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Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment Vita Review: It's No Kirito

Hollow Fragment is a big, competently-produced anime tie-in that doesn't excel in any aspect other than size.

Review by Mike Williams, .

Sword Art Online is one of the most popular anime shows currently running. Based on a light novel series, the show's original premise explored online gaming culture in a near future, where thousands of players of a virtual reality MMO find themselves trapped within the game. In that first arc, the show explored the idea of guilds, player killing, and dungeon diving in a world where doing those things would actually get you killed.

The story's focus is Kazuto Kirigaya, known simply as Kirito in the game, one of the early beta testers who uses his knowledge to help others as the Black Swordsman. The initial idea was enjoyable, but Sword Art Online gradually moved away from handling the sociological and psychological aspects to focus on Kirito's growing harem and fanservice (of the sexual and non-sexual variety). I eventually stopped watching the anime and moved onto Log Horizon which has some of the same issues, but goes further into the original premise.

The anime devolved into this, but it works in the game.

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is partial sequel to Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment for PSP, upgrading the original game with an entirely new zone, improved visuals, and a new plot. Early Sword Art Online takes place in Aincrad, a 100-floor mega dungeon with players living and fighting on various floors. Episode 14 of the anime ended on floor 75 with the defeat of the floor boss, Skull Reaper, and the game's operator Akihiko Kayaba. It's here that Hollow Fragment picks up its story, tasking the player with fighting their way to floor 100. It's an alternate reality take on what happened at the end of the original story arc.

Hollow Fragment plays like the games of another "people trapped in an MMO" series, .Hack. Combat simulates play in an MMO; you control Kirito and one partner as they clear Aincrad's floors or the all-new six-level Hollow Area. This means a lot of repeated tactics and grinding, without the benefit of other players to actually talk to. All of your basic moves - attack, dodge, parry, and stun - use a Burst bar, which prevents you from spamming a single move. Pressing L and R allows you to switch other skill menus. Early on, I frequently forgot which skills I had equipped to certain menus, so I'd bring up the wrong menu again and again. After a couple of levels you'll find your groove.

Hollow Fragment doesn't teach you about the finer points of combat.

There's a good bit of customization here; you start as canon Kirito, but you can change up his name, hairstyle, face, and voice. (On the topic of voices, there's no English dub here, so you're stuck with Japanese voice acting only. This shouldn't be a problem for Sword Art Online fans, but I felt it should be mentioned.) You'll always be the canon Kirito in cutscenes though, making the visual customization feel kind of useless at times. Beyond that, you have your requisite equipment, featuring 10 different weapon styles, each with their own skill trees to unlock. The weapon types and skills are where you'll really get down and dirty, equipping different skills to fit your playstyle. Of course, Hollow Fragment will teach you nothing outside of the basics, so be prepared to research your way to proficiency.

You'll also have to manage your companions. (In true harem style, nearly all the notable companions are women.) They'll mostly play on their own, but you can influence what moves they make by cheering them on when they perform skills you like. You can time your own skill use to create damaging team combos. There's also the Risk meter; as you use your attacks, your risk increases, causing enemies to focus on you and lowering the damage you do. Kirito can switch to a companion to lower his Risk, making the Switch a regular part of combat.

You'll spend half of the game in town. Dating.

Hollow Fragment may seem overwhelming when you first start playing, as you'll have to juggle your basic attacks, weapon skills, dodges, buffs and debuffs, and the abilities of your current partner. Once you wade through the skills system (largely on your own), combat begins to become rather straightforward and rote. In fact, outside of boss fights, most encounters shouldn't present you with any problem. Even in boss fights, judicious use buffs and dodging will see you through to the end, as long as you remember to manage your companion. Combat is decent, but there are better action RPGs on the Vita.

The event art is tasteful at least.

