I like MMOs. Not all of them for sure, as anyone who’s played them can tell you that they ain’t all gems, but the concept of an MMO, an online space in a persistent world filled with other people to either play with or even completely ignore, is one I can get behind. It’s that concept that initially drew me towards Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet.
For those not familiar with the series, Sword Art Online is a Japanese manga and anime that takes place across a number of VRMMOs - Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online games. Through the use of various forms of immersive technology, the protagonists of SAO are able to play, fight, and by some tech chicanery, even lose their lives within the bounds of the virtual world. The main catch of the story concerns a number of people who login, and through the machinations of SAO’s creator, are unable to pull themselves out of the world without dying.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet takes place in one of these virtual worlds, a game called Gun Gale Online, and stars virtually the entire cast of characters from the manga and anime as NPCs and party members. The player creates an own character who's invited to play GGO by one of their real-life friends. Dropped into a new virtual world as a “new player”, who has never played a VRMMO before, you're immediately whisked away into a tournament by your friend Kureha. Soon, you'll stumble upon a teleporter that magically takes you to the treasure room of the tournament, and snatch a rare AI called an ArFA-sys Type X for yourself. This score makes you the talk of the whole online world.
It also brings into sharp focus that this is a game filled with characters playing a game who know they are playing a game and they don't want you to forget that. Every time you talk to someone, there’s no immersion or role play, they just talk to you like you're a person just playing an MMO. There’s talk of drop rates, farming rare items, and questing with groups in dungeons. It’s a dialogue written by someone with an idealized picture of how serious people playing a game would talk about that game seriously. And it’s TERRIBLE.
I can’t stress enough how bad interacting with other characters in Fatal Bullet feels. It’s devoid of the human feel that it tries to emulate, as every line comes off stilted and forced. The closest equivalent I can come up with is the canned dialogue from some E3 presentation, where four players are trying to pretend that they are the perfect in-game team. Now, take these canned and obnoxious interactions and stretch them out over 20 hours, and you have an idea of the level of misery I endured for the purposes of the review. I hate saying that, as I know that a team of people somewhere put their best foot forward with what they were given, but it actively kept me from caring about any of the characters.
With little satisfaction to find characterwise, I was left grasping to learn anything about the world of Gun Gale Online, but alas, the same “we only talk about the game in game terms” extended to the world as well. There was no information on why everything outside of the player hub was an apocalyptic wasteland filled with mechanical scorpions and metal wasps. Why was the closest city home to robots and werewolf-looking creatures? What’s up with the flying robots and desert full of sandworms? This feels like a world ripe for the kind of epic stories MMOs can tell if they’re allowed to, but Fatal Bullet is so busy trying to convince you it’s a game that it actually forgets to be a game.
The only exception to Fatal Bullet’s lack of gameness is with Rei, the ArFA-sys AI that you find and “befriend” in the first five minutes. Referring to you as Master, the relationship between Rei and the player is one of the most disturbing things I’ve had to play through. As an AI, Rei, unlike the majority of the NPCs you interact with, doesn't have a “player” behind her. As such, her world is the game, and your quest is to gather her missing parts, because of course she has missing parts, so she can eventually help your party enter the “final dungeon,” the SBC Flugel, a spaceship controlled by Rei’s mother, the Master AI. Through dialogue, Rei becomes a weird amalgam of dutiful slave and utterly naive girlfriend. She's switching not quite seamlessly between performing tasks like being your banking app, to learning about the human condition by sleeping in bed with you. It’s never outright stated that the relationship is ever consummated physically, digitally or whatever, but her dialog insisting that the action of laying down with her master “satisfies” her could only come off creepier if they chose to use a little girl’s voice as her default. Oh, did I mention that her default voice sounds like that a 5-year-old girl?
So with no world to care about, and no characters to invest in without feeling Chris Hansen is ready to jump in with a camera from behind drawn curtains, the only real thing Fatal Bullet has to hang its hat on is some very run-of-the-mill gunplay. As the name Gun Gale Online would suggest, GGO is the gun-focused VRMMO of the SAO universe. Rather than going for a class-based option, everything in Fatal Bullet is based on statistics. Your ability to use handguns, assault rifles, gatling guns and rocket launchers all depends on a healthy mix of strength and dexterity. Other stats like agility, vitality, and luck are focused on providing bonuses to things like aiming and health. Stat gains also determine which skills you can use, so if you wanted to go down a more heal-heavy track, you would stack a lot of points in Intelligence, while something taunt/armor-heavy would be more strength-oriented.
The system allows for more customization than I initially expected, and really lets you to fine-tune your experience by also choosing complimentary characters as party members. Each different weapon type also allows for a different skill spec. As you only have to pay skill points to unlock a skill once, the system is very open-ended and welcoming to experimentation. It can be expanded even more when you bring in friends for co-op missions, with multiple people able to plan for multiple events based on the weapons you are carrying. Sure, you can only swap between your two equipped weapons during a combat scenario, but outside of combat, switching equipment is only a status screen away.
Sadly, the customization is wasted on the world undeserving of it. Split between an overworld and several dungeons, adventuring in GGO amounts to walking into a place, watching enemies digitize in (this is a game after all!), shooting said enemies, and walking to the next place. Running about in third person, Fatal Bullet has a very helpful auto-aim system, like a smart gun in Aliens, while pulling the left trigger lets you look down the sights and focus up. Most enemies have at least one weak point, and while they are designed well, there are just far too few kinds of enemies. By your third dungeon, you have seen every enemy type the game wants to throw at you. By the time you’ve made your way through the SBC Flugel, even surprise attacks by giant robots serve as more of an annoyance then any real threat. Bosses are the same kinds of enemies as well, only stacked with hit points and movement abilities that make the auto-aimer a real godsend.
The lack of interesting enemies matches the lack of interesting locales. Had Fatal Bullet given me any reason to care about the bombed out cities covered in robots, I might not be as willingly dismissive of the environmental details, but there is literally no point to any of it. Replace all of it with a wire frame, danger room-esque design and you’d accomplish the same thing and be more true to the overall narrative focus. Remember, it’s just a game, these are just numbers, and wow, how am I not depressed yet.
It’s been a while since I’ve played a game that feels like it missed its own point. I’m sure within the bounds of the anime or manga, Sword Art Online and its wide cast of characters felt more alive. Given an actual story - and by that I mean one that comes together hours before you’ve seen it all and done it all, one that doesn’t hide a true ending behind filler activities like listening to NPCs drone on about their real lives while bemoaning the fact that they have real lives - I think there could have been something worth playing here. At the very least, Gun Gale Online could have been a world worth exploring. But no, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet offers nothing to keep you but freely gives more than enough to make you wish you had the time you spent playing it back.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!