Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet Review (XONE)

Do you enjoy the “shoot enemies, get loot, shoot harder enemies, get better loot, etc.” loop of Destiny or Borderlands but wish you could play with an army of cute anime waifus at your side instead of a bunch of dudebros? Well then good news, my friend, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is the game for you (and me). Even if you don’t really like Sword Art Online, the shooter gameplay and reward loop here is really addictive and fun and I had a great time with it despite not really wanting to play it at all when I started. It’s a game that I think people are going to be surprised by how good it is if they give it a chance. See all of the details here in our full Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet review for Xbox One.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Bandai Namco
  • Developer: Dimps
  • ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen
  • Genre: Shooter
  • Pros: Fun gameplay; addictive reward loop; character creator
  • Cons: Lots of loading; terrible story; takes a long time to get going
  • MSRP: $60
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Gun Gale Online is the latest hit VR game in the world of Sword Art Online – a story originally about a different game but now this is a game about a game inside an anime / manga about a different game – and your created character is the newest noob to sign up. The other games used in SAO featured fantasy settings, but GGO is all about edgy cyberpunk shootouts and people dressing up like they’re in “The Matrix”.

The story is mostly about your character getting up to speed with the game and rising through the ranks but it does tie in to the Death Gun arc of the story from the SAO manga. It’s all totally awful, though, for a number of different reasons, however. Your newbie character somehow, magically, meets up with Kirito and Asuna (the main characters of the series) five minutes into your first day on GGO and you instantly become best friends with them and all of the rest of the cast from the series. If you love the SAO franchise this is certainly cool since you get to hang out with Kirito and his harem, but it’s too nonsensical for me.

A bigger offense of the story, however, is that far too much of it happens in cutscenes rather than actually letting you play. Your character “wins” a tournament that you don’t even know you’re in as the player since you didn’t actually participate, for example. Or your character and the cast will go on some dangerous mission and barely get out alive, but you have to take their word for it because it all happened during throwaway conversations. Let us DO stuff, don’t just tell us we did it!

On that note, I know this is an RPG can dialogue is a big part of it, but dang is there way, way, way too much dialogue here. Every conversation goes on for about 20 lines too long. Just get to the point, video game! And it’s made even worse by the fact that, even when it’s just text dialogue with in-game assets, the game has to load. Every. Time. For. Every. Conversation. There is so much loading here that it’ll drive you crazy.

All of that dialogue and loading really takes a toll on the beginning of the game, too. It makes a really terrible first impression, to be honest, as it is just loading screen after loading screen as the game just dumps a metric ton of information at you as it hammers out the story while also teaching you how to play the game during the tutorial. I really don’t like it when games dump a ton of gameplay mechanics on you all at once, because I usually forget most of it five minutes later, and that is exactly what SAO: Fatal Bullet does.

Let’s just say I was not really feeling this game at first, but I kept playing because there were some things I enjoyed and those things eventually overcame the negatives and turned this into a game I sunk 30-hours into over the course of about 4 days. For one, I like cute anime girls and SAO: Fatal Bullet has them by the truckload. Most of the cast is girls, in fact. I also quite like the character creator that let me create my own pair of anime cuties and the sheer variety of costumes and accessories available make playing dress up with your anime doll pretty fun over the course of the game. I wish the faces were better and not the typical expressionless bland SAO faces, but everything else is fine.

Most importantly, what really got me hooked on SAO: Fatal Bullet was the gameplay. Not that the core shooting is particularly good, mind you, but the whole loop of raiding dungeons, fighting bosses, getting randomly dropped loot, and making my character stronger was really, really satisfying. There are two aiming modes – a manual mode and automatic aim assist – that you can switch between by pressing up on the d-pad. Manual mode plays like any other third-person-shooter but it feels a little clunky. It’s just OK. The aim assist mode puts a big square onscreen and any enemies in that square are automatically targeted. This allows you to run around and dodge and use your items and abilities far easier and more freely than if you’re playing with manual mode. You just run around and hammer the shoot button and enemies take damage and if you need more precision you can also aim down sights by holding the left trigger. It goes against all of your instincts as a gamer, but the aim assist mode is by far the best way to play this game. It makes it really fast and fun and enjoyable.

