Sword Art Online is a marketing juggernaut that began in 2009 as a light novel series and has since expanded its roots to include a manga, anime, and video game adaptations. When it comes to the video game releases, the series has had its share of notable titles, such as Sword Art Online Re: Hollow Fragment, and others that were not so well received (see: Accel World VS Sword Art Online Review). However, the consensus is that the series can stand on its own in the video game market and bring fans a nice dose of their Sword Art Online cravings.
In order to address Sword Art Online’s multiple virtual game arenas, Bandai Namco has decided to bring in developer DIMPS to work a popular story arc, Gun Gale Online (GGO) with Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet. Yes, that means bringing the fantasy action RPG to a new genre: Third Person Shooter.The core gameplay of what fans are used to from the Sword Art Online series has been completely revamped to appeal to this genre change. Luckily, SAO: Fatal Bullet provides a fun and fresh Sword Art Online experience, but there’s still some elements of gameplay that need some refinements.
SAO: Fatal Bullet begins by allowing the player to create a brand new character. There are plenty of customizable options which allow for unique body type tweaking and also facial marks. Although the game begins this way, the avatar can be changed in the player’s room. We find out that this is the first time the player has logged in and is only doing it to join their friend, Kureha, in some online time together. However, after their first mission, the protagonist discovers a rare artificial financial advisor system named Afasys, or Rei.
After these events, the game’s story revolves around learning more about Rei and her origins. Evidently, unlike other AI systems like her, Rei can freely do whatever she pleases, but also will follow the orders of her master. As the protagonist, you learn that you have a gift as well as a special place within the GGO world and over time that becomes more apparent.
Although the premise seems clear enough, the actual TPS gameplay of SAO: Fatal Bullet takes awhile to get going. After the first mission, I think it was about two hours of tutorial slides and meeting Kirito and his friends before I picked up a gun again. Furthermore, the game expects you to be familiar with the story of SAO Re: Hollow Fragment and some of the relationships and situations that blossomed during the game. Even though many of the characters have shown up in the anime and manga, the games put an original twist on some of the character arcs and it might not make sense why certain characters are acting the way they are unless you know their full backstory.
After the initial training missions and character introduction, SAO: Fatal Bullet opens up to a pretty cool world divided into different sections. Each section is unique and offers new enemy types and difficulty levels. I enjoyed the settings of some of these areas, such as The Old South which is a destroyed city with powerful mech enemies flying around. The world opens up further in the later parts of the game, so it becomes necessary to use fast travel as often as possible, which could have used its own button shortcut instead of going into the menu every time you needed to access your map.
Sadly, this same attention to detail in the environments does not reflect the overused warehouse style dungeons that you’ll see many times. Sure, they mix up the layouts and some have a gimmick to them, but most of the time you’re just running through grey hallways into grey rooms and clearing out enemies. However, these dungeons are never very long and can usually end in a pretty epic boss battle.
The FPS gameplay in SAO: Fatal Bullet takes some getting used to, but it should feel comfortable at the hands of players who have played previous SAO titles. This is not a hardcore FPS game by any means, its entry-level systems allow players to pick up the controller and start shooting like crazy. However, there are some advanced systems that give players the option to dive deeper into things like weapon customization, skill loadouts, and item farming. With that said, there are portions of the game that require a bit of level grinding as well as perfecting gun skills to advance through some of the tougher areas. I found these portions of the game necessary because it made me slow down the story progression and focus on my character stats and weapon loadouts, which I had been neglecting.
Each weapon is different, and even if they are similar in name, they might have unique Memory Chips equipped with them to provide added damage bonuses. I found that I preferred an Assualt Rifle and Sniper combination worked best for me, but Shotguns are really helpful in the closed quarters of some of the dungeons. In the end, SAO: Fatal Bullet does well to cater to the different play styles of the player and I enjoyed the steady power increase in weapon types and drops as I progressed through the game.
Aside from story missions, players are able to take on Sub Quests, Hunting Quests, Unique Enemy Quests, and Treasure Quests, if you’ve played Freedom Wars, the mission structure will seem familiar. Thankfully, these quests naturally flow with the progression of the story if you accept them as they are offered and only sometimes require any type of backtracking. What I enjoyed most about deviating from the main story were the optional boss battles that I ran into from time to time. SAO: Fatal Bullet has some great boss designs that require the player to seek out the weak points of the massive enemy and shoot the hell out of it while dodging a barrage of attacks.
Had I just ran through the main story of SAO: Fatal Bullet I might have missed some of the best offerings of the game. This is where SAO titles truly stand out to fans of the series. There is almost always something to do outside of the story that will benefit your experience in the long run. This includes getting closers to the party members and spending someone one on one time with them, which has become a mainstay in the series.
SAO: Fatal Bullet does have a few kinks that need to be optimized. Since fast traveling is the best easiest way to get from one place to another, it’s a shame that the loading times in SAO: Fatal Bullet are so bad. Each time you go to a new area you are met with a lengthy load screen, which becomes more evident if you travel somewhere by accident and then travel to the correct location after. Also, end game content seems to be lacking when compared to other SAO titles, but there is still plenty to do in terms of item collecting and submissions. Hopefully, Bandai Namco continues to support the story in SAO: Fatal Bullet like they did with SAO: Lost Song.
DIMPS did a great job at bringing the world of SAO to the TPS genre, but the camera can be your worse enemy in some of the dungeons. Also, the enemy AI can be extremely brutal at times by taking half of your HP with some extremely accurate shotgun or sniper blasts. With that said, there are times when the AI seem to just allow you to walk up and shoot them as if they are distracted. However, I did notice that they sometimes used flaking tactics and also cover, but in dungeons, it’s not rare to see them grouped up shooting aimlessly. As for partner AI, they could use some offensive improvements, but their support is on point.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is the best SAO game that I’ve played since Re: Hollow Fragment. The game adds a much-needed structure change to the core mechanics of the SAO video game series by bringing the series to a new genre. After a slow start, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet gets addictive fast and throws the players into a well-delivered story that fits in with series’ canon. Character growth shown within the main cast of SAO is minimal as they take a back seat for the player created protagonist to steal the show along with the new original characters.
I enjoyed most of my time with Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet but I felt that it could have been a better experience with improved dungeon design and controls. Thankfully, this is a great new direction for the SAO series to be headed. Hopefully, the next video game installment will continue the trajectory of Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet and make this series the best it can be for fans.