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Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny the popularity of the Sword Art Online series. It’s unsurprising that Bandai Namco would want to capitalise on this success when creating the various SAO related games over the years. While other games in the series have been somewhat flawed, but enjoyable, Fatal Bullet captures little of what makes the series so popular in the first place.
Before talking about Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, it’s worth knowing the series’ history when it comes to video games. The first release to make it into the west, Hollow Fragment, is a somewhat low-budget RPG that does a decent job of giving most of the cast some extra character development outside of the novels and anime.
The first game’s story ends up deviating fairly substantially from the main series, introducing new story elements and bringing in characters that would not appear until much later in the mainline plot. This means that players who are new to the SAO games may be confused when certain game-only events are mentioned in Fatal Bullet.
Fatal Bullet takes place in the VRMMORPG Gun Gale Online, a fictional game set in a post-apocalyptic earth. Unlike previous SAO titles where you play as the usual main character Kirito or his friends, you create your own original character who is starting the game for the first time. This does help alleviate some confusion for new players, since the character you’re controlling is also new and has no ties to the previous games.
The aforementioned Hollow Fragment and sequel Hollow Realization both had character creation, but for story purposes you were still considered to be Kirito. Here your character, though unvoiced and mostly unexpressive, has their own motivation for being in GGO. Coerced into helping childhood friend Kureha enter an upcoming tournament for a rare item, you inadvertently end up taking the rare item for yourself. This rare item is an AI companion, also known as an ArFA-sys.
The bulk of the story has your character clearing the various areas in GGO and meeting up with familiar SAO characters along the way. Fatal Bullet does a bad job of giving the player any reason to really care about the game’s setting. Previous games at least made an attempt to keep the story interesting, offering lore for the various quests you had to undertake. In Fatal Bullet, every area amounts to little more than “clear a few dungeons and fight the boss of this zone to unlock the next one”. There is an overall goal, but it never feels like you have a reason to care about reaching it since the world of GGO is rather bland.
This all culminates in a variety of possible endings that offer little closure and the story as a whole ends up seeming rather rushed. Adding to this is the requirement for unlocking the true ending, which requires you to grind for hours just to see another ending that will just disappoint. Pacing issues aren’t exactly something new when it comes to SAO games, but Fatal Bullet is a new low for the series. Oh, and the Kirito mode that you may have heard of? It’s just a hour long retelling of the Death Gun arc from the main series, but without any of the tension since it’s over so quickly.
These story issues would have been less of an issue had Fatal Bullet’s gameplay actually been fun. Fatal Bullet is a third-person shooter with mild RPG elements such as skills and random loot. Aiming with a mouse is unsurprising the most accurate way to play, though using a controller is still decent thanks to an optional aim-assist mode. With this activated, aiming in the general direction of enemies will cause your gun to aim automatically at them. Tracking fast moving enemies is made easy using this mode, though it is still more inaccurate than manually aiming.
Running around the initial zone and murdering various robotic enemies was actually fairly enjoyable, at least for a couple of hours. It quickly becomes apparent however that there is no real depth to the gameplay and many of the systems in place are lacking compared to other shooters. There is no cover system and enemy shots are near impossible to dodge, so most encounters consist of either wiping out enemies before they’ve even fired a shot, or constantly hiding behind a wall so you can recover health. A party with healing skills is 100% necessary since you’re going to take a lot of damage no matter how hard you try to dodge attacks.
As with the rest of the SAO games, skills are tied to the weapons you use. In Fatal Bullet though, most skills rely on your stats instead of the weapon you are using. Another change is the move to cooldowns only for skills instead of an MP system, meaning you can use skills fairly liberally. This is something that is actually required due to the way you unlock new skills. As you use a skill, you increase your proficiency with them, and at certain levels of proficiency the next tier of that skill is unlocked.
Grinding should be nothing new to series fans, but this way of levelling skills is just a chore since most of them end up feeling pretty weak until later levels. In fact, the majority of skills in Fatal Bullet feel useless and we mainly just relied on buff skills for the entire game. You can only have 4 skills equipped per weapon, but different levels of a skill can be equipped at the same time reducing the need to even take other skills with you.
Other lesser mechanics include gadgets and the fiber gun. Gadgets work similarly to skills, but without the weapon requirement or proficiency levels. Most gadgets have next to no impact on battles, making them a somewhat pointless addition. The fiber gun is a glorified grappling hook received early in the game, that can be used to reach higher areas or take down small flying enemies. It has such a short range and is so slow that we rarely found ourselves using it unless required to do so.
The loot system should also be familiar to those who have played Hollow Fragment or Realization. Weapons and accessories dropped by enemies come in different rarities that determine how many passive effects they have. Unless you’re trying to make a powerful weapon in new game plus there isn’t much reason to pay attention to passive effects since a weapon’s base stats are generally more important. At least there’s a decent amount of variety when it comes to weapon types, though it does feel like many weapons are weak. This is even more evident once you unlock dual-wielding which makes weapons like assault rifles even more powerful.
Online play, something that has never been a huge focus in previous SAO releases, is even more lacking here. Multiplayer is split between PvE and PvP, though there is little reason to try either mode. PvE consists of boss battles only and only features bosses that you’ve already fought during the singleplayer campaign. Loot is set per mission and there are no weapon or accessory drops at all. You can’t even acquire experience, something that would have given players at least some reason to try out this mode.
PvP is more PvPvE, since there are no typical deathmatch modes that you’d expect to see here. In this mode, teams must kill a boss before their opponents. You can attack the enemy team, but it makes more sense just to focus on the boss enemy instead. PvP is incredibly pointless right now and will hopefully be improved in the future. Online play in general is lacking, offering few rewards over just grinding in singleplayer.
Even looking past Fatal Bullet’s flaws, one thing that will likely be a deal-breaker for SAO fans is the quality of the PC port. It seems like only the bare minimum of work has been done when bringing the game over from consoles for the most part. Mouse control for aiming is fine, offering more precision over controller, but that’s about as far as mouse support goes in Fatal Bullet. Menus do not support mouse movement at all, requiring you to use buttons only. This makes navigating the map screen a chore, and many menus would have been far easier to navigate with a mouse.
There are a decent amount of graphical options, but these can only be accessed from the main menu and not during gameplay. This is annoying since the game is optimised rather poorly, making many trips to the graphics menu necessary. Fatal Bullet is not a particularly nice looking game, something that makes the performance issues even less justifiable. Character models are the only improvement over previous SAO titles, and even those cause framedrops if too many are on screen at once. Cutscenes are especially prone to stuttering, since many of them feature a lot of characters at once. We experienced one crash during 25 hours of play.
I’m honestly disappointed with Fatal Bullet. The SAO games have never been the best RPGs, but they at least offered a different take on the various MMOs featured throughout the series. Fatal Bullet just feels unfinished thanks to its story that doesn’t really go anywhere and unbalanced gunplay. Future patches and DLC might help fix up some of the game’s issues, but at its core Fatal Bullet is a weak SAO game that only die-hard fans should really look into.