Game Reviewby Branden Johnson,
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet
Unpopular opinion time: my least favorite arc in Sword Art Online was Gun Gale Online. Not that it was bad, just that it felt lacking compared to the two storylines that preceded it. So my expectations going into Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet were not high. After investing the time to play it though, I can say that it exceeded my expectations, if not by much. The game's pointless plot too often gets in the way of fairly fun gameplay, leaving me mashing X until I can finally start shooting things again.
I've only played a couple of the Sword Art Online video games, but I know enough to understand they take place in an alternate universe from the anime series. Not that it really matters here. The story rarely reaches for any greater heights than self-insert fanfiction, as you start out by creating your own avatar. Your voiceless protagonist and their friend Kureha log into Gun Gale Online to enter a tournament that promises a special rare item, hidden somewhere on the playing field. When everything goes wrong and you wind up separated from Kureha, you find yourself face-to-face with a strange android who decides you're their new master. Of course, Kirito and company show up, and you all work together to tackle quests as you prepare to enter the SBC Fluegel, a new area with allegedly fantastic rewards. All the while, you're hunting for information and missing parts for your new android partner, who has some sort of mysterious ties to the Fluegel.
To say there's nothing remarkable about this plot is an understatement. I know the story was created by original SAO author Reki Kawahara, but I get the sense that it wasn't a high priority for him. If anything, the plot serves as an antagonist itself, standing between you and the fun parts of the game, and the plot's problems start early. The game just takes way too long to get going. There are a lot of introductory cutscenes, with every one of the many Sword Art Online characters introducing themselves to you in the wordiest manner possible. By the time you begin this cutscene gauntlet, you'll have already learned the combat ropes from Kureha, but you run the risk of forgetting everything by the time you actually get to shoot your gun again. The game will also occasionally tease you by dangling a cool-sounding battle in front of your face, before snatching it away and skipping to the end, filling in the details in a visual novel-style cutscene. Why not let me play the cool fight? Missed opportunities like this abound.
But enough about the story. Where the game shines is in its combat. You're able to equip two guns at once from a variety of styles: pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles, and more. Each naturally has a very different feel, and finding a loadout you're comfortable with is important when you need to take down one of the game's big baddies. The shooting feels solid thanks to an Assist Mode that looks like a large frame around your reticle. So long as an enemy is within that frame, your reticle will lock on, and you can fire freely. This makes running and gunning like a badass possible even for inexperienced players. You can of course aim manually, and you're likely to do more damage that way, but the Assist Mode is a cool idea that other games should use for people who just want to motor through the game regardless of skill level.
Movement is fluid and fast, with an unlimited sprint that I found refreshing after so many games with stamina meters. Killing enemies and finding items on the battlefield awards you money and experience points, and leveling up gets you points that you can divide into individual stats such as Strength, Agility, and Intelligence. You'll also earn separate points that can be spent to purchase special skills. Skills are assigned to weapon types, so you can really fine-tune your loadout, though it's a problem if you switch to a new style of weapon and suddenly find yourself without access to your skills. From firing healing bullets at your teammates to dash attacks that deal huge damage (but leave you open to counterattacks), there are many different skills available. Likewise, you'll eventually acquire gadgets like traps and other weapons to aid you in combat.
Your A.I. partners are generally helpful, though I'll sometimes catch them standing around doing nothing in the heat of a battle. If one of your companions is killed, you can revive them, and they'll do the same for you. So long as at least one of your comrades is in the fight, there's potential for you to continue on; once you all fall, it's back to base (though you still earn experience and money, which should make your next attempt easier).
While it's fun getting to see all your favorite Sword Art Online characters run around with guns, the environments you'll be exploring are the worst kind of dull. The main hub is large but empty, with nothing much to do outside of gear shopping and the like. Dungeons seem copy-pasted from one another, and the outdoor environments are, much like the anime arc that inspired it, nothing but gray burnt-out buildings and boring landscapes.
Traversing those landscapes could stand to be more fun too. Early on, you're given a device that no other GGO players have: the Fiber Gun, a sort of laser grappling hook that lets you cross distances or climb heights quickly. It's a cool idea, but its implementation is lacking. The Fiber Gun itself is super glitchy, often failing to safely deliver me across gaps and instead dropping me into bottomless pits. Also, contrary to the rest of your movement in combat, using it feels sluggish, like you're suddenly heavier than usual. It's a necessary tool, and I used it frequently, but I was constantly reminded of how much cooler it could have been.
Enemy A.I. is not the smartest, but it almost doesn't need to be, since the game gives them an unfair advantage. Now, it could just be glitches, but my foes were definitely able to shoot me through walls and other barriers. Whether this is a programming problem or a design problem is irrelevant, since it has a negative impact on the gameplay regardless.
Unfortunately, you can't circumvent the so-so A.I. by fighting other players, because the only multiplayer modes available are cooperative. Well, sort of. One mode, a four-on-four battle called Online Competitive Battle, has your team competing against the other by trying to deal the most overall damage to a boss. So yes, you're competing, but this is nothing like battles in Gun Gale Online, at least as portrayed in other media. It seems that a lot of players have taken to ignoring the boss entirely and just battling each other, which only serves to highlight that true PvP was another missed opportunity on the part of the developers. Perhaps they can patch in a better system in the future. The other mode, Cooperative, has you teaming up with other players (and your A.I. androids) to take down bosses, with no competing teams to be concerned with.
If you're completely sold on the Sword Art Online video game universe, I'm sure you'll get some enjoyment out of interacting with your favorite characters, but for everyone else this is a tough recommendation. The combat is cool, and the character progression system is just nuanced enough without being cumbersome. You can give it a shot, but just be ready to skip a bunch of cutscenes.
Overall : C
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : C-
+ Fun and fast-paced combat, great character customization
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