Ah, Sword Art Online, an anime I have mixed opinions over. With it’s interesting premise and world, yet questionable storywriting, it’s a fairly polarizing series. You either love it or hate it. Personally I’m in the camp that thinks it’s just okay and needs a bit more polishing.
Anyone can argue over the quality of the series, but you can’t deny that it’s an incredibly popular series. Like many anime series before it, it becomes a cash cow franchise spawning off all kinds of merchandise and media, and now an almost requirement, a video game spinoff. Though unlike other anime, like say To Love Ru, that gain a video game spinoff, this one on paper seemed the most promising.
Like the .Hack series before it, it’s a series based on characters playing a role playing game. So unlike other anime that either just make a visual novel or a fighting game, the series is already a video game with an established world. So all the developers have to do is just come up with an interesting story and do their best not to fuck up the gameplay. Hell they went to Bandai Namco who’s famous for their Tales series, so how could it go wrong?
Hollow Fragment starts off on the right foot, you (playing as series protagonist Kirito) and as part tutorial, and part technical show off, you fight a gigantic monster. It does give you a great feel of how gigantic the bosses were in the anime, and you get to experience it first hand in the game.
After quite a few hours of playing the game, I can say that while the game is quite enjoyable, it does have quite a few flaws. For the actual game itself, I wouldn’t call it directionless, but for the most part, there isn’t necessarily a large point or much direction in the game.
For the main section of Aincrad, your whole goal is to get to floor 100. So you basically just run around a floor, find the boss’s location, then you warp back to town and complete a quest or two (or if you’re smart, activate the quests right before you explore a floor), as the quests give you the boss info. Then go back to the teleport center, and your girlfriend Asuna gets together a group of fighters to take on the boss of the level. Once you defeat it, the floor is cleared, off to the next floor! Rinse and repeat!
The Aincrad part of the game doesn’t deviate from that so far, at all. Occasionally you’ll receive a message from random players asking for help to ask you for help in defeating monsters, but they’re just random field monsters, not boss monsters, or even high level monsters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it is quite fun exploring the floors, and they at least change things up by having new mechanics to overcome while you explore. It’s not just wandering around and “oh shit, I found the boss!”.
The other big section of the game, the Hollow Areas, are the new feature of the game. It’s almost like two games in one. Your new friend, game original, Philia asks you for help in exploring the secrets of the Hollow Areas. Basically she gives you a point on the map that you have to traverse to, and it happens to be a dungeon to explore. This basically plays similar to the Aincrad levels, just with larger areas to explore, and tougher enemies. As you start the game at level 100, Aincrad has weak monsters that give you shit for experience points, so if an Aincrad boss is giving you trouble, just run around the Hollow Areas to level up Kirito (or just gain more skill points) to wipe the floor with him.
Combat itself is pretty decent. You gain skill points that boost the power of your sword abilities. After awhile, you’ll literally kill enemies with a single sword skill attack. You also get to travel with a partner, which basically consists of Kirito’s ever-growing harem and Klein, but fuck Klein if you can have cuties/badasses like Asuna or Sinon travel with you.
From what I’ve noticed, none of your partners have a noticeable difference in battle, they’re just at different levels. Characters like Asuna and Philia are initially stronger, as they’re close to the same level as Kirito, while Sinon and Silica are on much lower levels. Though if you run around with the lower level characters enough, they’ll level up quickly and make the gap between the higher level partners null and void.
The only story required partner is Philia in the Hollow Areas. Basically your job is to get her out, and magically she’s the only one that can use the items you find to unlock doors and stuff to progress. Other than that, you can pick whoever you want.
Now for the flaws of the game. Largely the flaws have to deal with the “story” and dialog. There isn’t necessarily an overarching story and after completing certain events, they unlock cutscenes for the characters which is the biggest flaw of the game. These cutscenes pretty much just serve as fanservice bits. With bits like following Silica and finding out that she works at a maid cafe, or sparing with Sinon and she falls over and gets wet and shows off some butt action. These bits feel very unnecessary and just shows off the cuteness of Kirito’s harem.
Then there’s the times where the various girls get Kirito in trouble. I shit you not that when you first leave the Hollow Area (aka the game tutorial), you first get bitched at by all the female characters for being missing for several minutes, then immediately get bitched at AGAIN for mentioning that you met yet another girl. As more cutscenes appear in the game, so increases your times of getting bitched at by either a girl, or multiple girls. Not even 5 minutes later, another game original character, Strea appears, and starts hitting on Kirito, then the ever-so-clueless Kirito takes her to a bar. The girls then walk in on Strea sitting on your lap, and then you get bitched at a third time. Gotta love that don’t you?
Let’s not talk about the silly scene where they all get jealous of your sibling relationship with Leafa, and then all pretend that they’re all your little sister. Sigh
Then there’s the relationship portion of the game. If the cutscenes weren’t enough fanservice for you, then all bets are off on this one. From what I’ve noticed, increasing the girls’ affection towards you serves pretty much no purpose. The purpose it pretty much serves is that you get to walk around town holding hands with your favorite girl, and if you increase their affection levels high enough, you get to bridal carry them to your room and “share your bed” with them. Yes you get to be a manwhore and fuck every girl in the game. I shit you not.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the game has either mixed reviews, or just rated lower than it should be. Unlike other JRPG’s like a Tales or Final Fantasy, the game really just caters to fans of the show. Instead of introducing you to the world, or even the cast, the game pretty much implies that you not only know who everyone is, but what’s going on. Especially when this game seems to take place after both seasons of the anime (or if it wasn’t for Sinon, after the first season). The game expects you to already know who Heathcliff is, or the events of the anime.
If the game wasn’t unfriendly enough to newcomers, the copious amounts of fanservice sure as hell isn’t helping either. While a flawed game, it’s definitely got its merits and is quite enjoyable. The combat is fun, and the graphics definitely give justice to the artstyle of the show. It’s obviously catered to a niche audience who consists of fans of the show who also happen to be fans of RPG’s.