Full disclosure time: I have only seen the very first episode of Sword Art Online. It certainly looked great but somehow I got busy and never managed to watch the rest of the series. So I can't bring big fan appreciation to this review, but I will make sure to hold certain aspects to standard anime fan game conventions.
To take the story down to brass tacks there was a great game maker in he near future who revealed his new VRMMO to an early test of 10,000 people. The catch was that there was no way to log out. People are alive in their VR pods at home but nobody can wake them without killing them. If they die in the game they die in real life. Inside the fantasy game players must work together or fight one another to get ahead, get strong, and defeat the final boss to be free.
Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment, henceforth referred to as SAOHF places you not at the beginning of this action but after a pivotal moment on level 75 of the 100 level game. Flashbacks will fill in the blanks but watching the show would probably improve your enjoyment tenfold. You can tweak your avatar and pick your own name but the character has his own name anyway and reverts to his normal look in cut scenes. More on that business in the graphics department, I'd like to get right into gameplay this time.
There are three styles for you, double weapon, single weapon, and single weapon with shield. The speed of having two swords makes that option very appealing but remember not to try to button mash with it so much. From a good third person perspective you can take a partner (some who you know and some who you meet) with you and go on the inevitable missions. Maps are unexplored regions that snake around the environment of the world and it's always satisfying to open them up and see where they go. The level design is better than average in the sense that finding what you want isn't a straight line, you'll be misled and drawn into unforeseen battles and things along the way.
Fighting is something I was underwhelmed by. You tap the triangle to select and enemy and then it's on. We've got ourselves another attempt to mix a complex Japanese style of battle with a modern pace of action that makes the battle system only partly satisfying. By thwacking away you can put together devastating combos, but timed properly with ally attacks you can really have some “yay” moments. That's best done by watching your partner or giving them orders that will suit what you plan to do, then you can select your skills. The game is setup so you have quick access to eight skills. This is done by holding the L button for four of them and the R button for four more. It sounds simple enough but in practice it is cumbersome and there's no time to actually look at what you are selecting so you'll need a quick mind and memory. As you level up more skills can be learned. There's a self regenerating SP bar that gets used for skills. There's also a burst gauge used for a strong special. It has five bars and each time you hit the circle button it takes one bar and you effect a very powerful attack. Overall the battles are somewhat satisfying, briefly chaotic, and constantly interrupted by any attempt to get a decent camera angle.
The world is pleasing in many ways. You can do some things familiar to MMOs like emote, praise your allies, and try to sweep them up in a bridal carry. Yup. You've got a lot of ground to cover between towns and points of interest, the ability to warp around, and when you enter the Hollow Area things look a bit more like an MMO. You have a more vast area to explore and adventure in. You can also play ad hoc with up to three players. The purpose in the Hollow Area besides leveling up is to learn about what it is, piece together what happened on level 75 (which is still shrouded in mystery) and learn more about the cute girl you met when you found the area.
Aside from battle, the gameplay includes some excellent scripting. Unnecessarily harsh fans will crow about translations but the adventure is more than adequately written. Your friends stand out in all the ways that they should, fulfilling their proper anime roles, and interactions help the player to feel like a part of this world.
The graphics are tough to put an easy mark on. To be honest, most of it looks doable on PSP. In fact some of it was done on PSP for a different game and updated for Vita. The game does not take much advantage of what Vita is capable of but the animations are solid. The cut scenes are pretty awesome given the production levels, and the art that is used as background imagery is professionally done and appealing. Art for the visual novel part of the storytelling is also quite good. The presentation is clearly outdated, it unfortunately doesn't try to overcome this and so falls short of a high score. However things are far from ugly and normally fans won't mind any of this a bit.
The audio falls into a common trap for portable Japanese games. They tried so hard to make the game great that the music sort of took a back seat to everything else. Voice acting is solid and the casting feels correct but I wouldn't nominate the performances for an award. The music feels absent, if that's possible. It's in the game of course, generically trying to do the right things at the right time but mostly just whispering off into nothingness or making no extra points for the tense situations. The audio quality, from a technical standpoint, is reliable and of good quality.
SAOHF is a must for fans of the anime and could very well appeal to any Vita player looking for an Eastern styled action RPG. It's not trying to be much more than a “beat the level, the boss, then advance” game but then that's probably what its fans are looking for. It can be a grindfest at times though the story and characters are worth the investment more often than not. If you're looking for replay value then look no further than skillsets and dating sim elements.
Now if you'll excuse me I should try to find out where I left this anime so I can watch it.