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'Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment' review: Sheep in wolf's clothing

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment
Bandai Namco

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment (PlayStation Vita)

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Ever wonder what lies beyond floor 75?

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is ingenious. Based off the popular Sword Art Online anime, where players trapped inside a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game must struggle to survive -- because if they die in the game, they die in real life -- Hollow Fragment is a simple experience masked in an intricate format. It looks like an MMO, feels like an MMO, but it’s absolutely not an MMO, and that’s okay, because it’s awesome.

For a handheld game, Hollow Fragment can appear overwhelming at first glance. There are a lot of abilities displayed on the screen, with plenty of menus to navigate through, but it’s all just a show. Once you boil it down to its core you’ll realize how undemanding it is.

That mask, though, is the reason why this game is so enjoyable. It’s easy enough to just pick up and play, omitting the burden of long tutorials and menu experimentation that attaches itself to most "MMO's," but it also feels like it’s supposed to, staying true to its source material with an admirable amount of depth.

Hollow Fragment features a remade version of last year’s Japan exclusive PlayStation Portable title Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment as well as a brand-new storyline called the Hollow Area, both of which are alternate stories that branch off from the first half of SAO’s first season.

Basically, in the anime, SAO’s world is called Aincrad, which consists of 100 floors. In order for the players to be freed from the game they must defeat the final boss on the top floor. However, the mystery is solved on floor 75 and all players are then ejected from the game. Hollow Fragment allows players to play through the remaining floors.

Next up is the Hollow Area, which is exclusive to this version of the game. This is where players will meet the most important character not seen in the anime: Philia. Philia is involved with a guild called the Laughing Coffin, known in SAO for player kills, or murder. The orange crystal above her head means that she can’t exactly be trusted, but she also deserves a chance to prove herself. Plus, Kirito (SAO's main character) could never reject the help from a female player.

Don’t let the game’s deep customization and polluted screen fool you, the battle system only takes seconds to get used to. In fact, although there are plenty of abilities to experiment with, the combat ultimately boils down to the use of one simple attack, and the lack of challenge -- at least for most of the game -- omits the need for strategic thinking during battles.

Still, players need to choose their battles carefully. Not every enemy is meant to be fought right away. If you take a wrong turn you may find yourself fighting monsters that are way above your skill level. Fortunately, with the press of a button you can view an enemy’s stats before engaging in battle. So if you’re smart, this shouldn’t be a problem.

While it would help to be at least somewhat familiar with the show, newcomers need not fret. The game does a great job with getting the players up to speed with a lengthy intro filled with beautifully drawn cutscenes that look as if they were taken straight from the anime and great Japanese voice acting (no, there isn’t any English voice work).

By default, the player's avatar is set to Kirito's appearance and play style, but gamers can choose to create their own avatar for a more personal playthrough, though this won't impact the story in any way; you're still technically Kirito.

Arc Sofia is the main hub in Hollow Fragment, where players can purchase/craft weapons, manage relationships with non-player characters, take up side quests and access floors 76-100 as well as the Hollow Area. Throughout the town, familiar faces from the anime as well as other random “players” are found wandering about. You can party up with these characters and take them out on raids. Also, every time you meet a new ally they’re added to your Friends List, and they will at times send you messages.

Pros

+ Creates MMO illusion
+ Two awesome alternate stories
+ Excellent tribute to source material

Cons

- Not very challenging

The Verdict

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment can be one of two things: if you’re new to the series, it’s a decent base-level RPG that’ll probably spark some interest in the anime; but if you’re already a fan, it’s one of the PlayStation Vita’s best games. The endless references and a story that allows players to actually make it to the 100th floor is something that no Sword Art Online fan should pass up.

A digital download of the game was provided to Examiner by Bandai Namco.