Friday, October 16, 2015

Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment (PS4)

Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment is a game based off the popular Sword Art Online anime TV show and light novel.  It follows the main character Kirito who is trapped in an online virtual world with 10,000 other players.  If you die in the game or are disconnected from the Nervegear interface device in real life, you then die in real life.  It's a high stakes MMO game that shows the best and worst side of humanity on the internet.  Throughout his journey, Kirito meets several friends (most of which are female) and opens up as a person.

Why give you this backstory?  Well for one, this is a more succinct and easy to follow version than the haphazard one the game gives you.  The first hour or two of the game is probably my biggest complaint.  Thankfully, I have seen the first season of the TV show, so I was not completely lost.  The game starts with Kirito teleporting to a strange new area and meeting a new character.  Then a battle starts.  I'll give the game props for starting off with some action to get the player excited, but without a backstory understanding of who or what is going on, it lessens that dramatically.

After some dialogue and a small dungeon with the new character in tow, then the game decides to give the players some background.  However, it starts this by jumping to the point where the game and TV show split canonically, which happens to be right near the end of the anime.  This isn't in and of itself bad, but again, there's no context for people new to the series to have an understanding what is going on.  Then we get some flashbacks about how the game world works and the situation the characters are in, along with a brief explanation and introduction to the two characters that were from later seasons, Leafa and Sinon.

I get the idea they were going for, but it is somewhat confusing to me, who has some knowledge of the IP, let alone someone jumping in to it with the game.  As far as I can tell, this is an alternate take on what happens near the end of the first arc, so players can experience something new in the franchise.  They also shoehorn in the later characters, because... why not?  I will say the game does get better from that point on, but having a very jumbled first hour or two of your game can kill interest quickly.

Once you fully start the game, you are in a new town on the 76th floor.  Unfortunately, none of the previous floors are accessible.  I would have really loved to explore some of the locations shown in the show, and I suspect I'm not alone.  True, I do want a new experience, but being able to go to some of the key areas would be cool to nerd-out on.  Anyway, this city serves as your hub for shops, finding characters and other similar things.

The flow of each floor is roughly the same.  Arrive, take the quests offered and go out into the dungeon.  Solve the quests to get info on the boss and find its location.  Armed with that information, you can then assemble a strike force to take it out.  Bosses are a lot tougher than normal enemies and have several HP bars.  The knowledge you gain of their attacks by solving quests helps a lot.  Considering your ultimate goal is to get through the game with no one else dying, you'll want that help.  There's also a last hit bonus if you get the killing blow.  If you don't care about missing stuff or trophies, then it's not as important to get the final hit and keep everyone alive, but completionists will spend extra time to make sure they do both... every floor.

Battles appear very simple, but are surprisingly tactical.  Although, early on you can just mash if you want to.  Kirito will auto attack if you stand near an enemy in combat, but you will get far more damage if you hit the Circle button.  Each press takes a section of the Burst gauge, so you can't keep hitting it, but you can get a combo ender if you can do enough hits.  There are also several skills you can use in battle, and each has a cooldown.  Try not to just blow them all, since your partner will request you do certain actions.  If you fulfill the request, you will get a team attack.  You also won't want to let either Kirito or your partner's life bar empty, as that is game over.  Remember the stakes?  That will kill them in the real world.

The battles aren't really that complicated, but remembering what to hold to use what skills and which skill is which make it seem so.  It's not the most intuitive system.  Sadly, there are other parts of the game that aren't really intuitive either.  When you get to a new floor, there is a town there, but you don't really walk around it.  You have the functions laid out in a menu, which is helpful, but different from the first town you are in.  Plus, you don't walk outside for the floor's dungeon, but select it.  To get to another floor, you teleport from the first town.  It just feels like they introduce a way to do it, then use another way once you start going.  Ugh.  It's not a huge flaw, but it is a questionable decision on their part.  You can also get new skills from a character's menu, which as far as I can tell, was not mentioned in the game.  If it is, I must have missed it.  Together these make it much easier to marathon the game, rather than pick it up and play it every so often.

Keeping with the show, there is no pause function.  While this makes sense, since it is supposed to be an MMO, it isn't, so I would really like the ability to pause.  At least they put the Logout command on the menu, but it doesn't work, so it is as legit as the show.  Also, the Circle button is used to talk to people and examine things, but it is also the cancel button.  Most games use the 'accept' button as the examine, so you can hit it multiple times to skip through text and select the choices.  In Hollow Fragment, if you do that you will cancel out.  Again, not a deal breaker, but I had to consciously remember to hit different buttons when talking to people and making selections from examining things.  It just feels like it wasn't made user-friendly, or that is some strange middle ground when mixing the traditional Japanese and American button norms.

The game is not light in the content department though.  There are basically two games here, the final 24 floors of Aincrad, plus the Hollow Fragment story line and dungeons.  The two can be jumped between at will, which is awesome.  It takes a minimum of an hour per floor, so you will get a hefty playtime just going through one side, let alone both.  Add in raising the affection with all the females to unlock gallery pictures and you can spend a lot of time playing the game.  To be safest, you will probably do some grinding so you don't lose anyone to the bosses, which obviously pads the playtime.

Sword Art Online also has item forging, and it is expensive to make something.  You are better off just increasing a stat on a piece of equipment you find.  Strangely, you can only buff one stat at a time, and you have to start over if you want to switch.  Since I tend to hoard modifying items for stronger equipment, I didn't use item forging much.  Another thing I didn't do enough of was the game's multiplayer.  It's cool that it has it, but whenever I searched, I couldn't find a group.  Maybe it was because I got my review code late and most people have already done it, but I don't know for sure.

The game only has one save slot and it auto saves.  This, as mentioned before, makes it seem more legit as an MMO, but it isn't, and I really don't like only having one save slot.  Especially since there are many missable things in the game, like the final hit bonuses and keeping everyone alive to the end.  It does auto save very often, so you won't lose much if you do reset or die.  Plus, if you have Playstation Plus, you can save scum by keeping a backup on the cloud.

It probably sounds like I'm overly negative on the game, but I did like it and had fun playing.  There are a lot of small issues that kept it from being great, though.  Several things just aren't very user friendly or intuitive to do.  There is a lot of content to go through, as the game basically has two separate halves that you can progress through independently.  Battles are pretty fun too, and the boss fights are tense thanks to me not wanting anyone to die.  I do enjoy the game and intend to play even more of it.  Sadly, the game seems geared much more towards existing fans of the franchise and doesn't start off well by explaining things to any potential newcomers.  Even though it doesn't revisit any of the iconic places of the anime, fans who would like to play an actual video game version of the game in the show should check out Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment.

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