Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.
Format: 12 episodes
Release: April 8, 2018 – June 30, 2018
Source: Light novel
How do you prove yourself to be a credible and trustworthy anime critic nowadays? Well, the easy route this past decade is to bash on Sword Art Online.
I have been rather generous with my past reviews regarding the franchise, at least in comparison to other critics that I've noticed. As flawed as the franchise is—and it is deeply flawed—I enjoyed watching the first two seasons and the sequel movie done by A-1 Pictures. At their very worst, they can be terribly written, but still a lot of fun thanks to a great presentation.
But Sword Art Online has grown beyond its initial series. Despite the deserving scathing reviews of the first season's second story arc, SAO began to find a more solid footing with its sequels. With increasingly better story arcs and characterizations, the franchise at least managed to regain some good faith from viewers.
And now the franchise has evolved enough to allow other creators to drop into the setting and write their scenarios. SAO Alternative: Gun Gale Online is the creation of such collaboration, and a pretty decent one at that. Then again, it's granted when it comes to being penned by the man behind Kino's Journey.
Today on Reaper's Reviews, a review of the 2018 anime series based on a series of light novels by Keiichi Sigsawa and on the IP started by Reki Kawahara, directed by Masayuki Sakoi and produced by studio 3Hz. This is the first spin-off for the Sword Art Online franchise, Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online.
Story & Setting
Karen Kohiruimaki has a rather relatable problem; she is an introvert who is insecure in her physical appearance. Specifically, she has a complex about her height. To this end, on the suggestion of her friend Miyu, Karen tries a few fantasy VR games to have some escapism in her life. However, she declines most of the offers as her in-game avatars share her height.
Trying the vastly different shooter Gun Gale Online, Karen finally receives a short avatar to her delight. She clothes herself in a pink uniform and slowly becomes a skilled player under the name LLENN; gaining the nickname "Pink Devil" for her choice of fashion and agility, LLEN becomes a well known player-killer.
Through GGO, LLENN meets a fellow female player known as Pitohui. Pitohui becomes LLENN’s first friend in GGO, and it’s through her encouragement that LLENN decides to participate in a team tournament called Squad Jam. However, as it is always the case with the SAO franchise, there is more to that than just another challenge, and Pitohui proves to be more than another interesting fella.
SAO Alternative is, as it name implies, another take on the wider SAO franchise. It is canon to the mainline series, but aside from several fun references and a familiar setting, this is a completely standalone title. This makes SAO Alternative an ideal entry point into the series, untainted by its predecessors.
In comparison to the original 2012 anime and its 2014 sequel, SAO Alternative is a more lighthearted affair… Initially. Even when it goes into a darker territory, the series maintains a more laid-back and relaxed attitude without mountains of tedious melodrama and insane twists to muddle it.
As a result, the story as a whole is a lot more straightforward. There are no sudden death traps or elaborate conspiracies from corrupted shareholders; it’s all about the game and a slew of new gamers enjoying it. They are not even top-tier, “the best of the best” players like Kirito or Sinon; rather, just a bunch of players who would have been the supporting cast at best in the main series.
As such, the stakes are lower, but this allows for a smaller, more personal story. Long-time series themes such as one’s identity and the possible influences of virtual-reality are still preserved, but they are explored in a more subtle way that rarely hand-heavy them.
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On one hand, this results in a series that never quite reaches the emotional heights and so-called catharsis of its predecessor - partly as a result of its more subdued and lighthearted nature; it also makes for a fairly simplistic series overall. But on the other hand, SAO Alternative is more consistent and better paced than 2012’s SAO.
For the most part, SAO Alternative concerns itself mainly with high-octane action, intense situations and charming humor. The series is broken into two arcs focusing on two different Squad Jam tournaments, with solid beginnings, intense middle acts and satisfying conclusions.
Probably my only A-class problem with the show is how it doesn’t play its potential to the fullest. While there are multiple tactics, many of whom smart in idea and slick in execution, at some point it feels that some of LLENN’s victories are due to forced stupidity rather than her own merits.
