"Even with its shiny new translation, what may have worked in short bursts on the Vita feels out of place and monotonous when sitting in front of the TV."
Back in the halcyon days of August 2014, Namco Bandai released Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment to Vita, an expanded port of their Japan-only 2013 PSP game SAO: Infinity Moment. Hollow Fragment not only added new content but also found itself translated to English and released to western audiences. It's debatable, however, whether this was a blessing or a curse: Much to the chagrin of fans, Hollow Fragment's English script called back to the 8-bit era in that it was barely a step above Google Translate as detailed by our own Stephen Meyerink in his appropriately-composed review
Exactly one year later, this little-game-that-could is back for the third year in a row, boasting an expertly localized script and ported to the PS4 under the apt title Re: Hollow Fragment. English-speaking players can finally experience the game's text as they were meant to, but is a competent translation enough to make this a compelling game?
Based on a hugely popular multimedia franchise, Sword Art Online tells the story of Kirito, an expert gamer who has found himself trapped alongside thousands of other players within the titular VRMMORPG by its malevolent creator Kayaba. Kayaba issues a challenge to his captive audience: If players are able to reach the 100th floor and defeat him, the game will end and everybody will be free to return to their lives. However, any player who dies in the game will also die in real life, their VR helmets rigged to fry their brains. Kirito resolves to defeat Kayaba while helping players in need along the way.
It's a strong setup for a game, but Re: Hollow Fragment opens directly after Kayaba's defeat by Kirito on Floor 75. It is here that the game departs from the source material in that the MMO does not end and Kirito and his compatriots are still trapped. Dumbfounded, they decide to continue their ascent to the top, hoping that Floor 100 will hold the secrets to escaping the game. The problem with this is that the story loses much of its drive and tension when its central villain is out of the picture. The resulting narrative is a rather minimal and unfocused affair in which Kirito and his comrades make their way onwards and upwards, fulfilling quests, defeating monsters and joining forces with the Assault Team to conquer each floor's formidable boss.
As you ascend each floor, you find yourself tasked with gathering intel on each floor's boss so that the Assault Team can plan their strategy accordingly. Doing some pre-battle reconnaissance sounds intriguing in theory, but in practice it boils down to carrying out three cookie-cutter MMO sidequests: Defeat x-many monsters or collect x-many drops, defeat a designated mini-boss, and raise the overall level of the Assault Team by grinding with its individual members. At the end of each task, you're unceremoniously awarded the intel by an NPC. These tasks are mandatory; Rinse-and-repeat every floor and this "recon" quickly feels like ticking things off a grocery list.
Once you reach a boss, however, the game starts to showcase its excellent combat. Re: Hollow Fragment boasts an MMO-style battle system that is mostly automated, allowing the player to step in to trigger special moves, use items and issue commands to their partner. It's not unlike the combat found in Xenoblade Chronicles, if slightly less in-depth. Most of the game's rank-and-file monsters are a cinch to dispatch, but bosses require your full attention. In these battles, Kirito and his partner find themselves joined by six members of the Assault Team to wage a siege of epic proportions against a giant beast. If you want to survive, you've got to keep yourself buffed up, executing the right moves at just the right moment to stun the boss while also taking care to get out of the way of any unblockable attacks and commanding your comrades to do the same. These fights are wonderfully tense, and I often found myself at the edge of my seat as I struggled to keep everything under control.
Boss battles are ranked from S (best) to E (worst), and landing the final blow personally nets you a tasty bonus item. Your ranking is determined primarily by how long the battle lasted and how many members of the Assault Team shuffled off this virtual coil in the fray. Although these casualties have no bearing on the plot, they are immortalized numerically on the Guild Status screen, a sad reminder of those you were unable to save. No matter how well or poorly you did, it's on to the next floor to begin the cycle anew.
When you're not fighting bosses or gathering intel, you may find yourself wrapped up in any number of side activities based around harem-comedy hijinks with the game's core female cast. Yes, that's right, all of your favorite SAO ladies are here to jealously vie for Kirito's affections in lengthy visual novel-style dialogues about steaks, boob size, and how sharing a dessert spoon is equal to kissing. These inane scenes go on far longer than they should, making up the bulk of the game's script. You don't even have to pursue a side activity to trigger these; I often found myself whisked away from whatever task I had undertaken to bear witness to a roundtable discussion about spicy pizza. It's frustrating that the game is so enthusiastic to wrench control away from you, and it effectively kills the illusion of exploring an MMO.
