The fifth major Sword Art Online game, Fatal Bullet moves away from a swords-and-sorcery setting to a post-apocalyptic hellscape packed full of guns. This game world, known in-universe as "Gun Gale Online," is playable in a Sword Art Online game for the first time. Series producer Bandai Namco, eager to get a fresh developer for the new setting, brought in Freedom Wars maker Dimps. Moving away from the action RPG focus of Hollow Fragment, among other games, Fatal Bullet opts instead for third-person shooting. With the ability to create your own custom character, as well as other improvements, it seemed the Sword Art Online games would finally move in a positive direction. Despite these changes, Fatal Bullet is weighed down by a story that never quite materializes, awful AI, and an incredible amount of grinding.
Before we can delve into Fatal Bullet proper, it may be worth doing a quick primer on Sword Art Online as a whole. Set in a near-future world where immersive virtual reality games have become commonplace, Sword Art Online steeped itself in life-or-death games mixed with teenage angst. One could consider Sword Art Online as a prototype of the "another world"/isekai genre. Centered around the exploits of the seriously talented Kirito and his largely female cohorts, Sword Art Online has covered quite a handful of in-universe games.
The video game representations of Sword Art Online have always existed in a strange place in the canon. Spinning out of the first season of the anime, the games take place in an alternate universe, separate from other media. The first four games are direct sequels of one another and share continuity. Fatal Bullet inhabits the same universe, though the introduction of custom characters means that it's less directly related compared to past titles.
Despite its lineage, Fatal Bullet wastes no time separating itself from previous Sword Art Online games. Whereas earlier games covered Kirito and his troupe's antics, Fatal Bullet opts to zero in on five central characters. Granted, these characters are nowhere near original, but the series sorely needed some fresh blood. The best character is Kureha, your childhood friend. Though she initially brought you into GGO, as the player character, it takes very little time for you to surpass her skills. Kureha is rivaled by Zeliska, a calm, cool and collected woman known for keeping secrets. Beyond that, the two are at loggerheads with Itsuki, a misanthropic man who heads one of the strongest guilds in GGO.
Surprisingly, Fatal Bullet comes real close to commenting on MMOs as a source of wish fulfillment. Again, these conversations largely inform Kureha's character arc, but Zeliska, Kureha, and Itsuki all have numerous conversations about why they, and by extension, the audience play MMOs. Touching on everything from power fantasies to escapism, these conversations ultimately drive much of the character development. Without spoiling the payoff, while the inevitable melodrama isn't great, the character arcs do at least come to a reasonable climax. While these questions are not exactly strange territory for the series as a whole, there is some serious food for thought.
That being said, the plot is easily upstaged by Fatal Bullet's characters. After acquiring an ultra-rare AI companion in the prologue, you quickly acquire missing gear for her, in anticipation of doing an endgame quest. You fight a couple of bosses, watch a few events, and that's pretty much it. Dungeons aside, the actual story of Fatal Bullet takes no more than six hours to run through. With such a short runtime, no real attempt is made to develop your AI partner. There is a notable sequence where you fight your way through a tournament as a way to build your relationship with the AI. Strangely, instead of showing the fights, there's a literal fade to black, and you're simply told you won the tournament. Without any time to develop its own story, Fatal Bullet feels like a lame attempt to justify the AI's existence.
Not only that, but you're constantly reminded that this is a Sword Art Online game above all else. Multiple times throughout the story, Kirito swoops in to save the day and defuse any real tension Fatal Bullet was building. Even with my custom character, I felt as though I was playing second fiddle to Kirito and his friends. Want a custom outfit for your character? Ask Asuna to make one. Got a weapon you need identifying? Ask Agil. Want to upgrade your gear and guns? Ask Lisbeth to do it for you. Using other characters as shopkeepers isn't inherently wrong, but with so little time devoted to these characters, they feel out of place in Fatal Bullet.
If that weren't enough, late in the game, you unlock "Kirito Mode." In this mode, you play as Kirito as he attempts to solve the mystery of who Death Gun is. Fans of Sword Art Online in other media will recognize this name as the primary villain of the Gun Gale Online arc. Indeed, Fatal Bullet wedges the entire "Bullet of Bullets" tournament arc into the story, albeit haphazardly. Considering the supremely short length of Kirito Mode, it feels as though it was a contractual obligation, rather than something Dimps wanted to do.