The other main thing about the gameplay that makes it fun is, as I mentioned above, the reward loop is fantastic. You’re constantly getting a steady stream of new weapon and item drops, but also tons of money and crafting materials that allow you to buy new stuff or upgrade your current weapons. You’re always improving and getting stronger, which is really satisfying. The economy is kind of screwy in that the only thing you really “need” to buy (besides all of the outfits, of course) are the most rare and expensive upgrade materials to make your weapons better. Pretty much everything else is available via drops. Upgrading your weapons is super worthwhile, too, even if you have to pay a couple of million credits for the materials, as the upgrades are usually massive stat increases.

The strategic elements of the gameplay are the final thing that makes the whole experience ultimately enjoyable. You can bring three additional characters into battle with you and they all have different weapons and abilities and strengths so picking the right ones can have a big impact on your success. I found bringing healers and buff / debuff characters more important than DPS characters, just FYI. You also have a wide selection of items – grenades, traps, etc. – and abilities – exploding shots, burning shots, poison shots, etc. – that also really change how you play the game. Even the toughest bosses with tons of HP go down pretty fast when you’re stacking burning plus poison plus other status ailments while also hammering away with your weapons. The weapon selection is nice, too, as there are pistols, SMGs, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, explosive launchers, and even swords. You can find a combination of all of these options that work for you and really have a lot of fun regardless of your play style.

As long as you’re bringing the right characters with you and paying attention to your stats / abilities and stuff, the game isn’t too difficult. I did have a couple of rough patches where the enemies suddenly made a huge jump in levels above me, but smart strategic play got me through them. There is also one particularly tough boss fight, a huge monster that spawns other tough monsters, that gave me trouble for a while, too, but with the right strategy I got through it. It was honestly these difficulty spikes that made me appreciate and enjoy the game even more as I actually had to put all of the game’s different mechanics and systems to use instead of just relying on the same strategies I was using before. My play style had to evolve as I played, which kept the experience interesting.

And before I knew it, I had spent a good 30-hours on the game just playing solo. You can also play online competitive and co-op modes as well, but I didn’t try them. It is kind of strange that, despite this being a game about an MMO game, the actual online modes where you can play with other people are sectioned off and not part of the main game experience. I was sort of expecting it to be more like a real MMO, but it’s not. It’s a single player game with online stuff sort of shoehorned in. The game does have a New Game Plus option after you beat the story where almost everything aside from key items carry over. You do have to play through everything again – which means grinding through the terrible first couple of hours again – but being able to tear through the early game with your late game equipment is kind of fun. The enemies don’t get an upgrade on NG+, so you can absolutely tear through it for quite a while. A lot of achievements are impossible on a single playthrough, so you’ll have to do NG+ to get them.

As far as presentation goes, SAO: Fatal Bullet is fine. It uses Unreal Engine 4, but looks kind of bland overall as the environments are generally pretty simple and not super detailed. The character models, on the other hand, do generally look pretty good and just like their anime counterparts. There is some boob jiggle, and even some butt / thigh jiggle, but it isn’t crazy over the top. Some of the outfits are pretty fanservice-y, but I didn’t mind. Despite not appearing to be pushing the hardware very hard, the game has a pretty unstable framerate with massive slowdown when a lot of enemies are around. The performance didn’t ever affect my gameplay very much since I just used the aim assist all the time anyway, but it was definitely still pretty bothersome.

Sound-wise, the game has an interesting mix of music that jumps from orchestral fantasy themes to metal guitar at the drop of a hat. I liked it. The voices are all in Japanese and sound fine, though the characters are constantly chattering during battle and there aren’t any subtitles to tell you what they’re saying. You get the gist, though, as words like “sniper” and “treasure” are pretty clear even with a heavy Japanese accent.

All in all, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet really surprised me. I’m not a SAO fan at all, but the core gameplay loop scratches the same itch that Destiny and Borderlands and even games like Monster Hunter do so I had a good time with it and have been thoroughly addicted. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have problems, though. The story is awful, there’s too much dialogue, it loads way too often, the shooting is only OK, the first couple of hours suck, and it runs like a pig but somehow, some way, I still had a lot of fun with it and I think a lot of other people will to if you give it a chance and get to the meat of the game. Sword Art Online fans will dig it, of course, but anyone else looking for an addictive and satisfying loot game, and don’t mind the anime aesthetic, will have a good time as well. Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is solid and fun. Buy it. 
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.

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