I love video games and I love anime so when I heard about Sword Art Online, I was pretty excited. The idea of a bunch of players trapped in a fully immersive, virtual reality MMORPG complete with real-world consequences sounds right up my alley, and the series has become a bit of a cult favourite among the gaming community. Sadly though, despite the low-hanging fruit of the source material, the games based on the show have been mostly dull, repetitive affairs filled with mediocre stories and overt fan-service, ironically failing to capture the main hook of the franchise, the fact that it’s a video game. The latest instalment, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet aims to change things up by offering a new setting, a new gameplay style and a chance to create your own character, but is there enough in the clip to make a difference or are they still shooting blanks?
“…and that’s why Naruto is a far superior anime.”
In a first for the series, Fatal Bullet drops you into the world of Gun Gale Online, a gritty, gun-filled dystopia that acts as the setting for later seasons of the anime. After a fairly decent character customisation screen, your freshly minted avatar enters the world of GGO for the first time ever at the behest of a childhood friend, Kureha. As she attempts to introduce you to the mechanics, you inadvertently find and activate one of the rarest ‘items’ in the game, a sentient, humanoid AI character called ArFA-sys, who also happens to be fully customisable. Shortly after this, you’re introduced to Kirito and the rest of the gang from the show, they welcome you into the fold and take great interest in your new companion. Following a (very) long explanation of who everyone is, what they do and how you’ll spend most of your time in the game, you’re tasked with finding the missing components of ArFA-sys, who seems to be the key in unlocking new content in the upcoming expansion of the in-game universe. The plot thickens as you progress, dealing with double-crosses, shadowy figures and people trying to steal ArFA-sys, but ultimately the roughly 25-hour main story feels a bit flat, filled with oddly placed pieces of narrative and a fairly predictable arc. Fans of the series will no doubt get a kick from hanging out with their favourite characters but newcomers will most likely be left feeling empty and confused, which is a shame considering the popularity of the source material.
As is to be expected from a game based on an anime, the visuals are pretty great, with just the right blend of over the top aesthetic and gritty ‘realism’. Ditching the swords and shields fantasy melee action from previous titles, Fatal Bullet (and GGO) is a high-octane 3rd person shooter RPG that pits your gun slinging skills against all sorts of robotic nasties. The combat in Fatal Bullet is actually a lot of fun and dancing around the battlefield while emptying clip after clip is about as satisfying as is sounds. Depending on your play style you can wield a variety of firearms from pistols to shotguns to sniper rifles and even rocket launchers. If you are familiar with other 3PS games, you’ll have no trouble getting the hang of things, but for everyone else the game has a light aim-assist function baked in, ensuring that you’ll always be able to hit something as you dash around. Similar to other RPGs, after you level up a bit you’ll also have a selection of skills and gadgets at your disposal such as grenades, healing items, slick moves or powerful buffs, allowing you to really play to your strengths. For all the die-hard SAO fans, there are also swords for you to destroy things with, which brings a bit of old-school flair back into the mix.
With this sword, I will create art…online
Outside of combat, things are a little dryer. Walking around the world of GGO feels slow and boring, with most environments being run down and either gunmetal grey or a muddy brown. Even the enemies lack variety, with models being recycled throughout, hiding under a fresh coat of paint or slightly different armour. The game encourages you to supplement the main story with side quests and other activities like finding treasure, bounty hunts and limited online co-operative or competitive multiplayer, but the way to access these activities can be a bit confusing and often not worth it, especially early in the game. It’s also important for an RPG to have a clear character progression and development system, but Fatal Bullet makes things just slightly more complicated than they need to be. After you understand it the system works fine, but it took me at least 3 or 4 hours before I realised that everything was hard because I wasn’t levelling up the way I was expecting to. Acquiring higher level gear and weapons can also start to feel a little grindy after a while, but honestly, this kind of gameplay seems to be part and parcel for RPGs these days and I’m kind of getting used to it, as sad as that seems.
Although it was great for me (as I’m learning Japanese), the fact that the game lacks English voice dub could be troubling for some players. Anime purists and fans of previous SAO games will be familiar with the subtitles but again, newcomers may expect an option to change the Japanese audio, which at this point doesn’t exist. It’s by no means a deal-breaker and it does feel more like the series, but I think a localised audio version would have been a great option to include, especially considering how dialogue-heavy these kinds of games can get. I often found myself missing out on mid-battle conversations since I was too busy fighting to read the subtitles.
In GGO, they don’t care about saving bees
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is fun at times but ultimately struggles to stay relevant to anyone but fans of the series. If you love the show, chances are you’ll love this game but everyone else will likely just plug through the opening hours before moving on to something a bit more interesting. The change of gameplay style and in inclusion of a character creator definitely serve the game well, but I feel like a bit more was needed to get this over the line, especially considering the quality of RPGs we’ve been receiving in the last few years.
Reviewed on PS4 | Review code supplied by publisher