For a game focusing on what appears to be tactical shooting at times, many of LLENN’s opponents do some of the most idiotic things you could do in a team shooter game; you have teams that stick together as one large target rather than separating and team captains who move into the open in an area their support snipers can’t see them. And this also sips into LLENN’s allies.
I suppose this is partly due to the fact that a lot of the players seen in SAO Alternative are mid-tier in terms of skill or experience, but it’s still somewhat baffling when some teams and players are said to be actually mercenaries or soldiers using the game to test their tactics.
Speaking of the game, one of the biggest issues I had with Sword Art Online II was how Gun Gale Online was left mostly unexplored. It was an interesting and refreshing setting in the usual isekai/fantasy anime landscape, but it was never the focus of its season and was ditched one cour after its introduction.
In SAO Alternative, GGO is finally fleshed out. The series puts a focus on GGO’s mechanics, the various players who inhabit the game world, different strategies and tactics employed by a variety of players, a wide arrange of weapons to choose and the “culture” that dominates the game’s population and atmosphere.
Some players like Karen enjoy the game as a game, while others like Pitohui are addicted to its violent nature. I also appreciated how some players are indeed actual soldiers or mercenaries who use GGO as training grounds to enhance their skills or test out new techniques. This is a very interesting aspect of GGO’s player base.
I enjoyed seeing more of GGO’s beautifully desolate landscapes, seeing it as a post-apocalyptic chain of maps where gunfire and mutating monsters rule. The team deathmatch style of Squad Jam was also a constant joy to watch, like a natural evolution of the Bullet of Bullets tournament from SAO II.
I hope to see more on GGO’s structure and continued evolution in a potential second season. Now that we have established our setting and characters, perhaps this hypothetical sequel would also feature a more complex plot, but one thing at a time.
With one or two exceptions that are only meant as shout-outs, SAO Alternative features an original cast who are completely separated from the rest of the SAO franchise. There is no Kirito, or Asuna or Yui; only Karen, her friends and rivals who inhabit GGO’s wasteland.
While I am slightly disappointed Sinon is only given a mention or two and a cameo as a silhouette, SAO Alternative’s cast overall stands as the superior one, thanks to a blend of charm, wit and energy.
Karen, or LLENN as she gets to be known, is truly the heart of this eccentric spin-off. In the real world, Karen is a shy and insecure young woman, but her lack of self-confidence is balanced by her snarky sense of humor and wits.
As LLENN however, Karen is a chipper and energetic protagonist who leaps wildly across the battlefield, often accompanied by a string of dry jokes and goofy remarks. In many ways she is similar to Kirito, being a socially awkward person who doubles as a relatively overpowered player, but key differences make her work better.
Ultimately, LLENN has a more nonchalant approach to the virtual reality games, whom she sees as a hobby rather than an obsession. She expresses herself a lot more as a result and actually experiences subtle development into a more confident individual without betraying her initial portrayal.
Like Kirito is considered relatively powerful in her series, but she is not invincible and most of her victories come from creative plans and pragmatic thinking rather than raw power or convoluted power ups. This is coupled with her not clashing with corrupt executives’ evil plans or fighting a death cult of god-complex players, giving her an overall more grounded and relatable image.
Well, she does engage with one death-thrilled player.
Pitohui (or Pito) is LLENN’s first friend in GGO, a gorgeous young woman with a disturbing lust for violence and destruction. She is - for better or worse depending on your opinion - the main source of conflict in the series.
Under Pito's outgoing and talkative - almost hyperactive - attitude, she is a rather… troubled person. The show itself doesn't even try to hide how messed up she is, but Pito ends up being a fairly fascinating antagonist.
Without delving into spoiler territory, Pito is easily the best of SAO's adversaries (though, if to be honest, it doesn't say much). Her more villainous behavior can seem a little one-note, but the flare and presentation of the character make her a genuinely fun villain to watch - not to mention her risky yet effective tactics which make her a legitimately dangerous opponent.
