I’m not going to lie, I know Sword Art Online is not an objectively good anime. It’s seen by many as the anime equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie, with plenty of ridiculous action, swiss-cheese-level holey plotlines, and attractive but bland characters. And yet, at the end of the day, some part of me likes to just recognize the flaws, push past them in my mind, and enjoy it. So I was looking forward to more of the same with Gun Gale Online, and my low expectations were easily exceeded.
Episode 1 offers a brief rundown of the relevant events from SAO, namely the players-stuck-in-game-lotsa-people-died stuff (don’t worry, they fixed that), before diving right into the game Gun Gale Online, where a battle royale tournament called Squad Jam is just about to start!
The main character’s team of two decides to play things safe and, essentially, the most boring way possible, resorting to disengaging enemies that discover them and hiding until opportune moments. This strategy is calculated and cautious, sure, but aside from the occasional climactic clash it doesn’t make for much crazy action. In these stale moments, conversations between LLENN and her companion M are paired with the demise of other teams (not by our protagonists’ hands, mind you), serving to show some basic strategies for people unfamiliar with battle-royale-style games. These buzzword-filled lectures take up the majority of the first episode, with two quick skirmishes hitting the episode’s midpoint and climax.
Through all of this dialogue there are only tiny hints at the characters’ relationship, with M being the seasoned veteran and the brains of the operation and LLENN being the hit-and-run leader often used as a decoy, but no real expository foundation is laid out. There were also some strange points, like elite professional combat teams trying to gain field experience by facing off against a bunch of amateur gamers. Gotta say, up until the end of this episode I was questioning why I should continue to watch this series when I could find more thrilling content in literally any PUBG stream.
But then, something happened. The irl identity of our heroine is revealed for a brief moment and…She’s older! And beloved by a troupe of high school age girls!! Pair that with the super cute ending and I found myself forgetting the mind-numbing game talk and actually looking forward to the next episode, seeing more of Karen’s daily life and her interactions with this group of girls who had suddenly popped into the story. Could it be…an SAO anime with positive female relationships, 100% tragedy-free?
The second episode dashed my hopes initially, as it started in a very different place from where episode 1 left off. Many months before the events of the first episode, Karen moves to Tokyo for college. Like many college freshman, her social life is hindered by her insecurities, namely a complex she has about her height, and she finds herself struggling to find a way to spend her free time. Don’t worry Karen, video games will suck up all that free time for sure!
Karen decides to give VRMMOs a shot, but things don’t go her way at first. For some reason, almost every game in the SAO universe assigns random avatars (which would be an actual nightmare for the majority of players in any real game). From game to game, Karen finds herself unhappy with her avatar, and unable to enjoy the game because of it. Fixated on the idea of having a cuter appearance, she goes through 37 games before finally materializing as a small cute girl avatar in GGO. Content and likely broke after buying or rerolling so many games, she gives the tutorial a whirl. Brutal burns and the most hilarious sequence so far ensue.
The flashbacks continue to pile up as she learns the mechanics of the game, fights monsters, and eventually becomes infamous for ambushing other players after an accident with a tripwire, where LLENN fights in self defense and discovers her insane speed stat, which would probably wreck the balance of any real MMO. Through LLENN’s player killer exploits, she meets the dark antagonist of this story, Pitohui!
Except, contrary to the intimidating imagery of the opening, Pito is not an antagonist in the usual SAO sense. Rather than wanting to murder or imprison anyone, she simply wants to test LLENN’s abilities. The two become friends because they’re both girls playing the same game, and don’t have much in common outside of that. Pito lives and breathes GGO, so having a similar reputation to LLENN is all the motivation she needs to befriend her, meanwhile LLENN idolizes Pito and appreciates her expertise, but struggles to find common ground with her. Pito wants to meet LLENN in real life and challenges her, introducing the upcoming Squad Jam and saying that if LLENN can beat her, they’ll meet up. Karen is uneasy about the gap between her in-game and irl appearances, but takes on the challenge regardless. With that, the driving force for Gun Gale Online is revealed to be the ultimate anime incentive: FRIENDSHIP!
Episode 2 being an entire series of back-to-back flashbacks felt like a clumsy way of balancing the lack of exposition in the first episode, and something tells me that clumsiness is here to stay. That aside, the idea of an older protagonist battling her way toward a goal that will force her to face her inihibitions should she achieve it has really hooked me, and I find myself looking forward to the next episode!
Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online is currently streaming on Crunchyroll on Saturdays!