The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online
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Sword Art Online: Alternative Gun Gale Online ?
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How was the first episode?
It's difficult to convey the appeal of video games through other forms of fiction. The more “game-like” a certain game is, the more it values player agency and problem-solving over storytelling, the harder it becomes to convey the appeal of that through a story. Most “trapped in a videogame” stories tend to just apply some video-game-flavored trappings to a more general “trapped in a fantasy world” story—even the original Sword Art Online was basically that. So if even the original couldn't succeed in feeling like a game, how does this spinoff fare?
As it turns out, much better. Not only does SAO Alternative successfully evoke the fun of being in an online game world, it's also just a solid premise in all respects. I've had seriously mixed experiences with the SAO franchise, but this premiere is probably the strongest of the franchise so far. Alternative pretty much nails it.
The strength of this specific episode is largely contained in how well it executes on the tactical mechanics of its chosen battle. Similar shows often portray video game conflicts as simple spectacles, but the ongoing conversations between LLENN and M do a terrific job of establishing their objectives as difficult to accomplish, but certainly achievable. The focus on positioning, conjecture regarding their opponents' goals, use of other players as decoys, and other discussions all help to settle the audience into the action, letting us enjoy the battle not just as a series of sweet gunfights, but a sort of positional chess match. And the fact that LLENN and M's personalities so perfectly match their respective battlefield roles further emphasizes how the tactics of gaming aren't objective, and how managing disagreements between teammates are a major part of competitive gaming. Watching M steer LLENN toward victory ultimately provides the same sort of thrill as watching a pro gamer demonstrate their craft in a stream, something many shows attempt but few achieve.
Execution-wise, Alternative possesses solid art design, reasonable backgrounds, and slightly above average animation. As with the storytelling, the biggest highlight was how well the layouts and regular birds-eye shots helped clarify the tactical mechanics of battle, keeping me fully invested in the action. LLENN's understated expression work made for a nice contrast with M's directions, and though the final battle seemed to somewhat undercut the tactical focus of the prior material, it was certainly executed well enough. All in all, Alternative offers a sturdy statement of purpose for an engaging action vehicle. The only question now is whether its offline material is as engaging as its battles.
I came into this season with modest hopes for Gun Gale Online. The two reasons I never got very far in the main SAO series were that Kirito didn't do much for me as a protagonist and my personal background in gaming is more “run and gun” than “hack and slash.” This spinoff offers the promise of a fresh cast and an FPS-style game setting, so in theory it should be right up my alley. While the early signs from this episode are positive, there's still some work to be done if this franchise is going to finally win me over.
LLEN makes for a fun main character on a couple of levels. There's a nice contrast between her diminutive all-pink appearance and her ability to wreck shop in a close-range fight, and I love that she has a nickname for her weapon. The fact that she seems much more mild-mannered in the real world (not to mention taller) is intriguing, and I'm curious to see what her reasons for playing GGO are. Her relationship with her teammate M is more of a mixed bag; there's some decent banter as LLEN gripes about being used as a decoy, but the script seems overly reliant on M's tactical expertise. For most of this episode, LLEN feels more like a game piece that M is moving around the map than an actual teammate.
That brings me to my other main concern, which is with the overly talky nature of this episode. Between M and the members of the pro team, we spend more time listening to people strategize than we do watching them fight. I'm hoping this won't be as much of an issue in the long run, as there should be less of a need to walk the audience through the mechanics of Squad Jam now that we've seen a full round. The ending firefight between LLEN and the pro team does at least make for a nice payoff after all that buildup, with some well-directed action and a remarkably fun approach to hiding LLEN from the baddies. If we can get more of that and less time staring at dots on maps, I'll be a much happier camper.
The good news is that Gun Gale Online has displayed a lot of the potential I hoped to see, and while it needs some work in order to make the most of its strong points, most of the issues in this first episode should be easy enough to iron out. We have yet to spend more than a few seconds with LLEN in the real world, and the opening credits would suggest that several key characters are still waiting in the wings. I'm on the optimistic end of the “wait and see” spectrum for now, and this premiere could be worth a shot even if you're not a hardcore Sword Art Online fan.
I'm not a huge fan of the Sword Art Online franchise. I only ever finished the first season, and even that watch-through was a begrudging one. So I never actually made it to the part of the series where everyone uses guns instead of swords and magic and whatnot. Given that my biggest problems with the original series were Kirito and Asuna's respective arcs, I thought that maybe the Gun Gale Spinoff might fare better with a new cast, especially since the story is being handled by a new author, Keiichi Sigsawa of Kino's Journey fame. Plus my primary free time hobbies have included putting more time into PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds than is reasonable, so I'm much more inclined to appreciate SAO's take on a shoot 'em up game than its fantasy counterpart.
