“What do you say we tell these Squad Jam people to fuck themselves, then we can go home, find a couch and a TV, then sit back and watch Pitohui burn to the goddamned ground?” –Domingo Chavez, Tom Clancy’s Locked On
Karen Kohiruimaki is a Hokkaido native who moves to Tokyo in pursuit of her post secondary studies. Because of her height, she is insecure and finds herself wishing that she were shorter. Her best friend, Miyu Shinohara, suggests that Karen take up a VR game, where she may customise an avatar to her heart’s content, and after iterating through multiple games, Karen encounters Gun Gale Online (GGO for brevity), which provides her with a diminutive character that she takes an immediate liking to. She takes on the screen name Llenn, and after exploring the game world with her new avatar, Karen begins playing the PvE components and earns enough currency to upgrade her weapons and gear. One day, while breaking from her travels, she is ambushed by other players and manages to take them out. Rumours begin speaking about the “Pink Devil”, and this attracts the attention of a fellow player, Pitohui. She introduces Karen to the “Squad Jam” battle royale competition and asks her to compete alongside fellow player “M”. M covers a range of techniques and gear for the battle royale mode, bringing Karen up to speed, and after out-manoeuvring a team of military-trained players, Karen’s confidence increases. She and M manage to fight off an assault from another team that had commandeered airboats, but when moving to engage the final remaining team, M breaks down, fearing for his life should he lose. He admits to Karen that Pitohui would kill him in reality should they lose, and befuddled, Karen decides to leave him behind and engage the final team on her own. She is overwhelmed, but M reappears to provide sniper fire, allowing Karen to finish off the remaining team’s leader.
Emboldened by her experiences, Karen cuts her hair short to signify a new beginning, and runs into the team’s real-world players: rhythm athletics club members who are in high school. Spending time with her new friends, Karen also runs into Gōshi Asōgi, who plays M in GGO. Gōshi reveals that he knows and is in love with Pitohui, but fears Pitohui will commit suicide should she lose in GGO. Perplexed, Karen decides to help him out nonetheless and asks Miyu to join up wiht them. This is where we are in Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online (Alternative from here on out, as spelling the entire thing out is too lengthy): immediately, my impressions of this Sword Art Online spin-off is that it is very enjoyable. Kirito’s absence is a significant one, and I contend that the series proceeds smoothly without his presence. I’ve long found his character to be implausible, and his attitude insufferable. By comparison, Karen is a very plausible character who finds escape in video games, and while she may enjoy unnatural performance in GGO, her real-world struggles and desire to escape to a fictional space are something that gamers can strongly relate to. I personally play shooters because it’s fun to both explore new worlds and test the limit of my skills in a space where performance is not relevant: reality requires that put in an honest effort into what I do, so I escape this in video games and play where how I do is unimportant. Karen’s newfound sense of confidence from playing GGO is also refreshing to watch. At the halfway point, however, Alternative also reintroduces the old death-related themes that characterised Sword Art Online. Here, it is not a forced component, and Alternative explores a darker side of gaming, as well. While perhaps overtly dramatic, I am curious to see how Karen will play a role in helping Gōshi with Pitohui.
Screenshots and Commentary
- By Alternative‘s halfway point, audiences know that Llenn is Karen and M is Gōshi, so I’m going to refer to them by their real-world names rather than their in-game names. While engaging, half of Alternative is set in a desert akin to Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds‘s Miramar map. Here, the two are playing sniper-spotter, where Gōshi decides against engaging another group of enemies. The first episode drops viewers straight into things and ends with Karen beating up a group made up of either Special Units (Japan’s equivalent of SWAT) or JDSF’s Special Forces members.
- Karen Kohiruimaki stands at 183 centimeters and is voiced by Tomori Kusunoki (who’d played minor roles in Eromanga Sensei, Girls’ Last Tour and Slow Start, but also has recently played more major roles in Märchen Mädchen). Uncomfortable with her height, Karen is disinterested in fashion, prefers reading and is quite introverted. By the time of Alternative, Karen is a second-year university student in an undisclosed major and does not appear to have a part-time job, so going on a limb and recalling my own experiences, I would also conclude that Karen’s a reasonably capable student if she can find the time to game and keep up with her studies.
- I say this because in my second year, I nearly fell below the 3.3 GPA required to stay in my honours program because I was ineffective in managing my time. After my third year, however, things turned around. Here, Karen is talking with Miyu, her best friend and a gamer who puts me to shame in terms of hours spent gaming. There are really all sorts of people out there – while I count myself a gamer of moderate skill, there are some people who spend more time playing games than I spent working. I am always baffled by some folks who have a hundred service stars for their gas grenades in Battlefield 1, for instance.
- Karen initially struggles to find a game with a proper avatar for her, and this is something I cannot relate to. For games where I can customise how I look, I usually choose something that isn’t too ugly and then pop straight into the game. This moment also highlights an interesting safety feature of the new VR headsets in Alternative: if the user’s vitals reach unsafe points, the system will automatically disengage. I certainly would not mind seeing more fanservice moments of Karen in Alternative, but for the present, this has been very limited.
