Sword Art Online is an incredibly popular anime and manga series which has spawned a fair few video game adaptations already. Unlike the wonderful virtual reality MMORPG gaming worlds featured in the franchise, none of the games have been created for that specific genre and indeed the latest iteration continues that trend. Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet melds together action-RPG elements with those of a shooter, in a third person perspective. Given that it’s the first SAO game to launch on the Xbox consoles, the expectations are high for the adventures of Kirito and co., but could it prove to be a fatal misfire for seasoned developers Dimps, or can their newest offering hit the target?
Fatal Bullet is set in the world of Gun Gale Online, most recently seen as part of the Phantom Bullet story arc in the Sword Art Online II anime. This is your tale though, so you’re the main character and newcomer to GGO, invited by a childhood friend, Kureha. During your debut in the Bullet of Bullets tournament, you stumble upon an extremely rare support A.I. known as ArFA-sys, attracting the attention of the famous duo of Kirito and Asuna, amongst others. With ArFA-sys by your side, the journey to unlock its full potential and gain access to a special dungeon of a new spaceship – SBC Flügel – begins.
Understand me so far? If not then you’d struggle with the first couple of hours of SAO: Fatal Bullet, which throws mounds of information at you after a short initiation into the battling side of things. Once the relatively straightforward customisation of the main protagonist is complete, the gunplay and UFG grappling gun usage is put into action, before throwing conversation after conversation your way. The ratio of chatting – in Japanese with subs – and text-based advice to actual hands-on combat is massively one-sided and still didn’t manage to convey certain aspects of the gameplay properly. Many would be put off by such a long-winded introduction, but it’s worth sticking it out, just about.
As far as the combat goes, speed is the order of the day as you must keep moving, dashing, and occasionally grappling, to stay out of the enemies’ line of attack – or bullet prediction line for those wielding guns. Running and gunning is tremendously tough if you’re trying to aim down the sights of an assault rifle or a handgun. Fortunately when not aiming, a reticle will appear over an enemy and it’ll assist your aim so you can just fire till your heart’s content. It sounds cheap and easy, but when you’re surrounded by a load of robots, it feels bloody good to pump them full of bullets; something which would be frustrating without the assist. Obviously, if the sniper rifle is your preferred weapon of choice then it pays to hang back somewhat and zoom in for critical hits.
The SBC Glocken acts as the hub of the game; with a shop, persons of interest and multiple travel points to your home and various other locations all accessible from here. It’s designed just like in the anime and totally looks the part. I found it to be a bit of a chore to wander around at first, but once you’ve visited somewhere, the fast travel points show up for next time. A teleporter is also present to take you to the vast wastelands to embark upon the main quest line and any other mission taken up along the way.
Once you’ve arrived in the open area battlegrounds, you can go round killing anything that spawns or head straight for the nearest dungeon. Enemies spawn out of nowhere as you approach their turf, with scorpions, bees, robots and lots of other, similar variations of the aforementioned types. It’s easy to draw their attention and that of mini-bosses in the area, none of whom will leave you alone until either you defeat them or they end you. In a smart move, the developers have ensured no penalties occur for dying in battle, you just get sent back to the lobby with your A.I. party.
What it doesn’t explain very well is how you can have up to three A.I. characters in your battle party and the choices depend on who your in-game friends are. I suffered with an under-powered Kureha and ArFA-sys for a while, before figuring out that I could enlist the help of Kirito, Asuna, Sinon, Lisbeth etc. All of the characters level up as yours does, so there’s no fear of neglecting anyone by omitting them. When levelling up your avatar, and that of ArFA-sys, you need to take into account that certain weapons may require a high level of attributes in agility or strength, for example. Distributing these attribute points to suit your play style is important, because each stat – STR, VIT, INT, AGI, DEX and LUK – will affect you in some way, whether it’s in relation to your defense, attack, crit hit chance or the rate at which items drop, to name just a few.