After watching the first episode of Gun Gale Online, I can say that I do like this setting and concept more, though that comes with some hefty caveats. The biggest issue with this premiere is the same one that plagues so many light novel adaptations, where the script is obsessed with relaying technical minutiae and the finer points of tactics, but nowhere near focused enough on telling a compelling story. In fact, if you ignore the backstory that comes with the mainline SAO series, the plot of this episode can be described in a single sentence: LLEN is a tiny pink girl, M is a large burly man, and together they shoot some guys in an online game. Outside of getting LLEN and M from Point A to Point B, the entirety of this episode is devoted to M breaking down the mechanics of squad formations, avoiding sniper vantage points, picking out the sounds of different ammo types in a fire fight, and so on. This kind of details-obsessed focus on guns and gunplay is meant for a very specific audience that I don't belong to, because I found a vast majority of this episode pretty boring.
When the bullets finally do start flying though, the show picks up considerably, and I can see the version of Gun Gale Online that would appeal much more to me. That would be the GGO that has tiny pink girls bursting out from suitcases to mow down unsuspecting soldiers with her superhuman skills. Studio 3Hz's work here is solid. Though I found the art style itself to be unremarkable, the animation is fluid and the direction of the action scenes is dynamic and engaging. If only GGO didn't drag its audience through fifteen minutes of tedium to get to the good stuff.
I don't know if Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online is the kind of show that will completely change my mind on the franchise, but it shows enough promise to have me check in on another episode or two. If you're an SAO diehard, I doubt you need me to convince you to check this one out, but if you're on the fence and you don't mind being inundated with stiff dialogue in between the juicy action scenes, then Gun Gale Online might be worth your time too.
SAO Alternative is the first animated property in the franchise that's not directly based on original creator Reki Kawahara's writing. However, its source novel was written by Keiichi Sigsawa, the author of Kino's Journey, Allison & Lillia, and the gun consultant for the GGO arc of Sword Art Online II, so you can expect both a certain level of quality and intimate franchise familiarity up front. This premiere also suggests that you don't have to be a franchise fan in order to appreciate this one, as while the setting has been used before, no references are made to other franchise entries outside of some initial background info, and the characters in this series are entirely new. Any newcomer could easily understand what's going on so far. If that keeps up, then this series could serve just fine as a standalone.
That's good because there's a lot to appreciate here. Llenn's all-pink get-up looks incongruously cutesy for such a gritty setting, even down to her carrying a pink P90 (a weapon widely-used in military forces around the world, though obviously not in that color); her companion even makes her cover up because she sticks out too much. Otherwise the visuals capture the grittiness of the ruins and forest terrain well, adding in naturalistic displays of gunfire and military-style tactics. The first episode offers satisfying visuals for this action-adventure scenario, even down to some neat first-person perspective shots and animation. After getting ordered around most of the episode, Llenn also proves that her combination of speed, compact size, and compact firepower make her a force to be reckoned with when the fighting gets serious.
The one minor problem is that this is clearly a spectacle showcase episode rather than a story-establishing episode. It waits until the last scene to reveal the gimmick that Llenn's player is the physical opposite of her real world counterpart, and presumably there's a story behind that. Where the story may go from here is utterly unclear at this point, as is how much of Llenn's characterization actually applies to her in real life. Still, in terms of generating interest and building enthusiasm for the upcoming season, the episode does its job well enough.
The GGO arc of SAO was my least favorite part of the series, but I can see why it's the one that got its own spin-off – the world of Gun Gale Online is fascinating, and the ruined cityscape that forms the background for this episode's battle practically begs to be explored. First Person Shooter games (FPS) are also a good way to blow off some steam and can require a lot of strategizing, so there's plenty of room for detailed scenarios and battle plans that can be appealing to watch, along with the presentation of a more immersive yet safe way to participate in deadly survival games. On the other hand, if none of those things appeal to you, this first episode may not be what you're looking for.
The entire episode takes place during one of GGO's tournaments, the Squad Jam, where teams of players compete on a random battlefield. We're following LLEN and M, and the fact that they're a duo rather than a larger group almost immediately stands out – everyone else they're up against is in at least a group of four. That doesn't seem to present much of a problem for our heroes, however, because M has a brilliant tactical mind and preternatural hearing and LLEN's small size and maxed-out speed stat give her a major edge against the buff male avatars. It's a fun use of assumptions against other players. LLEN looks and acts really harmless for most of the episode, only strutting her stuff at the very end, and against a team of some kind of professionals at that. Her adorable appearance belies her power, and that could be used well over the course of the show.
I'm also intrigued by her real-life identity. Discovering her backstory may be a particularly interesting piece of the story, because LLEN doesn't seem like she's playing because she's a battle junkie or a big fan of guns in general. (Although she did nickname her pink weapon P-chan.) In fact, she basically just does what M tells her to, although she does make a show of balking at his constant stream of instructions.
This isn't really an episode that particularly hooked me, but it does have enough that could be developed to ultimately make it worthwhile. The mechanic of giving us an FPS viewpoint at times and the glimpses of the game controls as the players see them is interesting, and the characters themselves have potential, so this one goes into the wait and see pile. If it can build a plot without an overreliance on the minutiae of GGO's game mechanics, it may turn out to be interesting.
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