Sword Art Online started out as a light novel series, and as it grew in popularity it lead to manga adaptions and a popular TV anime adaption two years back. Eventually, the series got itself some videogames along the way, and so here we are today with Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment. For those who have not read the novel, or seen the anime, a brief run down of the plot will be needed.
The game does an okay job at explaining the basics, but I felt it really leaves you hanging on the finer points—especially in terms of the characters, and how they all relate. The gist of SAO is that a popular Virtual Reality MMORPG turns out to be a “death game” in a style reminiscent of .hack. There is no way to log out and leave the virtual world, and if someone in the real world were to remove your headgear, it would fry your brain. Dying in the game has the same effect, too. Death in SAO means death in real life. The only way to get back to reality is to clear all 100 Floors of the game.
The anime prematurely ends the game however at floor 75 when a certain event unfolds, but Hollow Fragment instead changes the plot to make it so after said event on floor 75, a glitch occurs, leaving everyone stranded on Floor 76, still in the game, with no choice but to keep climbing to Floor 100. It also introduces a new area to the game world: Aincrad: The Hollow Area, that which holds its own mysteries. It’s your job to get from Floor 76 to Floor 100, and also explore and investigate the Hollow Area to get to the bottom of this mysterious glitch, and find your way back to reality.
Hollow Fragment really tries to emulate what it would feel like to be in a virtual world, and to its credit the game does a good job. Making the combat function like an MMO even though it is mostly a single player game was pretty clever, since story-wise this is a virtual reality MMORPG. The combat takes some getting used to—the awfully translated instructions certainly were no help—but after playing around and experimenting, I managed to wrap my head around the combat system.
Hollow Fragment honestly ended up reminding me a bit of my time when I wrote about Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn on Siliconera. The combat is a little different, with some other gauges to worry about, but the basic premise is similar, mapped hotkeys play a big role, and that same “feel” is perfectly replicated. After acquiring an understanding of the combat I was ready to clear my first dungeon, and quite enjoyed myself as I explored the lands, crushing foes in my path. Traversing through a valley, fighting the Lizardmen who live in a cave, climbing out of the cave to find a giant floating building, it all really felt like an MMO.
What’s interesting is, once you locate the boss of the dungeon, you actually leave and hold a meeting in town, just like the characters did in the anime. Together, all the members of the guild construct a plan, and with a large group of fellow players, you all raid the boss room at once. Boss raids were intense, and honestly kept me on my toes the whole time. This was a big step up from most of the ordinary monster encounter in game. I found myself worrying over the many players fighting alongside me, and trying to keep them all alive. Seeing that huge HP gauge that the boss had, and how long it took to deplete was disheartening. I started to worry if I could really get us all through this in time. It was quite a rush. Once it was all over, and I defeated the boss and got everyone through alive, I felt really fulfilled.
There is also something of an affection system in the game between you and your many partners. Raising their affection will net you mostly superficial but cute bonuses like being able to hold their hand, carrying them like a bride on her wedding day, laying down in bed together, and the only non-superficial benefit: getting permission to change their equipment—though you can make them dress in a lot of fetish outfits like school swimsuits, and wedding dresses, I suppose. It’s a really simple system, and depends how you reply to the characters in “Date Conversations”. You can ether reply passionately, or with a more neutral tone, getting the right kind of reply for the questions asked will raise their affection (or as the game calls it, their “enjoy”).
If you’re expecting a visual novel-like experience, however, you will be disappointed. These chats range from small talk to totally random gibberish, and don’t add anything to the characters. It ends up just taking luck, and learning the patterns since a lot of the gibberish is repeated. You honestly just go around yelling “Indeed!” over and over again at the girls. If you’re looking for a deeper romance game, this might disappoint. There are however different endings depending on each girl, so my feelings may change, but as of now, I feel even Harvest Moon was more romantic than this. These romance bits in Hollow Fragment seem like just cute little distractions to me, and not much else.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment can be a fun game, but has two major flaws, the first being that like many other licensed games it is best enjoyed by those already familiar with the source material. Those who have yet to see the anime will probably not get as much out of the game. The game also completely spoils a big twist that the first story arc had. However, those who have been fans should really enjoy seeing their favorite characters again. Not to mention I think many will appreciate the return to Aincrad with a new story.
The second major flaw is that the game’s translation is just plain bad, and this will more than likely ruin the entire experience for some people. I’m sure by now plenty of people have seen the “penetration” screenshots as they’ve made the rounds. The awkward use of words is only the tip of the iceberg here. Bad grammar is a common occurrence, including instances like confusing “its” and “it’s” as well as basic pronouns, typos like “Barst” instead of “Burst”. Beyond that, the writing is extremely stale and uninteresting. It just dredges on and on, and is in dire need of an editor to make it sound more interesting.
The worst part, though, is that it isn’t even really in the “so bad it’s good” territory. It’s just boring, and comes off like half-assed Google Translate English. I thought it would provide a cheap laugh, at the very least, but besides a few instances, it honestly doesn’t. The whole translation just brings the enjoyment of the game way down. In 2014, from a major company like Bandai Namco, this is just unacceptable. Being a digital-only release with a half-assed translation only sends the message that Bandai Namco had zero faith in their product.
Food for Thought:
1. Before I took on this assignment I knew nothing about Sword Art Online. To prepare for the review I made myself sit through all 25 episodes of the first season. If you want my opinion of the show, all I can really say is that it was okay. Oh, and that people really weren’t exaggerating when they said the second half wasn’t as good as the first half.
2. A Japanese-style button layout is still used even though I was playing the American version. That means O is to confirm, and X is to cancel.
3. There’s some free DLC for the game that will expire by November 18. A free major update is also scheduled to come out on September 23, which will raise the level cap, and add new equipment and quest. Whether or not it fixes the awful translation is yet to be seen, but probably unlikely.
4. In the game you play as Kirito, but you can change your name to whatever you wish, as well as your physical features. This is mostly for the sake of the multiplayer mode, and while I had fun customizing Kirito into my own character, it did feel weird to be “Zero_Des” and look nothing like Kirito, but still be called Kirito by the cast.
5. Sorry Hollow Fragment; Vietnamese Pokémon still holds its crown as King of “so bad it’s good” English.