Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet (PC) Review – A Surprise
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Dimps Corporation
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release: 23rd February 2018
Throughout the five years of Bandai Namco´s Sword Art Online games, there was never one I could truly get into or regard as a genuinely good game. Given, while I may really like the first arc and GGO, every other one never caught my interest, often coming across as a forced addition to keeping the money flowing. Luckily, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet is the first game both based on the Gun Gale Online universe and developed by Bandai´s quite renowned developer Dimps, showing just how strangely addicting a third person shooter JRPG can be.
Surprisingly, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet doesn´t follow the plot of the original GGO arc with Death Gun and Kirito´s quest to unravel his identity. Instead, the story is written explicitly for the game, circling around the player created character and the mysterious ArFA-sys, a highly intelligent AI, found very early on. At the same time, the giant but locked SBC Flügel dungeon appears, only accessible with exactly such a companion. Naturally, though, the iconic characters like Kirito and Asuna are still a big part of the game, soon helping our character and his companion on their quest to explore the origins of the new dungeon.
The fact the beloved cast isn´t in the spotlight this time may be off-putting for some but considering the number of games already offering this exact thing, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet original plot feels like a refreshing change. Especially because Dimps’ managed to maintain the overall atmosphere of the series, the ability to create a harem and alike. Dialogues still feel like SAO, for better or worse, it captures the different themes and transports them into a new world, free from characters like Death Gun. Though fret not, there´s a short Kirito mode in which you can replay the major events of the main story.
A great decision as it turns out, due to the darker themes tackled throughout the story. Since the ArFA-sys is a highly desired “item” and our character only just started out playing GGO, many players will try to actually steal her. Said encounters with malicious players is a big reason why the “new” GGO feels darker than even the original one, full of jealousy and competition. The told story is quite good too, drawing its main appeal from its darker interpretation and centring around a more realistic theme like the mysterious dungeon, rather than being trapped in an online game. However, until you get to the point where things actually pick up, the first few hours consist of characters randomly popping up in the city to give some missions. Often mainly about finding parts to complete the ArFA-sys, the beginning hours feel like a way overstretched tutorial, lacking any kind of interesting interactions between the original character and others.
Once past this padding, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet opens its mechanics, revealing a really fun mix of third-person shooter and JRPG elements. Given, none of the mechanics could compete with something like Destiny but offer great gunplay for what it is. The unique aspect about it, is the necessity of switching between auto-aim and manual, while former offers the ability to deal with hordes of enemies at the same time by quickly switching targets, latter is best used to focus weak points of bosses. In combination with the arcade gunplay, shooting is a surprising amount of casual fun on its own.
Dimps now combined it with nearly every weapon class you could think of, from the classic assault rifle to Kirito´s iconic sword. Especially ones like Gatling guns, rocket launchers and rare normal guns are simply fun when penetrating their enemies and work as good as in any other game. Only the fact there´s no real cover option, except sitting behind a wall and hoping to not get hit, is a two-sided sword. On the one hand, the gameplay gets a whole lot faster, due to the low health forcing you to keep in motion, evading enemy bullets effectively. On the other hand, considering the low health, only able to take a handful of hits, isn´t the best design choice, as the lack of trustable cover leads to inevitable deaths. Really, if snipers are able to kill anyone in two hits, not having a rock to stand behind is a safe death.
Occasionally the party members may revive their human leader if he lost all his HP but because their AI is pretty terrible, that rarely happens. Spending more time with rolling or jumping around enemies, their will to heal seems lost in motion. Really, as soon as I checked what they were doing during fights, they seemed lost in the map, dead and only rarely dealt any damage. During boss fights in particular, the AI can´t manage to dodge many attacks, solely standing in the area of effect, while shooting at the enemy. There just isn´t the technical base to support a no cover system the whole game, resulting in unnecessary deaths and meaningless anger towards the AI.
Yet, the annoying things just start with the overall mission structure, practically enforcing grind upon you. Every new quest normally is 5-7 levels above the previous one, meaning enemies tend to knock you down even faster. To compensate, it´s necessary to grind around 20-40 minutes every new mission, before being able to actually beat it … in theory. Luckily, most arenas set in the world and not specifically created for a boss can be exploited through standing on roofs or other things, confusing the enemy AI and sniping them from far away, yes, that works. Newly implemented “grappling hook” is one of the main tools for this trick but of not much use either.
Who thought those flaws can be eradicated with the coop part is utterly wrong as well. For up to four players, Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet features a mode in which they battle the same basses in the same arenas but with more health! Additionally, the PvP mode isn´t anything else than a 4v4 deathmatch, where players keep their equipment and stats, resulting in a rather unfair seeming clash of grind. Even though it could be quite fun because of the fast nature of both the rounds and gameplay, sadly no one really plays any of those modes.
Last but not least, one of the most important questions for every Japanese PC port, is it any good? Partially, yes. Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet offers all the basic stuff a PC version should have, from 60fps to a decent range of texture and shadow configuration options. Unfortunately, the performance isn´t nearly as satisfying, personally, playing it on 1440p on a GTX 1070 with high settings was nearly impossible when aiming for higher framerates, regularly slipping below the 40ish treshold, without really featuring the visuals for such huge hardware hunger.
While it runs on the Unreal Engine and actually has some nice particle effects, character models and environment details, the overall texture quality, anti-aliasing and effects aren´t something to behold. Surely the best looking SAO by far but not outstanding in the bigger context. The constant recycling of enemies, dungeon textures and frame drops in interiors are another problem of the experience.
At the end Dimps’ Sword Art Online Fatal Bullet isn´t a perfect game, suffering from flaws in nearly every department, but the first game truly worth your attention after years of mediocre ones. The surprisingly fun, unique gameplay mixed with an interesting original story can create a worthwhile experience for Sword Art Online fans, who like a bit of grind.
[A Review Code was provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe]