review by Ed Ayes (aka edsamac)
“Mediocre at best” is probably the first thing that comes to mind whenever someone mentions a video game inspired from something like a movie or a television series. And who could blame you for thinking so when titles the that come to mind can float anywhere between the disaster that was Enter the Matrix to, god forbid, Fight Club. Give or take a few roses amongst the thorns, the effort put into milking a franchise for everything its worth tends to leave a sour taste in the mouths of fans who would otherwise wish for a more than half-baked tribute to an otherwise worthwhile title.
To the Japanese, at least, this seems to be second nature - what with video game titles coming out left and right - or at times even video games inspiring anime and manga, themselves. However, having played several of these games personally, the story gets old when all that pops up is your typical dating sim or a hash of visual novel story-play. It’s come to the point that it’s enough to tire out even the most avid video game player.
Sword Art Online has a couple things going for it in this regard: it’s a provocative title that has an impressive grasp of human interactions and relationships, as well as its implications in an MMORPG setting. The anime was warmly received, but the first video game rendition on the PlayStation Portable (entitled Infinity Moment) was lukewarm, at best. With the announcement of Hollow Fragment, however, there was a renewed sense of vigor in the series as the game became the first of the franchise to be ported to the west.
Because having one PSVita just isn’t enough.
Having played the original Japanese version, I got the good fortune of taking a look at just how well the Western port is shaping up to be. As the first of several exciting ports aimed at crossing over to the west in due time, will Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment be a satisfying start to the exciting times waiting just ahead?
It should be made clear that Hollow Fragment is a role playing game with hints of visual novel and dating sim gameplay thrown into the mix. If that’s hard to picture, think of what would happen if God Eater and Amagami had a love child - something like that. Take note, however, that Hollow Fragment is non-canon, meaning its story is not a part of the original light novel timeline.
In Hollow Fragment, Kirito had just defeated Heathcliff on the 75th floor after a somewhat “glitchy” battle. Unfortunately for the trapped gamers inside of SAO, the game did not end. Instead, many glitches began to occur, such as the inability to return to any floor below the 76th and the sudden discovery of a hidden game field known as the “Hollow Area”. Here, Kirito runs into a player killer named “Philia”, who seemingly cannot leave the said area. Enigmatic as she may seem, Kirito cannot help but express his interest in the Hollow Area as he joins Philia to discover its secrets. And so the two continue on their journey to uncover the secrets of this hidden area.
All of this happens alongside the events of having to clear the game. The player, therefore, plays two separate lines of the story: one about having to clear the remaining 25 levels of SAO, and the other helping Philia uncover the secrets of the Hollow Fragment area.
It’s a bit strange and confusing, but the two stories will eventually converge. What might seem even more strange is the presence of Leafa and Sinon from ALO and GGO, respectively. For reasons best explained by playing the game itself, it’s quite obvious that the non-canon label allowed for some over-the-board inclusions into the storyline.
Aincrad in full open-field glory
The gameplay field is vast with near-mesmerizing attention to detail. The characters, however, look a bit blocky and clunkety, especially around the hands.
The game is in an open-field format with separate mechanics for battle and event sequences. Graphics-wise, seeing Ainclad in HD glory is fascinating. The details are impressive, but the character models, themselves, could have been done better. If anything, the playing field is immersive without too much repetitiveness in the maps. The camera angles could have been a bit better, but a quick adjust with the right analogue stick usually fixes things right up, albeit out of the way. The latest Japanese version of the game (ver 1.06) includes a “return-to-center” toggle, which helps in minimizing the giddiness of the camera, but the same feature has yet to become available in the current western port (ver 1.00).
Pre-rendered cut scenes are scattered sporadically throughout the story and are always a joy to watch. A good “series-in-review” greets us early on to put the story into perspective and is masterfully put together. In short, the visual feel of the game isn’t too far from the anime. Barring some technical issues, the game is a visual treat to play.
You could practically make a separate series with the beautiful pre-rendered cut scenes. The 3D cell shading is masterfully done, full of eye candy and always a treat to behold.
You play as Kirito, but you have the choice of remaining solo or teaming up with any of the heroines from the series, or any other members from guilds you have interacted with, for that matter. Hollow Fragment has built a pseudo-MMORPG interface in that you can receive messages from other guilds or friends as you would in any online game. How you interact with these different people affects your affinity with them, as well as your compatibility during battles.
This affinity has much to do with your chances of surviving a battle. The battle mechanics revolve primarily around teamwork, so even though you could button mash your way to victory, you’ll soon realize that fights rely heavily on sword skills to effect even the slightest amount of damage to an enemy. Sword skill points (SP) are required for these special attacks, but to replenish them, you’ll have to call on your teammate to give you some, or use specific commands to absorb enemy .
In a battle, you could either cue your partner to follow up your attack, or you can wait for your partner to issue a command themselves and follow them, accordingly. Some of those commands include doing a sword skill in combination to double the damage, calling out a switch when one or the other is in a bind, or simply praising them for executing a certain command. All of these commands can be input through either touching the on-screen toggles, or activating commands from a command palette (summoned by pressing either L or R and using a pre-set button combination). If done correctly, your partner will shower you with their affection and your sword skill points shoot back up.
Being the dual wield master is cool and all, but if you don’t allow your partner to help you, you’ll be a sitting duck. Call on your partner to support you and replenish your sword skill points (SP) so you can continue dishing out massive attacks.
It sounds like a forced dating sim element at this point, but it’s crucial to work together when fighting bosses. The RISK system is another element that complicates game play to make sure you don’t hog all of the glory. If you continuously attack an enemy, your risk increases to the point that your attack goes up at the expense of defense. There is also the risk of having your attacks miss at high risk. At this point, you can call for your partner to “Switch” with you to reduce your risk so as to buy yourself time to recuperate skill points. In addition to this, the BURST gauge allows you to chain high-damage attacks and other special commands (like a step-doge to evade an attack). At high risk, however, your burst will recharge slowly, meaning you won’t be able to chain commands unless you hand over the baton to your partner. If you don’t manage BURST, RISK, and SWORD SKILLS appropriately, the amount of damage will be minimal, if not meager at best. Switch, recharge, praise, and work together with your partner in order to dish out meaningfully damaging attacks.
If you time your moves properly, you can do combination attacks that have a multiplier effect on the damage you can deal. This is important if you want to deal a lot of damage.
Complicating things further is the manner in which your partner can support you. You can talk to them in the field and discuss the type of battle assistance you’d like them to give you. Choose between offensive or supportive fighting styles, but take note that each individual character seems to have their own strengths. Asuna and Lizbeth, for example, are very good at giving offensive support, while Silica and Leafa are excellent with supportive spells like HP recovery and defense. You can even further the likelihood of each character performing certain commands if you praise them accordingly. It’s up to you how you work with them to bring out the best combination of teamwork.
As if to make things even harder for you, you have to look out for your partner, as well. If they die, then it’s game over. Fair enough, I guess, given the fact that it’s Sword Art Online we’re talking about, but this feature just underscores the game’s focus on teamwork and assistive play over senseless button mashing.
True to the sense of an MMORPG, floor boss battles can be long and winding. You’ll need the help of your partner to assist you with supportive magic to ease the way.
All in all, the battle system is complex, but not unwieldy. You’ll find that it becomes rather redundant once you get the hang of constantly praising your partner or following whatever commands they issue out. Since these commands are spoken in Japanese and shown with an English bubble on the HUD, it will take some getting used to having to look up just to see what it is they want you to do.
As for the skill system, it is similar to that found in games like Phantasy Star Online. Outside of the dual wield sword skills, you can set Kirito to learn other sword skills. Though it might seem counterintuitive, it’s necessary if you want to unlock more powerful character abilities and support skills - not to mention the extremely powerful Katana weapon class.
The skills are arranged in a Skill Map system with points allocated depending on how frequently you use a skill. With higher levels, the amount of skill points you receive is less, so you’re encouraged early on to mix and match your active weapon class.
Aside from sword skills, a “Implement system” allows for some mission-based gameplay and extra challenge to unlock special enhancements to Kirito and his party. The Implements can be unlocked after completing certain challenges and their corresponding requirements in the Hollow Area. The game, itself, states that this is needed in order to complete the game, so there will be times where you’ll have to go back and forth between clearing the floors in Aincrad and unlocking different system implements in the Hollow Area.
Implements act like “system hacks” of sorts, enhancing your characters and their stats. There are different challenges associated with unlocking them, adding more to the MMORPG feel of the game.
Complexity in SAO
The game has added complexities that add to the depth of its gameplay. Aside from the impressive partner-assist battle system, the chances of success in a floor boss battle are also dictated by the amount of intel obtained, as well as the collective fighting force of all guilds who will participate in the raid. This is achieved by completing floor quests and teaming up with random guild members you run into in the field. The result is a “living world” that exceeds what I would have expected from a typical video game environment.
Don’t go into a floor boss battle unprepared. Even if you survive, it’d be meaningless if people were to die along the way. Complete floor quests, gather intel, and help out guild members along the way to increase the Assault Team’s chances of defeating the boss.
