Note: A big thanks to Bandai Namco for the review code of the Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet (Deluxe Edition) on the PS4! The Deluxe Edition included special items, which you can view here.
Player Tested by an SAO Fan
Let me preface this review with the fact that I am awful at shooter games. And while I enjoy MMOs, the last world I got lost in online was Maple Story… However, as my pen name implies, there is one thing I excel at: being a weeb! I quite enjoyed the Sword Art Online anime series (you know, except for the Fairy Dance Arc) and have even expressed my enthusiasm through cosplaying Asuna. That said, I’ll be testing whether or not Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, a third-person shooter on the PS4, is otaku-friendly!
Don’t worry if you’ve never played the previous games (Lost Song, Hollow Realization, Hollow Fragment)—you won’t need that context to enjoy Fatal Bullet’s setting of Gun Gale Online (GGO). But I doubt you’ll be interested in the story or characters if you haven’t at least seen a portion of the anime or read the visual novel for Sword Art Online. If you’re looking for straight-up gameplay, the cutscenes are skippable, so that’s an option for you…but you should probably just watch the show…
Welcome to Gun Gale Online
When you log in to Gun Gale Online for the first time, there isn’t much of a story. The reason you’ve come to GGO pieces itself together during the 2 to 3-hour tutorial, but it’s not much to write home about. No, you’re not trapped in a death game. Your character is only there to hang with an old friend named Kureha.
During one of your first missions together, a simple “treasure hunt” goes exceedingly well. The mystery treasure item ends up being a super rare (and weird) AI called an ArFA-Sys Model X, which is a special model because of its battle support and ability to emote. But Kirito and Asuna also have set their sights on the Model X—literally, Asuna tries to snipe you for it. During the race for the treasure, you [unintentially] save the AI from getting hurt. When it boots up, it clings to you and starts calling you “Master”. Huh. Very much like a duckling imprinting on the first thing it sees. It’s also kind of reminiscent of the Yui plotline. Anyway, I’ll be referring to the AI going forward as Lolibot.
Before you know it, everyone in GGO is aware that you managed to get this ultra rare Lolibot. They’re super envious, and some players (NPCs) do actually try and steal it. Thing is, like you, Lolibot is a total noob. She’s also missing parts, which you’ll spend most of the story searching for in order to restore her functionality. With Lolibot and Kureha, you’ll trample bosses, raid dungeons, and make new online friends in the name of becoming top player of GGO! But buckle up—there’s a surprising amount of story that picks up later in the game.
Plot Problems—Forget About It!
Rather than trying to steal the AI from you, Kirito and Asuna respect your role as…”Master”. They offer you a position in their squadron. Afterall, having access to Lolibot could be mutually beneficial for the entire squadron because of her combat abilities. I was surprised there was still room to join, honestly; Klein, Agil, Yui, and Kirito’s entire harem from the anime (plus a few new girls from the previous games) are all logged into GGO. Heh, Kirito has enough GGO players now to be considered a mob boss…
…WAIT. How is Yuuki in GGO?! None of this makes sense! Gyah! >_< I can’t get into reasons without spoiling the show, but there’s no way she would be in Gun Gale Online. I’m also not terribly clear on where we are with Sinon’s story arc…? My head hurts.
Ugh. Sorry. I guess I can’t get too worked up over plot holes. This is SAO, after all. Don’t think too hard about it and allow yourself to be entertained. We’ll slap an alternate world band-aid on it and move along.
As this is a game for SAO fans, naturally, much of the value comes from interacting with the characters in a world we know and love. I was pleased to discover that Kirito, Asuna, and company don’t just make cameo appearances in the game—our heroes join up with you as the story progresses! When they first appear, you’ll feel that wave of nostalgia and shout “I know them!!!” at the screen. At least, I did.
During standard gameplay, you can ask up to 3 party members from Kirito’s group to join you. But unlike in other RPGs, in Fatal Bullet, you have limited control over your party. You can assign group party commands, like prioritize healing, but you can’t choose weapons, equipment, or skills for party members other than yourself and Lolibot. While this is consistent with the overall story of each NPC character actually being a remote human player, it was kind of annoying to not get that full access to optimizing your party. If you had your heart set on playing as one of the NPCs, there is an Avatar mode where you can battle as any of the main characters.
