The Sword Art Online franchise has gone from being a meta light novel series about the world of online gaming to a reasonably well-regarded anime show and then branched out into gaming itself. Beyond individual games, characters from SAO have been featured in Dengeki Bunk: Fighting Climax and the lore has been built upon with the games. Now, Fatal Bullet takes a few cues from Monster Hunter along with a bit of God Eater and a third-person cover shooter. It’s a different take for a franchise built on offering up a wide variety of gaming options — and one that offers up a lot to enjoy for franchise fans while also being easy enough for newcomers to enjoy.
Fatal Bullet meshes a lot of things together and doesn’t quite do it all perfectly. The storyline brings your player-created character into the world of SAO and has you become the hero of the in-game Gun Gale Online game. Everything is tied together by SAO regulars to add a sense of importance to the goings on, but the execution is a bit clunky. Instead of an organic tale being told, the storyline is just a long series of exposition dumps after every mission. The veteran characters being used to just help you instead of drive the game’s events feels like a bit of a cop-out — a bit like an old TV show using an existing show as a way to do a backdoor pilot for something completely different. It takes the equity built up in the existing world and uses it for new characters — but the new characters don’t have much depth to them, which makes the story-related parts of the experience seem hollow.
Fatal Bullet goes for an offline MMO experience akin to what an offline game of something like Phantasy Star Online was like many years ago. You have a central hub area connecting many larger areas together where you meet a great many characters in different parts of the world. Fatal Bullet would benefit from streamlining everything to a menu-only system since its current setup results in a ton of wasted time. You get a starting point after a mission and then have to hit a variety of places up after battle instead of a simple menu being used to revamp your character, work on equipment and healing and the like. The bulk of time between battles is spent doing busy work that isn’t exciting and drags the pace down to a crawl.
Fortunately, Fatal Bullet‘s true draw is in its action-heavy gameplay — and this is where it excels. Combat is diverse, with a blend of cover-based shooting, over-the-shoulder shooting and RPG-esque grinding for items thrown in for good measure. Fatal Bullet adds in a electronic grappling hook mechanic that adds a touch of the Vita gem Freedom Wars to the mix, which makes this feel like a spiritual successor to that game — at least in terms of its core action. The grappling hook allows you to not only traverse the environment with ease, but also pull down smaller enemies and deal out damage in small doses. It enables you to have another means of long-range attack at your disposal while your allies either distract enemies, heal the party or focus on attacking. The hook itself speeds up the pace and prevents the game from becoming a third-person shooter devoid of much depth.
Fatal Bullet is fairly diverse as a shooter and allows you to quickly shoot over either shoulder with a simple d-pad press. You can also easily switch between your weapons and as should be expected, each type will affect how well you do in a given battle. Shotguns do more damage close-up, but aren’t effective at a longer range while machine gun-style weapons will allow you to chip away at enemies and may be a better option if you’re surrounded. When you need to escape the heat of battle for a bit, the grappling hook will allow you to scurry around and avoid some enemy fire — but your best approach is to always take cover. Behind cover, you can heal up and plan your next attack out. If you’re surrounded, taking out the nearest foes generally works out best.
Fatal Bullet‘s shooting action is quick and responsive. The control layout is logical and easy to remember in the heat of battle. Being able to change AI routines up during battles helps out a lot too. You could go in with one strategy only for it not to work out and at least be able to change things as needed. So if going with a heal-heavy approach leads to your team not being able to win and taking losses, then it’s better to go with either a more balanced approach or go all-in with an offense-heavy approach and see if that works. Trial and error is a big key to learning about how to win because you want to experiment with things and not take too many risks in larger-scale battles.
Visually, Fatal Bullet looks good but unspectacular. The offline MMO approach to things means that there are a lot of on-screen displays cluttering things up, making the game seem more busy than it needs to be. The characters and environments look solid overall, with models being reasonably-detailed and having expressive faces. Attack animations are somewhat limited, but this does work in the game’s favor since it makes it much easier to predict movements, helping with battle planning and the overall flow of combat. The world itself is large and features some impressive lighting effects throughout the hub areas, while different color schemes help prevent the feeling that you’re going down a dozen versions of the same hallway in a different shade of grey each time. The ground textures leave a lot to be desired, though, with a muddy look that makes this appear to be a much older game than it is.
Musically, the soundtrack goes for a fast-paced approach that keeps the blood pumping at all times. There’s a hard rock infusion here that makes the action more intense and that works perfectly. Gun sound effects are also effective, with the rapid-fire of machine gun shots sounding less intense than shotgun blasts — but evoking the weapon itself just fine. The Japanese voice work with English subtitles won’t be for everyone, but this approach allows the game to retain a Japanese flavor while still being easily-accessible for an English-speaking market.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is flawed, but succeeds at providing a thrilling MMO-esque experience offline. Its biggest failings involve bringing in the worst of that genre to an offline experience with a plethora of busy work that needlessly pads out the runtime and doesn’t serve a greater purpose. Everything involving the hub world would benefit from heavy streamlining, while the core third-person shooting action is on-point and does everything it should do to thrill players. The visuals are mostly appealing outside of some iffy ground textures, while the audio side of the equation succeeds with a rock-heavy soundtrack and excellent sound effects with the gunfire. Newcomers to the SAO franchise can jump in with this and enjoy themselves — especially if they just want a great third-person shooting experience. Be sure that you have time to devote to it, however, because it will consume a lot of it.