Sword Art Online is a franchise which I will always hold dear to my heart. After spending countless hours watching the anime, reading the light novels and playing Hollow Fragment on the Vita, I’ve established a sincere kinship with Kirito and his friends. So, when I caught word that Kirito wouldn’t be taking the lead in Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, I was worried how the newest entry would land. Thankfully, it provided a fresh spin on the story which elevated the world, despite other hiccups.
For the first time in the franchise, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet starts off with your very own created character joining the VRMMO, Gun Gale Online. As someone known to get lost in character creation, I found the robust character creator to be surprisingly delightful. Providing me with the tools to create an avatar which truly felt like my own, without being overwhelming to the point where I spent hours perfecting my avatar.
Once I completed my avatar for GGO, I materialized into the world where I was greeted by my bubbly childhood friend Kureha. Excited to use the game as an opportunity to rekindle our strained relationship, Kureha immediately established herself as the guide for my initial experience within the virtual realm. After a quick exposition dump of the lore of Sword Art Online, we embarked on our first quest, a tournament which would face us off with the top players in GGO. I know this sounds a tad daunting for a new player, but our cunning friend never had any intent on winning. In this tournament, hidden within the map was a newly released rare item, which could be claimed even without victory.
After a precarious run-in with one of GGO’s top players, we found ourselves in a spacious room containing a mysterious pod resembling a cryogenic chamber. Just as the pod opens, revealing the humanoid ArFA-sys for the first time, the camera pulls back showing us in the iron-sights of an unknown player character. Immediately after a failed shot from Asuna’s rifle, Kirito storms from cover to strike wielding his signature photon sword, stopping just short realizing he’s too late. The ultra-rare artificial intelligence bot ArFA-sys has already chosen its master.
The ArFA-sys is the main motivation of the story from this point onward. The highly sought-after AI is the key to reaching the newly implemented raid territory SBC Flugel. Not only that but the AI comes with a unique weapon the Ultimate Fibers Gun, a hookshot like tool allowing players to zip through the air. The UFG opens up new ways to traverse environments, however, I only found myself using it when absolutely necessary. Aside from fending off challengers striving to abduct ArFA-sys, the objective is established as being updating ArFA-sys in preparation to enter the unfamiliar territory.
While the gameplay and journey to reaching Flugel is enjoyable, the hurdles along the way make it at times easy to become unplugged. After completing the first dungeon I was unexpectedly captivated by Fatal Bullet‘s combat system and eager to get back in action and take on the next boss. Sadly, the game’s pacing quelled my excitement, first introducing me to the entire main cast of the game before dropping me back in the action. While it was initially entertaining to reconnect with Asuna, Liz, and Yuuki like an old roommate I hadn’t seen since freshman year, the extended sequence quickly began overstaying it’s welcome.
Exposition flaws such as this remain consistent throughout the entirety of SAO. I often found myself thankful to see events unfold, yet the overall delivery left something to be desired. Most notably in a segment where Asuna and Kirito were attempting to bolster the teamwork between myself and ArFA-sys. Not understanding the concept of being equal to its “master” the attempts of ArFA-sys to put life and limb on the line to protect me was overall hindering our performance. Noticing the tactlessness of our strategies, Kirito and Asuna devise a plan to stage a 2 v 2 battle to teach the importance of synchronization in teamwork. An event which when reading had me gripping my controller eager for battle, just to be deceived by a fade to black followed by an uninspiring “whew, you guys are strong.” Events like this scattered about the story make it easy to become disengaged in what otherwise should be Fatal Bullet‘s most memorable moments.
One of Fatal Bullet‘s greatest charms was its ability to make me feel like I was in an actual MMO. While Fatal Bullet lacks the menu-based cooldown combat system from Hollow Fragment. It still managed to differentiate itself from a standard third-person shooter. The game’s lenient auto-aim option allowed for a delightful combat system. Especially when used in conjunction with the hookshot-esque UFG. The game also provides several different weapon options ranging from pistol to a full-blown minigun to match any play style.
From exploring the main hub to running into player characters mixed amongst the mobs, I truly felt as if I were in a living world. Each zone felt unique, bringing striking visuals and new challenges to the experience. Unfortunately, this feeling only extended to the game’s open space zones. When exploring dungeons, the magic was lost. Rather than gaining enjoyment from each dungeon, I pushed through by a sheer motivation to see what the next zone would entail. I began to grow weary of the bland warehouse style dungeons and endlessly fighting the same handful mechanical adversaries.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is a great step forward for the franchise. Nevertheless, even for the biggest Sword Art Online fan it doesn’t do much to exceed past being anything but good. The stories pacing and way cutscenes offset the experience can be rather frustrating. While the enjoyable gameplay is fun for a time, it can easily be brought down by the dreariness of exploring the individual dungeons.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is a game that I can confidently recommend to anyone who is a fan of the series. However, to someone looking for an introduction to the series or a fun way to spend a weekend, I would have to suggest looking elsewhere. Despite being undeniably enjoyable at moments, overall the game does little to warrant its current price tag of $60. Even with this title just falling short, I still believe Dimps and Bandai Namco are on the path of providing the Sword Art Online experience of our dreams. Plus, with the recent trend of VR, our chance to say “link start” may not be that far off.