The weapon selection is pretty decent, ensuring there are plenty of different types with various bonuses for using them, depending how rare and what weapon rank they are. From rocket launchers and sniper rifles, to shotguns and swords, there’s something for everyone; if you like getting up close then a sword is badass, but it’s equally satisfying to pick enemies off from a distance. Your character also possesses a set of unlockable skills to equip and gadgets – grenades, first aid kits etc. – to enhance the chances of succeeding in battle. Especially when it comes to the dungeons and the high level bosses you’ll encounter.
The dungeons are scattered around the wastelands and once entered, you’ll be thrown into an industrial looking labyrinth of rooms and corridors to fight your way through. The layouts of the rooms are different and often require the use of the grapple gun to reach the doorway to the next part, and occasionally to get to one of the many hidden treasure chests. After dealing with the minions, the boss will be waiting on your arrival in the final room and, despite my grinding to level up in preparation, these are tough to take down.
I don’t mean that in a bad way, it just really makes you work to complete the latter part of a quest, as you slowly drain its three health bars. Teamwork is essential, which isn’t something the A.I. support often understands and instead does whatever it wants, despite team orders. When it works, the constant buffing of skills like boosting armor, health and speed, is brilliant; you feel almost invincible with Kirito having your back and the joy of victory is immense. But then other times they don’t bother following you into battle or simply ignore your waning health and watch you go down. Will they revive you? Of course they will try, but their awareness of what’s around is atrocious and this leads to their own death usually. Calling it stupid A.I. is being polite.
The bosses are often pretty sizeable, with large robots and floating crystals just some of those you can expect to face. I wish they were more outlandish in design though, as just like the drab decor throughout every single one of the dungeons, the bosses are nothing special to look at. There’s just no personality; they don’t even taunt you or anything.
Outside of the main quests, there are a myriad of side quests to partake in and you can simultaneously accept as many of these as you want. These give the free-roaming of the wasteland a real purpose, with missions ranging from killing x amount of a certain enemy type to finding mini-bosses to defeat, as well as quests to find specific items on your travels. It ensures the grind in-between the proper quests is more fun and I must admit that addiction can set it as you’re wasting enemy after enemy, uncovering new areas of the location and searching for loot. You see, everything you find can be put to good use; either to sell for Credits, as materials for an outfit designed by Asuna, or as part of a weapon upgrade courtesy of Lisbeth. Unappraised items also have a penchant for dropping at any point and these are much like the engrams seen in Destiny, needing to be identified by Agil for a fee.
As for the online component of SAO: Fatal Bullet, well, it’s very underwhelming that you can’t play through the story mode itself in co-op. Instead, the closest thing to it is a selection of co-op missions where you go straight into a boss fight, kill it and that’s that. Then there’s the PvP aspect, which sees four avatars or heroes from the anime going up against another team of four in a bid to do the most damage to a boss overall. It’s not a terrible experience, but trying to get a match is rather time consuming.
In terms of aesthetics, the anime style fits well and the character models for all your favourite heroes are instantly recognisable. It’s great to see there are a few interestingly designed new additions to the story too. The wasteland outside of the SBC Glocken is split up into different areas, but honestly, the Remnant Wasteland and the Old South or Solitary Sands are very samey; loads of sand and the odd building thrown in.
Overall, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet suffers due to the slow start, too much information being drilled in and the story not being engaging enough to get the player hooked. Most of the conversations are dull and you just want to get back out to the wastelands to destroy any and all enemies who stand in your way. The gameplay isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s fun to be able to play at such a fast pace and that you aren’t forced to become an expert marksmen. Just let the bullets fly and collect the loot, sort it out and head back for more. I also appreciate the customisation options and the many weapons on offer to wield on the battlefield. Given how the dungeons should be the main draw though, the boring nature of the same old grey interiors with just a different layout is as disappointing as the usually uninspiring bosses and lets it down. The dumb A.I. doesn’t help matters either!
Don’t expect to be wowed by Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, but if you’re prepared to stick with it and are a fan of the franchise, then there are just about enough positives to give it a look if it’s in the sale.