Gun Gale Online Arc: Episodes 1-14 (Streaming on Crunchyroll). This review contains spoilers.
“Between my finger and my thumb,
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” – Seamus Heaney
The first series of SAO seemed to split anime fans. While it was bigged-up as the anime of 2012, many people took a strong dislike to it. Some however just seemed to hate it purely because it was popular.
Perhaps this latest series may appeal to more people. The “Gun Gale Online” arc is often seen by many as being the best of the SAO major plots. It takes a rather different tone to that of the first two arcs as the game itself is in a very different setting. There are some elements however that will be familiar with old SAO fans and detractors: the hero Kirito leading the way; a new female lead; and a sinister villain whose intentions enter areas that some would consider too distasteful to show on screen.
SAO II sees Kirito and Asuna getting on with life after she has been freed from AlfHelm Online. They, plus their old friends, now spend most of their time in a version of AlfHelm improved by the use of Kirito’s “World Seed”. It has been a year since the crisis on the original Sword Art Online ended, and Kirito is being called upon by the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Virtual Division to sort out a problem on another VRMMORPG.
This time the game is “Gun Gale Online” (GGO), a cyberpunk game in which the main weapons used are firearms. It has attracted lots of attention as real money can be earned from it. Kirito is informed that recently a player known as XeXeed was talking via a video screen when a masked player using a weapon called the “Death Gun” shot the screen. This shot made XeXeed convulse and disconnect. He is later found dead, with the masked player saying that his Death Gun has the power to kill any player in GGO in real life. Kirito is asked, and later agrees, to investigate the crime.
Kirito enters the game, informing Asuna of the situation. However, there are some problems with his arrival. Namely that his avatar has long hair and thus most of the players in GGO assume Kirito is a girl. One of these is a sniper called Sinon. She is one of the best GGO players around, planning to enter the prestigious “Bullet of Bullets” tournament. Kirito decides to enter it in order to attract the masked gunman’s attention, so Sinon helps Kirito around, helping him choose his weapons: a hand gun and a “beam sword” – because some habits die hard. However, once Sinon learns of Kirito’s real gender, she begins shunning him. But then, as Kirito prepares for the Bullet of Bullets, he actually encounters the masked gunman, and makes a discovery which results in him having to remember something terrible that occurred back in that game which is not named in polite society.
Sinon also has her own problems back in the real world. She is constantly bullied by the other girls in her school because she is hoplophobic: one of GGO’s best players has a fear of guns. Even someone miming the shape of a gun with their hand is enough to terrify her, and she keeps a replica gun which she holds as a way of trying to cure herself. Her phobia dates back to when, as a young girl, she witnessed a post office being robbed. She grabbed the robber’s gun and shot the robber dead. Along with Kirito’s crimesolving, Sinon tries to overcome her fear.
This arc has plenty of plus points. Sinon for starters is a nice character: someone who is using a video game to try and overcome their biggest fear. The masked gunman also makes for an interesting creation, especially as you learn more about him and indeed what Kirito knows about him.
The animation looks stunning. You have the character designs, with Kirito’s new long-haired look; the sinister appearance of the masked gunman; and Sinon certainly looks cool. She also fulfils that classic anime troupe of being a female character who carries a gun that is around the same size as she is (see Yoko Littner from Gurren Lagann). It is not just the character designs. The landscapes are engrossing. The best is the sight of the grim, cyberpunk city in which the game is set, especially at night. There is a Blade Runner-esque feel to it.
Then there is the central plot. You could argue that this is a murder mystery, or to be more exact, someone’s attempt to prevent a murder from happening in the first place. It is a crime story, which is something that is more relatable in comparison to the stories in the first series of SAO. Because of that, it connects with the viewer more. The music by Yuki Kajiura is good too. Both Openings, “Ignite” by Eir Aoi and “Startear” by Luna Haruna, are cool to listen to.
There has been plenty of criticism however, primarily of some of the plot devices used. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but near the end of the arc you witness someone attacking and trying to rape one of the female characters. People were already complaining about the use of rape as a plot device in the AlfHelm arc, which featured tentacle monsters and the main villain making advances on Asuna. People have been saying this is lazy writing, or just plain distasteful or offensive. Others have complained that Kirito is too black-and-white a character: a simple battle between good and evil with few shades of grey in-between.
Personally I think that this has been a good arc, one of the best. It is certainly an improvement on the AlfHelm story, and the change to a cyberpunk world makes for new developments artistically.
The next episode is a compilation of the past 14 episodes. The rest of the series is an adaptation of two stories known as the “Mother’s Rosary” and “Calibur” arcs, which I suspect will probably more along the lines of “AlfHelm” in terms of quality. By the look of things, it would seem the final major game, “UnderWorld”, where time can flow faster than it does in the real world, may become the subject of a third series – if one is commissioned.