This past week, one of most buzzed about PlayStation Vita games, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment, was released. In a time when the Vita is being written off as dead by disenchanted fans and parts of the media, it is refreshing to see a game that is more than “just another indie” to be released.

SAO: Hollow Fragment, based off the anime series Sword Art Online, is in itself an expansion of an older PlayStation Portable title, Infinity Moment. What you’ll receive here is just about all of the content of Infinity Moment with enhanced graphics and a tweaked battle system, as well as a new game’s worth of content in the way of the Hollow Areas. These are new, large open world areas containing additional monsters and loot.

The basic premise of Sword Art Online is that you are one of a large number of people trapped in an online game (MMO) against your will, and are trying to escape. This Matrix-y concept suits a video game, and what makes Hollow Fragment unique is the gameplay. It is presented as a virtual MMO, down to other “players”, the leveling system, skill tree, and more. To be clear, the entire game is offline; there are no online multiplayer options (only local ad-hoc wireless, sadly). It’s essentially an offline MMO, but the game has a ton of content to back it up, and even more on the way: a free patch released in Japan for Hollow Fragment that adds 30+ hours of content to the game will be coming to North America in late September. That’s how you do it .

I have put in some time with Hollow Fragment this week on my Vita and am impressed by it. I never watched the anime, so I am not hung up on some of the perceived flaws by “hardcore” fans such as the deviation from the show’s storyline, or certain characters appearing earlier than they did on TV. All the fanboy drama aside, here are a few thoughts:

  • The combat system is solid, but it takes some getting used to. There’s an in-depth skill tree, skills that buff/debuff or attack for massive damage, a variety of weapons with upgrade and crafting systems, and more. The tutorials do a decent job of explaining a lot of it but it could have done a better job. You will be reaching for your computing device to search online for answers, but it’ll be worth it.
  • The English translation is shoddy. Not horrible, but rife with awkward phrasing, incorrect word usage, and more. It’s not a dealbreaker for me, and the game is still easily understandable, but it can take you out  of story on occasion.
  • The X and O buttons were not reversed in the translation. X is Cancel and O Confirms, whereas it usually is the opposite in North American versions. Again, not a big deal, but something to note.
  • The graphics are solid, the colors pop, and the framerate dips occasionally in heavily populated areas (such as the hub town).
  • This game is available as digital download only and clocks in at about 3GB.
  • The game auto-saves, but does so when moving between areas (you’ll see “Data Backup” in the top-right corner of the screen). You cannot manually save, and this is important to remember when traveling through the Hollow Areas. The monsters there are at higher levels than the ones you’ll encounter early on in the original dungeon area from Infinity Moment, Aincrad (which comprises of Floors 76 to 100). Considering some of the areas can be quite large, dying means losing any progress you made before entering that area. Keep this in mind.
  • The game tells you to start in the Hollow Area before venturing to the Aincrad dungeon. Don’t listen to this. Play in Aincrad until you get familiar with the game mechanics. You’ll have an easier time earlier on. But don’t beat the 100th Floor boss before finishing the Hollow, since there is apparently some secret boss or something.

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment is a solid game. Some will cry foul over the lack of English voice acting, grindy nature, digital-only availability, and anime trappings. But this a contender for one of the best games on the Vita so far this year. It’s a win for the console during a down period; don’t overlook this title.