My memories of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization are bittersweet, navigating the game's somewhat lackluster cooldown management gameplay in the name of story completion and the unforgettable 4 hours it took to woo Asuna into holding hands with Kirito despite their canonical marriage. It seems natural to compare the new Fatal Bullet to Sword Art Online’s last major console release, especially with the inclusion of its original AI character Premiere. Fatal Bullet is a dramatic departure from Hollow Realization, however, changing focus by taking the MMO-esque RPG into the world of Gun Gale Online as a 3rd person shooter and taking Kirito and his crew out of the spotlight. Some dramatic changes, but a surprisingly fun twist on the gameplay, when you’re actually able to get out and shoot things.
It took about three seconds to decide that I would find the gameplay of Fatal Bullet more satisfying than Hollow Realization and it got even better. The shooting controls in Fatal Bullet feel extremely smooth, with 3rd person perspective providing an excellent auto-aiming function within your firing window so that you can prioritize mobility and dodging without letting off the trigger. The transition into your manual aiming mode is extremely smooth with everything from shotguns to sniper rifles, allowing you to quickly react to the situation and take advantage of openings to shoot enemies weak points for bonus damage, even allowing you to make snapshots with a sniper rifle. It’s simple but satisfying, allowing you to feel like your skill directly translates to your success without the mechanical demands of a hardcore shooter.
That said, it’s not all perfect. Combat in Fatal Bullet is extremely polarized, either feeling great or really bad. Most of your woes will, predictably, be the result of dealing with friendly AI. If you ever get downed, be prepared to experience actual psychic pain watching helplessly as your AI companions try to revive you. They frequently run up to you, dodge roll three or four non-existent attacks, and succeed in wasting enough time that an enemy will catch up to them and interrupt them when they finally start to res you. Like clockwork. Additionally there seem to be some enemies they just can’t figure out how to fight against, forcing you split your attention between the actual fight and constantly reviving them as they walk into damage.
Each variety of weapon feels fairly balanced. Certain weapon types are better suited to different scenarios but the game doesn’t feel as if it's punishing you for any particular weapon choices. Yes, even laser swords. You can hold two weapons at once, so so long as you keep a mid-long range option and a close range option available you shouldn’t ever feel as if you’re in an impossible scenario. The game has a variety of weapon skills like special shots, buffs, and tech rolls. Unfortunately, they’re pretty homogenous across different weapons so your gameplay doesn’t really evolve once you’ve decided on your weapons of choice, with the exception of the laser sword, which can unlock a variety of combo attacks to make it a more viable weapon choice.
Unlike Hollow Realization, in which you play as Kirito, Fatal Bullet has you create a custom character to play as a newcomer to the world of Gun Gale Online, encouraged to join by your childhood friend and constant partner Kureha and a personal AI, ArFa-Sys, you can also custom design as a third member for your party. The customizability is great, providing a large number of options that keep with the anime’s aesthetic including the hairstyles of Kirito and his gang and even letting male and female characters share hairstyles. That said, it’s unfortunately probably better to make a male character than a female. While a lot of gear is gender neutral, some can only be worn by Male or Female characters. Since your ArFa-Sys is always female and you can only customize the equipment for the two of you, if you’re playing a female character then any male equipment drops just can’t be used. A strange decision for a game trying to emulate an MMO experience where, almost universally, equipment is not gender-specific.
If I had to identify one major issue with the game, it would be pacing. After the first dungeon, you’ve been introduced to combat and received a new item that gives you a ton of 3D mobility which the other players rightly describe as game-breaking. You’re ready to get out into the world and start shooting things up. Instead, you spend what feels like two hours of visual novel-style social interactions. Your rare item acquisition has the entire MMO interested in you so you have to through nearly triple digits conversations of introductions with Kirito’s group and other story-important players, exposition, and tutorials.
Unfortunately, for all the time you spend having every aspect of Gun Gale explained to you, when all the dialogue finally ends and you’re free to go out and start grinding, you’re left woefully ill-equipped and without direction. Somehow during all those tutorials many very basic aspects of the game like assigning skills and gadgets to the action wheel, how to add friends to your group, and how to actually leave the city weren’t really covered. The introductory story also leaves you off in an awkward place to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing and the game spreads character quests like PvP bounties, PvE farming, and treasure hunting in different locations after showing you what is supposedly the central quest location in the Governor’s Hall.
The main story itself is fun once it gets its hooks in, somewhat similar to Hollow Realization with the presence of a mysterious AI and its place in Gun Gale. It does take a good while to get going, however. There are some awkward issues like a PvP tournament that occurs shortly after the game begins which you don’t actually get to play out but instead spectate narratively in visual novel style with the character interactions between matches. It felt as bizarre as it sounds and the spectator aspect is quite literal as the game frequently offers you the choice between two dialogue options that amount to the same response to provide the illusion of choice. Once you get rolling the plot starts unfolding more organically, but the first narrative steps are definitely awkward.
I really enjoyed Fatal Bullet's gameplay, far more than I thought I would, but there were an unfortunate number of barriers placed between me and the untamed wastelands of Gun Gale. If you can ride out the early game, much of the issues smooth themselves out with time into what I imagine was the experience the developers were originally shooting for. Even with its issues, the need to tinker around to discover some of the unexplained game mechanics, and the distinct lack of a princess carrying, Fatal Bullet is a fun addition to the Sword Art Online continuity a definite step-up on its predecessor.
+ Fun run ‘n gun gameplay
+ Smooth transitions between shooting perspectives
+ Variety of weapons that all feel relevant
+/- Great character customization but playing boys is better?
- Lots of sitting through dialogue
- Lots of unexplained mechanics
- Janky AI
- Can’t hold hands with Asuna