The idea of being trapped in a videogame has been with us almost as long as games themselves, dating all the way back to 1982’s Tron. It’s a terrifying and seductive idea all at the same time, and the Japanese, in particular, have really been taken with the concept. Series anime like .hack, Log Horizon and, of course, Sword Art Online have all picked up and run away with this idea in one way or another. Which is why it’s inevitable that if a novel, manga or anime series is going to be inspired by videogames, odds are a videogame will arise to repay the favor. Hollow Fragment is that game for the Sword Art Online property.
Kirito Continues To Level Up
In the near future of the 2020’s, the world first neural-simulation online MMO, Sword Art Online launches, and reveals itself to be an elaborate prison. Thousands of players are trapped in the game, unable to log out without killing themselves. The only way to escape with their lives is to reach the 100th floor of the game and clear it. Kirito, one of a lucky 1000 that was a beta-tester is the hero of the story, working his way through as a solo player to try to escape. That’s the basic set up for the light novel/manga/anime series this game is based on.
The actual game itself is a side-story of sorts, taking place within its own continuity and not considered a canon addition to the series, now already broadcasting its second season in Japan. For those that follow the series, this makes a big departure from the canon events of episode 14, and then somehow pulls in characters from subsequent episodes—and even season 2—so players can have their fan service cake and eat it too. Hollow Fragment is actually two games in one for people that are really following this series. It’s a portable HD remaster of the earlier Infinity Moment game that first debuted on the PSP, with an entirely new game, Hollow Fragment tacked on and running concurrently.
“Patience and experimentation will do a better job of teaching players about this game than the game itself does.”
Now, being a Vita game, expectations have to kept in check about the technical merits of the game. As a JRPG on a hand-held console, Hollow Fragment presents some average looking in-game graphics, with some noticeable performance hits in heavily populated town areas. Some lush 2D artwork from the anime is present during conversation scenes a la traditional JRPG conventions, but there are also some CG cutscenes to move the plot along. As to be expected from the recent spate of Bandai Namco localizations, the game got the budget treatment in the audio department, so only the original Japanese dialog is included here, with English subtitles of course.
This probably is not a big issue, since fans of the show likely inhaled the series in its original language. It should also be noted for Grammar Nazis that there are a fair number of typos and small grammar errors are scattered throughout the subtitling job. The audio, as to be expected, uses the original voice actors, music and sound effects from the series, so fans should be satisfied with the look/feel of the game.
The game is a mix of MMORPG conventions and Japanese dating sims. On the RPG side, Kirito journeys through a new area, known as the “Hollow Point,” and this is a single player JRPG pretending to be a horribly mutated MMO. Fans familiar with the series won’t be too surprised to see the hero Kirito is already ridiculously powered up by this point, at level 100 with over two million gold in his inventory. For everyone else, it can be a bit confusing to be dropped into the middle of a JRPG with an already developed character who has some impressive attack skills.
Unfortunately, in some respects the game ruthlessly throws players into the deep end, with some pretty advanced skills and mechanics that the basic tutorials do a poor job of explaining. Patience and experimentation (and reading FAQs and walkthroughs when they come out) will do a better job of teaching players about this game than the game itself does. The combat, at its foundation, is typical of MMOs with attack animations, cool down periods before using new skills and saving up points for use with special attacks. This is all further complicated by risk meters NPC interactions, and the need to compliment said NPCs during battle to build up points for special attacks. Yes, it’s all weird and complicated in that distinctive JRPG way.
The dating sim aspect throws Kirito into the thick of it with a sizable cast of female characters, most of whom are also potential party members. While canon (and fan sensibility) insist that Kirito hang out with Asuna exclusively—they are married after all—Hollow Fragment gives players free reign to hang out with all the female characters and bond with them. This never goes much further than hand holding, carrying someone “bridal style” and sleeping in the same room together, but increasing social bonds makes these NPC followers more effective in a combat party, so there’s more than just fan service at work here. This aspect of the game might lean a bit too hard on anime harem comedy conventions for the taste of dedicated SAO fans, but it never does anything that violates the basic characterization people are familiar with.
In many ways, this JRPG is actually a behind-the-scenes glimpse at less glamorous aspects of the show. SAO frequently jumped ahead by weeks or months, nimbly skipping the boring, grinding parts of an RPG where characters attack the same mobs over and over for XP to gain levels. Here, none of that is skipped over, showing fans exactly how tedious leveling up can be when you don’t skip straight to the boss fights after endless hours of attacking lower level mobs. Kirito runs around in both the Hollow Point space and floors 76 through 100 of the original Aincrad game world, while interacting with about 100 recruitable characters. Like any JRPG, there’s a long grind to get there and it’s imperative that gear and levels are up to snuff to advance. For the average gamer, and perhaps even for RPG fans, it’s a bit of a slog sometimes. You can get together with up to three other friends for a bit of four person multiplayer, but is ad hoc only, meaning you all have to be in the same room together and playing a “wireless LAN” game.
In the end, Hollow Fragment is a game aimed primarily at Sword Art Online fans. Very specifically, SAO fans that like baroque RPG systems. Mechanically, it’s a competent, but uninspired game, with design elements that occasionally feel forced in their needless complexity. However, the story will pull fans along—and it’s more or less necessary that you’ve viewed the anime in order to care about what’s going on here—and the size of the game is quite large, taking dozens of hours to complete.
If you’re looking for a big, substantial JRPG that’s easy to get into, Tales of Xillia 2 might be more accommodating. This is a sizable, competent, complex and flawed JRPG that just so happens to take advantage of a franchise that’s somewhat popular right now, so it’s definitely not for everyone. For people that meet its niche requirements though, there’s a good time to be had here, though it won’t change your life.