There will be a day when I am not disappointed in a Sword Art Online game, today is not that day. The latest, Fatal Bullet, set during the Gun Gale Online arc makes a lot of the same mistakes the other SAO games make measured against the direction I wish the franchise took as games.
Developed by Dimps Corporation for Bandai Namco, Fatal Bullet
is a third-person shooter that emulates, to a fault, an MMO-style shooter. The shooter mechanics boil down to looking in the vague direction of your enemy and pulling the trigger whilst moving to win. The only real challenge comes from moving out of the bullet lines of the enemy AI. However, I ended up running back and forth and that was it.
There are skills and items to use that either heal you or alter your attack strength, etc. You'd be forgiven if you played the game and didn't realise this because of how little impact they have on your victory. I played on normal difficulty and by the end of the game the enemies out-levelled me by twenty or more levels and I was still victorious nine times out of ten against the bosses.
There was an element of relaxed satisfaction in how easy and repetitive the game is. This is reinforced with repeatable fetch and kill x amount of enemy y quests. This is a returning mechanic from previous SAO
games. It gives you a set of goals beyond just running to the next main story marker, further bolstering the MMO feel that Fatal Bullet
strives for. The problem comes from how similar each zone ends up feeling because you don't vary your activities at all and the story quests always lead to the same thing - dungeons!
I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the design meeting about dungeons in SAO:FB
because they have two and half tile sets for the whole lot, that's it. The majority are slightly decrepit concrete boxes that are the same bland off-grey throughout, the other is a sci-fi beige and grey mess. The show and manga make a point of making each dungeon the characters enter a unique and increasingly bizarre environment. This game decided to toss that aside and do the laziest thing possible.
If the story was any good some of this would be forgivable, but the story is not good. You start as a fresh player dragged in to GGO by a friend (we'll get back to Kureha and her specific brand of bullshit in due time) and by pure chance you get a rare drop from the very first activity you do - a personal AI assistant that takes the form of a boy or girl. The female voice over is the kind of saccharine enriched moe trope you're all probably expecting from a character that becomes part little sister and part romantic interest.
You teach this AI to be more human, but her main purpose is to drive the plot forward, a plot that can be simplified to this - she wants to see her mum, who lives on a big spaceship being patched in on GGOs next update. You need to level up to be able to take on this dungeon (shudder) to reunite your AI with its parent AI, but of course things are a bit broken, necessitating fetch quests and the aforementioned copy/pasted dungeons.
Fans of the show might be asking what about Death Gun, is that part of the game at all? Yes, yes it is and it is the worst
. Small hints are dropped here and there and then that whole arc is truncated to a bizarre mode where you take over as Kirito to do three rounds of arena combat replacing the Bullet of Bullets tournament. It is painful to behold, even worse because it is completely shoehorned into the framework of a mediocre game.
Interactions with characters come in the delightful form of static screens with the characters staring lifelessly at you whilst they deliver lines of dialogue so banal that to save your own sanity you'll probably do as I did and just skim read as you hammer the continue button. There are a few proper cutscenes that give a brief look at what could've been, but they are so rare you could blink and miss them.
Now we return to Kureha, your friend from childhood who got you playing Gun Gale Online for her own benefit. Kureha who spends the game harping on about how great her sister is and how she is fine living in this older sibling's shadow. Kureha who constantly tries to steal your thunder, undermine your abilities and newfound friendships. If you haven't guessed yet I hate this character with a fiery passion - she embodies every worst jealous friend trope and if she was a real life human being would be that one person everyone alternates between sympathising with and outright avoiding.
Sword Art Online
's best moments come from the characters and how they interact and deal with problems. The whole MMO side of it is pushed to the background because it is the dullest part of the series. It can be used to conjure fantastical settings and gigantic adversaries, but it is in the people playing these games together where the brilliance lies. The games all make the same mistake and concentrate on the game the characters are playing and try to turn that into something we can also play, but that is boring and repetitive without meaningful narratives.
One day they will make a character-focused SAO
game that doesn't hide all the cool things they do behind black screens placed between static dumps of irritatingly pointless dialogue. One day we'll get to see this stuff in cutscenes or even better yet, get to play them in a fun and fluid action game. I tell myself the cheap tie ins have to end eventually. I'll keep telling myself this lie because behind all the tripe is a
license deserving a great game.
+ Can be relaxing to gun down idiotic AI enemies
+ It can be finished in less than 40 hours, unlike most other SAO
- Dull story with duller dialogue
- Repetitive dungeons with repetitive enemy design
- AI companions are infuriatingly stupid
- Kureha and to a slightly lesser extent Itsuki (He's to you what Spiegel is to Sinon)
SPOnG Score: 4/10