As the rest of the PS4 Attitude team know, I’m a huge fan of anime, manga and light novels and Sword Art Online is one of my favourite series’. I originally picked up Hollow Fragment on Vita but now that it’s come to PS4, I head back into the world of Aincrad to see what’s new.
Whilst I won’t spoil what happens in the game, I will spoil what happens at the end of the Aincrad arc in the anime series as that’s where the game begins. Aincrad is a virtual world where all the players are trapped after game creator Akihiko Kayaba removes the log out button and makes it so if anybody tries to remove their Nerve Gear, a virtual reality headset, in the real world then it’ll kill them. In the light novels and its adaptations, Kazuto Kirigaya, also known as Kirito, fights Kayaba and wins, managing to free everybody trapped within Aincrad, but the game instead has it so he still wins the battle but the game continues. It’s a non-canon tale with Kirito’s cousin Sugaha, Sinon and Yuuki making appearances despite never appearing in the Aincrad arc in the original works.
You’ll see most of your favourite characters return as they help you in battle but there are also a few new faces including Philia, who’s central to the Hollow Fragment content of the game which includes a whole new area, and the flirty Strea who plays an important role in the overall plot. Whilst Kirito and Asuna are a couple, the game uses the non-canon plot to allow you to pick a romance option yourself which come with unique scenes, including bedroom ones (although these aren’t graphic in any way) although I stayed with Asuna. Gotta respect the canon!
The main reason to check out Hollow Fragment if you’ve already played it is due to Bandai Namco fixing the localisation; it was so awful on Vita that many sentences didn’t make sense and there were frequent spacing and grammar errors – it was appalling. Thankfully, the PS4 version is much cleaner and has received the love and care that it deserves, proving to be much more coherent and enjoyable. The actual dialogue can be somewhat cringeworthy and laughable at times though, with the girls constantly being surprised that Kirito says something nice to them and lends to the harem-like (harem being a term for when three or more girls like one character at the same time) nature of this non-canon game. It isn’t half as prevalent in the main works but Hollow Fragment was seemingly made as fanservice, and it does it well.
Being based in an MMO world, the game itself has MMO qualities that can be enjoyed both online and offline. You can create a character although I used the custom avatar of Kirito, who you’re obviously supposed to play as (especially as cutscenes and some CG images show him), and level up to learn new skills and abilities to use as you clear the remaining 25 floors of Aincrad. You use the R1 and L1 buttons to pull up your abilities and partner commands and whilst it can be a tad overwhelming at first, you’ll get used to it very quickly. Your adventure starts off very easily as you’re already powerful but once you’re a few levels in, you’ll find that the difficulty ramps up and you’ll have to use tactics and tinker with your equipment if you wish to survive.
The combat is straightforward once you get to grips with it but that isn’t all there is to do in Aincrad. Another huge part of the game is the dating sim elements that see you pick your favourite girl (or favourites!) and become intimate with them to unlock exclusive CG events with them and to increase your bond. I picked Asuna to respect the canon especially as I was playing as Kirito and those two characters are dating, but you can romance most of the main girls from the series. You can have conversations with them to get closer where you almost act like a bystander, only catching snippets of the conversation and you can choose to remain silent or reply, with replying making the girls happiness rating go up. Just hit R1 if you want to get closer but it seems to be mostly random, and so it can take a while.
Originally being a Vita game, Re Hollow Fragment doesn’t boast the same graphical prowess that games made for PS4 are but they’re noticeably better than their handheld counterpart. There’s some slowdown when exploring the town but otherwise it runs smoothly and looks decent, with the 2D portraits being incredibly detailed, clean and gorgeous to look at. It feels smoother during battle and the PS4 benefits it as there can be a lot happening on screen at once, especially during boss battles where there are explosive attacks constantly being performed by several people. Standard fights can rack up an easy ten enemies or so too.
I love the cutscenes. The art design for this game is fantastic and the cutscenes manage to compliment the original character designs and the use of CGI is fluid and makes fights a real feast for the eyes. You’re asked at the beginning if you want to go over what happened at the end of Aincrad and it’s worth saying yes for the cutscene alone, but also because it shows what happens at the end of Kirito’s and Heathcliff’s duel with content made specifically for the game.
The anime voice-actors and actresses return to reprise their roles which I really enjoyed, although there’s no English dub. Hollow Fragment is part visual novel so an English dub would’ve been lovely, especially as the anime has been dubbed, but I enjoyed the Japanese voiceover all the same and I’m sure fans will be pleased too. The OST is catchy with a variety of tracks and some great boss battle music and I’m happy to see that the OST received a lot of love and care, and that it does well in pumping you up for battles and to help you wind down when exploring the towns of Aincrad and socialising.
Re Hollow Fragment has a few niggling issues in that it becomes rather repetitive the more it goes on, with dungeons becoming increasingly longer and grinding becoming necessary, but it’s a fun game that brings the world of Sword Art Online to life, even if it does take some liberties with the characters. I’m continuing to have a lot of fun with it and I’m sure that many fans will, but those who aren’t familiar with Sword Art Online might want to read it or give the anime a go before jumping into Re Hollow Fragment which has clearly been made with only the fans in mind but, thankfully, as a fan I’m enjoying it and it’s well worth the £16 asking price.