Her interactions with LLENN are also among the best in the franchise; she (almost) never harbors any hostility towards her first actual friend in the game, instead often acting affably and praising LLENN for her achievements. This bond of mutual respect ultimately adds a lot more weight and emotion to their confrontations.
And then you have M, Pito's reluctant and seemingly stoic associate and, for lack of a better term, chew toy.
Seemingly stoic and odd, M is a skilled in-game sniper and strategist who begins to work with LLENN under Pito’s instructions, though more to him is revealed as the series goes. I have to say that his serious demeanor contrasts pretty well against LLENN’s more jumpy behavior, and it makes for a good duo with plenty of laughs and even some touching moments later on.
The last character I’m going to talk about individually is Karen’s best friend Shinohara Miyu, better known as Fuka. Miyu is indirectly responsible for this little side series, as she was the one who suggested Karen to try VR games. Unlike Karen and the rest, she mostly plays the fantasy-based RPG Alfheim Online, but ventures into GGO at her friend’s request.
Overall, Fuka serves to generally balance the rest of the main characters. She is notably the only one out of the core four to not have any noticeable issues, which leads to her being a generally outgoing and hyperactive without the undertones of psychopathy like Pito, or her snarky and humorous side without having it act as a defense mechanism like in Karen’s case.
This is also one of the things I love about the main cast - and some of the supporting ones, too - the most. The majority of the characters (whose identities we get to know over the course of the series) have this little case of duality in their characterization. This comes off as mainly physically, but mentally as well.
It reminds me a little of Sinon’s initial characterization in the mother series, but I enjoy how more subdued it feels in SAO Alternative.
Now the supporting cast is considerably large for a 12-episode show, but while there are some colorful personalities out there, the most notable ones are the ladies of Team SHINC - a group of six female players using mostly stocked built avatars. They start off as rivals to LLENN but quickly become dependable allies by the second half of the show.
Even then, only their leader, Eva, is given enough characterization to separate herself from the team. Though I genuinely like her design and she even gives one of the most intense duels in the entire series.
Personally I would love to see more of the squad teammates introduced in this season, particularly the green-haired sniper Shirley and the eccentric and goofily lovable Clarence. I think that there is so much potential with all those characters to just let it wasted with only one season, and their interactions with both LLENN’s team and with each other would certainly be interesting to watch.
Animation & Art
Until SAO Alternative, I haven’t watched any work by studio 3Hz; in fact, they are a relatively new studio that was founded back in 2013. Though they already worked on four different shows prior to SAO Alternative. Oh, and they were founded by former employees of Kinema Citrus, a studio that often maintains a consistent level of quality.
I will say that while even at the top of their game 3Hz doesn’t reach some of the fight scenes A-1 Pictures animated for the mainline SAO franchise, their work comes close - and more importantly, remains far more consistent in terms of quality and fluidity thanks for being a one cour show.
3Hz’ rendition of GGO faithfully recreates the game as it was presented in SAO II, with the nicely detailed ruins of civilization, gritty roads and dying skies. The desolate atmosphere of GGO works surprisingly well with the generally colorful and quirky character designs, particularly LLENN - essentially letting the viewers know that this is still a videogame rather than some other reality.
Now as far as the action goes, it’s pretty good. Even great at times. Some swift movements, good mixture between realistic engagements and cartoonish acrobatics and some slick direction to cover some of the less impressive shots make SAO Alternative a generally kinetic showcase of bullets and explosions.
I also love how creative 3Hz get with the idea that this is a series set in a videogame when it comes to graphic content, which means that they can get away with scenes that would have been considered too bloody and gory in a television-airing anime through virtual substitutes for blood or lack of graphic detail in the violence.
Seriously, there are scenes the include throat slashing, characters having their limbs torn from their bodies, decapitation, getting cut in half by a photon sword and of course having your entire body getting ridden with bullets. There is even a scene of one character killing another one with a vicious bite to the neck, but due to the special effects this comes off as morbidly charming instead of excessively violent.