Bizarrely, these side activities regularly find themselves laden with cheesecake images of the female cast in various stages of undress. Even Kirito's sister Leafa gets in on the action, always finding a way for her bouncing bosom to make direct contact with Kirito's hands or face. It's slightly creepy, especially during a scene in which the pre-pubescent Silica finds her clothes eroding while in the slimy grip of a tentacle monster. These scenes don't add anything to the main plot, and often feel as though they were lifted from another game entirely; Namco Bandai's marketing team certainly didn't promote them.
If you find yourself in need of a change of pace from the main storyline, you're free to teleport over to the Hollow Area at any time, a whole other world map with its own quests and objectives. Here you can team up with series newcomer Philia, a mysterious and angsty young woman looking to unlock the deepest secrets SAO has to offer. The Hollow Area offers a wider variety of tasks to complete: The main focus is to travel from one end of the expansive map to the other while finding artifacts and defeating bosses. Sadly, these quests are not immune from the aforementioned visual novel skits, so you'll often find yourself whisked back to town to talk about food after making any sort of progress.
The Hollow Area also boasts Hollow Missions, a series of special quests that grant you bonuses for completing them. Most of these missions are battle-based, but there are few that switch things up, including an ill-advised and poorly-implemented stealth mission. None of the Hollow Missions are mandatory, so you're not forced to tackle any of them if you don't want to.
Graphically, Re: Hollow Fragment doesn't look so hot. Its colors are bright and vivid, but being an upscaled version of a PSP game, it doesn't push the PS4 to its limits. This is easy to forgive when you consider its origins, but what's much harder to forgive is the constant framerate dips you find yourself putting up with. This is noticeable right out of the gate when walking around town; If more than ten NPCs are on screen, and there will be, the framerate sharply drops into the single digits. It's most egregious in town, but it also tends to happen in the field at seemingly arbitrary points. On some maps, I found myself pursued by ten huge monsters and the game kept a steady clip, but in another dungeon sparsely populated by no more than four docile bees, the framerate slowed to a crawl. It just looks sloppy, and it's surprising to see such a graphically unintensive game run so poorly on the powerful PS4.
The graphics don't always seem to work as they should, either. Characters often clip through the scenery, and Kirito and his companions tend to become unholy fusions of human and furniture at a moment's notice. Kirito's wife Asuna is a particularly notable example; the accents on her shoulder armor constantly clip through her flowing hair, revealing a character model that feels slightly unfinished. Opening a door classifies that door as open even if it hasn't completed its animation, so I was always able to run right through solid oak as long as I turned the knob first. In one dungeon, my partner kept phasing through the wall and ending up in parallel hallways, only to reunite with me when we both reached the same intersection. Monsters and NPCs often pop into the environment, sometimes right in front of your face.
The backgrounds in the visual novel portions look nice, but are occasionally inconsistent. The majority of them are lovingly hand-painted, but a few are pre-rendered CG and resemble a PS1 game. They're not offensive to the eye, but when the contrasting backgrounds are shown in quick succession, it feels nothing if not jarring. The game's sound design does an adequate job; sound effects are satisfying and sync up to the action quite well, although your chosen partner constantly calls your name as you explore the field together. The soundtrack doesn't often stand out, but the various battle themes are quite listenable, which is a good thing because you'll be listening to them a lot.
Re: Hollow Fragment can feel pretty weird to control. Kirito and his companions dash speedily throughout the world, able to turn on a dime no matter what the terrain. Their running animations don't really keep up with their speed, and it visually resembles ice skating. You never feel any weightiness to your character's movement, and the end result feels cheap. Frustratingly, late in the game, I encountered an area in which I easily ran off the edge of the world to instant death, even though this was not possible in all of the game's previous areas. Strangely, even on the offending map, I was only able to fall off the edge at certain points, while other identically-rendered spots were impossible to fall from. I'm not sure if this was intentional or a programming oversight (if it was intentional, there was no warning), but either way it's unacceptable.
The game's controls are also awkwardly configured. The triangle button is used to lock-on to foes, but you cancel by double-clicking the left stick. Once you're locked on, hitting triangle again throws a knife at the foe you're targeting, drawing their attention and causing them to instantly rush you. The dysphoria between the control functions lead to a lot of accidental deaths when I was trying to un-target a foe that was much stronger than I.
Even with its shiny new translation, it's hard to recommend Re: Hollow Fragment. Technical foibles and inappropriate fanservice aside, what may have worked in short bursts on the Vita feels out of place and monotonous when sitting in front of the TV. Though the game excels in battle, it constantly finds ways to waste the player's time elsewhere. SAO super-fans may find something to like here, but it never strives to be more than a middling licensed game. 2015 is shaping up to be a year filled with fantastic RPGs, but this just isn't one of them.