Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet Review
For someone who is only passingly interested in the Sword Art Online anime/manga, I sure have spent a lot of my life playing the games associated with the property. Of all of them, the original on the PS Vita stands out the most; not because it was the best game, but because the localization was hilariously awful and the game was such a mish-mash of broken systems and ideas that went nowhere that it was actually pretty fun. The games since have followed similar formulas more or less, adding polish, furthering the story alongside the lengthening anime/manga, etc., but Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is the first game in the series in a long time I was actually excited to play, simply because of the change in combat. But we will get there in a minute. For now, let's just say Fatal Bullet isn't the best SAO game, it certainly isn't the worst, but it is the most refreshingly different.
The story in Fatal Bullet is pretty typical for an RPG set in an existing property with a character you create yourself. You are a new recruit in the online game Gun Gale Online, which is essentially Sword Art Online II (just like Sword Art Online... with guns!). It isn't long before you stumble upon ArFA-sys, an artifact/character that is extremely rare and valuable, and this kicks off your adventure. Before too long you find yourself fighting alongside the SAO characters you know and love, including the main protagonist, Kirito.
But here's the thing - the game takes FOREVER to get going. The introduction, meeting ArFA-sys and gaining control doesn't take long, but the game then proceeds to dump hours of exposition, "getting to know you" quests and cutscenes on you all at once, and it doesn't seem to have any qualms about making sure you REALLY want to get to the good stuff by using endless nonsense as a deterrent. I feel like I've been mentioning my wife in reviews a lot recently, but I started playing Fatal Bullet one morning before she went to work. Sure, I took some breaks during the day, but by the time she came home, I had only just gotten into the meat of things. The first, let's say third, of Fatal Bullet is like Brian Griffin's description of The Blair With Project, "Nothing's happening, nothing's happening, nothing's happening... people look pissed." When things do get going, the game is actually pretty short. I think it took me about 30 hours to power through almost everything (a few sidequests not included) which, in all honesty, felt just about right. I just wish Fatal Bullet didn't take so much time getting to where I wanted to be - the combat.
I count myself as a gamer who truly enjoys some good RPG turn-based or MMO type combat, but Fatal Bullet changes things up with an action-based combat system that gives the series a whole new, and definitely welcome, feel. Seeing as it takes place in Gun Gale Online, firearms are the weapons du jour, but you also have the option to use the classic blades from the original SAO. No matter what you choose, the third person combat feels great, and leveling up brings all kinds of perks and power-ups that keep things consistently interesting. The game never forces you to play with a weapon or combat style for any particular situation, so you are free to pick whatever style weapon you like, whatever upgrades you want and things don't ever feel like the deck is stacked against you because of it. For the things that Fatal Bullet missed the mark on, the combat is not one of them, and it almost makes me wish someone would create a version of World of Warcraft with this kind of action gameplay. I never got too much joy from killing ten boars for seemingly no reason and simply by clicking them with a mouse, but give my itchy trigger finger one of Fatal Bullet's insane firearms and maybe WoW would be something I could finally enjoy.
Since the game is based on a fictional MMO, of course multiplayer, competitive and cooperative, is included in Fatal Bullet. It's not a true MMO by any means, but you can duel others or team up to take down larger raid bosses. Both activities feel, to be perfectly honest, totally pointless. Dueling is downright boring, and teaming up with others is a terrible idea when NPCs - characters famous from the SAO universe like Kirito - are infinitely more useful and better at helping than some rando who, in my experience, runs around, doesn't do much damage and ends up getting us all killed. I was able to easily destroy some of the game's toughest bosses with NPCs, whereas human-controlled players either went out of their way to lose or Leeroy Jenkins'd at every turn.
Here's the thing, aside from the combat, it doesn't seem like much effort was put into the rest of the game. The environments are bland and featureless and the repetitive nature of the enemies does tend to wear. From a graphical standpoint, it's kind of like a modern version of Pac-Man; you move through identical environments and battle the same enemies over and over until the end. For as much as I loved the change up in combat - and I can't stress enough how much I love the change - the rest of the game just leaves a lot to be desired. Oh, and the cutscenes. I can't close out the review without mentioning these. Most consist of expressionless characters, staring directly at the camera, reading their lines with all the enthusiasm of a reverend reading a eulogy for someone he never met. The words, "I did not! Oh, hi Mark," jump to mind each time a new cutscene rears its boring, uninspired head.
I'm torn over the score for Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet. The move from the ever-more-stale MMO combat kept me interested and entertained to the very end, but the painfully slow start, the blah and unnecessary multiplayer, the bland environments, repetitive enemies and almost hilariously bad cutscenes take a change for the better and stack negative after negative on top of one of the best things the SAO series has ever done. For an action game fan or a SAO fan, these missteps could easily be overlooked and a great time could be had with Fatal Bullet. For everybody else, though? Maybe waiting until the SAO series gets its moving parts all working in synch - Fatal Bullet's combat, the original's story (without the hilarious localization errors), previous PS4 game's multiplayer and presentation - would be a better choice for a game worth buying. For now, for everything Fatal Bullet does right, it remains cursed with the "for fans only" label so many anime games are branded with, and as much fun as I had with it, the truth is the truth.
Final Rating: 62% - Too slow a start and too much bland are fatal for this Sword Art Online game.