Birdie Wing: Golf Girls’ Story – 06 – Deep in the Sand Trap

In a rather nasty twist of fate, the land for a new casino that Eve was golfing for on behalf of Catherine is the very land on which her found family presently squats. I had assumed Klein owned the bar they live in, but nope. We also learn that the three little ones are immigrant orphans who will be deported. Eve can’t help but think she’s responsible for potentially destroying her family.

She visits Rose to voice her outrage, as Rose most certainly knew full well that Eve’s fam lived on the future site of the casino. But Rose has no sympathy for Eve; she did her a favor by letting her play against Aoi, while Eve repaid it by beating Vipére. Eve goes over everything that’s happened in the episode so far, and decides that the solution to this crisis is, of course, hitting a ball with a stick…in a way only she can.

As luck would have it, Vipére just happens to stop at the very spot Eve is doing her reflecting. Eve asks for golf betting gigs, but if Snake Woman had any, she’d take them. After she lost to Eve, Nicholas took everything she had (except, oddly, her Morgan roadster…). I must say, the speed with which Vipére became a comic book villain to a charming and likeable (temporary?) ally to Eve is truly impressive.

Aoi’s sole scene in this episode is a brief one, as we follow her on her extended press junket. The scene makes clear two things: 1.) No matter how cutthroat the Japanese high school golf circuit is, Eve has a lot more shit to deal with than Aoi, and 2.)  Eve is still foremost on her mind, so much so that she confuses journalists by insinuating she lost to someone in a tournament she won by 12 strokes.

Much to Catherine’s consternation, Nicholas does not honor their proxy golf deal and assassinates her politician so that the council votes for him to maintain control of the Casino. When Cathy won’t accept a 70-30 split in Nick’s favor, it comes down to another game of golf (though why either party would believe the other again escapes me). One of his underlings is, ahem, good friends with Vipére, who gets the lowdown on the impending game.

Knowing that Eve will give her a better chance of crawling out of the abyss, Vipére basically takes her in (to what I assume is a safe house) and puts her on a grueling training regimen. Or at least the thought it would be grueling; instead, she’s astounded by Eve’s stamina. Turns out Eve already underwent even more grueling training under Leo, the man who taught her how to golf with a lot of tough love.

The name Eve, AKA Evangeline, is the only thing Eve remembers when she suddenly woke up with bandages on her head. She was saved by Klein and Lily, who were then living and working at a brothel at the tender age of 14 and 10, respectively. Eve accepted Leo’s tutelage so she could golf her new sisters out of that brothel and into a life of safety and comfort. But now that life is back on the line.

Back down in her high-tech underground course, Madame Catherine learns that Nicholas, through Vipére, has hired Eve to be his golf proxy this time around, with Vipére serving as her caddy. Catherine, in turn, has picked Rose to be her proxy, and clearly this is something Rose has set up from the beginning…and something tells me she’s immune to Vipére’s stinky charms.

The stage is thus set for the most over-the-top, high-stakes golf game yet: one that may decide whether Eve’s friends have to return to prostitution to survive while the little ones get shipped back to their home countries. As halfway points of cours go, it’s not a bad place to be. I can’t wait to watch Eve potentially struggle but ultimately prevail over a too-arrogant-by-half Rose…and wish nothing but the best for dear, déar Vipére.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Birdie Wing: Golf Girls’ Story – 05 – Golf Eve Online: Aoization

After that doomed mad dash to the golf course in a poorly chosen classic car driven by Tinarina from Raw Time, Aoi feels betrayed…until she sees Eve’s ball soaring through the sky as the plane takes off. Once back in Japan Aoi tries to get back on the first flight to Nafrece, and she’s only stopped by Shinjou.

Aoi is feenin’ for Eve so hard, she barely manages a shrug at the appearance of her top amateur rival Himekwa Mizuho, and even lets slip to her mom/sponsor Seira that she met someone amazing at the tournament. Seira immediately launches an investigation into this “Eve Aleon”.

Meanwhile, Eve can think of nothing more than getting back on the course with Aoi. She’s listless, and needs to get the doe eyes from her three kid siblings to get off her ass and hustle Mr. Kevin a sixth or seventh time. She ultimately wins, since Lily buys pizza to celebrate, but it’s touch and go at the beginning of the three-hole game.

Eve just isn’t feeling the “heat” she felt at the tournament playing Eve, and worse still, thinks she may never feel that heat playing golf again. I mean, if you can’t play with your soul mate, what’s the point of anything? I be she wishes she’d gotten Aoi’s contact info, huh?

While Aoi and Eve struggle with being apart, Rose stops by Cathy’s HQ to collect the not inconsiderable payout she got when Eve beat Dollar Tree Morticia. Cathy wants to hire Eve to work exclusively, envisioning she can “service” fans even if she loses. Rose says that sounds like a great idea but probably wouldn’t fly.

Mind you, Rose most assuredly doesn’t discourage Cathy for Eve’s sake; Eve is a tool she wants to use to make money. Cathy knows this too, and so her pursuit of Eve has probably only just begun. As for Seira’s investigation, when she learns Eve is an “illegal golfer with mafia ties” she stops worrying about Aoi having a genuine rival.

To Seira, Eve is just a “pebble” on Aoi’s otherwise smooth road to success (and succession), but to Aoi, Eve is everything. When Clara introduces Eve to the concept of VR golf and how it’s particularly popular in Japan, Eve decides to try it out, presumably in the astronomically small chance she’ll run into Aoi virtually.

I love the whole VR setup, which is the kind of advanced SAO-style full-dive tech our world has a long way to go to achieving. The details are great, from how she’s so focused on golfing she lets the attendant dress her up as a techno cat maid, to the way the course uncannily moves so she doesn’t have to.

Rose’s manipulation of Eve’s motivation is so unyielding, she not only sends a message to Aoi in the middle of the night masked as a message from Eve, and shows Eve rankings that indicate there’s one player in all of VR-dom better than her…she listens in on the two when they inevitably reunite on the course, albeit a fake one.

And what a reunion it is, what with how wildly the two are dressed and how much they missed each other after such a short time. It’s clear even seeing virtual versions of each other (which aren’t that different from their real selves) really puts a spark back into both of them after how down they felt in each other’s absences.

Still, Eve is frustrated that she can’t play Aoi on a real golf course, so Aoi gets her to promise to meet her one one someday soon. That means getting on the youth golf tour for real—without “special invitations”, but if it’s to play golf with Aoi, Eve is ready to pinky swear. She would have, too, if she wasn’t suddenly logged off.

A tearful Lily is the one who logged her off, and she has terrible news…they’re about to lose their home. Is this more Rose fuckery, as in they can buy the place from whoever is taking it if Eve wins another match for her? I wouldn’t put it past her. Either way, if there’s a way out of this crisis, I’m sure it will be golf-related. Hell, it had better be…

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Full Dive – 02 – Hell’s Fruit Slicer

For someone supposedly there to help Hiro out, Reona has nothing but bad news for him: Kiwame Quest can’t be restarted unless he buys a new console, which she just happens to be willing to sell for ¥120,000, or ¥30K more than he paid for his. Considering how quickly easily Hiro ruined his game, it’s no wonder KQ is a dead game.

He also learns that in the city of Ted, AKA the Closed City, he’s already a wanted fugitive, and so must exercise caution when buying a cheap cloak to mask himself. The clothes merchant hikes up the price in exchange for staying mum about seeing him. It’s looking more and more like the enterprising Reona wrangled Hiro into this game in hopes he’d give up and spend more of the money he doesn’t give to school bullies to her.

Despite costing most of the cash he started with, the cloak does nothing to hide Hiro from his childhood friend Alicia, who arrives in heightened fruit-knife wielding psycho mode. Ai Fairouz brings a lovely chaotic intensity to the role, and after praising the ten-year old’s NPC AI magic, advises Hiro to run. Running makes him tired—just like real life—only since he’s never actually run for his life before, he’s doubly exhausted.

