When it comes to virtual reality, escapism is the name of the game. Unless the actual name of the game happens to be Sword Art Online or some variant thereof, then escapism flies right out of the proverbial window. Then it flies back in and makes you wonder what the stakes are in an adventure where dying in-game does not mean you die in real life. Then somebody forcibly throws it back out when they come to the same realisation and have a bunch of people die in real life again…but with guns.
Welcome to Gun Gale Online, newbie. The hip happening VRMMO taking the fictional world by storm. Glocks are in and estocs are out as everybody leaves behind the worlds of swords and fantasy, replacing them with guns and science fiction. Not to be left behind, you (the player) have also made this leap and are ready to test your virtual mettle in a tournament of firepower, the reward for which is an exceedingly rare item that will make everybody else jealous. Of course, you immediately stumble upon said prize, being the main character and all, discovering a highly advanced AI NPC who binds themselves to you and runs around calling you Master, in case you forgot where this series came from. But just in case you really needed a reminder of where this series came from, roughly two seconds after discovering the ArFA-sys (the aforementioned AI), Kirito and Asuna rock up and soon introduce you to all of their friends. Of course, despite the considerable skill and importance of said group, all are floored by your luck and skill, welcoming you into the group and voicing their joy at the chance of playing with you. So if you’ve ever wanted to pal around with Silica, or have Sinon tell you how skilled you are, then this is the game for you.
As far as plot goes, Fatal Bullet carries a seemingly simple one, that careens off the beaten path right near the end for no apparent reason. For the most part, your mission is simply to complete the newest quest line added to Gun Gale Online. Centered around the ArFA-sys you so luckily discovered, said quest involves gaining entry to a mysterious spaceship and discovering the mysteries within. From a meta perspective, it’s a pretty fun storyline. Having characters who simply want to be the first to complete a game is low stakes enough to keep things relaxed, but relatable enough to keep them interesting. It also provides a self-referential way for side quests to appear and allows levelling up to be outwardly expected. That being said, there were moments that attempted to utilise the meta nature of this game and came up short. One notable example pitted you against a boss who was eventually revealed to be indestructible, the correct event flags having not been triggered. A well-worn trope to be sure, however, those bosses in question usually do not take damage…you know, to show that they aren’t taking damage. In Fatal Bullet, the boss spits out damage numbers like normal, until the game suddenly cuts and tells you it’s having no effect. What’s worse is when you immediately retry the fight after discovering the correct flag, only to have it play out identically to your previous attempt, minus the pointless interruption, and result in victory. Is it a little nitpicky to deride the game for such a minute element? Yes. But a game based in gaming should have an aspect like this nailed, not doing so only serves to undermine its core.
Games inside games aside, Fatal Bullet’s plot takes its turn downhill when it randomly decides to throw in elements of the canon Gun Gale story. Out of nowhere, Death Gun appears and throws the VR world into chaos…kinda. As the only part of the Sword Art universe I actually know, the Death Gun story seemed to have been negated early on, as Sinon was already friends with the main group and Kirito did not appear as his long haired avatar. That in mind, I really wasn’t expecting Death Gun, or his gun Death Gun, to appear and wreak havoc. Well, implied havoc. As you play as a self-insert character, the Death Gun story is relegated to something called Kirito Mode, a very short divergence allowing you to assume control of SAO’s premiere hero. With some loose rewrites, Kirito becomes Kiriko, Sinon joins the fray and Death Gun is dealt with promptly. That’s it. For something that requires returning to the title menu, one might expect a more robust story within Kirito Mode. Unfortunately, what one finds is a slapdash retelling that serves only to placate those who really wanted to see a Death Gun character model. The sudden appearance of this side story also has the unfortunate effect of distracting from the main plot and making the random twist ending seem even more random. Now, I don;t intend to spoil the ending, however I will say this: Having a game’s ending be based on choice when all previous choices have literally meant nothing is not dramatic, it’s poor design.
Leaving plot hang-ups behind, the actual gameplay of Fatal Bullet is simple but fun. With a few choice gun types to choose from, players can build their character how they wish and fight a bevy of enemies who are only mostly palette swaps of the last group you fought. Not a major drawback, all things considered, although I will say it was slightly annoying when every character reacted in shock to a boss who was the third colour variant of an enemy. It really took the wind out of the, “We normally study an enemy’s patterns and weaknesses,” arguement. Regardless, combat tends to revolve around finding an enemy’s weakpoint and laying into that sucker until they fall down. Although discernibly easier to hit when aiming, Fatal Bullet includes a rather handy Assist feature that auto aims within a select area. Think of it like a much bigger reticule, guaranteed to hit, but lacking the accuracy of manual targeting. However, whichever way you choose to focus, prepare for a drawn out battle, as Fatal Bullet runs rampant with the two words players hate to hear: Bullet Sponges. Yes, despite attempts to mix up attack patterns and weaponry, the game always falls back on giving an enemy more health to constitute a challenge. Now, I don’t claim to be a game designer, but when a foe can survive literal thousands of machine gun rounds and a couple hundred shotgun shells on top of that, you may need to think about re-balancing your game.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is not a necessarily bad game, it is just not as good of a game as it could be. Despite claiming to understand the terminology and methodology of video games themselves, there are more than a few moments where it falls short of the mark and presents an almost disingenuous front. Simply saying an item is not yet implemented doesn’t make an intriguing story, nor does a character constantly prattling on about their awesome sibling make for a sympathetic love interest. Also, simply presenting two female characters to the player does not imply or facilitate a love triangle. Also, don’t lock the true ending behind a game mechanic introduced in the final act. Also, if you intend to front load your game with tutorials, make them about the mechanics that actually appear frequently. Also, don’t make it so a player has to travel to five different areas to gather quests. Also, loading times could use some work. Also, why let me name my ArFA-sys when everybody is just going to called her Rei anyway? Also, if you really wanted me to connect with Kureha and Zeliska, give them slightly more impact on the story than Bazalt Joe. Also, if I’m really meant to sympathise with Kureha, give her at least two scenes where she isn’t complaining or subtly trying to undermine me. Also, if I’m supposed to build a meaningful connection with Zeliska, let me talk to her earlier than halfway through the game. Also, Itsuki is a jerk.