Outside of battle, you can also unlock new dialogue and anime screens by spending time with each character in the SBC Glocken. Characters are highlighted green on the map if they want to spend time with you. Be aware, this is where the bulk of the notorious SAO fanservice lies hidden. However, I won’t dock the game for this, as it is consistent with the source material.
Dear SAO: please stop sexualizing the brother-sister relationship between Kirito and Leafa…
Spending time with your party on these sidequests is apparently advantageous to how they perform on missions, but I didn’t personally notice any changes. Not that the game needs this level of complexity, but if spending time with allies improves their behavior in battle, the developers could have modeled a social ranking system like that of the stellar Persona series.
That Anime Look & Feel
Fatal Bullet gets an “A” for visuals that created Anime Feel. Although the game’s content is largely 3D, fans will not be disappointed by how well the character models were rendered. I spent far too long designing my character, but with all of A-1 Pictures’ anime hairstyles and facial expressions at my disposal, it was hard to settle on just one look. I also appreciated having the freedom to redesign my character (and Lolibot) at any point.
While Fatal Bullet is not a true VRMMORPG, the time dedicated to the settings did give it an “Open World” feel. With the 3D models, there’s no question that the bosses look better than they ever did in the anime. The hunting grounds are sublimely colored and lit, with the SBC Glocken (that ominous looking, castlelike thing on the cover) looming in the background. Lots of player-mimicking NPCs roam the main hub and shops in the game. In the wilderness itself, you’ll run into player NPC enemies that won’t hesitate to sabotage you during a boss fight (just like real life online players!). My only complaints visually would be the very basic map (only mission markers) and the dungeons all having the same underground science-lab look. I understand this isn’t Alfheim, but when you call a dungeon a “forest” and it ends up looking like one of the levels from Portal, know the kind of expectation it creates.
The sound quality was equally impressive in its visual execution, especially in the attention given to the voices. The original Japanese VA cast can be heard in both cutscenes and in battle. Unfortunately, if you don’t speak Japanese, you might not be able to translate the shouts of encouragement, but the emotion behind them is easily understood thanks to the talent and direction of the cast. Incredible detail was also given to each weapon’s sound effect, adding to the player’s overall immersion into GGO. The soundtrack isn’t what you’d call memorable (the anime sets a high bar here), but it does a good job of getting you into the fighting spirit without being repetitive.
As I mentioned, Fatal Bullet took me out of my comfort zone as a shooting game. It would appear, however, the developers didn’t want me to totally fail! Yay! Assist Mode autotargets enemies in your scope for casual hunting. If you want to target enemy weaknesses, however, you’ll have to manually adjust your trigger. This a fair and rewarding challenge to encourage players like me to improve their skill. For the more experienced third-person shooter fan, assist mode can easily be toggled off.
Wait, How Do I Drive This Thing?!
Assist Mode makes the game playable for a wider audience, but mastering the game is another story. Despite the lengthy tutorial and exposition at the beginning, the intro only scratches the surface on the game’s basic upgrade and customizing systems. Here’s a summary of each system to give you an idea:
- 6 Stats: Strength, Vitality, Dexterity, Intelligence, Agility, Luck can be leveled up manually with CP (Gained using EXP). Nothing new for the RPG fan for battle, but they do impact which skills you can unlock, inventory capacity, and maneuverability with different weapons. The game recommends prioritizing these stats reflective to the roles featured MMO (Tank, Healer, etc).
- 8 Weapon Types: Handguns, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, gatling guns, launchers, and swords (your melee option) are all available depending on your fighting preference…I started out with the photon sword…
- Ammunition Types: Available at the general shop or weapon shop. In addition to the different weapon types, there are different weights of ammunition. So, instead of having an easy 1:1 category of ammo for each weapon, you have to do extra research before buying. Open your menu, read the gun’s description, and then go buy it. You can’t easily view this info during the ammo buying process, and if your short-term memory sucks like mine, you will hate stocking up. Dangit…I bought the wrong kind of shotgun shells…again. Another reason to stick with the sword.
