Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment - PS4 Review

Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment takes place immediately after the end of the first arc of the Sword Art Online anime and follows Kirito and gang as they navigate the dangers of the "death game." Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment was originally released for the PlayStation Vita here in the West in August of 2014 and just shy of a year later Bandai Namco released the "Director's Cut" version under the moniker "Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment."

Prior to moving forward I would like to toss in a bit of a service announcement; Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment takes place immediately after the events of the first arc of the anime, Sword Art Online. While the game does go through and bring players up to speed, RE: Hollow Fragment is far more meaningful and fulfilling as a title for gamers that have seen the anime (or read the manga). It is strongly recommended that you head over to your favorite anime streaming sites to watch the first season (both Crunchyroll and Netflix currently have Sword Art Online available for viewing) prior to playing. Trust me, it is worth it.

As Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment is a port from the far less powerful Vita (when compared to the PlayStation 4) one would hope that there would be few technical issues however that is not the case with RE: Hollow Fragment. While walking through some spots in Arc Sophia, the primary hub town where you will spend the majority of your time, you will happen upon dozens of other NPC players which will absolutely kill the framerate. In some cases I would hazard that the game runs closer to the 15 FPS mark rather than 30. In truth, the framerate is all over the place, as using skills can also trigger a drastic drop in frames, forcing the game into an unnecessary slow motion-esque appearance.

Whether that is planned or not is hard to tell, as you will have various Event Missions that are timed and during these slow-mo periods the timer will do one of two things, either freeze completely then reduce the time by a handful of seconds. The other thing that will happen is that the timer will continue on in real-time while the rest of the game will move at 10-15 frames per second. On top of the framerate loss in combat and Arc Sophia, you will find sudden and incredible boosts in game speed and framerate in a handful of locations. When you clear out an area, or you are heading up to the boss room, Kirito will suddenly get a massive boost in speed and that is when it appears that the game is running close to 60 FPS and it is a very odd behavior, though oft-repeated. Needless to say the port is not all that optimized for the PlayStation 4, which is a shame as it is without a doubt otherwise a fantastic game.

Technical issues aside where RE: Hollow Fragment excels is in its storytelling, character development, and for those of you like me, wish fulfillment. When the anime was first released I was in a very dark time in my life and on a whim I selected Sword Art Online out of the recommended anime on Crunchyroll.com and began watching it. The story of Kirito and his band of friends touched me and gave me hope and helped me through troubled times. To me, Kirito, Asuna, Lisbeth, Klein, Silica, Yui, and the rest of the SAO cast became close friends that I watched grow from struggling adolescents to young adults standing against overwhelming odds. It truly touched me and when RE: Hollow Fragment was released I was able to rejoin my old friends and struggle with them as they worked to clear the hundred floors in Aincrad. This time though, I was directly in charge of their fate and able to direct them through the various dungeons and provide them guidance and compassion (this is where the wish fulfillment aspect comes into play). RE: Hollow Fragment also allowed me to change relationships to a point, which was both titillating and terrifying in some ways, though I will elaborate more on that in a moment.

RE: Hollow Fragment stays true to the anime and manga that spawned it in the fact that it is grounded in MMO rules. While the PlayStation 4 version has a more in-depth online play function that the Vita version did not have (though you could play up to 4 player ad-hoc matches), RE: Hollow Fragment offered true online play but between massive framerate loss due to technical issues and constant lag spikes, I found that playing during non-peak hours (middle of the week during the day or on the weekends in the morning) resulted in the best play though it was still not quite up-to-snuff. In all honesty the single player experience simulates the MMO feel perfectly via its 100+ recruit-able NPC players that all have their own personalities just fine. I would recommend sticking with the single player experience unless there is a specific friend that you wish to experience the game with.

Though the multiplayer experience left a bit to be desired due to technical issues, the single player experience is where the game can shine. Even though you will experience framerate issues, the storytelling in SAO RE: Hollow Fragment is just as fulfilling as the original source material, if not more-so in some cases. Combat, while repetitive (sort of like an MMO…), is fun, fast-paced, and very true to how you would see it in the anime or manga. You can choose your partner from over 100 recruit-able characters including the original characters from the anime/manga, with the addition of two familiar faces that appear in later arcs (each one has a believable reason for being sucked into the world of Aincrad) and in doing so you can grow the relationship between those two characters. Some characters, like Asuna will start with a higher relationship level (due to the experiences from the anime) which will allow you to do things like provide them with new armor and weapons, hold their hands, or even pick them up (like, physically lift them off the ground).