- Karen eventually lands on a tiny female avatar that is the epitome of Japanese standards for kawaii: a petite frame, round face, large eyes and a squeaky voice. Kusunoki does a solid job with voices in Alternative, presenting Llenn’s voice as squeaky as one is wont to hearing in shows like Kiniro Mosaic or Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka?, switching over to a deeper, quieter and more mature voice when playing Karen. This avatar is precisely what Karen’s been looking for, and she prances about in celebration. Soon after creating her avatar and enjoying it, Karen decides to actually go into the world of GGO and see what it’s about.
- Initially participating in PvE against monsters to collect the resources needed to buy better gear, Karen’s experience in GGO is not too dissimilar to that of games like Destiny or The Division. In fact, The Division encourages players to reach level thirty, wherein the entire array of skills, talents and perks unlock. In MMO terms, The Division allows one to unlock all branches of a skill tree at the level cap, and then forces players to pick the combination of skills, talents and perks that best suit their play-style. It is at level thirty when things get real interesting in The Division.
- Unlike Karen and GGO, I’m completely optimised for PvE combat in The Division, and I get my ass kicked if I should run into any rogue agents. After some time in GGO, Karen has earned enough currency to customise her looks somewhat, and while she enjoys a beverage here, her choice of pink gear allows her to blend in to the fiery desert sunset. This is where she has her first PvP encounter: while some folks find Llenn’s design to be overpowered, her high speed and puny hitbox is offset by a low durability. While the size of female hitboxes are apparently the subject of no small debate, the best games out there with variably-sized hitboxes will always balance things out so that characters that are harder to hit are also more fragile.
- Karen eventually meets one Pitohui in GGO: a highly skilled player, Pitohui teams up with Karen on PvE missions. Pitohui’s identity is no mystery to me, and she’s voiced by Yōko Hikasa (Mio Akiyama of K-On!, Houki Shinonono from Infinite Stratos and New Game‘s Kō Yagami). I’ve long enjoyed Hikasa’s performances: she’s able to project a sense of maturity and sexiness in her characters, and her singing voice is also quite good. The music of K-On! with Mio on leading vocals, and Mio’s character songs are the best place to hear Hikasa’s performances.
- Pitohui plays GGO the same way I play many shooters: with different guns on almost every mission. It’s always fun to experience shooters with a diverse range of weapons, and things get old real fast if I were to run through every mission or match with the “best” or “easy” guns. This is why I will occasionally mix it up in things like battlefield, where I run with weapons I am unfamiliar with for the thrill of the challenge. Of course, if I get salty, I will switch back over to the “tryhard” guns. Karen, on the other hand, prefers to run with her FN P90, a space age-looking personal defense weapon with a 50-round capacity, fires at 900 RPM and shoots 5.7×28mm ammunition. Its design makes it highly manoeuvrable, and in Battlefield 3, I found the P90 a fine gun when outfitted with a laser sight, suppressor and Kobra RDS.
- In Battlefield 4, I’ve unlocked the P90 but have yet to use it extensively for my engineer: the UMP-45 is my most used PDW. Battlefield 1 has changed the way gunplay works, and I’ve not touched earlier Battlefield titles for some time, but I am tempted to come back and try Karen’s loadout, which is a stock P90-only setup I would call “hipfire scrub”. Like all gamers who want to get the most bang for their buck, Karen occasionally consults online guides to better improve her strategy, although there are occasions when she gets in touch with Miyu, as well.
- With all of the formalities out of the way now, the Squad Jam event begins. My main reason for not playing current battle royale titles like Fortnite or PUBG is that I am an impatient gamer. I am at my best running around, killing people and then dying, respawning and doing the same. As a result of my styles, I have a very high number of deaths in Battlefield games, but I also contribute greatly to my team’s performances. In other games, where staying alive is important, I tend to play more cautiously. Here, Karen is seen with Gōshi: as M, Gōshi rolls with the M14 EBR and the HK45. In order to approximate his loadout, I would run with support class with the M39 EMR and the Compact 45.
- I’ve opted to leave out most of the combat scenes in Alternative because they’re meant to be watched in motion, not as individual stills. After taking down a team of players with real-world training and a team with airboats, Gōshi and Karen evade a third team. Gōshi reveals a plot to kill Karen so he can stand down without dying, leading to the most hilarious moment of Alternative that leaves Karen’s Llenn with what I’ve come to call funny faces. The presence of these funny faces show that Alternative is not taking itself as seriously as its predecessors, which I greatly welcome.
