Before we begin, a bit of background: In preparation to write this review of Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, I went over the other SAO game reviews I’ve written for Destructoid, and it turns out, a common thread runs through all of them: The assertion that Sword Art Online as a franchise has yet to top the original, titular death-game story arc. Everything else Kirito and his VR game pals have done to date has paled in comparison to their original exploits. It’s for a reason that most, if not all, of the franchise’s works are still branded with “Sword Art Online,” even if their stories and characters have long since moved on from that particular game.
Again and again, I’ve stated or otherwise implied that the SAO games would need to shake things up in a big way for me to really feel confident about them (and by extension, the franchise) again. They’d need to do the game equivalent of what happened in the “Death Gun” arc, I basically said, in order to keep things fresh.
Well, guess what? They did it.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet (PS4 [Reviewed], Xbox One, PC)
Developer: Dimps Corporation
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Released: February 23, 2018
Indeed, they’ve not just gone and done the “equivalent” of the “Death Gun” arc, but just up and centered the whole damn game around its setting!
For the uninitiated, the “Death Gun” arc of Sword Art Online opened the anime’s second season and involved Kirito joining an entirely different VR MMO, “Gun Gale Online,” to investigate a series of unusual deaths. Unlike the fantasy-medieval trappings of the original game and ALfheim Online (his new main), Gun Gale Online (GGO for short) was a sci-fi affair, with combat based mainly around gunplay and carrying a strong competitive player-versus-player scene. The arc mainly served to introduce the character Sinon to the core cast, and today GGO is the setting of Sword Art Online Alternative, a spin-off manga with different leads.
Defying expectations, developer Dimps has taken a left turn for its first crack at an SAO game, and not just by setting Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet in the world of GGO. Whereas the marketing might lead one to assume the game’s plot would be a game-original remix of the “Death Gun” plot, the truth is rather different, and quite a bit more customizable. Fatal Bullet doesn’t actually star Kirito. Instead, the main campaign is focused on a silent protagonist, a player-generated custom character, and begins on his or her first day playing GGO.
To me, this is a sort of genius twist on Dimps’ part. One of the reasons Kirito’s game adventures fell so flat all the time is that the scenario writers were beholden to save anything genuinely interesting for the actual source material. Without the freedom to really experiment and reinterpret the setting and characters (like, say, the way Telltale’s Batman series did for its source), the narratives had little choice but to tread water. Centering the narrative on the player’s character and a bunch of game-original cast members allows for actual stakes while still involving the characters and references people come to a Sword Art Online-branded game for.
While the stars and content may be original to the game, Kirito and his crew are all present, and even reference their activities in previous SAO titles to establish the timeline (in fact, one character borderline-spoils the end of Hollow Realization). All the same, though, the simple act of putting the player character first allows even the most unremarkable conflicts and encounters to feel personal and impactful, no matter how long a shadow the “canon” characters cast. Even the choices feel meaningful despite the fact that Fatal Bullet indulges the classic JRPG “false-choice” dialog structure as heavily as anything else in the space.
For its part, the narrative hinges on a new, mysterious expansion to GGO, a new high-level raid territory called the “SBC Flugel.” A newly-crashed colony ship on GGO’s planet, the Flugel’s still locked up tight, and can only be accessed by players accompanied by ultra-rare AI companions called “ArFA-sys.” The player character, drafted into the game by childhood friend Kureha, encounters one such ArFA-sys early on, narrowly avoiding being ganked by Kirito and Asuna for the prize. Encountering the most important rare drop in the game on their first day quickly singles the player out as a giant lucksack, earning them attention from both Kirito and his gang (now 15-strong after Hollow Realization), but also the attention of other high-level heavies on the GGO scene, all interested in claiming the ArFA-sys for themselves, or helping keep the ArFA-sys safe. The rest of the story follows the crew’s attempts to upgrade the ArFA-sys in preparation to unlock the raid, as well as look into a larger mystery lying at the heart of GGO.
Finally being awarded a sense of agency in presence in the story is a refreshing departure after years of watching Kirito and co. have fun on their own, and makes Fatal Bullet‘s campaign far more engaging than the straight details of the plot might otherwise imply. In a rather saucy-sounding twist, the classic SAO-game “Pillow Talk” events for about half that cast (mainly the game-original characters like Strea and Philia) are now be triggered by the player character rather than Kirito. You know you’ve made it when it’s your character and not the canonical lead that’s sleeping – very literally – with all the cute girls and boys.
Further, even one’s sense of ownership over the ArFA-sys reinforces that feeling of being central to the events occurring. The ArFA-sys is fully customizable and can be outfitted, leveled, and developed according to the player’s taste. It even handles banking and investment (the “FA” in the name stands for “Financial Assistant”), and can gain the player interest on the money they earn or buy rare items for them.
Fans just jonesing for more Kirito action can get their fill, as well. During the main campaign all the core Sword Art Online characters join up as playable party members, but later on, a special “Kirito Mode” campaign unlocks. This is where the more or less straight recreation of SAO’s “Death Gun” arc emerges, though it’s quite a bit shorter than the main campaign, with details adjusted to account for the game-verse’s unique timeline. It’s close enough though that it allows players to walk the canonical path for a while, at least, as well as play out various event scenes with the cast (including Pillow Talk events with the core SAO characters).
