It was bound to happen. It was only a matter of time before someone adapted the anime du jour Sword Art Online into a game. Anime games are either great or terrible, and though Hollow Fragment is definitely a bit slow out of the gate, it leans further toward greatness.
This game couldn't have been handled by a better developer. Fortunately Bandai Namco brought their expertise from their dormant, but similar franchise .hack to this one. The result is a very MMO-like offline game that is crazy addictive.
The Essence of the Anime, Captured
From the theme song to the cutscenes to the character interactions an everything inbetween, Hollow Fragment feels every bit like an episode of the anime. If you're a fan of the source material, you'll find plenty to love here.
You can choose to play as Kirito himself, or create a custom character all your own, which lends a bit to the idea that you're playing an offline MMO of sorts, and one I found deeply interesting. There are a few fanservice bits in there as well, like taking any of the female characters on dates of sorts, but I really didn't bother much with them.
The MMO Experience, Offline
It worked for .hack and it works for SAO. When you think of an MMO, you probably think of grinding, partying and raiding. All of those concepts are alive and well here and work fantastically.
You can choose to pick up and party with any of the anime's well-known characters, or even random NPCs. The best part, however, is that you can connect with another player and run raids through the Vita's local wireless connection.
It's so good in fact, that it makes me want to have a full-fledged MMO experience on Sony's handheld.
A New Story
As I've mentioned in previous reviews, anime games suffer from the fact that it's tough for them to offer something new without offending existing fans and purists. Hollow Fragment handles this well, by dropping you into a non-canon side story about what might happen if SAO's Aincrad arc didn't end with Heathcliff's death by Kirito's hand.
Kirito (or your character, if you make one) is dropped into the Hollow area after reaching floor 76 and discovering his data and skills are corrupted. If it sounds crazy it is, and it only gets crazier as it goes on.
A Massive World
When you start your adventure, you'll be exploring the Hollow area, which is massive in its own rite. You'll also end up exploring Aincrad, giving you two huge worlds to travel around and fight through.
Having just one of these at your fingertips is nice. Having both, especially on a portable system is just craziness, and I love it.
SAO's combat is... interesting. Attacks and skills alike all consume some small amount of your burst gauge, then there's the risk meter which applies a damage multiplier to all attacks and finally you have SP which are skill points used for your sword techniques.
What this basically amounts to is having a cooldown of sorts on your basic attacks. It regenerates quickly, though and if you make smart use of more than just your basic attacks, you'll be just fine throughout most battles.
Though the system works well enough in practice, I feel the game is trying to be a bit too MMO-like in this regard. The game would ultimately be a bit better if the attacks flowed a bit more freely and the cooldowns and management were left for bigger, flashier techniques.
Engrish. Engrish, Everywhere
As fun as Hollow Fragment is, it really needs to go back to English class. The game is full of weird quotes like "Would not doing other thing else and focus and attacking be better?" or "Never heroize if it's dangerous,". When it's not butchering the language, SAO is still filled with embarrassing typos. It's clear this game was likely localized in Japan, with very little oversight from Bandai Namco's US operation.
Incredibly Stingy Experience Points
There isn't much to say here other than that SAO is extremely stingy when it comes to doling out experience. It takes dozens of enemies to get through one level, and this is at the earliest levels.
The game starts you off at level 100 and has a cap of 200, with it being raised later on. I don't know how many players will ever hit that cap unless the EXP amounts are adjusted. As it stands, leveling almost seems pointless.
Unlike its anime counterpart, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment takes you a while to warm up to. Once you do, however, the game is an absolute blast and you'll fall in love with it, even if you can't understand what it's trying to tell you.