Sword Art Online has probably surprised a lot of people by becoming one of the most popular anime series out there. While its initial set-up remains an alluring one – though arguably one they cribbed from .hack and numerous others – it’s often hard to make it past the exceedingly pleasant Kirito and his ever-expanding harem of adoring women. Despite the franchise’s set-up making it perfect for real-life video games, they haven’t had much luck in successfully bringing the series over, with last year’s Hollow Realization the best of a lacklustre bunch. Fatal Bullet hopes to change all that, and marks a major overhaul of the series by leaving the fantasy worlds of Aincrad and Alfhiem behind and shifting to third-person gunplay.
Fatal Bullet makes much of the fact that this is the first time you can truly create your own avatar. This is your own character placed at the centre of the game, and as character creation goes it’s moderately successful. There are a hell of a lot of haircuts and eyebrows, if those are your things, but a complete lack of facial hair doesn’t cater to the more discerningly hirsute player.
Once you’re done with character creation you “log-in” to Gun Gale Online – or GGO – a gun-orientated VRMMO taken from the second season of the Sword Art Online anime. We’re not exactly talking Inception levels of confusion here, but the fact we’re now playing a game based on a fictitious game, found within the anime of another fictitious game, is probably somewhat niche at best. You’re greeted by Kureha who professes to be your long-time real world best friend and she rushes you off to your first tournament while you’re probably still trying to learn where you are.
You’re soon gifted a rare item; an android called an ArFA-sys which ‘excitingly’ stands for Artificial Financial Adviser System. All you really have to know, once you’ve customised their look, is that ArFA-sys follows you round calling you “Master” and performing a bunch of support functions, most of which – outside of combat – are to do with items or money.
They’ll also give you a UFG – an Ultra Fiber Gun – which is essentially a hookshot that allows you to reach higher spots or activate certain switches. Besides the ability to zip about, you can also down certain enemies and even steal parts from those you’ve knocked down. Both of these aspects are sold to you as being rare, but given that you acquire them within minutes of starting the game, it’s hard to feel particularly lucky. First impressions of using the hookshot aren’t great, but it does prove itself to be a useful tool once you’ve got used to the camera chaos it can cause.
The opening is interminably boring. Beyond the tutorial there’s genuinely about two hours of explanations and introductions. Kirito and his besotted harem are here in force, with characters from both seasons of the anime, and the previous Sword Art Online games as well, all of whom immediately want to be your friend, and who seemingly need to be met straight away. On top of that, you’re told – not shown – about the game’s systems in page after page of infographics. It’s actually akin to Monster Hunter in a few ways, though in this case you’re given all of the tutorials before you’ve barely played any of the game. It makes for a messy introduction, but one that does even out.
Much like Monster Hunter, God Eater et al, there’s a grinding gameplay loop which sees you improving your stats and gear through repeated quests and forays into the battlegrounds tackling the same enemies over and over. You’ll probably already know if that’s going to suit you or not, but Fatal Bullet does at least get the weighting of progression right, meaning that I found few real sticking points during the campaign. At times humorous, at others disappointingly sexist, it is at least true to the show, including a take on the main Death Gun arc which is the highlight of the Sword Art Online II anime.
While being a virtual VRMMO, Fatal Bullet actually offers a very real multiplayer mode, though it’s disappointing not there to let work your way through the campaign with your actual friends in tow. Instead you get co-op PvE missions for up to four players as well as PvP where two teams of four compete to inflict the most damage on a boss, both of which can offer some frantic thrills. It seems as though there’s room for this aspect to grow as well, which should hugely help with the longevity of the game.
While the cel-shaded characters, SBC Glocken hub and the various battlegrounds look fairly attractive, the frame rate can struggle to keep up at times as you’re wandering about, particularly if there are more than a couple of enemies on the screen. It’s not game-breaking, but it does diminish the solidity and feel of the world. We’ve also lost the character art from the ‘talking heads’ routines and the character models just don’t hold up in the same way. The game also never seems to stop loading. They’re not horribly extended breaks, but you’ll be greeted by static loading screens almost every time you want to do anything.
It’s a shame that the game’s menus and hub world area are also so unintuitive. The SBC Glocken is huge, meaning that you simply won’t want to run from one end of it to the other, so instead you’ll be jumping into the fast travel options on the map. This would be easier if you had a direct link to it, like that giant touchpad button in the middle of the DualShock 4, but instead you have to hit pause, scroll across, and then zoom out. The rest of the menus are similarly unhelpful, all of which just makes dealing with them more of a chore.
Despite that, there’s actually plenty of fun to be had in Fatal Bullet. The third-person gunplay is surprisingly solid, mixing running, gunning and dodging with some more considered long range action. Drawing on the anime with GGO’s Prediction Lines, you can see enemies trying to take aim at you via a visible red line which gives you an instant to get out of the way, giving encounters some much needed pace. It’s not Gears of War by any stretch of the imagination – there’s no dedicated cover system for one thing – but then it has a feel all of its own, and the generous auto aim means shooting from the hip while evading is generally the best course of action, and one that you’ll be more than willing to spend many hours with.
For fans of the anime, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is a great use of the license that brings some welcome changes to the series. There are still the recurring issues of pacing and a number of technical flaws that diminish the rest of the game’s achievements, but this hopefully sets a new benchmark for the franchise going forward.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro