From Crunchyroll: In the world of guns and steel that is Gun Gale Online, LLENN has been a devoted, female solo player. She is obsessed with two things: donning herself entirely in pink and honing her skills with consistent game play. She soon discovers her love for hunting other players (a.k.a. PK), soon to be known as the “Pink Devil.” Meanwhile, LLENN meets a beautiful yet mysterious player, Pitohui, and the two click right away. Doing as she is told by Pitohui, she enters the Squad Jam group battle.
The Sword Art Online franchise has always seemed utterly incapable of properly handling any sort of long-term narrative. The author of the light novel Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online (which I will henceforth refer to as Alternative) was smart enough to realize that when crafting this story. Instead of turning into a grand adventure or high-stakes rescue mission like some previous entries in the franchise, Alternative opts to take certain elements of the franchise and tone down their scale. Alternative‘s plot involves a real-life death game, for example, but that death game only affects a handful of characters, freeing the series from the “epic” feeling of other SAO arcs. With a more limited scope, the series is able to take its time with its story and craft a fully-realized narrative — and it helps that Gun Gale Online’s setting is already familiar to audiences. Alternative knows its own weakness before it even gets going, and that’s definitely a point in its court.
Protagonist LLENN winds up in the gun-slinging world of Gun Gale Online, which series faithfuls will recall as the setting for Kirito and Sinon’s showdown with Death Gun, the real-life player killer. LLENN, known in the real world as Kohiruimaki Karen, is encouraged to try VR gaming to escape what she hates most about herself — she’s six feet tall. While that may not seem like a big issue, in Japan, such height in a woman is particularly uncommon, and Karen developed a complex after years of being teased for her height. She dives into several video games trying to find a shorter, more feminine avatar (only using the demos before she decides, a detail the anime leaves out) before finally landing in Gun Gale Online as the incredibly short (and pink-clad) LLENN. She falls in love with her new persona and decides to stick around in Gun Gale. It doesn’t take LLENN long to earn a reputation. She becomes known as the Pink Devil who decimates entire teams in the desert zone, where her pink attire blends her in to the surroundings. Her notoriety ignites the curiosity of Pitohui, another strong female player, who urges LLENN to join her friend M in Squad Jam, a team-based version of the Battle of Bullets tournament in which Kirito and Sinon participated.
This basic synopsis leads to both a problem and a strength of the series. For the first five episodes, this is all the audience gets – a flashback to LLENN joining the game and the advancement of the Squad Jam tournament. As such, there’s almost no meat to the narrative during the episodes, which is an issue for anyone wanting something substantial to chew on. On the other hand, with the series ignoring its lack of plot, it’s free to go all-in on pure spectacle, and this first set of episodes does contain some sleek and engaging action sequences. And, in all honesty, spectacle is about all past incarnations of this franchise have had going for them, so this isn’t entirely a bad thing for Alternative to play to its strength right out of the gate.
It’s only after the conclusion of Squad Jam that the driving goal for the rest of the series presents itself. M approaches Karen about the upcoming second Squad Jam, informing her of Pitohui’s twisted mind and intent. As it turns out, Pitohui was absolutely furious that she missed out on the Sword Art Online incident where dying in-game meant dying in real life. She craves that risk — that feeling of truly putting her life on the line in a winner-take-all fight. Which is why, as M informs LLENN, she plans to kill herself if she loses in the next Squad Jam. The only way around it that M can think of is for LLENN to be the one to kill Pitohui in-game, as the two previously made a promise to meet in real life if LLENN beat Pitohui in a duel.
In any other show, Pitohui’s madness would be dialied up to 11, or worse. Thankfully, her insanity remains relatively grounded, ignoring the usual anime cliches of terrifying facial expressions and incoherence. Pitohui is brutally sadistic, but she always maintains her wits and expresses her twisted nature in a more natural way than just brazenly flaunting her most perverted desires in the face of the audience. It’s probably the smartest decision the series makes, because if Pitohui’s insanity comes off as unbelievable or corny, nothing else in the second-half works.
Beyond her and some emotional moments from M, the rest of the cast receives little to no development over the course of the series. LLENN in-game remains fairly cookie-cutter, only showing some depth when she spirals into a fierce frenzy after becoming overwhelmed. In all other regards, she’s basically Pink Kirito, overpowered without much characterization. Yet, she remains at least more likable than Kirito, as she does in fact possess a personality, something Kirito lacked. The supporting cast, including LLENN’s friend Fukaziroh and a group of buff and burly female fighters, are likable in their own respects but also are present merely for plot purposes rather than their own arcs. As long as they’re likable and given something to do, that’s largely fine, and Alternative at least makes sure of that much for most of its characters.
In the end, Alternative is not what I would call a great series. The characters’ personalities are mostly surface-deep, an engaging plot is nonexistent, and the show relies heavily on LLENN’s charm as a protagonist. But this is by no means a bad series. Alternative is still enjoyable, despite its faults. The cast is fun, if bland, Pitohui is appropriately spine-tingling in her actions, the fights are well-choreographed and exciting, and Gun Gale Online itself is just an intriguing setting despite being rehashed. The story is nothing groundbreaking, but Alternative at least tells a complete story, something other incarnations of SAO have failed to do. If you like guns and can ignore the lack of substance the show offers, you’ll have a great time with this. Unstable visual quality aside, Alternative definitely contains some of the best, if not the best, action scenes of the season, and that’s reason enough to give the show a shot.
Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online
- Provides a new direction for the franchise's future
- Pitohui's insanity is refreshingly grounded
- Action scenes are a treat
- Strong and likable female cast
- Llenn is a bit bland as a protagonist
- Rarely reaches for any depth in its characters aside from Pito and M
- Some tactics and gunplay do not make sense
- Takes half the series for any semblance of plot to develop