Of course, too much complexity makes for an overly serious game. Outside of the technicalities lies the very basic of basic dating sim cut sequences and features that inadvertently make the game unnecessarily complicated. For one thing, Kirito still has his pretty boy moments with all the other girls who are literally falling all over him. Then, in an attempt to make the affinity issue even more complicated than its worth, there are opportunities for you to “talk” with your partner in hopes of raising your scores with them. It’s silly and unnecessary, but I guess there are some people who like this kind of thing. You just have to say “yes”, “no” or “nothing at all” to whatever the girls tell you, and depending on your timing, they’ll respond in a certain way.
I love you, Asuna, but I seriously don’t know what you’re talking about.
If talking to the girls isn’t your thing, you can always treat them to weapons as gifts. Or you can be daring and scoop them up in a bridal carry, or keep it simple by holding hands. You can knock yourself out and dote on the girl that tugs at your heart strings the most, but the other heroines will end up messaging you to give them some attention, anyway. It’s close to annoying, but I can’t help but appreciate the amount of attention they gave into creating an entire online environment within a single-player video game.
Lastly, there’s a multiplayer function that uses ADHOC mode for up to four players to play together in co-op mode. This can be accessed through the console in the Hollow Area. It looks interesting, but it’s a shame it couldn’t be done using an online server like a real online RPG game. What’s more, there is currently no cross-compatibility over the Japanese and Western ports of the game, probably due to the existing version differences between the two.
Multiplayer allows for up to four players to band together in Co-op style gameplay. It’ll make treading through the Hollow Area much easier, but it’s a shame that it’s only available in ADHOC mode.
And then there’s the fan service
Outside of the dating sim aspects, there’s the story that plays out like a visual novel. Anyone used to playing Japanese video games would be familiar to something like this by now, but those who aren’t might think of it as some kind of cost cutting tactic. Although I agree that I would have enjoyed more 3D cut scenes, the amount of dialogue present makes that option impractical. There is A LOT of dialogue so be prepared to read. Thankfully, majority of the dialogue is voiced on top of the text, and the Western port keeps the original Japanese dialogue with accompanying subtitles. In addition, the scenes are peppered with enough fan service to hold your attention. And yes, Silica demands that you pay attention.
What’s a game without a maid costume? What’s a SAO game without Silica in a maid costume?
There are other trivial features like being able to change your appearance or having the choice of playing the game in a first-person perspective. The latter is totally useless and unnecessarily complicated. There are also many DLCs available for download. Although I haven’t really tried out many of these to comment, the wedding dress is pretty awesome.
It’s porting time!
So what about the port? Quite frankly, the English localization becomes staggering as early as the first few minutes of gameplay. Apart from blatant grammatical errors, the use of unconventional punctuations (such as a hatch mark instead of an apostrophe, or a tilde instead of a double hyphen) and oddly construed phrases litters the dialogue incessantly. Although a little uncomfortable to read, the game is still playable nonetheless. This could easily be fixed with a patch, but what’s seen cannot be unseen, unfortunately.
In spite of the numerous HYPOTHESES I have regarding the grammar in this localization, the supporting EVIDENCE is clearly lacking.
Grammar aside, there are some technical issues as well. Text formatting can be jarring at times, what with a narrow typeface and text that overshoots the text box at times. For some reason, the Western version tends to lag during heavy battle sequences - something I never noticed in the original Japanese version. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that I’m using different VITA consoles, but it could be something that a patch could fix up.
Other features have yet to make their way to the Western port, including the camera-toggle patch and the ability to team up with Argo. The multiplayer feature is currently not compatible across the region versions - not unless a version compatibility update brings the Western port up to steam with its Japanese counterpart.
Despite these criticisms, the game is still playable and enjoyable. Again, all of these issues could easily be fixed with a patch, but I wonder why they couldn’t have included most of the current version updates with the Western port from the get-go.
Outside of a questionable non-canon story arc and the dual plotline approach, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is an impressive simulation of the video game environment of the original in a cohesive package. Most fans will be pleased with the interplay of fan service elements in the visual novel aspect on top of a seriously thought up battle system. The redundancy of battles is countered by an equal amount of thought in battle preparation and cooperative gameplay. Unfortunately, this is watered down by a few bumps in English localization for the first version of the Western port. This is definitely a game worth playing, but unless you want to avoid a little unnecessary frustration, you may want to wait out a bit for a newer version of the Western port once all the rough ends have been smoothed out.
+ Immersive MMORPG-like environment and gameplay
+ Partner teamwork gameplay is impressive
+ Implement challenges add depth
+ Beautiful 3D cutscenes
+ Silica in a maid outfit
- Unnecessary dating-sim elements clutter gameplay
- Somewhat redundant battle sequences and plot flows
- Character 3D rendering could have been better
- Wordy and lengthy dialogue in cutscenes
- English localization issues and lacking features from the initial port
- Multiplayer limited to ad-hoc only