Note: The game, and this review, include spoilers for the main series pretty much immediately.
Kirito faces off with Heathcliff on the 75th floor with the possibility of bringing the death game they were all trapped in to a close. However, in the middle of their battle, things start behaving very awkwardly, and at some point, Hearthcliff just completely disappears. The clearing group think for a moment that that must mean that they’ve won, and that the game is about to end, but as time goes on, it becomes apparent this is absolutely not the case, and that they must continue progressing through the game and clearing the various floors. To make matters even more complicated, a number of glitches appear in the system. A lot of gear and other parameters that they’re all using becomes corrupted. And furthermore, anyone that reaches the 75th floor becomes locked out of all floors below it. Still, using the 75th floor town, Arc Sophia, as the new base of all operations hence forth, they continue onward.
Kirito and Asuna are essentially fine, though their gear and some key parameters got corrupted. But when Lizbeth comes up to congratulate them, she discovers that she can no longer go back to her old shop, and must start from scratch again in Arc Sophia. When Silica arrives on the 75th floor town for the same reasons, she is also shocked, because she is quite under leveled for questing on the 75th floor, and hence has to be innovative in how she proceeds. Furthermore, Kirito’s sister, Suguha, in her avatar form from another game as Leafa, suddenly appears as well and joins the group, though being new faces challenges in getting started on the 75th floor. And similarly, when a girl named Sinon falls from the sky, having no idea how she got there or what she’s going to do, also faces similar challenges. On top of that, they also meet a new girl Strea who is incredibly cheerful and outgoing, but can act quite strange at times. And to make matters even more complicated, at some point Kirito gets magically teleported into a completely new area seperated from Aincrad, the Hollow Area, where he finds a girl names Philia who needs to proceed through the Hollow Area before she can return to Aincrad, but has a number of mysterious issues surrounding her as well. Still it’s not all bad, as the glitches that screwed up the system also somehow bring back Yui. Hence, Kirito and his various allies proceed with progressing through Aincrad and the Hollow Area.
Hollow Fragment is very much a game targetted at Sword Art Online fans, to the point that I would say that if you don’t already enjoy the series, it is unlikely you will enjoy the game. In terms of plot, it starts right off in the middle of the climax of the Aincrad arc, but takes it in a completely different direction. Hence, it expects an understanding of everything that occurred prior to that. But beyond that, it also introduces a number of characters from arcs beyond where Hollow Fragment branches, and hence expects a knowledge and appreciation of those aspects as well. While the main plot I think you would be able to understand even without all this knowledge, I don’t think the plot itself would be all that enjoyable, as a key element to the plot seems to simply be to cater to fans. In addition to the main plots, clearing floors and the Hollow Area, there are a number of heroine focused events. These I would say take up much more of the story portion than the main plot line. These generally involve a VN like set up with text, sprites, and CG, all done very authentically to the spirit of the franchise and quite enjoyable if you already like the characters and world, but I don’t see them creating fans if you already don’t. Now, this might seem strange as some of these characters, particularly Strea and Phillia are completely new, but even with them, unless you already have an appreciation for the world, factions, and systems in place, I don’t think you’ll be able to appreciate their character arcs. To summarize, the story is incredibly tied in with the spirit of the series, which makes it far more enjoyable to fans, but will likely feel strange, possibly hollow, to newcomers.