Perhaps most importantly, the narrative doesn’t wear out its welcome forcing players to waste time meandering. A helpful marker always points to the next critical story mission (though actually getting ready for it can take a slight bit of grinding). Mainlining the story quests can be done over a typical rental period (or a long weekend, if you’re willing), with a few hours tacked on to obtain the “True Ending.” Some might call this game “content-light” (especially considering the asking price), but for me at least, Fatal Bullet does itself a favor by cutting out a lot of the bloat that eventually made Hollow Realization a chore to complete.
Of course, a short-and-sweet campaign would still feel like a waste of time if the mechanics didn’t engage, and it’s here that Fatal Bullet makes the most dramatic departure from SAO games past. It shouldn’t surprise that Fatal Bullet is a third-person shooter, given that the game is set in Gun Gale Online. Players will scamper around the battlefield wielding various pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, and even a lightsaber photon sword or two.
People won’t be mistaking Fatal Bullet for Gears of War anytime soon, though. For one, the game lacks a cover system, relying on mobility via dodge rolls and quick-steps to ensure a player’s survival as they avoid the enemies’ telltale targeting lines. An additional dimension of verticality is added by the addition of the “fiber gun,” essentially a grappling hook that animates quite a lot like the “Thorn” devices from Freedom Wars, which just so happens to be another Dimps-developed game. In fact, quite a bit of the combat feels like it was brought in from Freedom Wars (sans the melee weapons), though at least here Dimps has added a generous (and toggleable) auto-aim feature to make it easier to stay mobile while still doing damage.
Skills and gadgets can also be equipped to add JRPG-style debuffs and special effects to various attacks, and powerful ultimate moves can be triggered by “Weapon Arts.” Individual weapons can also be customized at Lisbeth’s gunsmithy, adding various modifiers in exchanged for collectible upgrade chips. Enemies drop various “unappraised” weapons that can be identified at Agil’s item store as well, ensuring an engaging gear churn as players climb the progression ladder.
Visually, Fatal Bullet looks quite good, though the darker tones and metallic design sense of GGO makes for somewhat unappealing environments. If nothing else, the dungeon design feels more interesting thanks to the new movement options available, and the gunplay-based combat means that players will need to make the most of what features there are in the various spaces for cover. Most enemy design continues to pull from the big book of JRPG wildlife, as well as some genuinely rad boss designs, some of which I wish the likes of Destiny 2 would use as inspiration. In a nod to GGO’s competitive premise, the game also includes plenty of NPC “player” enemies, either as “bounty hunting” quest targets or as randoms seeking to gank the crew and take their stuff.
All of this represents a genuine sea change in the way that Sword Art Online operates, a path I’d find easy to recommend…if not for all the jank and rough edges. For every inspired change that makes me want to call this game “Anime Destiny” (a very high compliment, by my lights), there are a bunch of rough edges that reveal just where Dimps had to cut corners for lack of time or resources, or baffling decisions that make Fatal Bullet look downright amateurish.
For example, barring event scenes, Fatal Bullet‘s switched over to using its 3D models for most cutscenes and conversation, the better to accomodate the player’s custom character and ArFA-sys. That’s all well and good, but many of the cutscenes, particularly the character-driven skits and conversations, are still conducted with the dating-sim style layout, with characters lined up facing the camera. The results are frankly ugly, as poorly lit, physics-enabled character models slide on- and off-screen like someone was doing an animation rigging test in Gary’s Mod. Voice-over volume levels are oddly not normalized, with some characters sounding strangely quiet. Even some of the cinematically-inflected cutscenes from the beginning of the game fall flat because someone forgot to turn off the environmental reverb, making every spoken line echo like the characters are shouting into a metal bucket. That’s all a particular shame since the dialog and character interactions have received some strong translation, a far cry from the “Engrish” that plagued earlier releases.
The pacing for fun stuff is also strangely off. Though the critical path is easy to follow thanks to bright signposting and an extremely generous fast travel system (you can literally teleport from home base to a boss room), character events simply appear on the map, with no information as to the conditions for making them happen (usually some kind of affinity/affection score) or who they involve. They also tend to appear all at the same time, playing in sequence, as if the player were somehow being made to clear their voicemail inbox.
There’s even an odd sense of missed potential, considering how dramatic some of the character events are. One such scene had my character and his ArFA-sys taking on – and beating – Kirito and Asuna in a doubles PVP duel. In a better game, this would be the culmination of an entire subquest line, with the two heroes of SAO as sort of secret bosses to beat. But in Fatal Bullet, the duel is a fade to black…followed by Kirito going “Wow, you did so well to beat us that time!” What a waste.
Despite the rough edges, Dimps’ work is easy to like if you’re a Sword Art Online fan hungry for something new to advance the franchise with. Though ultimately held back by the jank, it’s definitely worth checking out, if for nothing else than a welcome change of pace and setting.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]