Reviewby Paul Jensen,
Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online
Blu-ray Parts 1-2
College student Karen Kohiruimaki has been abnormally tall since she was a kid, and all she really wants is a chance to be short and cute for a change. She tries out virtual reality gaming at a friend's suggestion, and jumps into the first game that offers her a petite avatar. That game happens to be Gun Gale Online, a kill-or-be-killed shooter where other players are just as dangerous as the monsters. Karen, playing under the name LLENN, gradually adapts to GGO and befriends a fellow female gamer who calls herself Pitohui. LLENN doesn't know what to expect when Pito pushes her to join a team battle royale event called Squad Jam, but the competition turns out to have serious consequences for their online friendship.
While it carries the SAO name and shares a universe with the main series, Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online functions more as a standalone story than as a spinoff. The first story arc of Sword Art Online plays a significant role in one character's backstory, and there are a few references to Kirito and Sinon's past exploits in GGO, but the main cast is all new and the plot requires only the most basic level of background knowledge. In fact, not only does this series leave the door open for viewers who've seen little or nothing of the main series, it also fixes a few flaws that may have turned viewers away from SAO.
If you've participated in (or just been in the general vicinity of) a conversation about the original Sword Art Online, you're probably familiar with the suggestion that Kirito is too bland and overpowered to be an engaging protagonist. If you happen to agree with that argument, then Karen/LLENN should be a breath of fresh air. Between her social anxieties in real life and her total lack of experience in VR gaming, LLENN has plenty of personal mountains to climb, and she scales them in style. Her weak points are balanced out by her wry sense of humor and her determination to get the hang of GGO, and we can see clear personal growth from LLENN's messy but effective performance in the first Squad Jam to her more focused and assertive approach to the second competition. Above all else, she's just an easy character to like, especially if you tend to root for the scrappy underdog. Something about the image of a tiny girl in pink camouflage mowing down squads of expendable baddies is just naturally entertaining.
LLENN is backed up by a strong supporting cast, most of whom are well-suited to play off of her personality. Pitohui shines as a charismatic but volatile foil for LLENN, easily jumping between different roles as her mentor, friend, and rival. LLENN's teammate in the first Squad Jam is a big dude named M, and his quiet pragmatism gives her a useful rock to lean on until she's able to take matters into her own hands. Fukaziroh, LLENN's longtime friend and teammate for the second Squad Jam, offers the vital perspective that no matter what happens, GGO is just a game, and she goes all in on that viewpoint by blasting everything in sight with a pair of grenade launchers. The rest of the Squad Jam participants are more of a hit-or-miss group, with the ruthless ladies of team SHINC being the obvious highlight while the other named characters come across as either forgettable or underdeveloped. On balance, though, this is a solid cast, and one that's well-suited to the tone and plot of the series.
Speaking of the plot, Gun Gale Online does have a tendency to rely on leaps of logic, starting with the basic setup of how LLENN ends up in GGO in the first place. The notion that big-budget online games would force players to use randomly generated avatars seems a little far-fetched, and similarly odd details are sprinkled throughout the series. Whether it's the actions and reactions of Squad Jam competitors or just basic elements of the game world, there are a number of times when little things don't quite add up. Thankfully, none of these issues are significant enough to derail the overall experience, and Gun Gale Online moves quickly enough that most head-scratching moments are quickly forgotten. The one major problem is the real-world identity of one of LLENN's fellow gamers, which is presented as a big mystery but is far too easy to guess early on in the series. By the time the truth is revealed, it feels less like a shocking twist and more like a foregone conclusion.
Despite these occasional missteps, Gun Gale Online still manages to get the job done on the narrative front, and the series really hits its stride during Squad Jam. The writing and direction do a nice job of taking the most appealing parts of team battle royale games and translating them into anime form. The constant threat of ambush keeps the dramatic tension high, and it's fun to watch LLENN and her teammates come up with solutions to each new problem. The high-stakes nature of every encounter also helps to set up some emotional high points, ranging from the thrill of victory to an exhausted sense of relief after narrowly avoiding disaster. In between the well-presented action scenes, the series also displays a good sense of humor, especially through the battlefield banter between the main characters. LLENN's chemistry with Fukaziroh is particularly entertaining, and I almost wish the series hadn't waited until the halfway mark to pair them up.
Much like the writing, the art and animation in Gun Gale Online are more impressive in the game world than they are whenever Karen goes back to her real life. The background art in GGO conveys the game's apocalyptic vibe nicely, and visual elements like health bars and menu screens convey the necessary information without feeling intrusive or overdone. Character designs are well-matched to each player's personality, and the generally strong animation is at its best during key moments of action. By comparison, the real world feels unremarkable, with thoroughly ordinary character designs and far less dynamic motion. The show's soundtrack might be its most consistent element, with music that heightens the mood of important scenes without distracting from them, and strong opening and closing theme songs.
The Blu-Ray release from Aniplex of America splits the series across a pair of two-disc sets, which seems like overkill for a mere twelve episodes. Extras include promo videos and commentary tracks on the discs, with a thin booklet and some art cards packed into each box. The English dub features strong lead performances, with Reba Buhr showing an impressive range as both the high-energy LLENN and the more low-key Karen. The dub script keeps the dialogue feeling natural without straying too far from the subtitles, and both the English audio and the original Japanese are perfectly good options depending on your preferences.
For fans of the main series, this spinoff offers a deeper dive into the world of GGO, and the new characters are likable enough to make up for the absence of the core Sword Art Online cast. Viewers who are new to the franchise might be better off starting with SAO, but Gun Gale Online is accessible enough as a standalone story that you could conceivably jump right in without much trouble. Even folks who were less than impressed by the original series might want to give this a chance, as it keeps the spectacular action while offering a fresh protagonist and a more tightly focused story. Regardless of where you're approaching it from, Gun Gale Online is an engaging and enjoyable action series, just long enough to tell a complete story without overstaying its welcome.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Accessible for newcomers and worthwhile for returning SAO fans, strong action scenes, LLENN is an excellent protagonist
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