His title changes from “Best Friend Killer” to “Running Best Friend Killer: Fleet-footed Amicide.” Having had enough, Hiro tries to log out, but he’s still technically in combat with Alicia, who appears and slashes his hand. Despite Reona assuring him one doesn’t feel any more pain than a bruise from fallnig down stairs, Hiro is still caught off guard by the pain. Reona, invisible to Alicia, punche her in the face to allow Hiro to flee and log off.

Back in the real world, Hiro notes how he’s never run all-out like he just did in KQ. His friend tries to prod him into confronting the bullies using him as a wallet, and Kaede makes another brief appearance to complain about the noise he made last night, and look at him with disgust. He ultimately decides to go back to KQ, and not just to go all-out again…but perhaps so the shitty experience there makes real life seem not so bad?

Upon logging back on, he’s in the exact same pain as when he was last there, and his hand is still bleeding. Naturally, simply touching the medicinal herbs in his pocket doesn’t heal him. He then happens to bump into Ginji, another “best friend killer” who’s been playing the game for years. Ginji crushes the herbs and bandages Hiro’s hand, then takes him to a casino to drink a cola-like beverage he’s inexplicably drunk on.

Reona told Hiro to seek Ginji out to learn how he salvaged killing his best friend at start of the game, only to learn he didn’t. In fact, he also killed his childhood friend, and feels zero remorse over it. He also mentions that despite how hard this game is, and how you enter it with your real-world attributes, there is one man, named Kamui, who actually managed to clear the game 100%. But that’s enough chit-chat, as Ginji sells Hiro out by yelling that the fugitive killer is there.

Full Dive’s high concept asks me to suspend my disbelief so high, my arm muscles strain to keep it in the air. It doesn’t help that the visuals are underwhelming, or that the color palette and lighting are oppressively dark and drab—this may be the ugliest Spring show.

Still, if there’s one thing I buy just enough—for now—is the rationale for Hiro sticking with KQ: of all the people in real life, Reona is the only one we’ve seen who not approves of his video game hobby, and wants to play with him. In other words, the closest thing to a friend. He just needs to stay away from fruit knives!

Full Dive – 01 (First Impressions) – Reality Bytes

Just as Tyrell Corporation’s replicants were billed as “more human than human”, Kiwame Quest was meant to be a full-dive VR RPG “more like real life than real life”—stimulating all five senses and capable of near-infinite routes. The problem is, video games are supposed to be like video games: a relaxing escape from the troubles of real life. So KQ was panned and receded into obscurity.

Our dull MC Yuuki Hiro’s life sucks. Something traumatic happened two years ago that everyone around him can’t help but keep bringing up and dancing around; he’s entering his final year of high school and still not sure what he’s going to do. He “lends” cash to two delinquents, so he’s a key short when it’s time to purchase Finalizing Quest 22 (the show’s FF equivalent).

Certain he won’t find FQ22 for sale at a lower price, he rolls the dice at the unassuming and deserted Kisaragi game store. The newest FQ on display is last year’s, and when he asks the gorgeous clerk Kisaragi Reona (Taketatsu Ayana) if they have 22 in stock, she goes on a passionate and unsolicited rant about how people just keep buying FQ out of habit despite diminishing returns.

Reona has something else in store for the low, low price of 10,000 yen: Kiwame Quest, which Hiro has never heard of. Dismissing FQ as “innocent”, she calls KQ “a super hardcore full-dive RPG for adults”, and since she logs in regularly, she’ll be there to teach him what he needs to know “attentively and patiently”. Hiro reluctantly agrees to the transaction and heads home.

Hiro’s home, by the way, seems to have been lit by Zack Snyder. After learning KQ is a decade old but not being able to reach Reona on her phone, and after the obligatory walking in on his sister in her underwear, Hiro settles into his room, switches on his VR gaming system, and dives in.

He’s initially underwhelmed by the opening spiel, telling him to begin the quest to defeat the Demon Lord by leaving the city and heading to Flora Castle. But once he coalesces in the game world, he is soon legitimately impressed by the realism, and the fact he can feel the metal of a window handle and the wind blowing in.

He soon meets Alicia, an NPC who is anything but. She’s his character’s childhood friend, and Martin is her “nice young man” big brother. They’ve come to invite Hiro to join them for apple picking. When he tells them ihis intent to leave the city and asks where Flora Castle is, they react like his head’s on backwards.

