It's at times like this that anime publishers ought to be happy that the advertising standards agency doesn't take game names too seriously. Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, a game that isn't about swords, has nothing to do with art, and which only really features a handful of side-quest style multiplayer modes, may not make much sense outside the context of the anime - but if you're even remotely familiar with the TV show, you'll soon be at home here.
As a quick briefing to bring newbies up to speed - Sword Art Online (both the anime and the game) is set in a near future world where Virtual Reality MMOs have become commonplace, thanks to a headset that basically lets you transfer your consciousness into the game. After a few thousand players found themselves trapped in the world of the original Sword Art Online, where dying in game would mean you died in real life, the concept went on to become inexplicably more popular than ever, and spawned countless other VRMMOs, which the Sword Art games in our world have been slowly working their way through. Having ventured into the original world of Aincrad, and the fairy-tale follow up of Alfheim Online in previous instalments, before stopping for a brief cross over with the similarly VR MMO themed Accel World, Fatal Bullet instead takes us into the bleak and post-apocalyptic styled settings of Gun Gale Online, a game which has nothing to do with the wind - but which does feature an awful lot of guns.
In terms of basic concepts, though, Fatal Bullet is one of those games that's absolutely horrible to explain. In a nutshell, this is a game that's done out to pretend it's an online game, complete with random (auto generated) player characters wandering around, terminology like "PvP" being used in menus, and even in game talk of a big new update that's just been added to the game - but what they mean is the in-game world of Gun Gale Online, not Fatal Bullet itself. But while it all sounds very confusing - and it certainly has the potential to be - as soon as you've reminded yourself that the game you're playing is actually an offline game, you'll be pretty much sorted (unless you play one of the game's online multiplayer modes, and then things get even more semantically confusing)
Still, for what's a pretty disappointing anime world, Fatal Bullet does a good job of making it work. Rather than playing as one of the heroes from the TV series (as was the case in the most recent Sword Art vs Accel World), you'll instead plunge into the game as a brand new player, as you start to learn the ropes, find your way around the world, and well and truly get to scratch that itchy trigger finger. Within a few minutes of playing, you'll somehow find yourself coming into the possession of an AI companion known as Arfa-sys - an incredibly rare, and little known ally in the game world, which instantly makes you the talk of the town. Before too long, you'll have met up with emo swordsman Kirito, his partner in crime (and life) Asuna, the troubled sniper Sinon, and all the other stars of the anime to boot, who've all seemingly swapped their swords for SMGs in order to get together and hang out in Gun Gale Online.
But, somewhat strangely, that's really about it as far as a high arching plot goes. While previous Sword Art Games have given you a mystery to crack, or in the case of Accel World, a series of dream scenarios as two worlds combine, Fatal Bullet instead doesn't seem to have all that much of a plot. There's no overarching bad guy, very little drama, and equally scant intrigue to keep you pushing to that next boss, despite the huge and overly lengthy visual-novel-style talking heads cutscenes.
Luckily, in terms of gameplay, things are a lot more positive. As with many MMOs, the world of Gun Gale Online is essentially a collection of hubs, with several quests you can complete in each. Story quests usually see you heading into a dungeon, like a cave, or an abandoned facility (although oddly, both look identical in game) to take on a boss, while others see you simply having to track down a hidden treasure chest, or lost item. Of course, that would all be easy enough - but there's plenty of enemies determined to get in your way.
Having made the switch from swords to guns, you could be forgiven for expecting Fatal Bullet to go the way of the generic third person shooter - but it hasn't. This is a long way from a bog standard cover shooter game - and it's actually a lot more accessible because of it. What probably helps is that it's lifted a lot of ideas from the anime too - like the large red "bullet lines" that appear when enemies are about to fire. But the star of the show is the "assist mode".
Much like in the anime, the enemy you're aiming at will be highlighted by a circle, which will grow larger and smaller to represent your accuracy as you move/jump/dodge. However, with assist mode on, you don't have to worry too much about aiming at all - instead, so long as your enemy falls within a generously sized rectangle, the game itself will ensure your shots go in the right general direction, leaving you free to worry about dodging incoming fire. For those times when greater accuracy is needed, you can either turn assist mode off, and "shoot from the hip" using the right stick to aim - or when you need to zoom in (like when using sniper rifles), a quick squeeze of the left trigger will let you pick off enemy weak spots with ease.
However, as this is a role playing game, player progression is at the heart of everything you do - and there are two main ways of making your player stronger. First, defeating enemies and solving quests will earn you XP, which will let you level up, which in turn will give you points that can be spent improving your player's stats individually - upping your strength stat to do more damage, or vitality to have more health, etc. That being said, we are more than a little bit disappointed that there's no auto-up for this, as it doesn't half feel like a slog as you struggle to figure out which of the random abbreviations it'd be best to spend your points on. Needless to say, some sort of assistance from the game would go a long way.
The other way you can ensure you do the maximum damage is to keep changing your guns. As you work your way through the enemies of the Fatal Bullet battlefield, you'll sometimes see a random weapon get dropped, with higher level enemies giving higher level guns. With guns ramping up in terms of power almost as quickly as your character does, it's all but essential to swap your gun out every few quests, as what once demolished enemies in only a few hits soon becomes a pea shooter against tougher enemies.
However, much like with the levelling, it'd be nice if there was a little bit more information from the game about which of yours guns was "the best", or even a recommendation based on your play style. With 40 weapons in your inventory, it's never as easy as simply choosing the one that does the most damage, as the rate of fire, accuracy, and various perks each gun has can make a world of difference on the battlefield, making comparisons in your inventory more than a little bit tricky, as the only real way to tell what works and what doesn't is to get stuck into some combat. That said, you'll quickly find there are some types of weapons that work better for you than others. For new players, we'd recommend sticking to an SMG or an assault rifle for the perfect mix of rate of fire/damage, while for seasoned shooter pros, the sniper rifle is unmatched for its ability to deal damage from a safe distance (so long as you can aim it), and a laser sword makes a great companion for up close combat (even if you can't deflect bullets in game, like a certain emo protagonist. In fact, even Kirito seems to have forgotten how to do it between the anime and the start of the game).
Still, with a surprisingly satisfying combat system, yet one which is sadly tied to a disappointingly empty storyline, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is a game that doesn't quite live up to its potential, yet one which gets enough stuff right that it's still worth a look. While fans of the anime will get more out of this than those who are new to the series, you certainly don't have to be a series buff to get to grips with the game - and with there not being too much of a story to this one, it's arguably got a lower barrier to entry than any of the previous Sword Art games too. While we're still more than a little bit miffed about the lack of a proper online multiplayer mode (come on Bandai Namco - this is a license to print money, surely!), Fatal Bullet will scratch that Sword Art itch for this year - let's hope the inevitable next entry in the series finally puts all the pieces in the right order.