- Against a team of deadly-looking female players, Karen finds herself outgunned, but clever use of plasma grenades that look a great deal like the seeker mines of The Division and support from Gōshi, who’s regained his composure, allows Karen to escape defeat and fight another day. As Llenn, Karen’s playstyle is absolutely brutal and sexy: she makes use of Llenn’s small size, speed, game mechanics and her environment to devastate her enemies in ways that I’ve not seen from the YouTubers that I follow, even sacrificing her P90 to stop the enemy’s bullets for the sake of victory.
- In a one-on-one, Karen manages to best the remaining group’s leader with a knife, bringing an end to her first-ever Squad Jam competition. Despite the first five episodes being focused around Squad Jam, Alternative never becomes boring at all, and I am very fond of Karen/Llenn’s characterisation. Lacking the things that made Kirito a dull protagonist at best (and an insufferable one at worse), I feel that Sword Art Online would have done better to have Kirito encounter a larger number of male players, doing away with the group of female admirers he accumulated in favour of people who are there to share his experiences and challenges. Back in Alternative, Karen’s win brings to mind how Jeremy defeats DeathStriker6666 in Pure Pwnage by means of a knife in the “Lanageddon” episode.
- In the real world, Karen meets up with the high school students whom she’d played against in the Squad Jam tournament and finds in them a new group of friends who are impressed with her play-style. Having long envied them for their short stature, Karen had no idea they were equally envious of her figure, and it is with the confidence of victory from GGO that Karen finally is able to break the ice with this group of high school students. She’s cut her hair short to signify the turning over of a new leaf.
- I’ve been called a scrub before for using PDWs like the P90 in Battlefield 3, and in Battlefield 1, players who use the Automatico M1918 Trench are similarly disparaged. High RPM weapons, or “spray-and-pray” weapons require very little skill to use in single combat: because they fire quickly, they have a higher DPS as well. In this sense, Karen is a scrub for favouring PDWs and speed: her approach is one of my favourite ways to roll, although since Battlefield 1 introduced the sweet spot mechanic and increased muzzle velocity to make sniping easier, I’ve taken to using bolt action rifles more frequently. At present, I can make use of any rifle outside of their sweet spot and be modestly effective with them.
- Introducing everyone on the rhythm athletics club members will be an exercise for another day, but their story is another example of how video games can be helpful. Initially, this group of girls lacked team spirit, so their coach encouraged them to work on this in a virtual space, where faces and names do not matter. After becoming hooked on GGO, the girls have seen an improved performance in their club activities and also have another hobby from which to bond over. They seek Karen’s counsel in trying to improve, since the thrill of Squad Jam has left a considerable impression on them.
- Karen travels home while on break, and upon returning to Tokyo, finds herself face to face with Gōshi. She’s visibly shocked at meeting Gōshi in person, sufficiently so that she has another funny face moment. I note here that if my readers are interested in meeting me in person, there’d better be a bloody good reason for it.
- Gōshi explains a bit of his story with Pitohui to Karen and details Pitohui’s obsession with death in a story that is chilling as befitting of Sword Art Online. Thrill-seekers such as these are rare in reality, and Gōshi’s devotion to Pitohui foreshadows at what is to happen next. The second half of Alternative will follow another Squad Jam battle where the stakes are much higher, and if executed well, this will certainly be a blast to watch.
- I will conclude this Alternative post with a fanservice image of Miyu for your amusement, and explain the page quote: it’s sourced from Tom Clancy’s Locked On, and is a reasonable approximation of how Karen might feel about things concerning Gōshi and Pitohui. Instead of backing down, however, she recruits game expert Miyu to help out, and I’m curious to see what Miyu brings to the table. Since we’re dealing with games, The Division‘s Onslaught global event begins tomorrow, and Wednesday will see the reveal trailer to Battlefield V.
It is therefore appropriate to say that, despite its simpler showing insofar, Alternative has nonetheless done a fantastic job of conveying what a VR battle royale shooter looks like, and for illustrating the postive impact that video games may have on folk like Karen. Sword Art Online had always excelled in having strong background and world-building, as well as for inclusion of game mechanics in its narrative. I understand that presently, battle royale games are all the rage, especially with the likes of Fortnite and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, so Alternative is also relevant to the period. While I’m adamantly against playing battle royale games because they involve more running than shooting, I also accept that the unpredictability and the attendant thrill adds to the genre’s appeal. Seeing terminology and mechanics from first person shooters make their way into GGO, with a game type that has surged in popularity was therefore highly entertaining. GGO is especially attractive for me because I’ve played enough shooters to know how they work from a technical level (I presently don’t play MMOs). By comparison, Sword Art Online‘s thematic elements and characterisation have traditionally been weaker. While themes of death slowly begin to return with a host of individuals with uncommon backgrounds, Alternative has remained reasonably grounded and relatable. One would therefore hope that this trend continues; at the risk of treading on toes, Kirito’s absence and all of the romance-related turmoil makes Alternative all the stronger, and one would hope that Karen’s story in GGO is unfettered by unnecessary romance, allowing Alternative to focus purely on video games and their potential positive impact on one’s mental health.