Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet – catchup review

When Fatal Bullet was first revealed, the announcement was probably met with a variety of reactions from potential punters. Those unaware of, or uninterested in, the SAO licence certainly wouldn’t have offered more than a “meh”. Those that had tried, and been disappointed by, previous games may perhaps have offered a raised eyebrow. Fans who enjoy both the anime and the games, on the other hand, will almost certainly have been at least a little bit excited. They probably shouldn’t have been.

Based on the second series of the anime, until now not explored in the games, Fatal Bullet largely takes the “sword” out of “Sword Art Online”. There’s a new super-popular VR MMO in town by the name of Gun Gale Online. Although there are AI monsters, the real action is at the “Bullet of Bullets” tournament. This is essentially a Battle Royale FPS where the best players can earn real-life money. Fans of the anime should abandon hopes of a faithful interactive recreation of the animated action. In contrast to the anime, the emphasis here is most definitely on fighting AI robots and beasts, and – disappointingly, though perhaps predictably – the action takes place from a third-person perspective, not a first-person perspective.

A familiar face from the anime, yes, but it’s not the same story.

That’s not to say that the source material has been ignored. Far from it. Many elements are taken from the TV series, most of which directly affect gameplay. Your stats, for example, are split down into several familiar elements such as strength, agility, and luck. You get to assign points as you wish when you earn them. How you choose to build your character affects not only things such as speed, defence, and damage dealt, but also what types of guns you’re able to handle. Certain guns also produce visible bullet lines when being aimed, warning you when enemies are lining up a shot.

Core gameplay is likely to prove divisive, and can perhaps in part be put down to this being the game series’ first wander away from swordplay. Combat remains real-time, and to a very limited extent allows you to make use of cover. This looks as awkward as it feels. The stat-centric nature of battle means that, until you’ve spent many hours buffing up your weapons, stats, and skills, your damage and accuracy feel frustratingly amateurish. Worse, your enemies will continue to happily shoot/slash/explode at you while you’re filling their faces with bullets. The bigger problem, perhaps, is that aiming never feels right; no matter how much you fiddle around with sensitivity in the menu.

The flow of the game is equal parts disjointed and predictable. There’s talking – far, far too much talking – and, outside of the optional quests, the story involves little more than sitting through interminable dialogue and shooting the same few handfuls of enemy types. The dungeons are dull and interchangeable, the boss fights underwhelming. There’s plenty of depth to explore in amongst all this, in terms of buying and upgrading weapons and choosing how to spread out your stats. It can also be fun to experiment with different guns (and, though not always practical, swords) and decide which best suit your next mission. The bottom line, though, is that we always felt like we should be having more fun than we actually were.

Let’s be realistic here. This game was never really going to have much appeal outside of the existing Sword Art Online fanbase. Now, we quite enjoy the shenanigans of Kirito and co. We know our Asuna from our Sinon, and quite enjoyed Hollow Realization. Fatal Bullet, however, takes the problems from a fan perspective and makes them even worse.

The most dismaying change is probably the fact that all of the storytelling is now done using the dull, unimpressive in-game graphics (that actually seem to be a step backwards from the previous game). The SAO story was before told in a visual novel style, with gorgeous art that could easily have been lifted directly from the anime. Fatal Bullet has no such small, but striking, connection to the original story.

In a similar vein, Fatal Bullet seems to mark the point where the games finally gallop away from the anime. The SAO games have always been a sort of alternate telling of the story, featuring unique characters, locations, and storylines in amongst the familiar ones. In this latest game, characters will refer almost exclusively to past events that never happened in the anime. Combine that with the way that the original GGO story arc has been essentially torn down and rebuilt, and this tale is – bizarrely, perhaps – for fans of the previous games and not for fans of the original anime.

If you’re a Sword Art Online nut, you’ll doubtless get some enjoyment out of this. If you have no interest in SAO, stay well clear; but then, you probably will anyway. If (like us) you sit somewhere in between, enjoying SAO but not feeling any sort of strong connection to it, you’d be much better off buying one of the figures or something rather than this.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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