- ArFa-Sys Capabilities: By talking to ArFa-Sys in your room (only there), you can change her emote settings (cute, stoic, bright) and her reactions, like what she’s doing while you’re trying to figure out what gun modifications to add. Yeah. You can reprogram her very personality. Weird, right?! You can also give her an allowance and have her save and invest a portion of your credits! Where can I get one of these IRL?
- Item/Equipment Rarity: Like in SAO, items are a BIG deal in this universe. Rarity applies to chips, equipment, weapons, and outfits. Starts at common, uncommon, rare, epic, then up to legendary. You can make a decent amount selling rare items, which you’ll want to do because you will be limited as to what you can carry. The Deluxe Edition came with a few high-level special weapons to start out with, including a launcher shaped like a guitar case. FUN!
- Item Appraisals: Occasionally, enemies will drop unappraised items. Agil will appraise them for you (for a fee) in Kirito’s room. The merchants in this world make a killing, I tell ya.
- Customize Avatar, Outfits, and Equipment: Only in your room can you do this. Purely aesthetic, but simple. You can change the look of your weapons, too. This is the one thing in the game that won’t cost credits!
- Make New Outfits: You can collect clothing materials from monster drops
- Info Broker. Like in SAO, Argo is the info broker. You can sell her information about the plot (seems risky) and purchase info that will boost your weapon skill gauge speeds. For as little as I used skills, this wasn’t worth the cost.
- Weapon Enhancement. Use special chips to purchase modification slot increases, weapon range, and power on each weapon.
- Gadgets: A little more complex. Includes health packs, grenades, and other items you might use in battle. Purchased from the shop. Must be assigned to a specific weapon to use in battle. Activated by holding the R1 trigger and then pressing a shortcut button. Stupid annoying to handle and have a custom selection for each weapon.
- Skills: Unlocked with Skill Points to perform special attacks. They are assigned and activated like Gadgets, which again, I found to be a waste of valuable time.
- Weapon Upgrades. Purchased via Lisbeth in Kirito’s room Without an outside guide, the upgrade systems are needlessly complex. You will spend a lot of time figuring out the Enhancement and Transformations to optimize weapons. These are two separate systems that require unique monster drops…and lots of credits (currency).
- Medals. You can redeem medal points for various rare items. You get medals performing three different types of battle actions.
- Quest & Sub-Quest Terminals: You must go to a different terminal for each of the following quest types available: PvP (in-game players), PvE (special enemies), Treasure Hunting quests. Fortunately, these are all listed in one tab of the menu once you acquire them. But don’t fight a unique enemy before unlocking the PvE request or you will have to repeat the battle to get the reward when you do sign up.
The upside to all these bulky systems is that it means you will invest a lot of time trying to master it all. There’s a lot of content within the game, and I haven’t even touched on Online Co-Op (I did not have anyone to play with, anyway). It was taxing to keep track of the Rare and Legendary modifications on every enemy drop. Cataloging is, perhaps, the completionist’s dream, but it’s annoying to have to sift through the separate menus of your inventory and equipment for bulk. This is a necessary evil, as you risk being slowed down in the midst of battle with too much treasure weighing you down. The number of areas dedicated to each upgrade, mode of play, and shops was mindboggling.
Gameplay could definitely be improved by condensing a few systems and menus. At times, it felt like I was wasting my life on Loading Screens. Overall, the menus themselves were not all that intuitive and it took time to figure out what to prioritize. Still, the gameplay itself (once you get the hang of it) is rewarded with a plethora of items, and you couldn’t be more pleased by the look and feel of the game. Fans with resolve may find themselves as addicted as Kirito to reaching the top of Gun Gale Online.
- Gameplay is quick to pick-up and addicting
- Consistent with SAO universe (and improves some things)
- Gorgeous graphics rendering and Open World Feel
- Original Japanese VA cast add emotional depth
- Customize ALL THE THINGS
- Additional unlockable character content
- Needlessly complex weapon upgrades
- Shops and terminals need to be condensed
- Slow story to start
- Long load screens
- Ridiculous fees on every upgrade type