I just got through beating Sword Art Online: RE Hollow Fragment last night. Overall, I think it’s a reasonably solid game that suffers from being a bit too formulaic and not being quite responsive enough. There are some really interesting mechanics that you can more or less entirely ignore, because you start the game ludicrously overpowered and have very little need to get yet more powerful until very late in the game. The structure of the game is more than a little repetitive, with really predictable patterns.
The game has a lot of really detailed systems, like its damage types, weapon and skill trees, and other details that are almost entirely meaningless because, as Kirito, you start very nearly maxed out in a very strong, versatile skill tree, with just enough points spent in other trees to unlock the most useful stuff. As with a lot of the rest of the game, it’s very true to SAO’s narrative– Kirito is a relentless min-maxer, and when you’re put in control of him, you’ve already got a very nearly optimal character. As a result, there are entire weapon types and ability interactions that I never saw in the game because there didn’t seem to be a reason to bother.
Also in keeping with the series’ narrative, the other characters are scaled in power relative to what you’d expect, meaning that the obvious choice of partner — Asuna — is far and away the best party member to choose, especially because all of her skills more or less perfectly complement what you start with as Kirito. She has a lot of debuff power, which is exactly what Kirito’s dual-wield tree lacks. Because of this, there are entire weapons and partner character choices that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason to choose, ever, from a gameplay standpoint.
All of this is largely irrelevant, however, because it’s not what the game is trying to deliver. SAO: Hollow Fragment is giving you the chance to play in the SAO world, and to some extent explore the parts of it that you’re the most interested in. It’s your opportunity, as a player, to break canon and try stuff out that you wanted to see in the show but couldn’t. I wrote about it a few months ago, but the game opens up with this message pretty quickly– Hollow Fragment starts where the Aincrad arc of the show ends, but keeps on going in Aincrad. It’s why you start with a ludicrously powerful Kirito and why you play through “new” content despite knowing what happens in the show; the game makes a point of breaking from the show’s story and writing its own.
What I like about it is that it’s very thorough in its parallel storyline. Bits and pieces that don’t make a lot of sense initially ultimately get revealed as part of a complete retelling of the story, including events that happen after the show’s first arc, but play out differently in Hollow Fragment’s parallel story. The end result is broadly similar, but the details change, and it’s very interesting to see how the various alterations to the “real” story affect the rest of the narrative. Hollow Fragment effectively kicks off a reboot of the series starting from the end of the show’s first arc, and I think that’s a fascinating approach. I only wish the game went a little deeper into that, because the story is fairly light.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that I love reboots, particularly ones that retain as few of the specifics of the original as possible while still keeping the overall essence of the story. My favorite retelling of Romeo and Juliet is the frankly insane neo-90s Leonardo DiCaprio version set in a stylized present-day but using Shakespearean dialogue. I like to see how things could have played out differently with the same pieces. I’m a big fan of the sort of parallel storytelling that Hollow Fragment does because it provides a bunch of new conceptual space to explore that isn’t weighted down by the existing narrative.
Probably my biggest critique of Hollow Fragment is how formulaic it is– it feels less like a game version of the show than it probably should, because the structure of the game doesn’t follow the structure of the show. As much as SAO is about “reaching level 100 and beating the game”, very little of the show’s time is spent showcasing each individual floor, which is entirely what Hollow Fragment does. It makes the game feel both repetitive and frustratingly unlike the show itself, and I feel like the game would have been improved by going all-in on the narrative portions rather than building out level after level of formulaic gameplay.
What frustrates me the most about the game is that it shies away from really exploring this cool alternate narrative it’s created. A lot of the story scenes start to poke at some interesting ramifications of the parallel storyline they’ve set up, but all too often what appears to be a neat story point instead morphs into sudden, cheap fanservice. In the meantime, the game introduces new characters who are supposed to be compelling (and, indeed, who the game’s story centers around to some extent) but are kind of shoved in your face without preamble. It feels, more than anything, like a new player joining a long-running tabletop campaign and being inserted awkwardly into the party. Hey, here’s this random person around town oh look it turns out they know your name NOW THEY’RE YOUR BEST FRIEND no questions asked STOP ASKING QUESTIONS.
You may note that I haven’t talked about the “Hollow Fragment” part of the game, the separate (entire game) that’s added onto what was originally just a climb through Aincrad. As much as the game develops a compelling parallel storyline, it completely failed to hook me on its massive bonus area. My connection there was a character who, right off the bat, doesn’t like me very much, and who I honestly don’t really care much about. She’s probably got a pretty tragic backstory, but quite frankly I have half a dozen other, more developed characters with tragic backstories that I’m a lot more interested in exploring the game with, and the Hollow Area seems to be focused on developing characters that I honestly am not that interested in.
That all having been said, I like the idea of using tie-in games as a springboard for parallel storytelling. If I wanted just a straight retelling of the story I already know, I could watch the show/movie again, but letting me alter the world in a “safe” alternate storyline is really compelling, even as relatively underdeveloped as it is in Hollow Fragment. There’s a really interesting Star Wars game where Kenobi seeks out Leia and makes her a Jedi instead of Luke– completely non-canon, but an interesting space to explore, and a lot more interesting than a game that simply straight retells Star Wars without the pacing and with a hundred times as many stormtroopers to fight.
Also, much like the show did, SAO: Hollow Fragment makes me miss the now-long-gone days of early MMOs, when it was new for everyone and the games were full of surprises, that you shared with everyone you played with.