Clad in desert pink and the size of a mere child, the infamous "Pink Devil" mercilessly hunts down other players in the firearm-centered world of the virtual reality game Gun Gale Online. But in real life, this feared player killer is not quite who anyone would expect. A shy university student in Tokyo, Karen Kohiruimaki stands in stark contrast to her in-game avatar—in fact, she happens to stand above everyone else too, much to her dismay. Towering above all the people around her, Karen's insecurities over her height reach the point where she turns to the virtual world for an escape. Starting game after game in hopes of manifesting as a cute, short character, she finally obtains her ideal self in the world of Gun Gale Online. Overjoyed by her new persona, she pours her time into the game as LLENN, garnering her reputation as the legendary player killer. However, when one of LLENN's targets gets the best of her, she ends up meeting Pitohui, a skilled yet eccentric woman. Quickly becoming friends with Karen, Pitohui insists that LLENN participates in Squad Jam, a battle royale that pits teams against one another, fighting until only one remains. Thrust into the heated competition, LLENN must fight with all her wit and will if she hopes to shoot her way to the top. [Written by MAL Rewrite]
As someone who aspires to work in the video games industry, I find Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online incredibly fascinating. Unlike most virtual reality stories, GGO actually explores video games in interesting ways beyond just a flashy action spectacle. And yes, it has the spectacle as well.
GGO is far different, and better than the rest of the Sword Art Online franchise; for starters, you don’t even need to watch the originals to watch this spinoff. There are no related characters, no Kirito. The only similarity they share is the world they take place in. The original SAO is mentioned a few times and surprisingly the new series writer frequently criticises the old one. GGO focuses on the in-depth details of its game world and the friendships between the cast, rather than the melodrama and cheesy romance of the original.
Taking place in 2026, GGO follows Karen a college student with a height complex, namely she’s way taller than she’d like to be. Walking into signs, gawked at by passersby, low self-confidence, and constantly comparing herself to the group of cute short girls she sees every day. When she discovers VR games like SAO, she’s hesitant because of the controversy over people being trapped in the game is still discussed on the news. But she is willing to try them if it means she’d get the chance to be shorter. The character creator system being randomized is the only outright bad game design decision in GGO, but that’s just how the original series wrote it. This minor issue can be excused because it eventually leads Karen to Gun Gale Online, a gritty first-person shooter where she’s able to be her ideal short height. The lead character has a pretty good motivation to play the game makes the show all the more compelling, it’s perhaps a simple reason but much more than we were ever given for Kirito.
Simplistic characterization is all GGO really needs because it’s main focus is on the intense firefights. The first episode serves to thoroughly explain the mechanics of the game so that the rest of the series can play with the established rules. For what is essentially an exposition episode, the information is presented by showing rather than just telling in the Battle Royale style game mode called Squad Jam. While the visuals are simply above average, the action is surprisingly engaging with the strategizing and tactics explained through banter between the protagonist, plucky pink camouflaged Karen, but with the in-game name LLENN and her partner M. Their group’s dynamic is clear from the start, LLENN is the one who has to run into the fight as a decoy and draw away the attention of enemies while M takes a vantage point to snipe them while they’re distracted. Their personalities perfectly fitted to their roles in the fight; LLENN is anxious with plenty of funny reaction faces, sporadically running into the battlefield. While M is patient and unwavering, coldly issuing orders with the goal of winning regardless of the danger it puts his partner in.
Played out like a game of chess, careful planning and positioning are invaluable. Seeing the strategies LLENN and others use to lead them to success is incredibly satisfying; they’re not professionals so there’s always a chance they will run into mistakes now and then, and their flaws are part of each character. For LLENN and M, we’re given enough details to know their relationship is based in needing one another to execute their strategy, the bait and switch, but beyond that, they’re two incompatible pieces. Through seeing them fight and their banter we learn the mechanics of the game; an intermittent scan reveals every challenger’s location, the red lasers indicating bullet trajectory, dead players can be used as human shields, health and bullet count are detailed and are at consistent values throughout the show.
The writer’s knowledge of the inner workings of a complex video game is what makes GGO so believable. Look no further than the tense action scenes, despite being acknowledged as just a game they still have stakes. The original SAO had poorly explained rules to its game, so instead it chose to contrive tension by trapping the players in the game world and punishing anyone who died in-game with death in reality. But there is no such lazy writing here. In the original SAO no one of importance ever died because they’d be gone for good, but in GGO there is no such plot armor. They’re in a fight to the death after all so it’s inevitable most characters will die or be gravely wounded.
