Guns ablazing, bullets piercing through the air – really, if one isn’t familiar with the lore of popular light-novel-turned-anime series Sword Art Online (SAO), one would think that gun fights are out of odds in the world of swords.

As it turns out, they actually belong in the SAO universe – or more specifically, in Gun Gale Online, the most famous sci-fi Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online (VRMMO) game in said fictional setting.

And truly, battles are jam-packed with loads and loads of gunfire, minus the realistic element of gore – or at least, there’s what first impressions shaped up to be.

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Given how insane the fanbase is for all things SAO, we travelled to the heart of it all to discover if the series is what it’s made up to be and experience Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet in the freezing temperatures of Tokyo.

Working off a brand new story, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet has fans finally creating their own avatar in-game and interacting with all the key members we’ve come to be familiar with such as Kirito and Asuna.

At the core, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet is an action RPG that offers much depth in gameplay in terms of customisation allowing a wide range of versatility and freedom in exploration. The trouble is, there’s a multitude of menus to wade through before players are able to get into the thick of the action. But, it’s not for naught.

As with the anime, SAO is all about the party, and the game offers players the choice to select their respective party members through various character introductions. There are the original ones, such as Kureha and Itsuki, and then the familiar faces from the anime, such as Agil and Klein, all of whom have a preference for different weapons. Fancy a heavy batter on the team? Agil’s your man. Fond of a lure-and-attack kind of approach? There lies Itsuki’s specialty.

With the current lineup of personalities, finding the ideal team may require a fair bit of mix-and-match, because there’s truly more where it came from.

Seasoned gamers will know that an important element of RPG is strategising, and Fatal Bullet is no exception. Apart from choosing the party members, gamers can assign a fixed setting for their AI allies in areas like prioritisation in attack or healing, or their combat style. It switches up the fighting field and allows for slightly more control over the characters, which is always a good thing.

Speaking of combat, the controls are similar to that of other ARPG titles, in fact – where dodge rolls, backstab attacks, and combo chains are commonplace. Depending on the type of weapon wielded, each comes with a different technique; swords, for instance, have a charged-up slash ability that cannot be used by the gunslingers.

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A cool thing to note is that Fatal Bullet allows for dual-wielding, and not just for those of the same sort. While there are a select few that are only limited to single-wielding, players can experiment with different combinations, such as Kirito’s gun-sword matchup, or a double assault rifle-style. Hell, there’s even a double shotgun combo, designed for maximum damage. Pow.

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One gripe about the system is the difficulty in aiming when both the melee and far-ranged weapon are equipped. Shooting aim can be a bit off, and the camera angle moves in an awkward angle that newcomers may not be used to. Still, it’s a minor problem that can be solved with more practice. Or play the game with a mouse via PC with the upcoming global release.

Likewise, every combination comes with a corresponding technique that’s absent from the rest. The gun-sword equip boasts a teleport-slash move, while dual guns can have quick combo chain attacks – the possibilities are quite fun, frankly. The dual-wield ability also extends to AI characters, which is pretty neat.

The variety of weapons available means players should be able to find one that suits their own playstyle. These trusty companions come in the form of near-, mid-, and far-ranged combat options, like the sword, handgun, and sniper rifle respectively. The game does have a soft lock on console for targets, but being able to land those critical headshots matter when ammo is scarce in-game.

At the fan events, Sword Art Online fans dived into a grand free-for-all battle where they were divided into two teams: the Alpha Team and the Beta Team. Not only would they have to face off against an onslaught of target enemies, there are now the opposing team and a difficult boss-class enemy to defeat; a three-way match for the battle-hardy.

Based on what we saw on the ground, audience reception towards either ranged or melee characters was split down the middle.

Pitting event attendees against each other in 4v4 PVE / PVP the important thing that many players realized was the need for a balanced team composition. In this mode, players had to race to bring down a common boss while fending off attacks from rival players. A melee team was effective in damaging the boss and players but is open to ranged attacks. At the same time, ranged characters were good at taking pot shots at the boss and players from a distance but were mostly glass cannons. Rarely did we see a ranged character able to successfully escape the focus of a melee character in almost all match-ups.

This mode was great in highlighting the possibilities in Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet as everyone had access to maxed out characters and skills. Alas, like in any RPG, the real journey has players climbing up from the ground floor.

In the PVE aspect of Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet, monsters are small fries. Launch a combo, and victory is in sight. Bosses, though, are on another level, as they should be. For example, in an area called “The Sand-Covered Island”, the big, bad guy has a small army of giant worms that lie in wait to jump out at the player, with a stun attack to boot.

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Let it be said: They are truly, honestly, very annoying, with a capital ‘A’.

Patience is often key to defeating such bosses. Dodges need to be timed, and strikes have to be sharp and fast. It’s familiar territory for Dark Souls fans, but for newcomers, the effort can be quite trying at times.

Another slight point of contention for combat is the lack of an option for AI characters to not engage in battle, especially with the weaker enemies. There are times where players choose to bypass weaker enemies in favour of forging ahead for the main boss, only for allies to lag behind and take down the surrounding enemies, resulting in them taking unnecessary damage.

Should these little beasts prove to be a problem, online co-op is a definite possibility. At any point in time, up to eight characters (or four players) are able to play together in the same space, where the use of buff-type skills and enemy stat debuff-type abilities are highly encouraged. Roles can be decided upon before heading into battle, with the multiplayer experience looking set to bring about an enjoyable time. Plus, extra aid is always appreciated!

Fatal Bullet awards the online co-op experience well. Apart from teaming up in battles, rare items are awarded for clearing an objective, which can then be used to strengthen weapons or create costumes. In addition, time attack quests help to stroke the competitive spirit of gamers – victory is awarded to the fastest slayer of enemies. The race against time is on!

Know thy enemy.

An advantage of Fatal Bullet is the inclusion of an optional mode called Kirito Mode, which will be unlocked as the main story progresses. Taking on the role of anime protagonist Kirito, players may enjoy a side plot that depicts a battle with the ultimate antagonist Death Gun. The catch? After a certain part of the scenario is reached, a switch between Kirito Mode and the Regular Scenario Mode can be done at any time.

Word on the vine is that skipping it may result in a slightly altered main story, though no confirmation has been given. Still, it’s a welcome alternative for players who want to take a break from the main story, or to try out Kirito’s skillset first-hand.

So far, Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet appears to be an enjoyable enough title for even non-fans. While gameplay is likely to get repetitive after a while, there are tons of content in store to retain the players’ interest. There’s some glimpse of promise here, and hopefully, the story will be sufficiently fleshed-out for a more enriching experience.

In the meantime, there are already some videos that interested parties may want to refer to, be it to get a better idea of what the game is about or to pick up some tips before diving straight into the world of Gun Gale Online.

Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet will be coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on February 23, 2018.

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Gerald currently straddles between his love of video games and board gaming. There’s nothing that interests him more than trying out the newest and fanciest gadget in town as well. He dreams of publishing a board game sometime in the future!