Apparently there’s no entering or leaving the city walls due to the heightened threat of goblin attacks. When Hiro waves that threat away, assuming it’s a low-level battle, Martin is convinced Hiro is mad and tries to beat him back into coherence. It’s here it’s confirmed that a punch to the face is every bit as painful as the real thing.

Thoroughly pissed off and out of patience by a game that’s not going the way these games usually go, Hiro lashes out at Martin, shoving him to the ground. When he doesn’t move, Hiro leans in to find the knife Martin was using to cut an apple went straight through his mouth and out the back of his throat, killing him.

Alicia freaks, and Hiro, still not sure how the hell things got to this particular place, decides the only thing to do for now is to run. A crazed Alicia chases him like the Terminator, but he eventually loses her in a downtown alley. It’s there where Reona finally joins him, but in a neat bit of camerawork it’s revealed she’s a tiny fairy, who is there to be his guide.

She also points out that the little tag around his neck is etched with a title to denote his game progress so far. Hiro is unable to tell her what has happened before she reads his tag and learns for herself: “Best Friend Killer.” Hiro’s been diving less than ten minutes, but it’s already Game Over, Man.

Full Dive is helped by its offbeat approach to VR game immersion, and by its crisp and highly expressive character designs and smooth animation. It is hurt more than anything else by its absolute flat-line of a protagonist. Granted, some of his reactions are fun and he’s supposed to be dull. Still, I want to watch the next episode, if nothing else to see whether he’ll start over or continue on from his bloody, disastrous start.

The Millionaire Detective – Balance: UNLIMITED – 07 – In Too Deep

I’ve already commented on my preference for fun cases-of-the-week centered on Haru and Daisuke’s budding buddy cop dynamic to the dense and lengthy trip down memory lane we get this week, but as someone with the belief a work of criticism should explore what you’ve been given (rather than harping on what you weren’t), this wasn’t a bad murder case diligently worked by good cops, then swept under the rug by higher-ups.

The relationship of then-relative newbie Takei Katsuhiro and Nakamoto Chousuke also provides an imperfect but still notable parallel to Haru and Daisuke’s dynamic: Takei and Haru are the by-the-book cops while Nakamoto and Daisuke are the mavericks, willing to go down any rabbit hole for the sake of justice.

The murder case they investigates is that of Kanbe Sayuri: Daisuke’s mother, and while her husband Shigemaru is the prime person of interest, he’s overseas and the Kanbe family (Daisuke’s gran) stonewalls the investigation. This doesn’t stop Nakamoto from stealing a photo album to positively ID Shigemaru as the suspect.

What Nakamoto didn’t expect was the album to contain a key to a locker likely containing data and materials on a top-secret material being developed by the Kanbe group. Just when they’re about to crack the case, that key turns up missing and Shigemaru is dead of apparent suicide.

For sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong, both Nakamoto and his boss Kiyomizu were sent to the drudgery of Modern Crimes, while Takei, the director’s son-in-law, remained in the first division, where all three men still reside.

The flashback is full of great details, such as the fact Takei’s wife is expecting and ends up giving birth while he is busy with a case that ultimately proves to be a dead end.  I also liked how Nakamoto always spit out the chocolate “seeds” of the watermelon pops he and Takei would often eat; a symbol of his ultimately career-torpedoing dedication to dispensing with bullshit.

Nineteen years later, Nakamoto has been hoping for a new lead in Sayuri’s case ever since Daisuke arrived at Modern Crimes, and sure enough, Daisuke admits he caused Imura’s car to go out of control so she could be arrested. What he didn’t do is cause the explosion, but Takei believes Daisuke is the culprit.

Takei wants to bring someone to justice to repay Nakamoto for his past kindness, but he ends up being knocked out by gas in his own car. By literally knocking down the front gate of the Kanbe compound with his Corolla, Haru and Nakamoto manages to get to Daisuke, who with Suzue’s help placed Takei in an elaborate virtual reality simulation that that reveals Director Saiki’s role in the cover-up.

