Who needs swords when you’ve got guns?
It seems like an almost a lifetime ago that “Sword Art Online” dropped onto the anime scene like a ballistic missile and made a great big mess of things. Whether you loved it or you hated it, SAO was bound to generate an opinion from anyone who came across it. Despite its initial success, it was also met with more than its fair share of disdain, and earned a reputation for being a spicy mess of a show that undercuts its interesting setting with its bizarre plot twists and questionable characters. Enter Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online, which appears to exist as a response to the poor reception of SAO season two. While it’s definitely not a masterpiece, GGO learns from the mistakes of its predecessor and sticks to the basics of good storytelling, delivering an entertaining first season that lays the groundwork for a more fulfilling story to come.
Gun Gale Online is a spin-off series, following a new cast of characters while they play the “PvP VR shooter” which gives the show its name and was the subject of season two of SAO. Instead of continuing the structure of SAO, which focused on survival in a virtual reality world structured to kill you, GGO instead takes a much lighter approach, being about people actually playing the game; you know, for fun. After the events of SAO, virtual reality games almost died out completely but were revived with the advent of “SEED”, an open development license that installed safety precautions in VR headsets so that they could never be used to kill people again.
Meet Kohiruimaki Karen, an auspiciously tall woman who’s deeply insecure about her height, and gets introduced to the world of VR games by her friend Miyu. After going from game to game trying to find an avatar who isn’t as tall as she is, she eventually settles into Gun Gale Online, where she can play as the cute shorty she’s always wanted to be. From there, the plot of the season follows the odyssey of her adventures in GGO, meeting her mentor/best friend Pitohui and participating in the Squad Jam, a team PvP tournament with her stoic, militaristic comrade, “M.” As she plays through the game and accumulates skill, she earns a reputation as the “Pink Devil” of Gun Gale Online, owing to her quick reflexes and bright pink outfit that camouflages in the reddish desert areas of the game’s world.
Gun Gale Online shares a few similarities with its parent show. There is no life-or-death element here like there is in SAO. Rather, this series is more akin to a sports anime, focusing on team play, friendship, and competition in its post-apocalyptic gun-fueled world. Over the course of the season, we’re introduced to more complex elements of the game itself, meaning that we grow and learn as Karen grows and learns in the story. This makes Karen immediately compelling as the main character. We bond with her as we see more of the world in her eyes but also as we empathize with her weakness and humanity. While Karen’s obsession with her height initially might strike the viewer as superficial, her character has enough depth for the audience to realize that she suffers like all of us do; desiring things that she can never have.
The core of Gun Gale Online is about understanding why people play video games, and how people can find a home in a fantasy world that’s no less real than our own, even if it exists only inside a computer. Each character in the cast has a tangible reason to be playing this game, formed by their own real-world circumstances. The show is split between spending time with the cast discussing and developing their character motivations and putting those characters in exciting gun battles to put them to the test. This creates pacing that knows how to win over your heart and your eyes. It doesn’t focus too much on either characters or action to leave the other out to dry, but creates a nice balance to the show, letting you enjoy what’s happening on-screen without feeling like you’re watching something ridiculous.
The quality of this show is directly linked to the quality of the world that it creates, but thankfully the finer points of Gun Gale Online don’t disappoint. Each episode delivers new complexities to the game that make the conflicts that much more interesting, with new mechanics and special abilities accompanying flashbacks or new characters. This is done well enough that by the end of the season I was wishing I could actually play Gun Gale Online, which is, no doubt, exactly what the show is going for.
Of course, none of this would matter if the localization and dubbing weren’t where it needed to be, but I found the dub to be really solid. The voices don’t feel stilted or forced, and the writing is well-timed to the characters’ mouths and personalities. It’s by no means the best dub I’ve ever heard since its somewhat vanilla, but the dubbing here is much better than some of the shows that have been coming out lately.
So, with all of this in mind, what’s the catch? What keeps Gun Gale Online from blowing me away. Well, as much as I’m enjoying the show, it doesn’t have anything that pushes to the level of a show that makes me jump out of my seat. Its dialogue is competent but lacks style and personality, and none of the writing was especially clever or emotional. The world is well-developed, but it lacks creativity. As fun as Gun Gale Online would be to play, it’s nowhere near the level of immersive fantasy as say, the world of “Fullmetal Alchemist”, “Naruto”, “One Piece”, or any number of other anime settings. After all, in the world of anime, creative settings are not the exception, but the norm and Gun Gale Online doesn’t quite hit that standard. Furthermore, it has the same visual style that SAO had, which isn’t great; though it looks alright, it doesn’t have any particularly exciting direction or designs that excite the imagination.
In essence, Gun Gale Online is good, and considering the cesspool of an anime industry that we’re in right now, I’m happier than usual to see something of this quality get made. However, in the larger anime canon, Gun Gale Online won’t be remembered as anything more than a fun spin-off series of a troubled, but popular anime. There will probably be more Gun Gale to come, and I’d love to see how things develop from here, but this season finishes up at the level of “Above average.”