As far as the JRPG genre goes, there are combat-heavy titles and story-heavy titles. In an ongoing struggle to find balance between the two, most games pick one and oftentimes the other suffers for it.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is thankfully one such gem that avoids this pitfall. With both superb gameplay and a narrative framework to back it up, its immersive combat and excellent characters help it overcome a few problems to be a fantastic action-RPG.
For those unfamiliar with the hit anime franchise spawned from a series of light novels, both of which now localized in English, this game might not be near the top of the list of “must-buys.” And admittedly, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment does rely partly on having some knowledge of its universe. Fortunately, it’s so much fun and does such a great job of easing newcomers in that a lack of prior knowledge isn’t a deal-breaker.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment takes place in the world of a fictional virtual reality MMORPG called Sword Art Online in an age where full immersion VR isn’t just a pipe dream. When the player starts the game they’re given a chance to customize their version of Kirito and after a brief cutscene, are immediately thrust into the action where a giant skeletal centipede tries to kill them.
Fortunately a tutorial is tied in to the game’s opening moments. It succeeds at getting the player on their feet, and into the game’s primary focus, combat, and afterwards does an even better job of getting the player up to speed on the world of SAO.
Combat plays out very similarly to a Monster Hunter-esque game. Kirito will attack automatically as will his partner but the player influences the action with Burst attacking, dodging, parrying, and Sword Skills of which there are at least a dozen for almost a dozen types of weapons. Also there are Battle Skills for healing, buffing, and de-buffing.
The other major aspect of combat is the companion chosen from a number of major NPC’s and a few minor ones. Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment utilizes a Risk system which affects aggro, damage dealt, and damage received. Managing this with a partner is a key to survival, as is performing combos via Sword Skills.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment’s battle system is incredibly complex for a handheld action-RPG, but it plays out beautifully; at least once the player gets a handle on it. Learning the system is pretty intimidating as almost everything is accompanied by at least one paragraph explaining what it is. Those who take the time to learn it will be rewarded, while those who don’t will eventually be forced to, as the game’s RPG mechanics are similarly intricate.
Kirito can gain levels via EXP as well as skill points. Skill points are gained by levelling up weapon skills such as one-handed sword, two-handed sword, dagger and so on. Leveling in this manner occurs simply through attacking, and the skill points earned are then spent on Sword and Battle skills.
Skills deplete a SP gauge which is maintained through using other skills, attacking, and morale boosting. Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment demands that attention be paid to Kirito’s partner. Keeping their morale up helps SP regenerate faster, and congratulating them when they do something well grants a small boost.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is a combat-focused game. It’s where the player will spend most of their time and winds up being the most addicting part of the game. Exploring the worlds of the Hollow Area and the floating castle Aincrad are extremely addicting. Better yet, the character-driven story only fuels this fire.