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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 PSP-level graphics have been upgraded, but the stand-out is the hand-drawn art.
Decent soundtrack, but I can't say I remember any particular track.
Sometimes in the heat of combat, the interface can make the vita's screen feel a bit cramped.
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.