As a major patch has released, bringing with it plenty of new items and a mysterious ship floating about the world, players rush to be the first to unlock its secrets. Enter you, the player, a newbie in this world but one who is about to discover one of this world's rarest items. The premise for the latest entry in the Sword Art Online series of games sells the title rather well, filling you with curiosity and the urge to drive right in. Telling an original story that pulls key points from the anime, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet invites you to create your own character and embark on an epic journey. The thing is, when you’re meant to shine against the series protagonist, how does that play out?
The story for Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet starts with you entering the world of the VRMMORPG, Gun Gale Online or GGO for short. You join just as a huge update has been released and you are aiding your team in finding a rare item. As you would expect your avatar finds the rare item which is revealed to be an AI that soon has every player begging to take it off you. From here, you will set off to level up both yourself and your new companion before dealing with the bigger dangers that lurk in this word. Being a Sword Art Online game you will see plenty of familiar faces, but thankfully there are enough explanations to ensure new players to the series have some idea of what is going on - even if it takes way too long to do so. Worth taking note of though is that the opening movie for the game actually spoils a key story beat so you might want to skip it.
Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet presents players with a third person shooter control scheme. The PlayStation 4 control layout is fairly easy to master within a short space of time, with movement and aiming working as expected. The game does a fantastic job of making everything accessible to players with a number of helpful features as well. The main one being the aim assist, which when turned on gives the player a large box in which to aim with. When an enemy is inside, you will automatically aim at said target, meaning you don’t need to focus so much on a single target. Manual aiming is still an option with iron sights available as well, allowing for more precise aiming which helps land those critical hits.
One of the main features you will want to make the use of is the Ultimate Fiber Gun (UFG for short). This weapon is given to the player really early on and allows you to zip around the map, pull flying enemies down to the ground opening up different strategies in combat. As interesting as the UFG is, the feature feels redundant not long after you get it as the combat often doesn’t support it. In fact, a lot of the combat situations end up being a complete mess as the enemies often just run towards or away from you, with perfect aim that you’ll need to continuously dodge in order to survive. Managing your position in fights will become super critical as you advance through the game.
Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet isn’t just about running around shooting aimlessly at enemies - though a large portion is - as the title also features the usual role-playing elements that fans of the series will be familiar with. Leveling up, allocating stat points, meeting item requirements and managing your loot will build up your core gameplay loop. Taking part in both story and side missions, of which there are plenty, will see you needing to make use of skills to unleash massive amounts of damage and aid your party. With a wide range of weapons to choose from you are able to mix and match to your heart’s content and find the ideal loadout for the task. Weapons have stat requirements and how you spend your points to level these up is completely up to you. Building your character the way you want is easy and with a lot of freedom you will be able to jump between a few builds as needed.
It is worth noting that Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet has a lot of similarity in terms of gameplay to a game by the name of Freedom Wars. This is not a bad thing, as Freedom Wars is a solid action RPG on the PlayStation Vita. The comparison is hard to overlook, though, as Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet even takes the idea for the UFG directly from the other title. Regardless, though the gameplay is solid, it is nowhere near as fluid as Freedom Wars and it is a shame that the developers couldn’t take that inspiration and make better use of it. Ideally, they could look at how the melee weapons are handled because in Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet they are next to impossible to utilise effectively due to enemies having pinpoint accuracy.
Running on Unreal Engine 4, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet makes a big song and dance about its visual quality and environment design. True, the game looks polished and well detailed at times with textures being clear and no sign of any visual errors, however the design of the environments is disappointing. These uninspiring and forgettable areas are often empty and lifeless even when out in the field. Sure, you can zip around to reach higher ground but the chances to do this are few and far between. Most dungeons are a take on the same design in the form of a linear set of rooms and corridors, each similar in layout with nothing overly exciting to be found within. Once more, each map is actually fairly small meaning you will become bored of them faster than you would expect.
Of course most of your time within Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet will be spent running around completing missions, hunting named enemies in bounty missions and grinding for experience. The gameplay may have elements that make the game enjoyable and allow you to overlook the poor design of the environments, but nothing can save you from the bosses. If lacklustre and bullet sponge enemy design is your thing then you will find plenty to love here, otherwise it is not going to be a fun time. Paired with the downright awful AI your party members seem to be running on, it is often a case of becoming stun locked and stuck in a loop of dying, being revived and reviving your party. This is frustrating because when the game works you end up with delightful moments that feel responsive, polished and fun. It is then a shame that most of your time will be stuck in this continuous state of purgatory.
One final thing to note is just how awful the games pacing and narrative really are. Sure, the performance is solid with a framerate that never drops, but you will find more loading screens in Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet then you would expect. You will accept a mission, move to the hub world, move to the open world, complete the mission, go back to your house and have a loading screen between each of those. This impacts the pacing as cutscenes and dialogue scenes will drag on and the early game feels more like a climb just to get to next section of gameplay. It gets better as the game goes on, but at times you may struggle to keep going. The same can be said for the narrative and interaction between the characters which boils down to jokes about girls not playing videogames, flirting with girls and the odd sexual statement that is somewhere between unneeded and awkward. The outcome is character development and narrative that is boring, forgetful and just not worth paying attention to.
In the end, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet falls short in a number of different ways that just results in an agonising gaming experience. The core gameplay loop when it works can be extremely entertaining and make you feel powerful when you combine skills and critical shots together. At the same time, all it takes is a single moment for that feeling to be crushed as the game just wrecks you over and over again. The same can be said for the narrative, too, which plays to please the fans of the series and alienates those who are not hardcore fans. The result; a title that would be better off without any of the anime tropes and just having a completely separate story disconnected from the reference material completely.
Because of this, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet is an underdeveloped game that relies too heavily on the universe it is set in and fails to reach its full potential. You might find some enjoyment here but you could also find more elsewhere.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
Minor enjoyable interactions, but on the whole is underwhelming.
The focus may be on you and your avatar but sadly Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet relies too heavily on it's source material and won't let you leave the shadow of the series protagonist. Repetitive gameplay, undeveloped systems and a story that is forgettable leave this entry in the series rather disappointing.