As a ‘Director’s Cut’ version, Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment goes a long way to fixing the flaws of its previous Vita incarnation, and with an astonishingly low £15.99 price tag, there’s not been a better reason to drop back into the world of Aincrad. Featuring all the content brought in via patches to the Vita version (itself containing all content from PSP title Infinity Moment), there’s plenty to get stuck into.
The game starts with a short cutscene, abridging roughly the first half of the anime’s first season, but this does little justice to the series (of which you can currently watch season one on Netflix in the UK– It’s highly recommended!). After that, the world of Hollow Fragment deviates from its anime and novel counterparts and places you in control of main protagonist Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya in a brand new story. After a few battles and plot developments, you are free to either continue to explore and conquer floors of Aincrad à la classic Sword Art Online, or explore the uncharted Hollow Area; both are significant undertakings. It’s welcoming to be left with the freedom to pursue either overarching objective without being cajoled into one for the sake of linearity.
The gameplay consists of town phases and dungeon exploration, with subtle differences depending on if you are in Aincrad or the Hollow Area. Town has the usual assortment of merchants and vendors, but the majority of your time here will be spent in conversations and events with other ‘players’ to progress the story, or attempting to woo the small selection of heroines in a particularly poor dating sim afterthought. By partying with a heroine (including Sinon from Season 2!) in town, you can go on ‘dates’ to improve your affection levels in a vague hope to unlock a so-safe-for-work-what’s-the-point special event. Unfortunately, this involves playing a game of ‘press X or R1 and pray’, because the translation in these conversation mini-games just results in gibberish so it’s almost impossible to get it right, and you just end up bored hammering one button anyway.
However, the best of your playtime is spent exploring the floors of Aincrad or the Hollow Area with a team member of choice. Out here, you can hunt down chests, high-level monsters, help other players level up (which has the cool bonus of making boss fights easier!) or just participate in the genre staple side-quest. The Aincrad areas have you working to recon the floor boss, eventually taking it on with your guild and progressing ever upwards. These areas are lifted from PSP title Infinity Moment, and while fun to play, the areas are small and you can tell the hardware and storage limitations have had an effect here. The Hollow Area introduced with the Vita version is a significant improvement, with larger areas and a less disjointed flow, it is by far the better area to play. The Hollow Area feels a lot more like an MMORPG than the Aincrad floors, which is a great thing considering the source material. It includes a meta-game of implementing SAO beta-test features through side missions which can unlock new skills and equipment to use both here and in Aincrad.
Combat replicates the traditional MMO recipe, auto-attacks interspersed with skills and dodges, however, it also brings in features from SAO such as switching (transference of aggro or hate) and skill combos with your partner. By praising certain partner actions in combat, you can mould each character to favour an offensive, defensive or supportive role in combat, and with each heroine sporting a different weapon and skill set, there is significant leeway to craft your perfect AI partner.
Combat can be repetitive, but with 9 different types of weapons and countless skills to unlock, in addition to the aforementioned partners, there is surprising depth to its initially simplistic action combat.
The PS4 incarnation’s biggest improvement is the ability to play hollow missions with others online, as opposed to the ad-hoc only multiplayer of the Vita version. It’s as simple as creating a room, choosing a difficulty appropriate to your level and going out into the Hollow Area to find missions.
Loading, while frequent thanks to constant map transitions, is short (considering it also auto-saves at the same time) and unobtrusive. It also includes patch content from the Vita, including new heroine events and larger ‘Grand Quests’.
A few issues still linger, though; primarily the frame rate, as it can fall through the floor in a large battle or crowded town area. Tutorials are hidden within NPC conversation, and considering the information contained within, and the steep difficulty curve, it is a laborious process to read it all, and can be confusing when you are starting out as it is all text format and has no context.
Overall, Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment is an enjoyable play, considering that it is a ported remaster of a ported remaster from 2013. Graphically we are a long way from Unreal 4 here, but with a strong plot, enjoyable character development and a bargain price tag it's very hard not to recommend it. Better be quick though, the sequel Lost Song will be here in November and this game has a bucket load of content!