Audio & Sound
Similar to the writing and animation departments, the music of SAO Alternative also saw a slight change in personnel. Taking over from Yuki Kajiura for this particular spin-off is Yusuke Ceo, better known by his stage name Starving Trancer.
As far as anime goes, he hasn’t done anything worthwhile or notable, with SAO Alternative being his first major work that is not a single theme song. But I will argue that while his work, on a technical level, still has a ways to go, Ceo’s soundtrack has more character than Kajiura’s work on the main series.
SAO Alternative’s soundtrack lacks the more epic and grandiose tracks its mother series contains, but it focuses more on rocky tunes, electronic beats and an overall more upbeat music that fits with the lighter tone and action-focused nature of the series. The series is filled with solid tracks such as the hard-hitting rock “M”, the eerie “Death Game”, and even some intense themes such as “Decoy”.
The highlight of the soundtrack, however, is the insert song “Disorder” by a previously small-time singer called Renoa. In-series this is presented as a single from the character of Elsa Kanzaki, a famous singer whom Karen idolizes. It is used several times across the series, specifically during several climax moments, and it’s an excellent insert song.
Renoa actually released several songs under her character’s name, so I really suggest checking those songs out if you enjoy “Disorder”.
Then you have the opening and ending songs, both of which are pretty good. The opening, “Ryusei” is a hopeful and triumph song that marks the return of singer Eir Aoki from hiatus, who among other things did “Ignite”, the first opening song of SAO II - and it’s a great way to announce her return.
Meanwhile the ending, “To see the future” by Karen’s seiyuu Tomori Kusunoki, is a cute and addicting little pop song. Both songs link smoothly to Karen’s character and I recommend checking their lyrics when you can.
Now the English dub is great, with Reba Buhr cast as LLENN. She gives the character this perfectly fitting high-pitched voice that combines nervousness and snark, and I really love the difference with her deeper, more mature portrayal as Karen. Like I know some people would say that this high-pitched sounds awkward, but to me it suits a character who tries to present herself as a cute, little girl.
I was somewhat worried for Allegra Clark’s work as Pito, mainly because I’ve watched the series first in Japanese and fell in love with Yoko Hikasa’s portrayal of the character. But Clark does a splendid job, even if it’s not as flexible and memorable as her Japanese counterpart.
And both Ray Chase and Faye Mata complete the major cast as M and Fuka respectively, the former with his smooth, stoic and commanding voice (showcasing Chase’s stellar vocal range from his usual young man portrayals) and the latter with her cutesy, energetic delivery. And Mata’s chemistry with Buhr is downright exceptional.
If the Sword Art Online franchise is not to your taste, I cannot guarantee that Alternative would change your mind. However, for fans of the franchise and people unfamiliar with the anime, it might prove to be a delightful experience. SAO Alternative: Gun Gale Online is the kind of spin-off that strips down all the fluff amounted in its mother series to deliver a smaller, more lighthearted work. The result means a simpler series with less attempts at complex themes, but at the same SAO Alternative is untainted by rotten melodrama or half-baked characterization that plagued the original.
Ultimately, SAO Alternative is a fun little anime that knows not to take itself too seriously. Even when it does, it handles the shift well enough to avoid a jarring transition. Karen is a relatable and expressive protagonist and Gun Gale Online finally receives long-awaited exploration and development as a setting. No, it won't be a series that will linger over on your mind for too long, but a solid presentation from 3Hz, a fitting soundtrack and a constant sense of fun make SAO Alternative a good action series to waste time on. And perhaps a potential sequel will manage to realize the full capacity of its concept.
- Take on SAO: Cuts on the drama to deliver a constantly fun (and funny) adventure.
- Gun Gale Online: Gives the barely explored setting from SAO II the attention it deserves.
- Presentation: Doesn't reach the best of A-1 Pictures' efforts, but still a very solid work.
- Potential: Vastly untapped, still has a room to grow in a second season.
- LLENN: Move out the way, Kirito. Karen is here to stay!
- Pitohui: Sublime.
© 2019 Raziel Reaper