In terms of game play, there are essentially two games included in Hollow Fragment. Infinity Moment was originally released for PSP, but got essentially an expansion for Vita including all the content from Infinity Moment released as Hollow Fragment. That got remastered with better integration for DLC updates to Hollow Fragment as the PS4 release Re:Hollow Fragment. Now, while there is certainly some level of integration between them, the Infinity Moment component, meaning clearing floors in Aincrad, and the Hollow Fragment component, meaning journeying through the Hollow Area, proceeding through them feels like going through two different but very similar games. For the sake of doing a complete play through on the first run, I would recommend doing the entirety of the Hollow Area first, and then proceed through Aincrad, at each floor clearing the event list before proceeding to the next floor as otherwise there are missable events. The exception to that is the last floor, where you want to complete the ending at least once before doing the main event on that floor, as otherwise you miss CG. The Hollow Area game play loop involves proceeding through a number of interconnected areas until you can defeat the area boss to move to the next area. While doing so you can do Hollow Missions, which give Hollow Points and give the chance to do Hollow Challenges, both of which allow to use Implementations, which can result in a number of modifiers, ranging from giving abilities and items to adding entirely new game play systems to combat, mainly the OSS system which for all intents and purposes is valuable enough that I consider it essential. The Aincrad game play loop involves proceeding through a floor with three objectives: defeating a certain elite enemy, completely a certain quest, and discovering the Floor Boss room door. Upon completing all of these, a raid against the floor boss can be initiated. There are also a number of side quests that can be done on each floor, though ultimately they feel like a waste of time. And of course, both areas result in character driven events appearing as you progress through them. The game play loops are pretty simple, and the Aincrad loops started getting a bit stale towards the end, though things do change a bit at that point. Still, while fatigue is definitely an issue, the loops themselves are pretty satisfying.
In terms of actual combat it is somewhat simplistic and very MMO like, but enjoyable for what it was. While in combat, Kirito is always doing damage when targetting and enemy, but upon manual selection can do strong attacks that use up a burst gauge, a gauge that is also tied to using dodges. However, these for the most part make up little of the damage, with the majority of damage being done through Sword Skills. There are a number of different weapons that can be learned with their own Sword Skills, and a number of general Battle Skills as well. However, I essentially stuck to only Dual Wielding, grinding out skills in other areas only to unlock certain Battle Skills for Dual Wield builds. Furthermore, there is a limit to how many buffs you can have on at a time, and hence at some point, far from the end of the game, you reach a wall in terms of growth and just stick to the build you have there for the rest of the game, which contributes to the fatigue you’re building from the game play loop also getting repetitive. While it certainly is possible to choose to use different weapons, within the context of the game, it certainly didn’t feel right, and overall I don’t think forcing yourself to use a weaker build is a good solution to fatigue. Assisting in battle are AI partners, which are generally heroines, ovver which you have some degree of control in terms of their tactics and growth. However, their deaths also results in a Dead End (game over), which for certain enemies could be quite annoying and required a lot of micro managing of the AI. Lastly, floor bosses are special in that they involve raids by large groups. Having your partner die results in a Dead End, but during these fights anyone else dying allows the game to continue, though there are bonuses for keeping everyone alive. Furthermore there are last hit bonuses, which can be obtained through some quick micromanagement of the AI near the end. In terms of extra content, there isn’t much in Aincrad beyond a certain secret boss who is awesome. However, the Hollow Area has quite a bit of extra content in what is called the Abandoned Area and the Classified Area, featuring a large number of bosses, so its certainly quite good in that regard. Lastly, there’s also a mechanic of grinding Affinity with the various heroines, which is necessary for obtaining all CG, but involves a mini games where you have to make conversation choices that make absolutely no sense, are incredibly repetitive, and furthermore takes forever to the point of being incredibly annoying.
The CG, sprites, and background were incredibly good, though the last Strea CG was clearly tacked on. The 3D graphics however left a lot to be desired, which makes absolute sense considering it is essentially a remaster of an enhanced PSP game, but considering it still wasn’t able to maintain a stable 60fps I felt that the technical deficiency it was worth mentioning. There’s also a heavy reuse of assets for environment and enemies, which is yet another aspect that contributes to fatigue at times. There were a number of small things in terms of systems, which really aren’t that big in terms of being issues, such as animations acting strange or weird hitboxes, but made the game feel a bit janky for lack of a better word. The soundtrack was pretty good, though a bit too different from the main series in my opinion. I certainly appreciated reusing the OP/ED from the main series though.
A game that gets a bit repetitive, has a lot of rough edges, and seems targeted precisely at already current fans, but is that comes out to be something that’s quite enjoyable for those fans.