The other half of Hollow Fragment takes place in the game's lone town, Arc Sofia. Here, you can socially interact with the your companions and the rest of the game's supporting cast. (Be prepared to hold down L to skip the lengthy dialogue.) For many Sword Art Online fans, this is where the meat of the game is; most of Arc Sofia's play is based around a dating sim with Kirito at the center. You can romance many of the companions, including characters who shouldn't exist in Sword Art Online's continuity at this point, like Sinon and Leafa, and the all-new addition, Philia. As you're improving your relationships with your companions, you can also unlock different armors for them, pushing their focus into different directions - Attack, Defense, and Buff/Support - and providing them with a different look. You get hand-drawn art, all the original voice actresses, and it all culminates in a special finishing event, with sexualized, but mostly tasteful art.

Where you come down on the romances is dependent on how much of a dating sim or Sword Art Online fan you are. Most of the companions are characters that were all about Kirito in the show, but you get the chance to pursue something other than the Kirito/Asuna canon relationship. I did find some of the options questionable: Silica is only 13 and Leafa is actually Suguha Kirigaya, Kirito's adoptive sister and cousin by blood. Where you fall on those options is up to you. Like its combat, Hollow Fragment's dating sim aspects are decent, but nothing particularly deep or ground-breaking. It's certainly not the best dating sim I've played. I do find it interesting the the harem aspect that pushed me away from the anime is actually justified as a mechanic within the game.

It's not all ladies though.

And that's pretty much how I can sum up Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment. It's decent. It's combat is serviceable, but not great. The game is mostly full of repetitive grind, with the occasional exciting fight. It's dating sim is solid, but nothing to brag about. And you'll be sinking 100+ hours into the game, so enjoying Sword Art Online (the light novels or show) helps a great deal. There's better action RPGs you can get on Vita, leaving Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment as something specifically for Sword Art Online fans. If you've never seen the show, I'd recommend waiting until the game falls in price. If Sword Art Online is your jam, you'll probably enjoy this alternate take on the end of the first story arc.

If you enjoy Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, you'll be happy to know that not only did the Japanese version get a huge content update this month, but a sequel has already been greenlit. No word on either one heading to Western shores yet, but you can hope.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Visuals: The PSP-level graphics have been upgraded, but the stand-out is the hand-drawn art.
  • Sound: Decent soundtrack, but I can't say I remember any particular track.
  • Interface: Sometimes in the heat of combat, the interface can make the vita's screen feel a bit cramped.
  • Lasting appeal: Hollow Fragment is a big game that you'll be playing for a long time if you jive with what the game offers.

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment does its best to provide a comprehensive experience, featuring online-style combat and dating sim aspects. Unfortunately, while it does a decent job of presenting the Sword Art Online world, the game itself is only good, not great. Sword Art Online fans will probably have fun though.

3 /5

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment Vita Review: It's No Kirito Mike Williams Hollow Fragment is a big, competently-produced anime tie-in that doesn't excel in any aspect other than size. 2014-08-22T12:00:00-04:00 3 5

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Comments 25

  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #1 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    Because, never forget, having too many women and showing too much skin makes a game offensive. But to murder people by the hundreds (Call of Duty or Tomb Raider or many more) or showing an aborted fetus in a sink (P.T.) makes it normal or daring. But, to each their own, this review actually makes me more tempted to buy it, but I was always tempted because I enjoyed both SAO and SAO II.
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  • Avatar for Pacario #2 Pacario 3 years ago
    I just watched the entirety of Sword Art On-Line recently on Netflix, and was also disappointed that the sense of urgency, panic, and suspense so palpable early on was eventually discarded. And the antagonist of the series' second half was just nasty.