GGO is tense to watch in the same way watching a professional streamer is, you’re rooting for them not just because they’re an enjoyable host but because you want to see them overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds they face.
The action spectacle itself is well done too, it’s clear that Studio 3Hz was having a lot of fun making this. There’s no shortage of slow-mo climactic moments in firefights with bullets flying past players like The Matrix. A few thrilling vehicle fights happen as well. There’s even a lightsaber later on in the series used to devastating effect unlike anything else seen in the show. Considering combat is the main focus of the series, it’s great that GGO is always able to keep it refreshing. Guns are rendered with excellent detail, CGI is frequently used quite well to allow the camera to move freely and to ensure action scenes are fast-paced and flow well. Character animation is fluid when it counts with close-ups and slow-motion used to raise the tension in close encounters.
Plenty of long shots of the battlefield are shown so you can keep track of the proximity of players and can follow the action as well as the protagonist does. What creates the most thrills is the visceral audiovisual feedback of the gunshots. Environments that are shot are visibly blasted, with loud shots suited to the wide variety of gun types used, and the effects on players who are shot. Violence is styled to the video game with red pixels that spurt out from wounds like blood. One might think a video game would limit the possibilities of the violence, but GGO has its fair share of decapitations and limbs being lopped off in combat. Battles gradually escalate in intensity throughout the show, the game mechanics established from the start remain consistent and they’re experimented with to exciting effect. Eri Aoi’s opening song “Ryusei” is well suited to the battle-oriented series along with a striking showcase of the cast. The soundtrack is equally stellar. Whether it be the hard rock or the frantic techno pieces, all of the background music serves to electrify action scenes.
Aside from the action, there is enough intrigue in GGO’s characters writing for it to provide a thoughtful discussion on video games. With the writer of Kino’s Journey, Keiichi Sigsawa, there’s depth to the characters in spite of the series’ focus on gunplay. Escapism is a theme intrinsic to any video game story, thankfully Sigsawa understands this and weaves it into every character. Karen enters the game to become a shorter, more ideal version of herself, her skill in game grants her confidence in real life to overcome her complex. The first friend she meets, Pitohui plays the game to escape stress and relieve her anger, a portrayal leaning more on the negative end of escapism which leads her to become the antagonist of the second half. The show tries to sell her as a crazed SAO fanatic, but at first it doesn’t seem believable enough because we merely hear about her insanity from M. Once we see the brutal ways she kills her foes in her Squad Jam against LLENN, it becomes much easier to believe she’s out of touch with reality.
Pitohui’s rather serious subject matter unexpectedly fits with the show’s more wryly comedic tone because of her outlandish personality and character design. From the cross tattoos on her face to scare off creeps online, to the absurd levels of frivolity she treats her enemies in combat, she’s one of the most entertaining rivals of the season. In the latter half of the show when Karen’s friend Fuka joins her for the Squad Jam, much of the in-depth tactics are thrown out the window by her lack of care for the game which brings about the campiest and wild action sequences the show provides. Perhaps they’re not as intelligently planned out, but they make up for it with entertainment value and homages to classic action movies and moment to moment humor in the midst of chaos. All of their seiyuu do a great job of selling their overdone personalities in the game world while toning it down to a believable level in reality.
Shown in a more positive light is the gymnastics team, fans of LLENN, that play Squad Jams to communicate better with one another. In between the Squad Jams, the show revisits the real world to catch up with the cast and mainly to discuss the next game and future Squad Jams. These scenes are a good reprieve from Gun Gale’s battlefields. Serving to even out the pacing and introduce characters. The gymnastics team is just a bunch of kids who walk by Karen in real life and wish to be as tall as her (a sort of role reversal) and after fighting one another in the first Squad Jam they enter the second as allies. They’re admittedly a bit one note, but I wouldn’t call them cliched or stereotypical. They all have an attribute in their game avatar and how they behave in-game which is reflected in their real-world counterpart.
By the end of the series, there’s a noticeable change in all of the characters that is directly connected to the ways the game affected them. The ending provided a satisfying final stance on the bigger themes of positive versus negative escapism, as well as a completion to LLENN’s arc that’s as monumental and satisfying as the show had foreshadowed it to be. The final episode is one of the funniest, most shockingly great endings of the season that rewards you for following along with the minor story details and provides the best tongue-in-cheek comedy of the series.