It’s safe to say that Sword Art Online is a vast franchise, spanning multiple spin-offs and multimedia projects. One such spin-off is Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online (or SAO Alt for short), which received an anime adaption last year. Today I’m here to check out the home video release and find out if the series is worth your time.
Our story follows university student Karen Kohiruimaki, who’s abnormally tall and finds it difficult to socialise because of it. One day her friend, Miyu, suggests that she try out VR games, which would give her the opportunity to play as someone other than herself. After going through a variety of games, Karen finally settles on Gun Gale Online – where she has the kind of short and cute avatar she’s been looking for.
As Karen, or LLENN as she calls herself, becomes more familiar with the game, she begins to make a name for herself as a player killer. This leads her to encounter Pitohui, a veteran player who was curious about the newcomer. Pitohui and LLENN become firm friends and it’s not long before Pitohui encourages LLENN to take part in Gun Gale Online’s first ‘Squad Jam’: a battle royal style tournament. Although Pitohui herself can’t take part, she teams LLENN up with a friend of hers known as M. Together the two aim to make it to the top in their first ever tournament.
The beginning of SAO Alt is difficult to get into. The first episode throws us into the action with LLENN and M already fighting in the tournament, but then episodes 2-4 backtrack to explain how we got into this situation. It doesn’t leave a good first impression, especially when this set only has 6 episodes and 2-3 of them end up being largely set-up and therefore slow. The series just doesn’t do a good job of getting you to care about the cast quickly enough and that was a big problem for me.
Another problem I had was understanding LLENN’s height complex. I’m sure in Japan it’s easier to sympathize with but much of my problem boiled down to how LLENN was animated outside of the game. She’s not often seen standing next to objects or adults, which would’ve given a better perspective of her height – and even the scenes where she was weren’t well directed. On top of that, I found LLENN whiny. Although she’s meant to be the team leader between her and M, she comes off as incapable of doing anything for herself. It wasn’t until episode 5 that I finally started to appreciate her, both regarding her skill when playing Gun Gale Online and as a likeable member of the cast.
Unfortunately, it’s not just LLENN who’s hard to get on with. Pitohui is mysterious and obviously hiding some kind of big secret, but she’s barely in the show enough (in this set anyway) to grow attached to. She’s supposed to be that one awesome senpai character, but the fact she’s hiding something is too obvious and therefore off-putting. M for his part is the strong silent type, but while he seems to know his stuff about guns and warfare (making you wonder why he isn’t the team leader) we never really get to the bottom of his story in these episodes either.
It’s not all bad, though. Although SAO Alt starts off on the wrong foot, by episode 5 things had started to improve a lot and I actively looked forward to what came next (which made having only half the series all the worse due to the weak start). I’m someone who didn’t get on with the Gun Gale Online arc within the main Sword Art Online series, but SAO Alt managed to hold my attention because the fights were genuinely fun to watch. LLENN is a bad shot at a distance and has to get up close and personal with her enemies, which makes for an engaging battle as she works to run circles around her opponents and create the perfect opportunity to strike.
Animation for the series has been handled by studio 3Hz (Princess Principal, Dimension W) and they bring the world to life well. My complaints about the depiction of Karen’s height aside, the team did a great job with the fight scenes and the expressiveness of the characters. It’s not quite up to the high quality of the main SAO series (handled by A-1 Pictures) but it’s certainly not bad.
Where music is concerned, composer Starving Trancer does a great job of delivering the kind of soundtrack you’d expect from a game like Gun Gale Online. The music feels like it ‘pops’ for the action scenes and helps escalate the excitement. The opening theme for the series is “Ryusei” by Eir Aoi, while the ending theme is “To see the future” by Tomori Kusunoki. The ending theme feels like it belongs in a slice of life series with its slow, cheery sound, but the opening fits the series well.
Where voice actors are concerned everyone does a good job. LLENN is played by Tomori Kusunoki (Miki Tokura in Slow Start), and she does well at capturing the hyperactive attitude of the character. I was also fond of Yoko Hikasa (Hina in Domestic Girlfriend, Ko Yagami in New Game!!), who gives Pitohui a suitably menacing and crazed voice. There’s also an English dub for the show and while I only sampled it, the English team seemed well suited to their characters.
This release comes to the UK thanks to Anime Limited and is available on Blu-ray as a collector’s edition. The set includes episodes 1-6 with both Japanese and English audio, as well as clean opening/ending videos, recap episode 5.5 and a selection of audio commentaries. It also comes with a 28 page booklet, art cards, and if bought through All the Anime’s store or Zavvi a collector’s box to home both parts 1 and 2 (when it’s later released).
Overall, the first half of Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online is let down by sloppy opening episodes. With only six episodes in this set, the show struggles for a while to grip you but thankfully there are signs of more interesting things to come.