It's been more than 15 years since massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) made their way to mainstream consciousness. "Ultima Online," "EverQuest" and "World of Warcraft" were titles that grabbed gamers' imaginations, and gamers, in turn, built a subculture around the phenomenon.

The genre's influence has since bled into other forms of media as well, including films, Web shows and anime, which has produced two intriguing series, "Log Horizon" and "Sword Art Online." Both are animated serials based on a premise in which players get stuck in their respective virtual worlds. While "Log Horizon" has a more fascinating mythology, it's "Sword Art Online" that has the more thrilling setup.

In the anime, 10,000 early adopters are trapped in the titular MMO. For some mysterious reason, the game's creator won't let them log out, and if they happen to die in the virtual world of Aincrad, the players perish in real life -- fried by the virtual reality device hooked to their brains. To survive, the players must venture through all 100 levels of the game.

And that leads us back full circle to "Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment." The second installment in the "Sword Art" series, it is, like its predecessor, a game based on an anime that's set in a fictional video game.


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But fans of the anime will discover that the game diverges in a big way. In "Hollow Fragment," players take on the role Kirito, the best player of "Sword Art Online," who defeats the game's creator. But instead of escaping, as in the anime, the game offers an alternate storyline in which Kirito and his friends are still imprisoned in pixels.

Starting from level 76, they must scale the remaining dungeons. The developer, Bandai Namco, also throws in a few surprises in these "lost levels," such as unexpected characters who fall into Aincrad because of a glitch in the system. All of this makes "Hollow Fragment" feel more like playable fan fiction than a seamless extension of the series.

The fact that the team built a dating sim into the gameplay doesn't help matters. Although the sim lets players explore character back stories, it's awkward and throws off any sense of plot logic. It also distracts from the good job the developer did capturing the feel of the "Sword Art Online" world. Everything from the grayed "log out" option in the menu to the monster design feels right.

When it comes to gameplay, the combat mimics the feel of an MMO, even borrowing concepts such as pulling one monster from a large group to take it down in a two-person team. Although that part is easy to understand, the finer points of the system aren't explained well and are unnecessarily complicated. Worse yet, the leveling system is a maze of stats and mystifying skill trees.

It takes a while to figure out, and that hurdle, along with the pacing and the typo-ridden translations, are the biggest flaws. "Hollow Fragment" will appeal to hard-core "Sword Art" fans, but for newcomers without the vested interest in these characters, the game is a confusing mess.

Reach Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

'Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment'

* ½

Platform: PlayStation Vita
Rating: Teen