Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet Review
I mentioned before that I am a Sword Art Online fan. Not to the point of being an apologist, but one that appreciates a lot of the hooks the series has provided for the viewer. That includes the high-stakes drama which had me hooked on the original series. Unfortunately, from then on, that intensity and gripping narrative began to fell by the wayside.
No longer did I feel that the fate of the characters was in limbo. Instead, I was left with a dry taste in my mouth as I witnessed an overarching plot that began to devolve into far more traditional fare with unexciting trappings. But there's a new game out that does its best to go against these feelings I have had for the series as of late.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet offers a fresh formula that gives the license a much-needed shot in the arm thanks to its deep customization and enjoyable gameplay elements. Not only that, but Gun Gale Online (the VR MMORPG where the game takes place) presents a far more interesting framework thanks to its sci-fi setting and gun-heavy focus, rather than the fantasy backdrop the property was precedently known for.
I should also point out it's no mere coincidence Fatal Bullet was released at this point in time. Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online, a new anime based on the manga that is currently running, will be premiering this April. It features a new cast of characters with an original story while still being set in the same universe.
Rather than tackling this arc (though it's time will likely come later) or following the events of the anime, developer Dimps decided to go in a different direction with an original tale. As cool as that sounds, is it worth your time?
You start off the game by creating your own character. This includes a wide arrangement of options to tinker with including body shape, hairstyle, facial features, and more. I have always liked the look of the character design in Sword Art Online, so being able to create an avatar that fits into that world is appealing to me, personally.
Thankfully, unlike Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, you’re not playing the role of Kirito (which was incredibly awkward). Because Dimps is no longer boxed into a corner, they are given a lot more freedom here to weave their own story without relying on the source material.
You'll still meet Kirito and the rest of the characters you would have met previously, but this is first and foremost your adventure. Even if you haven't played any of the other titles, they do a decent enough job catching you up to speed by introducing you to all the returning cast.
Shortly after making your character, you’re dumped into the online-connected VRMMO of Gun Gale Online. You meet up with your childhood friend Kureha who walks you through the tutorial section of the game. She soon explains to you about an incredibly rare item that can only be obtained by participating in an in-game tournament that is about to begin. That item happens to be the "ArFA-sys", an artificial intelligence with its own unique personality.
This catches the attention of Kirito and his friends who were also vying for the same rare drop, including other characters fighting over possession of the ArFA-sys. From this point on, you will be tasked with upgrading your AI companion.
All the while, the primary objective of the game is to explore a mysterious spaceship, the SBC Flugel, that has appeared as a result of the latest update and clear it to understand the deeper mystery surrounding Gun Gale Online.
Suffice to say, having an actual motive for your custom character is a far more interesting foundation for the plot than what I have experienced from playing Hollow Fragment and Hollow Realization. Sure, you'll still engage in developing relationships with many of the cast members, but it feels better in a sense that my avatar is the one sweet-talking these characters and not Kirito.
The ArFA-sys can be upgraded, customized, and even serve as your bank where the more money the deposit, the more you can earn back through interest. Yes, Fatal Bullet teaches you how to be fiscally responsible.
The core gameplay loop for Fatal Bullet is fairly standard. You spend the vast majority of your time taking on quests through the hub area of Gun Gale Online, SBC Glocken, in order to earn bounties and level up. By completing these quests, you also raise your popularity, expanding the scope of what you can do. During these quests, you can invite Kirito and crew along as party members of which you can have up to 4 people, including yourself.
It is clear Dimps took a lot of inspiration from one of its other titles, Freedom Wars, in terms of its entertaining third-person mechanics. You'll unlock plenty of handguns, shotguns, assault rifles, machine guns, and other artillery to play around with. There's also a grappling hook which allows you to reach high ledges while also pulling down flying enemies. This adds a decent amount of vertical maneuverability in what would otherwise be your standard run-and-gun.
Speaking of which, the customization featured in this game extends far and wide, allowing you to transform and enhance your weapons with different modifiers while also pouring points into various stats as you level up. Perhaps one of the coolest features is the ability to save and load different load-outs including your stats and equipment, allowing you to switch things up completely before every encounter.
Those familiar with the anime will be happy to know you will be able to unlock the "Death Gun" arc which acts as a separate story campaign. Here, you will control Kirito as he makes his way through the sequence of events from the second season of the anime.
For those who are unaware, Kirito was sent by important officials to investigate a string of mysterious deaths by the hands of a highly-skilled player. It is also where Kirito meets Sinon, a core cast member who gets wrapped up in the events of the story. This representation in the game doesn't last long, but it's a neat inclusion regardless.
The same goes for the main story itself. I was able to complete the main story of Fatal Bullet including its True Ending over the course of a weekend. Due to how the game is always willing to point out where you should be going next, it doesn't feel as overwhelming in terms of content compared to Hollow Realization, which is a good thing. I came away from this game feeling satisfied with what I had played.
Fatal Bullet definitely also feels like a nice step up in terms of visuals compared to Hollow Realization. I was naturally impressed at some areas for a game of this type and scope. Thanks to its use of Unreal Engine 4, there was no ugly textures to speak of. Sure, it may not compete with the higher budget titles of the year, but it certainly isn’t an eyesore.
On the other hand, there are definitely places where Dimps cut corners. Many of the cutscenes in the game take place with 3D models facing the camera on a static background. Sometimes all you're doing is sitting around transitioning from one performance to the next, which pulled me out of the experience, and it looks downright awful.
At least we're no longer dealing with the horrible translation featured in Hollow Fragment. Tie that together with an unevenly-paced narrative, especially when it brushes off what would otherwise be huge confrontations, and you get the feeling they were working on a pretty small budget.
Be that as it may, I am glad Bandai Namco and Dimps went with something a bit different for Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet. I had a good amount of entertainment playing around with the different mechanics while getting to know the other characters in my party. While it may not convince those who aren’t already fans of the series to give this one a try, those who are already invested in the license will find plenty to enjoy here.