Beginning life as a series of Japanese novels before becoming a popular anime TV show, Sword Art Online follows the adventures of Kazuto ‘Kirito’ Kirigaya after he and 10,000 players of the fictional virtual reality MMORPG Sword Art Online find that they can’t log out, trapped in the game until someone reaches the 100th floor and beats the final boss. In a case of reality partially mimicking art, Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment is a game about a game. Unlike the protagonist, however, you can log out, and if you die in the game you’re not likely to die in the real world as a result.
Originally a PS Vita exclusive, the game arrives on PS4 with improved HD visuals and a reworked English translation that aims to improve on the disappointing work of the original. For returning players you’re able to upload your previous saved game from the off, meaning you can avoid repeating any of your previous playtime, and enjoy the game in HD as well.
For newcomers, you’re immediately brought to the avatar creation options, with the default appearance being that of the central character, Kirito. You can opt to make a completely different avatar, choosing from male or female and a raft of anime-esque haircuts and colours, though it’s fairly rudimentary overall. Sadly, no matter what you choose, you’re always Kirito in the cut-scenes, which makes it all a little less meaningful and creates a sense of disconnect if you have tinkered with your character.
The opening cutscene immediately makes you feel like you’re part of the anime show, though the cutscene gives way to talking head exposition, which is sadly indicative of the game’s origin as a handheld game. These sections make up a large part of the SAO Re: Hollow Fragment experience and are fully voiced in Japanese which helps add to the atmosphere and draw you into your adventure with treasure hunter Philia and the world of Sword Art Online.
Fans of the anime will find all of their favourite characters pop up relatively swiftly, and the light-hearted humour of the TV show is carried over here. While animated story scenes do appear, and always look great, it would have been a huge boon to have them throughout, though the mainly static character art is at least sharp and attractive.
From the off, combat is swift and immediate, as you utilise a range of strikes and engage your Burst Gauge to activate different arts. You have to take into consideration the risk level though, as the higher it is, the slower your Burst Gauge recovers and the more damage you take. Risk reduces over time, and more rapidly when you are not targeted by enemies, which you can assist by switching between different party members, and is a tactic that becomes crucial to success later on.
You’re also able to evade attacks with a push of the X button, give orders to your teammates and use skills that can protect your whole party. Holding L1 or R1 brings up both the Call Palette from which you issue orders, as well as the Skill Palette that grants access to various special moves. Working with your partner is the key to progression, and you can even praise them as they perform powerful moves which make them more likely to repeat them in future fights. They may also tell you to use a specific type of skill at points as well, which can lead to powerful combos. It’s a nicely conceived attempt to mimic an MMO, with the palettes and skills operating in a similar way to those you’d find in Final Fantasy XIV.
The game’s origin as a PS Vita title is most apparent in the graphics. It’s not an unattractive game, but the characters clearly look like PS3 era models and are quite stiffly animated. Enemies are also relatively varied, but similarly stilted in their movement, looking faintly ridiculous at times if they speed towards you. There is a degree of pop in, which sometimes makes it difficult to judge whether you can just rush at an enemy, and even some screen tearing and frame rate drops, which is a shame considering the huge leap in processing power. It should be noted though that these instances are quite easy to overlook, and don’t make the game unplayable, but they shouldn’t happen.
One of the key problems is just how much the game takes it for granted that you’re clued up on the world of Aincrad. Though there is a ‘catch-up’ cutscene, it comes a good hour into the game and isn’t clearly signposted, meaning that newcomers are left to try and put the pieces together for themselves. Not only that, but it takes place in an alternate timeline from the TV series. For fans, it could be perfectly weighted, dropping you straight into the action without forcing you to play through a story that you know too well, but some may miss the continuity of the show.
Sword Art Online can, rather inevitably, be tackled online in co-op, which is a nice touch that allows you to adventure with friends. If you’re the lone wolf type though, the offline party AI tends to be relatively robust, and you can give them basic commands during battle as well as provide them with overarching orders such as focussing on support, defense or attack.
The MMO trappings carry over to the fundamental operation of the world, which makes you feel like you’re genuinely part of Sword Art Online, from the authentic partying up to receiving messages from other players asking for help. In some ways the frame rate issues when there are lots of characters on screen, makes it even more authentic, though in a less positive way. Alongside the online stylings, the game places an emphasis on forming relationships with other party members, though in particular this means flirting with the various heroines from the game. This is despite the fact that Kirito is married to one of them, and at least one of the heroines is your sister, which ties into various stereotypes of Japanese anime.
Musically it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The catchy opening theme song from the first season of Sword Art Online makes a welcome appearance, and some of the orchestral background music conjures a similar atmosphere to those found in the TV show, but there are some key annoyances. The main one is the battle music that starts whenever you engage an opponent, where the battle theme restarts each time you engage a new enemy. When a low level encounter can last just a few seconds, it grows thin very quickly.
While Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment is an enjoyable budget release that offers hours of anime adventuring, it’s tainted by inexplicable performance issues that simply shouldn’t have made it to the PS4 edition of the game. If you can look past them, and enjoy anime-flavoured RPG’s with an interesting setting, then SAO Re: Hollow Fragment may just be for you, though fans of the TV series will certainly get the most fun out of it.