    Quick note: Westerners might not be aware, but marrying one's cousin in Japan is socially acceptable, if still somewhat uncommon. And to be fair, research has shown that the increased likelihood of defects occurring from such unions is essentially negligible. These sort of cultural differences are inevitable in works so heavily influenced by their parent country.Edited August 2014 by Pacario
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  • Avatar for himuradrew #3 himuradrew 3 years ago
    I actually bought the physical Asian English version for my Vita - it's actually a nice game. I did feel that the combat system needs some getting used to and the English translation could use some extra work. If you're an SAO fan you'll dig this. As for me, I placed this in my backlog for now since there are a slew of other games that I wanted to play first. Games like Akiba's Trip, Disgaea 4 and Counterspy. Maybe once I'm done with these I'll go back to SAO...

    I wonder though how Neptunia Rebirth is going to be...
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  • Avatar for PreposterousWhitey #4 PreposterousWhitey 3 years ago
    @SigurdVolsung With all due respect, I don't see where Mike claimed that this game was offensive. He said that those aspects of the game held no appeal to him, but that they may appeal to other players based on their tastes. Maybe you should take your hair-trigger, overly negative attitude elsewhere, eh?
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    The overly defensive YOU DON'T LIKE MY ANIMES YOU MUST BE SOME CALL OF DUTY BRO kneejerk reaction to any criticism of any content of Japanese origin does more to discredit the notion that there can be subtlety and nuance to anime-inspired media than anything in the actual games being criticized.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #6 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @SigurdVolsung I call the art tasteful and said where you fall on some of the romance choices is up to you. I'm unsure where you're reading offense.
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  • Avatar for PreposterousWhitey #7 PreposterousWhitey 3 years ago
    Dammit,@Jeremy.Parish, if I could write half as well as you I'd be a very happy man.
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  • Avatar for Vinheimer #8 Vinheimer 3 years ago
    I want to get this game because I really miss .Hack. The MMO sim genre was a daring experiment that, for the most part, worked. I liked SAO even though I had to turn my brain off to enjoy it. It certainly capitalized on my nostalgia for yesteryear when all online RPGs were new and seemed magical.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #9 bobservo 3 years ago
    @Pacario Go back to Shelbyville!
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  • Avatar for Pacario #10 Pacario 3 years ago
    @bobservo Wish I could oblige you, but alas, USgamer is my Springfield.
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  • Avatar for christopherhughes97 #11 christopherhughes97 3 years ago
    @Pacario That cousin thing wasn't my issue, it was the guy repeatedly pretending like he was going to marry someone who's IN A COMA, like that's somehow going to fly. It's a pretty harsh criticism of a show when my best compliment is "it handled the 'my younger sister wants to have sex with me' plot-line more tastefully than most shows do". Between this and AoT, I have really not been enjoying the 'popular' stuff lately.

    Also, Mike didn't bring it up, but judging from some screens I've seen on twitter, Hollow Fragment has a hilariously bad localization, which seemed funny at least.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #12 hal9k 3 years ago
    It sounds like a lesser Persona 3 with weaker combat and no demon fusion, maybe? It might still be interesting to check out, I'd interpret the review as mildly positive. I like anime, but I find harem stuff not offensive, but dull and uninteresting. To each his or her own, but I think Mike did a good job of pointing out the content without judging it (outside of the game's merits as a game).
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  • Avatar for Pacario #13 Pacario 3 years ago
    @christopherhughes97 Yeah, like I said in my original comment, that villain of the show's second half was just nasty, and designed obviously to manipulate the emotions of the viewer and create a sense of urgency. I guess when the whole "we die on-line, we die off-line" element had been resolved, the writer was desperate to replace it with something equally compelling.

    Or gross and unsettling, as the case may be.
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  • Avatar for docexe #14 docexe 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish The idea is to highlight the hypocrisy in that Americans have a lot of trouble with the presence of sexual or erotic content in media, but not with violence (which to be honest, is true to a certain degree). But putting aside the fact that there is no such thing as a form of art impervious of criticism, the way I see it is that applying such observation in order to deflect or dismiss criticism aimed at anime (and shows full of fanservice specifically) is disingenuous. Particularly when you consider the large amount of anime with graphic violent content that does not ask anything from COD or any other violent videogame.