Thankfully, you can ignore the inconsistent writing in favor of some solid shooting. With nearly ten different weapon designs to choose from, you can quickly blast away with a weapon of your choice. There's a generous auto-aim mode, which is inaccurate, but guarantees at least some damage. Alternatively, you can aim manually to accurately hit weak points and aim skills. Weapon switching is fast and ammo pickups are generous, so you're never left wanting for offensive options. Skills and items work based off of timers, instead of an inventory, making them great for long, drawn-out fights.
It's a shame that these genuinely fun shooting mechanics are wasted on monotonous dungeons and levels. Fatal Bullet breaks up its game world into four free roaming areas, each with a number of dungeons sprinkled throughout. Bizarrely enough, all dungeons (save for two) have the same art design, no matter their name. It's confusing why dungeons like the "Abandoned Road," the "Forest Edge," the "Subway A" and the "Ancient Civilization Research Lab" would look all the same. It's off-putting, and smacks of pure laziness, especially when you're forced to run through dungeons multiple times, whether due to sidequests or a need to level.
The copy-and-paste dungeon design is coupled with an utter lack of enemy variety. While recurring enemy designs are nothing new for Japanese games, at bare minimum there will be a palette swap or a different name applied to an enemy. Fatal Bullet eschews this trend for no discernible reason. Running through visually indistinguishable dungeons and shooting the same enemies conveys a Groundhog Day-like feel to Fatal Bullet, and likely not one Dimps was aiming for. In addition, the bosses in these dungeons are just larger versions of enemies you've already been destroying, with a monstrous health pool to boot.
If Fatal Bullet didn't seem designed to have you run the same sidequests and dungeons over and over, maybe these issues wouldn't be as noticeable. As it stands, you're stuck grinding out weapon upgrade materials and cash for outfits and gear in the same dungeons, again and again. Your party members do you no favors, either. Multiple times after getting knocked down, I was forced to watch Kureha, or another character dash and dodge roll over my lifeless body, as the enemies chipped away at their health. Based on my party's weapon proficiency, they rarely fired their weapons, leaving me to dish out most of the damage. While I appreciate Fatal Bullet's dedication to the authentic MMO experience, complete with extensive grind and horrid teammates, a little variety and better AI would have gone a long way.
As you might be able to tell from the screenshots above and below, Fatal Bullet also suffers from astoundingly poor UI design. There's no indication for what those symbols mean next to my party member's names, for one. The loot readout on the bottom left is far too small, and reading the text next to my skills at the bottom right is nigh-impossible. See the bar below the ammo counter in the bottom right? That's your health bar. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to figure that out. While my TV is not terribly large by any means, if your solution to bad UI design is to get a bigger screen, then you have made bad design choices.
The multiplayer modes, while fun, can't save Fatal Bullet from mediocrity. There's a four-player co-op mode, where everyone and their AI partners take on bosses in timed challenges. These challenges can be a great way to get money or crafting materials, but none of the bosses are new, either. There's also a 4v4 PVP mode, where two teams attempt to do the most damage to a boss in a 10-minute time limit. You're free to take your custom character online or pick from Kirito and his friends. It's tactical and requires creative uses of your abilities to take down the other team. I wish both of these modes were fleshed out more, but they're nice inclusions.
After all the missteps, I'm left wondering how good Fatal Bullet could have been if it hadn't been a Sword Art Online game. From the forced intrusions of Kirito to the lack of risks taken in its design, Fatal Bullet exudes potential but fails to capitalize on the unique Gun Gale Online setting. There's story DLC planned for later this year, which might improve on the underwhelming plot here, but it's a ways off yet. With all of its failures, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet flounders through its 20-hour runtime and is best ignored.
Our Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet review was conducted on the PlayStation 4 with a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on Xbox One and PC via Steam.
Fatal Bullet sets itself up for excellence, only to fall short in almost every area. Fans of the Sword Art Online universe might enjoy the ability to play alongside characters from the series, but Fatal Bullet struggles to keep itself afloat, even with its relatively short runtime.
- Genuinely Fun Shooting
- Original Characters with Great Development
- Impressively Awful AI
- Lack of Dungeon Variety
- Terrible UI Design
- Nearly Nonexistent Story