Please Note – Since This Is a Tie In Game, Spoilers Will Be Present!
When a show becomes as popular as Sword Art Online, it’s inevitable that a game tie in will come… and with SAO being set within videogame worlds, it seems like an even more natural fit. Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is an alternate history of what could’ve happened if, on floor 75, the game hadn’t ended when Kirito defeated Heathcliff. In stead, bugs started happening and everyone was just left to wonder what to do next… unsure what their options were, the Assault Team decides to just persevere and steps boldly onto floor 76… only to find that they can no longer return. They can still communicate by mail with people on the lower floors, but they’re trapped on the upper floors.
And when I say bugs… these range from weird equipment glitches, ‘earthquakes’, characters who have no reason to be there appearing – such as GGO’s Sinon and ALO’s Leafa – as well as Kirito being randomly teleported to this strange place that most people seem unable to reach known only as the ‘Hollow Area’. Matters quickly become strange, and only continue getting moreso as the game progresses.
Google Translate Plays…
This game is the exact reason why I have such a respect for companies like XSeed. The incredible work they put in goes far beyond simple translation… but sadly it feels like the creators of this game simply went to Google Translate or a similar service for their translation needs. No care was taken to make the game make sense for Western audiences. Localization is more than translation, it is recognizing references that won’t translate and altering them, making sure sentence structures are altered to fit the appropriate syntax for the language you’re translating to, and ensuring that wording is altered to fit how people would actually talk in that language.
And this game does the worst job of localization I’ve ever seen. They didn’t even bother to change the characters’ names to pronouns. Every character refers to themselves in the third person, every sentence ends in a person’s name… it just feels awful. And worse, there are a few puzzles that would make perfect sense to a Japanese audience, but when translated simply fall flat. One of them asked something about a number where two lines meet and presented you with a line of identical crystals and asked you to pick the right one. I’m sure it’s simply a reference to the shape of the number, but since I don’t know Japanese numerals… I just had to randomly guess. These puzzles could’ve been easily changed to fit a Western audience, but the developer simply didn’t care about getting a proper localization team to do the work.
Not The Aincrad You Remember
Is This Fan-Fiction?
If I’m being honest… everything I liked about Sword Art Online is completely absent in Hollow Fragment. I loved SAO for certain characters who had interesting potential, for my ability to relate to the protagonist, and for the fascinating and engaging concept of the truly digital world. The action was nice, but it wasn’t what had me so excited… it was everything else. But all of that was, to be blunt, ground into the dirt in Hollow Fragment. Nearly every returning female character was stripped of every unique facet of their personality, resulting in a parade of characters simply expressing different varieties of ‘Love For Kirito’. These characters simply became different shells for the player, as Kirito, to enter into a masturbatory self-insertion story with. Kirito, himself, went from a troubled and traumatized nerd to a character that would be best described as a ‘silent protagonist’ – except for the fact that he wasn’t silent.
I say ‘nearly’ every returning character because there are two characters who were fairly well represented. Lisbeth and Yui maintained their personality and were developed somewhat well. They still lost a bit to enable the fanservice, but not so much that you could no longer recognize them for the characters they were. Now, that’s the returning female cast… there is , of course, Klein. Sadly, Klein is reduced to a character whose sole purpose was to be so annoying that he reminded the female cast how much they loved Kirito. And, in addition to all of the returning characters, there is a new addition in the form of Strea. Strea is another bright light because, while she does certainly fit the fanservice bill… there’s an almost ironic feeling to her personality that makes her entertaining despite that.
As for the world… this is the most understandable of the disappointments. To try to capture the type of fantastic world interaction they hinted at in SAO would’ve almost certainly been beyond what the Vita is capable of, so I can understand the paring down that occurred. That doesn’t make it less unfortunate, just… understandable. But even given that, it is a pity that they reduced the game interactions in the core floors to 2-3 quests per floor that involve killing a few mobs or picking up a few items off the floor.
The Hollow End
The one place where it seems as though they’ve tried to replicate, to some extent at least, the sensation of the show’s Aincrad is the area new to this game – the ‘Hollow Area’. The Hollow Area is a vast set of zones with sidequests all over the place, an entirely separate progression system, and sidestories in abundance. However, the level range of the Hollow zones is a bit absurd, with regular monsters scattered around that are 50-60 levels higher than everything else around them just popping up out of nowhere.
Additionally, the random quests are split down the middle: they’re either very bland ‘kill x’ or ‘gather y’ quests or they are quests that are really awkward stealth quests. These quests require you to not be seen by certain enemies… except that the enemy detection radius is really strange. I’ve had cases where I was literally walking in circles around an enemy trying to get their attention without engaging and had them refuse to engage, while other times I saw the exact same type of enemy notice me from across the room. If only the enemy detection radii were reliable, this stealth could’ve been interesting. As it was though, it just becomes luck.
The Hollow Area is also the cause of the game’s biggest pacing issue. The game could have been a relatively difficult experience that was tough but forgiving but if you spend any time in the Hollow Area, the core game will simply become absurdly easy because you’ll outlevel it. This wouldn’t be an issue if the Hollow Area were a post-game region…
But it’s not. The game actively pushes you into the Hollow Area. It opens up there, the first option on the teleport menu is to go there, and the game even gives you side missions for there… so they clearly want you to go there right from the start. It’s a huge area, but it just feels like either the core story should’ve been balanced around your time in the Hollow Area, or the Hollow Area should’ve been pushed as a post-game, almost expansion style segment.
Hammers and Polearms and Swords, Oh My!
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, taking place in Aincrad, is entirely a martial combat game. There is no magic and only one projectile weapon (not that you can use it, since Sinon is the only one who can use it) so you gotta get right in there when you fight and if you’re not careful, damage can come quite swiftly. This is where the potential difficulty I mentioned earlier comes in… since you have no standoff potential, you really have to play smart.
The combat is the game’s star, without question. On paper, it is a fairly standard action RPG combat system. In fact, you might even call it ‘the standard’ action RPG system. There are a few twists though… mostly revolving around the AI companions. You see, you can praise your allies for coordinating with you to restore your resources but you can also issue orders to your ally to do various things. The most unique of this is ‘switch’ which resets the risk meter allowing you to do some extra attacks. It’s hard to really describe the system in words, but the tutorial does a great job of giving you the basics and letting you experiment.
But just as importantly… the abilities are just incredibly satisfying. Especially the dual sword abilities which can be around 15 second long combos of slashes and strikes combined with some exciting visual effects. And then, when you use these abilities in conjunction with your ally, you’ll get these combination special attacks which automatically trigger and also have satisfying visuals. It is a great positive feedback loop.
There’s not much else to say regarding the production values of this game. The graphics are pretty but not particularly unique, the character models are okay but not spectacular, and the soundtrack is decent but not good. Everything is just… okay. Except the armor. The armor is terrible. Every armor set just looks awful on the female characters. They’re almost all revealing, but they just look really bad.
The game also features some really long-term progression systems that simply feel too long-term. You’re relying on 10% chances to upgrade your weapons once you get past the first few upgrades and sidezones 50-60 levels higher than you… you’ll see an alternate progression system that requires thousands of uses of abilities and it takes hundreds to simply get mastery of your abilities. But there just isn’t enough story to support this type of length. It’s a bit of a weird decision, but it just leaves most of the progression systems feeling like they’re completely out of reach of the average player.
The things I enjoyed about SAO: Hollow Fragment were not what I expected, and what I was really excited for turned out to be really bland… but I can’t deny the amount of fun I had with the game, or the length of time I was able to spend with it without even scratching the surface of this massive game.