I have a complicated relationship with Sword Art Online. I, like many other fans of the series, feel that the anime’s first story arc is compelling and beautiful. The second half of the show’s first season is a muddled mess, however, and the arcs that follow retread a lot of the same ground. For better or worse, the games based on the popular anime and manga have been patterned heavily after their inspiration, resulting in some truly drab games that do little else but provide a story recap broken up by mediocrity.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is full of strange decisions. The game’s combat is structured using the framework of a third-person shooter, but that is wrapped within the illusion of a massive online world that is actually a rigidly-structured JRPG, complete with traditional trappings. The story just barely caresses the main series narrative, yet features most of the most popular characters in recurring roles.
Above all else, though? Fatal Bullet is the best Sword Art Online game I’ve ever played, and while that doesn’t mean it’s groundbreaking by any means, it does feel like a major step forward for a series that continues to churn out new titles year after year.
A Lonely God Complex
Perhaps the most refreshing element of Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is its relative lack of interest in the series’ overarching narrative. While erstwhile protagonist Kirito does play a heavy role in the story regardless, following a brand new tale set from the perspective of unfamiliar characters makes the game seem newer than its predecessors. The game still manages to retread some of the broader elements at play in the series, all while most of the story centers around rekindling a long lost friendship online. Seriously, though, how many times can virtual reality MMOs be tied to murder before people stop playing them?
The complications that come with this online setting feel real, though, and all of the newly-created characters unique to this story have motives and backgrounds that make them feel special. The game’s protagonist does suffer from some of the same flaws Kirito does, however, and if that’s been a problem for you before, it’s unlikely to change now. Characters can’t help but point out how lucky our hero is as they stumble into the rarest items, best squadrons, and most dangerous dungeons in a string of serendipitous circumstances. The protagonist is also a newbie who quickly becomes one of the online world’s very best, which strains belief at times—there are characters who mention dedicating their life to the world of Gun Gale Online, and it feels odd that my character can become a firearms-wielding god in just a matter of weeks.
If my character were a god, though, I’d have had her reshape the world of Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet a long time ago. Where the game thrives in character development, it stumbles in world building. Gun Gale Online is a post-apocalyptic world full of ruins and robots, and boy does it ever embrace that aesthetic. It feels like nearly every dungeon is a shade of grey, while the outside world is either gunmetal or brown. There’s splashes of color in player costumes, but the environment, which is recycled relentlessly, never engages. Nowhere is that more evident than the game’s city hub, which is supposed to mimic that of an online title’s major player gathering center. It’s devoid of life outside of important characters, and might as well be just another bit of post-war rubble in a game that is filled to the brim with them.
Cock It and Pull It
Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet Review - Number One With a Bullet
The budget for Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet definitely feels much larger than the ones previous titles in the series have had, though. That extra bit of polish shines through in the game’s combat, which is a unique blend of basic shooter elements and RPG skill and party management. Enemies each have various weakpoints to exploit, and they are fairly easy to determine. The giant death robot scorpion’s tail yields critical damage, for instance, while most humanoid enemies should be shot in the head, or sometimes a large glowing eye. It’s a nice bit of nostalgia and brings to mind some of the old Legend of Zelda titles, which featured character designs that made it extremely clear how each enemy should be approached.
Approaching this game like a traditional shooter will yield a lot of frustration, but once players get the hang of it, it’s quite simple. Zooming in with weapons removes the aim assist functionality, making it a very real cost to try and be more accurate. Enemies move erratically and dance around the battlefield, so often it is better to just let the broad aim auto-assist do its thing while focusing on where an enemy is moving to next. The game is a lot of fun in that regard, and should be praised for successfully integrating a shooter element and making it still feel like a Sword Art Online game.
Where I began to feel the wheels come off a little was in the overall grind of the game. It had been smooth sailing up until about fifteen hours in, where I was suddenly faced with much more demanding enemies. The only way to level up without grinding is to complete repeatable subquests, take place in hunts, or progress through the game’s main narrative, and while that sounds like a lot to do, it really isn’t. Eventually players will be left to wander a desert in search of as many robots to decommission as possible, which is a lot more fun to watch in something like Blade Runner than play in something like Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet.
Sugar, We’re Going Down Swingin’
Fatal Bullet also features online PvP elements, but the less said about those the better—do not purchase this game for its online functionality. The modes feel tacked on, matchmaking takes times, and all of the positive energy generated by the game’s combat system in PvE translates very poorly into PvP. Not being able to aim very well against other players sucks, and the matches devolve into spray and pray mentalities quickly. Of course, if you’re a more adept player than me, your experience might vary, but for the average gamer PvP will be much more frustrating than fulfilling.
Excepting its online shortcomings, however, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is easily the best game using the license yet. Everything feels more polished, and though the game’s setting sacrifices the bright colors and exciting worlds that have been the saving graces of past titles, the gameplay and structure more than make up for it. Fans will enjoy the unique story and major character appearances, and those new to the world of SAO will inevitably find themselves losing hours to the grind without realizing it before late-game fatigue finally begins to set in. In that regard, Fatal Bullet does something that no other title in the series has done—making a game about a show about a video game finally, inexplicably, a decent game after all.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet review code provided by Bandai Namco. Version 1.01 reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our review policy.