Daisuke, Nakamoto, and Haru all want the case closed and justice served; Daisuke has already spent billions of yen in that effort. As Nakamoto told Takei regarding the ambitions inherent in marrying the boss’ daughter, justice requires power. All that remains to be seen is who out there still has more power than our good guys, and how they’ll continue to pervert that justice.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online – 06 – Karen Meets a Crazy Person

We’re back to the time when Saki and her teammates visit Karen, watch her win the SJ on her enormous TV and introduce themselves. As a rhythmic gymnastics team, they had a hard time operating as a cohesive unit due to personal differences. Playing GGO changed all that; now they’re a well-oiled machine, and care more about progressing in the game than with their real-life team!

The girls voice their hope Karen will face off against them in the next Squad Jam, and when Karen says she has no firm plans to do so, they’re both happy that they won’t have to face one more strong opponent, and sad they won’t get to have a rematch and the opportunity to beat her next time. Karen heads home to Hokkaido and hangs out with her friend Miyu; on the plane back to Tokyo she learns Squad Jam 2 is officially on.

Karen is then confronted by M’s player, the extremely odd Goushi Asougi, who tells her that Pitohui is planning to commit suicide IRL if she loses SJ2, which means Goushi will kill himself soon thereafter, since he is utterly devoted to her and always defers to Pito’s will, no matter how crazy. That, in turn, pretty much makes him crazy as well.

They say love makes you crazy, but there’s a strange superficiality to Goushi’s behavior; like he’s trying too hard to be extra-kooky. Then there’s the whole idea of recruiting Karen to beat them, and in exchange he can guarantee Pito won’t kill herself, which means he won’t die either.

Considering the suddenness of all this information, it simply doesn’t carry that much weight for me, even though it’s clear Karen’s favorite musician is the one with these psychological problems. It seems like a very random and not-at-all emotionally earned excuse to raise the stakes to live-and-death, like SAO.

Karen agrees to participate in SJ2, even if that means validating and facilitating the questionable behavior of two mentally unstable strangers. Both Goushi and Pito’s player seem like they need actual help, help that’s beyond Karen’s abilities. And Goushi doesn’t bother explaining why Pito losing to anyone else means suicide, but losing to Karen doesn’t. I dunno about this…

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online – 05 – Run, Close In, then Win

After running from a somewhat pathetic display from a suddenly sobbing and Raving M (who actually believes Pitohui will murder him IRL if he loses), LLENN decides she’ll have to win the SJ all by herself, despite her opponents being very smart, crafty, and downright scary in their relentlessness.

Her foes look tough and grizzled, and aren’t afraid to rain bullets down upon LLENN in order to spring her from her hiding spots. The only thing is, she’s so small and quick actually getting a killshot proves most difficult. Despite her wavering confidence and the near-arrogant attitude of her opponent, both parties are on the same level here.

Perhaps due to her critical HP level, LLENN starts to hear her P90 “P-chan” glow, talk to her and even sprout eyes to make a face, which is definitely the most demented and terrifying thing GGO has shown us thus far.

Regardless, P-chan manages to fire LLENN up, and she remembers how and why she’s succeeded so far: not by running, hiding, and keeping her distance, but by blazing in so close to her opponents they cannot get a clean lock on her, and overwhelming them with her quickness, and peppering them with P90 bullets.

She executes her preferred strategy by taking on Eva, the “Boss” of the enemy squad, whose enormous size and brute force end up momentarily overwhelming LLENN, who needs a last-second assist from M, who manage to gathered up what was left of his decency and rejoin the fray (and who does thrive from great distance).

Eventually, LLENN and Eva run out of bullets, but Eva’s lieutenant tosses her a new clip, and LLENN has no choice but to sacrifice P-chan to shield her from the bullets, then whip out her knife and carve the Boss up like a turkey to take the SJ win, demonstrating the literally cutthroat tenacity required to prevail over such a tough opponent.

Back IRL, the short cute girls Karen passes by so often finally approach her, led by Nitobe Saki. They’re second-years at the high school affiliated with Karen’s college, and just wanted to tell her how stylish and cool she always looks, especially with her new ‘do.