The more that you work with a character the more relationship points you will get and you can do this by heeding their advice in combat (like Switching when they call for it or using a Sword Skill when they do) and using the "Good" button which lavishes them with praise for doing something well. I personally used one of the characters from a future arc throughout the majority of the game due to the fact that when she was introduced in the anime/manga I went bonkers for her and being able to carry her along through Aincrad was, for lack of a better term, magical.

Combat as mentioned is quite repetitive and as you battle through both the not-so-secret Hollow Area as well as levels 75 through 100 in Aincrad it will become quite dull at times. In the first ten to twelve floors I found myself combing over every single aspect of the level to gather as many items as possible (which are crucial since there is no magic in SAO so healing is done via items) and as much experience as I could get, however after I hit floor 88 or so, I stopped that behavior. I found that I was at least a dozen levels over the recommended for the floor and I was getting quite tired of the same grinding fetch quests (huh, just like in an MMO… ) and eventually just started pouring through levels. Between the first few Hollow missions in the Hollow Area and the first 12 levels I spent near on 45 hours clearing rooms and completing quests; continuing at that same pace would have put me around that 130-150 hours to completion mark.

For a game that has incredibly repetitive levels it was hard to swallow. The shining light though, is what happens between missions. You will spend more time simply growing your relationships with the various party members, running on little quests, going on dates, heading out for training or hunting for a particular ingredient and each interaction makes all the repetitive gameplay more than worth it. I eventually leveled enough to simply plow through the upper levels just so I could get to the next between-mission scenes. The writing for each of the characters is spot-on and is extremely faithful to the source material. There is no difference between the Asuna or Yui in SAO RE: Hollow Fragment and the anime or manga and the development of relationships is simply brilliant.

I have mentioned a few times the various areas, such as Aincrad and the Hollow Area. Each particular location has its own agenda, though fans of the series will know what the end-game is for Aincrad, but the Hollow Area is a wildcard; nobody in game (or out of game) knows what to expect. Where the Aincrad missions are solely geared towards clearing each level, similar to the anime/manga, in an effort to clear the game (which will hopefully end the death game and allow its players to log out), the Hollow Area is more about leveling and item discovery with other perks, such as "research" that will open new skills or outfits or purchasable items. Grinding both the Hollow Area as well as the regular levels in Aincrad will yield numerous ingredients that you can use to craft new weapons or upgrade existing gear. The crafting component is great and in some ways, extremely addicting. I did not craft my first weapon until I was around floor 80 and when I did I took all of my gathered reagents and put them into this singular spear and wound up with what I would consider a near legendary weapon (I still had it equipped in floor 94, when I finally switched to a sword-and-board style) given all of the pluses the various items I used in the crafting process gave it.

Each ingredient will increase the chance of a crafted item getting a boost to a particular attribute (such as Agility, Evasion, Strength, or more active enchantments like Paralysis or Poison) so the more of that ingredient you put into the crafting process the higher the chance you will get a rare boost to that particular trait. I spent six or seven hours grinding materials just to be able to outfit my entire party with super powerful weapons (which then lead to "easy mode" until the later levels) and it was time well spent. By the time you complete the various Hollow Area missions (progressing the story in one particular arc that leads to some pretty surprising resolutions) and then completing the Aincrad missions you should be a walking powerhouse with dozens, if not hundreds of extra skill points that you can spread across numerous weapon skills. You will be able to sink points into a particular weapon track of your desire, for me it was 1-handed swords and spears, each with their own unique sub-skills, though others may prefer the rapier, daggers, dual-wielding swords, two-handed axes/swords, or hammers depending on their play style. Needless to say, there are a ton of options to choose from; just be careful as there is no way to re-spec your character.

Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment is a dutiful director's cut port of the PlayStation Vita original that struggles with technical issues. Players that push through the framerate hiccups and are able to overlook the mundane fetch quests will be rewarded with an exceptionally well-written story that branches intelligently from the original source material. Questions about why some players are where they are or how certain things came to be are neatly answered with little "fluff or filler" and work to allow gamers the chance to explore Aincrad with their favorite characters in the Sword Art Online universe. You will relive tragic moments that will tug at the heartstrings as you see now-deceased characters one last time, you will live out new fantasies as you bring two characters together while splitting others apart, and most of all, those fans of the anime will get to spend a few more precious moments with the characters they came to know and love. Technical issues aside, Sword Art Online RE: Hollow Fragment is a love story to the fans of the series and it is an experience to behold.

Platform PlayStation 4

Developer(s) Namco Bandai Games
Publisher(s) Namco Bandai Games
Genre(s) RPG
Mode(s) Single Player
Other Platform(s) None

Article by Robert

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