    Now, I would like to point out that anime with sexual and/or violent content presented graphically can still have nuance (heck, all-time classics like Akira and Ghost in the Shell are very good examples of that). Even when such kind of content is presented in exploitative fashion, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work in question is not good or devoid of merit. It’s just that execution is everything, and a lot of works that rely on such kind of content tend to be mediocre at best.

    And well, I haven’t watched Sword Art Online. I have wanted to do so for a long time because I really enjoyed Accel World from the same creator. It’s in part because I never find enough time to do so, in part because the criticism that Mike provides here mirrors what I have read in many other sites: The first arc is incredibly good, the second and subsequent arcs apparently devolve into a stereotypical harem show, a type of series that I tend to despise (not because of fanservice, mind you, to summarize: too many shows of that kind fall in that mediocre category I mentioned before).Edited 2 times. Last edited August 2014 by docexe
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  • Avatar for hal9k #15 hal9k 3 years ago
    @christopherhughes97 By AoT you mean Attack on Titan, right? I know this is off-topic, but that's the first anime I've watched in a few years, and I was also very disappointed with it. The art was beautiful and I was really excited by the first 6-8 episodes, but after that the pacing was just...so...glacial. I felt like I could've summarized the whole series in 2 sentences. I had heard it compared to Battlestar Galactica (which I also watched for the first time recently - I know, I'm a bit late on that one). After finishing the season, I can see that a little bit in terms of plot, but characterization? No comparison.

    Back to the game at hand - I don't think most people have issues with fanservice. It's when one of the dating options is (or looks) 13 that thinks get icky. I loved Persona 3 and 4, but I thought one of the social links in 4 was way too young-looking (not a major character - she was in the school band or something), and I found it a bit disturbing that the female protagonist added to the portable version of 3 had the option of dating Ken (seriously, wasn't he in elementary school?).
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #16 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    When you start showing me reviews that treat sexuality in games with a nuanced opinion other than saying "This offends me", or "This may offend someone", or "I'd be embarrassed to play this around anyone else", then we can talk. Any sexuality in games is treated as adolescent. But to me, it is the gaming press that is more adolescent for it's treatment of the subject. Sexuality in the press, especially the American press, is treated with a much different brush than violence is. And until that actually changes, you are all Foxnews on some way. Sex got you here, violence may shuffle you off your mortal coil, there is no question which side I fall on. Yes, there is some over the top depictions of sexuality. But if you all act like prudes, where are we to have a realistic discussion or depiction of it?
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #17 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish It's funny how perspective alters the way we see such things. You think my reaction is knee jerk, but I find the reaction to "fan service" in the article knee jerk.
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  • Avatar for Daedalus207 #18 Daedalus207 3 years ago
    I felt the same way about SAO - the first arc was enjoyable, but when the second arc immediately turned the strongish female character into a "Disposable Woman" trope, I pretty much lost hope for the series. I managed to finish the season, but I agree with the "ick" factor there (The villain's IT staff are in-game tentacle monsters? What?).

    Major props to Mike for the Log Horizon shout-out. The first season managed to do just about everything SAO did better than SAO did it, and I have to say I'm looking forward very much to the upcoming second season.

    Anyway, thanks for this review. I saw this game pop up on my Vita and was wondering if there was any fun to be had. Based on the review, and the fact that I still have to finish Divinity: Original Sin and then play Tales in the Sky before I start anything else, I think I'll pass.Edited August 2014 by Daedalus207
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #19 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @docexe The problem is that the kind of hair-trigger reflex SigurdVolsung demonstrated in reaction to Mike's completely "YMMV" comments is that it results in those YOU CALL OF DUTY FOX NEWS BROS straw men. Rather than address what Mike actually said, he just propped up an easy target of generalization that doesn't actually have anything to do with Mike's remarks, tastes, or personality. The way to respond to something you disagree with is to address the opinion at hand, not some imaginary bugbear construct of big mean Merkins who hate Japan. I mean, Christ, Mike has been an active organizer at Otakon for years. Of all the people to implicate as a Japan-hating cartoon-sex-fearing dudebro, the author of this article is probably the dumbest possible target anyone could pick.

