Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet?s miserable first hour is the epitome of bad game design
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet?s first open world area. Screenshot taken on Xbox One X by Alex Rowe.
The screenshot above might look like it?s from a fun co-op action RPG shooter with Unreal Engine visuals based on a hit anime franchise. But it?s actually a picture of one of the most grueling slogs in the modern history of video games.
Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet has such promise, on the surface. Developed by the industry legends at Dimps and published by Bandai Namco, it?s a ?looter shooter? that takes place inside a fictional online video game. It has fast, breezy action combat. Fun random weapons to collect. Clever jokes about the way video games work. And a giant world to explore with a grappling hook.
My custom character was excited to play the game, until she had to play the game. Screenshot taken on Xbox One X by Alex Rowe.
It starts out with a neat character customization tool that lets you create your own anime character. Unlike so many other anime games, Fatal Bullet isn?t content to just rehash plots that you?ve seen already. At least, initially.
You?ll have fun for the first few minutes making your avatar. And you?ll be excited to step out into the world.
But then the nightmare begins. You?re dropped into the main hub city, and into an extreme gauntlet of some of the most boring, stilted conversations ever produced for a video game. Aside from a short five minute sequence where you?ll learn to run and shoot, prepare yourself for a literal hour of bland half-voiced talking punctuated briefly by moments of running through an empty area.
I hope you like static dialogue screens that aren?t always voiced! Screenshot taken on Xbox One X by Alex Rowe.
It?s brutal. It?s soul-crushing. It?s weirdly infuriating. The game designers created an exciting action game, but then they don?t let you play it for the first hour. Why? Oh, so that they can quickly throw out their original story premise and introduce all the original anime characters to you in case you?re a big fan of the source material.
You have to meet a giant cast of characters from Sword Art Online multiple times across multiple slow conversations. You?ll go to parties with them. You?ll sit as they introduce themselves one by one. You?ll run up to them in town so they can introduce themselves again, and then tell you about a gameplay mechanic. You?ll get in-game emails from them thanking you for adding them to your friends list.
If you don?t already like Sword Art Online, meeting this huge cast over and over is even more of a chore. Screenshot taken on Xbox One X by Alex Rowe.
By the time you actually get to the part where the shooting and looting begins, you?ll have been fully overwhelmed by pages and pages of narrative and tutorial text. It?s all dumped on you in one gargantuan onslaught. Here is every character! Here is every character again in case you forgot! Here?s every piece of information about the game!
It?s so bad.
I played through this gauntlet for the second time this morning to get these screenshots, thanks to the game now being available on Xbox Game Pass. It first launched on PS4 in 2018, and since then it?s made its way to Xbox, PC, and Switch. I tried the PC version in the middle of last year thanks to a Steam sale and gave up just before beating the first boss, which is around 80 minutes into the game, but this time I made it through as a point of pride.
I stood up a few times to shout ?why!? at an empty room, but I defeated this rhinoceros monster thing. I wasted my time so you don?t have to. Unless you have a morbid curiosity.
The gameplay parts of the game are so much fun. This is the first boss. You see him after watching a feature-length film of text boxes. Screenshot taken on Xbox One X by Alex Rowe.
It was a relief to start actually fighting things in the video game. And the gameplay is quite fun! The world is large with plenty of little places and dungeons to explore! If the opening moments were spread out between more actual gameplay bits, the overly fanservice-focused story might even be enjoyable.
But as it is, meeting Kirito, the protagonist of the original Sword Art Online stories, and his entire group of women that are in love with him, grows so tiring after the first few minutes. I?ve watched a solid chunk of the anime, but the story here is just a thin excuse to bring all these characters back and not anything beyond the bare minimum.
You can button-through the static conversations to speed things up a little, but then you?ll have even less of an idea what?s going on, and you may not realize where to run to once it?s time to play the video game.
I?m not the only person who found this game off-putting. According to the current Xbox achievement stats, only around 55 percent of players made it past the first boss fight. And only 49 percent got the ?Powering Up? achievement, which happens minutes after that fight when you run back to your home base.
These stats will likely get worse over time as more people quit this grind of a game. Screen capture by Alex Rowe.
That?s ridiculous. Game designers should probably want more than half of their players to finish the first level. Howlongtobeat.com pegs this game as having around fifty hours of content for the average player, but half the people that loaded it up will never see most of it. And those numbers will probably drop lower now that it?s on Game Pass.
I can?t blame people for quitting this thing. Piles of text boxes are such a profoundly boring way to start an action game.
I?m not at all against slower pacing, intricate story development, or complex mechanics, in theory. But I want a game to start when I start it. It?s fine to slow things down to introduce new characters or gameplay quirks. But that stuff should be spread out over time, or shown to me while I?m doing something fun. Both Jedi Fallen Order and Assassin?s Creed Odyssey got this right recently. They?re complex games, but they show you their mechanics one by one, and have exciting openings.
Screenshot taken on Xbox One X by Alex Rowe.
I know Fatal Bullet didn?t have nearly the same budget as those two games. But some simple re-arranging would have done this game wonders, and made sure that more than half its players got to see the first stage. Dimps usually knows what they?re doing. They made the last three Street Fighter games for Capcom. They made the two Dragonball Xenoverse games, which are fun big action RPGs that get you moving right away. I have to believe that they know internally how slow and boring this game is.
Perhaps the terrible pacing was an issue with the Sword Art Online license itself? Fatal Bullet had the awkward task of being an original Borderlands-style loot romp that also had to tie into the original source material somehow. It almost feels like all of these characters and meandering dialogue were shoved into the game after it was finished, or towards the end of development.
I don?t expect a ton out of anime games, and I?m someone who enjoys Dynasty Warriors. But I do expect to actually play a video game before the first hour is over. And I don?t want that first hour to be filled with piles of exposition that don?t advance the story beyond ?here are the characters.?
?It gets good after X hours? is a phrase that should be drummed out of entertainment completely. If it?s not at least engaging right away, why am I playing it?