Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is the first major video game adaptation of the recent major hit anime/light novel series – and it’s not hard to understand why the game exists. Sword Art Online is, as the name suggests, the concept of an MMORPG game itself. In the show, characters of the not-so-distant future reality all enter an exciting new online video game through a device similar, but far more sophisticated, to the VR headsets we’re seeing all over the place now.
The ‘Nervegear’ device essentially drops the players into this fantasy game with every sense they possess in the real world. Soon enough, however, the designer of the game (and the device itself) goes insane; removing the option to exit the game and condemning those whose avatar bites the bullet to join them in death with a quick blast of Nervegear-generated microwaves to the brain – a dark twist for a gamer’s planned utopia. And your PSVita can hardly attempt to kill you.
You see, clocking around 10 hours in the game, I’ve yet to even come close to being wiped out by the copy-pasted enemies trawling the 25 floors of Aincrad you’re tasked of conquering. The very final floors the anime’s characters dodged in the closing episodes of the first story arc. That’s right; rather than reliving the moments of the show, you continue on from where it essentially ended. Something that near enough cements it as a game only those who watch the show can truly enjoy. Otherwise you’re running around with characters you’ve only just met while they all speak as if they’ve been through hell and back already – when they’re actually still in it.
Combat is most of the title’s actual gameplay, and it’s hard to expect anything otherwise. But when special attacks are enough to kill the majority of creatures in one go, auto-attacking (while blowing the energy you use to dodge) when you’re out of mana in a longer fight hardly helps to make the already repetitive motion of fighting any easier to endure.
It doesn’t matter where you decide to spend your skill points when each weapon type feels nearly identical to the last with no clear bonuses or consequences to follow whichever you chose. While it seems interesting and deep at the start to switch out and time your special attacks with your partner, after grinding menial amount of mobs – and often taking 6+ at a time without breaking a sweat – it’s difficult to feel as if the world of Sword Art Online was even designed to “kill” anyone from the start. It’s a shame, really, when you’re pulling off double digit sword swings with the single push of a button.
Floor after floor feels like a slightly fleshed out dungeon crawler experience with a ‘Floor Boss’ waiting at the end of each labyrinth. You’ll take one of the series’ more prominent female leads out into the wilderness to fight your way through a few screens of caves, forests and mazes before turning back at the grand monster’s den while you “Discuss” the tactics you’ve learning by completing three prerequisite tasks out in the field. Half the time, you’re barely being hit at all, and when you do, the auto-regeneration soaks up most of the pain before you take another scorpion tail to the face – most of which are really not hard to avoid in the first place.
The fact that the entire package launched across the world not even a year after the Japanese release begs the question of just how committed Namco Bandai were to throwing a bone for the itching fans across the pond. And while many will be thankful for the speedy delivery, it wasn’t without some consequence; that being that incredibly questionable translation job that seems to be a carbon copy of shoddy English script included within the original Japanese release. Again, not the best way to deliver it to the fans, but perhaps it was a rushed affair to ‘get it while it’s hot’ during the airing of the second anime season. It’s surely not a brilliant business plan, but it’s hardly plagued with fragments of Japanese kanji.
Sword Art Online puts itself into a tricky situation; and that’s not entirely the fault of the game. Those are hard shoulders to stand on. Namco Bandai took up the challenge of converting something that already felt like a game – something that felt should have been a game – and turn it into one. Sounds easy enough, right? Evidently not. Without the feeling of your own demise looming over you, it’s hard to capture the sense of panic and emotion that fuelled some of the show’s more impressive segments.
The battle system attempts to mimic that of a robust MMO but comes across as cluttered, repetitive and sluggish and the game’s actual rinse-and-repeat progression method does little to set itself apart. But that won’t stop serious SAO fans from getting a kick from interacting with their favorite on-screen personas. Namco Bandai seemingly forgot to think about how serious virtual reality would change how MMOs work and, instead, opted to take the lazy route by having the game feel like the done-to-death genre that the anime series itself avoided entirely. It’s a nice treat for the series fans, but nothing anyone else should even give a glancing blow.