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Review

Review: Sword Art Online – Fatal Bullet

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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.

Conclusion

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.

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