The Sword Art Online franchise doesn’t appear to be slowing down. A third anime season was announced, another spinoff is in development, and there are even discussions for a Netflix-backed, live-action series. More recently, the series has grown with another video game, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet. Moving past the fantasy settings and swordplay of previous titles, Fatal Bullet provided an opportunity for reinvention. And while the game’s new foundations are sound, the lack of interesting content means its walls are sadly built of cards.
Fatal Bullet is set within Gun Gale Online, a VR MMO featuring a post-apocalyptic world of rust and guns. You play as a custom male or female avatar, invited into GGO by your childhood friend. After discovering a rare ArFA-sys AI, dubbed Rei by the supporting cast of familiar Sword Art Online faces, your party sets out to unlock its hidden memories. It holds the answers to opening the doors of a crashed spaceship, the SBC Flügel, and the rewards therein.
Unfortunately, the story is neither interesting nor built of any substance. The mysteries behind the SBC Flügel and the ArFA-sys AIs are given little attention until the game is almost over. The majority time is instead spent completing the same, limited objectives or watching stationary characters awkwardly animate through random conversations about teamwork, friendship, and shopping. And aside from Rei’s amusing silliness and the small number of new characters, no one else particularly stands out. The cast rarely discusses the primary objective beyond telling you to hunt down parts for Rei for a good 20 hours. Optional character scenes generally focus on old tropes, like Klein’s playboy behavior, rather than any noteworthy character development. By the end of Fatal Bullet’s short campaign, there just weren’t enough reasons to care about anyone.
Thankfully, the game’s combat encounters absolutely move. When you’re not surrounded by scores of melee-focused enemies, you’re dodging the targeting lines of ranged fire. This forces you to always be on the go, dashing around the map or dodge rolling to avoid attacks. There’s a degree of verticality to a lot of fights, as well. And it’s even more fun to zip around in the air thanks to what’s essentially a grappling hook. This is doubly so during the unique boss fights, which are the highlights of every dungeon.
Mobility keeps the fights engaging, but Fatal Bullet’s hearty customization options are what provide the bulk of player focus. There is an abundance of ways to build both your custom avatar and Rei. Excluding the large roster of gadgets and weaponry – from handguns all the way to RPGs and swords – character and skill points are earned to improve attributes and acquire cooldown-based abilities, respectively. It’s satisfying deploying abilities in a shooter, but they also fit into different roles. Appreciatively, it’s very easy to mix-and-match playstyles. Abilities are mapped to weapon types, and Fatal Bullet never obfuscates the required attributes necessary to unlock them. You could be a support character with a sniper rifle and then switch over to a shotgun equipped with close-range, assault-focused skills when situations demand.
That variety provides goals to work toward, and there’s always something else on the horizon to obtain. Weapons of different rarities drop like the colored engrams in Destiny. Crafting improves the levels, and thus statistics, of your arsenal. New skills and gameplay styles, such as dual wielding, unlock the more you play. And the fact that EXP isn’t applied until exiting maps back to the hub zone almost creates a psychological push to keep going. “The more I play, the more I’ll earn!”
Eventually, however, the repetitiveness of the surrounding spaces dulls the overall experience. The few areas in the game are vast, but they’re also incredibly empty of almost anything noteworthy to see or discover. There are long stretches of just nothing around you. Worse, nearly every single dungeon is built with the exact same industrial gray, square or rectangular rooms. The enemies fare little better. For the most part, your foes will consistently be scorpions, bees, or a smattering of different robots and drones.
Side quests are similarly unrewarding. They involve heading to terminals to grab simple kill or collect objectives. You could spend a hundred hours replaying the game to get the best gear, complete every quest, and grind affinity levels to see the “true ending,” but the game won’t offer much diversity of sight or activity in all that time. It feels like padding in a game with a too-thin framework.
There are oddities to be aware of if you’re playing the PC version. The framerate can be set to either 30 or 60 FPS. The latter currently does not work as intended. It seems like engine characteristics are tied to the framerate. Anything higher than 30 starts to make things a bit wonky. In particular, enemies will move and attack significantly faster. This becomes a nightmare when fighting large mobs.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is a game of solid combat and customization mechanics let down by almost everything else. There’s fun to be had planning character builds, destroying mobs with flashy abilities, and weaving between attacks, but the lack of interesting content meant I was done with it after a single, short playthrough.