    Do games have too much violence? Absolutely. I don't think anyone who works for USG would suggest otherwise. But this was a sweeping generalization that anyone who criticizes the work of Great Yamato is some gun-toting mouth-breather, and that's just lazy. If you (not YOU, but you plural) want to debate, tackle the matter at hand, not some strawman you carry around in your back pocket for punching when someone says something mean about an anime that, by all accounts I've heard, went pretty badly off the rails.
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  • Avatar for christopherhughes97 #20 christopherhughes97 3 years ago
    @hal9k (I hope Mike doesn't mind us derailing his comment thread a little) Yeah, Attack on Titan is pretty terrible and other than it's meme-ifying value, I really don't understand why it appeals to so many people outside of the sense of internet-induced cynicism that saturates nerddom now. It has basically two emotional beats: a)characters think they can do something b)characters fail to do the thing and are punished for trying, and it just cycles through those beats about 6 or 7 times over the first season. The opening song is genuinely the most compelling part of the show, it promises hardship, and heroes rising to overcome it. That doesn't happen. Like, I was pretty willing to interpret it as connecting with the struggles of a younger generation that basically knows they're trapped by a system they have no means to effectively combat, but you can only expect your audience to give you so much leeway for repetition.

    And I cut the Persona games a lot of slack in portraying unusual relationships because they've both been pretty great at having these characters undergo compelling arcs and seem genuinely interested in addressing how these people feel about their lives.
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  • Avatar for docexe #21 docexe 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Good points.

    What can I say? Unfortunately, as nerds and geeks, we have a very difficult time engaging with criticism directed at our hobbies, and over-generalizations, ad hominem and strawmen are easy ways to dismiss or deflect that kind of comments and opinions. Doesn’t mean is the right way of handling that criticism, of course.

    To be honest, I’m not innocent of that kind of behavior, although I want to believe I have matured somewhat in the past few years.Edited August 2014 by docexe
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  • Avatar for Y7748837 #22 Y7748837 3 years ago
    Deleted August 2014 by Y7748837
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #23 JohnnyBarnstorm 3 years ago
    You can't say that@MHWilliams@jeremy.parish aren't anime fans, they just are self-aware enough to say that some elements of some modern anime may seem offensive or creepy to others. This game doesn't get a pass for me but the depiction of women in Bayonetta does, and I can't articulate why very well.

    I don't think this portrayal of women is any better than Rockstar's, though. The mission I played in Red Dead Redemption this weekend was framed around cutscenes involving the subjugation and rape of women and it was pretty gross. And this game probably has the best treatment of women of any Rockstar game - there are actual female characters with strength and motivations.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #24 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @JohnnyBarnstorm And in this case, I even said that it was not creepy. Merely that some may have issues with two of the romantic choices.
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  • Avatar for ronthomas19 #25 ronthomas19 3 years ago
    @MHWilliams at least you made a point of it's flaws AND UNLIKE IGN'S MEGHAN SULLIVAN you didn't call Suguha Kirigaya FUCKING CREEPY that asshole! you more respect for the series at least
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  • Avatar for moritzdutschke53 #26 moritzdutschke53 2 years ago
    As has been said before, cousin relationships are legal in Japan. But not only that, Sugu actually DOES have the hots for Kazuto in the anime. Remember, right after she found out Kirito was Kazuto, she confessed to him, Kazuto said they couldn't get together because they're siblings, Sugu said she knew all along they weren't really siblings... This is cannon. And if it's okay in the show, then why shouldn't it be in the game?
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