition to Re: Hollow Fragment is that of online co-op. The Ad-hoc system from the Vita version has received an upgrade, allowing up to four players to join together to explore certain areas. It’s a shame that there is such a heavy restriction on what can be experienced with others, but at least it’s there at all, and works rather well at that.
In the end, I’m not entirely sure who Re: Hollow Fragment is aimed at. Newcomers will find it an obtuse point of entry to the series, and it doesn’t further the universe or the main storyline for fans. It comes off as a fan-fic more than anything else, which is something that I was never going to really enjoy, but then maybe that’s enough for the most hardcore of fans. If all you want is to spend some more time with Kirito and the gang, or want to create an alternate timeline where friendship dynamics are different, this might be exactly what you’re looking for.
- The look and feel of Sword Art Online is definitely there.
- Combat mechanics are enjoyable once you get used to them.
- There’s plenty of content for fans to get though…
- … but newcomers will find this a poor choice of entry to the overall series.
- Poor frame rate performance in Arc Sophia & lack of visual touch ups from the Vita version are disappointing for a PS4 title.
- Character creation is basically pointless thanks to Kirito’s focus in converstations / cutscenes.
The Short Version:
This alternate timeline in the Sword Art Online universe is reserved for only the most hardcore of fans. Poor frame rates in the social hub, curious customised character restrictions, and a lack of true narrative focus will get to players over time thanks to repetitive content. A true lack of visual improvements makes the Vita-to-PS4 transition ultimately appear underwhelming, but those desperate for more adventures with Kirito no doubt enjoy running around the colourful world of Aincrad – so long as they employ patience while getting to grips with the combat system.
Platform: PS4 (Tested)
Publisher: Bandai Namco