Then Saki draws Karen in close with a handshake and quietly congratulates her on her victory. Saki is Eva, the hulking Boss she defeated as LLENN, and her friends and fellow rhythmic gymnastic teammates are ready for a rematch any time.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online – 04 – The Game is the Game

Back to the “present” of Squad Jam (though not far enough into the present where Karen is entertaining her diminutive friends IRL). I tell ya, this show can give one temporal whiplash like nobody’s business.

Having defeated the pros and after another scan, LLENN and M determine they’re one of only three squads remaining. One of them ambushes them from hovercraft in the lake, forcing the huge M to set up his “space battleship armor” shielding, while the tiny LLENN remains just plain hard to hit.

Safe behind his shield, M is able to pick off the hovercraft gunners one by one and takes out the last one with a well-placed grenade that detonates underwater, sending the craft and its occupant flying and vulnerable to LLENN’s killshot.

M was able to kill all of those enemies without creating bullet lines, because he learned to aim without his finger on the trigger or using Bullet Circle assist. But when the next scan comes, the last team is not only right on top of them, but in position to take a shot at LLENN, not missing a fatal spot by much.

M grabs LLENN and races out of there with one of the hovercraft, getting shot in the process, but LLENN heals the two and they prepare for a counterattack. But first, LLENN lets M read a letter he was going to read before they were ambushed.

Immediately after reading the letter, he pulls a gun…on LLENN, saying he’s “sorry” before pulling the trigger. His shot misses; LLENN’s agility wins out again, and moments later his safety is on and she has her gun trained on him, demanding to know why he betrayed her.

M merely responds with streams of tears, begging the Pink Devil not to kill him, because he doesn’t want to die. It’s a 180 in M’s character, though he did mention he prefers fighting from a distance and from the safest possible position.

In this instance, with LLENN’s P90 at his throat, he’s suddenly way out of his comfort zone, so it’s understandable we’d see a new side of him. But it doesn’t explain why he suddenly pulled his gun on her. I suspect there’s a real-world reason for it. All I know is, LLENN’s reaction to his sudden change in character was priceless.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online – 03 – Pressing Rewind with Middling Results

GGO’s first episode thrust us right into the middle of the Squad Jam, while the second took us back to Karen first got into the game. This third episode continues the flashback, bringing us up to the start of the SJ.

But since the result of the SJ is a foregone conclusion, the extended set-up felt superfluous, while calling attention to the fact it would have been a more effective episode had we not known how the SJ would unfold—that is, if the order of episodes had run 2-3-1 instead of 1-2-3.

Pitohui hooks Karen up with M, who seems way too into tactics and ways of killing, leading Karen to wonder who he really is IRL, and what form his relationship with Pitohui takes.

But rather than explore any of that, the M we meet here is bascially the same gruff, no-nonsense, yet still patient and affable lug we met in episode one. There’s nothing new gleaned here; he’s still a big mystery.

However, perhaps the most important goal of this episode wasn’t to establish the stakes of the SJ, but to pivot Karen from an IRL activity that wouldn’t have furthered her social skills (going to an Elsa concert with her old friend) to an activity that would (pairing up, training, and going into a battle royale with someone she just met).

Whatever GGO is to M, Pitohui and Karen are alike in that it’s an escape, and an opportunity to do things they simply cannot do IRL. Karen takes that further, intending to use her newfound freedom as a pink-clad chibi in GGO to change herself IRL, and to find a way to connect with people despite her great height and the anxiety towering over people causes.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online – 02 – Standing Short

GGO backtracks a few months to when Kohiruimaki Karen, an uncommonly tall college student from Hokkaido now living in Tokyo, learns about the post-SAO VRMMORPG craze in which players no longer have to worry about getting trapped in the game and dying. Karen seeks escape from her height.

Personally, I find Karen statuesque and gorgeous, but as I’m of average height IRL, I can’t really judge someone far taller or shorter than the norm for having a complex about it. In Karen’s case, she has difficulty making friends, and is constantly being gawked at.

One of the friends she does have recommends ALfheim Online, but no matter how many times she converts her avatar, she ends up with someone big, tall, or both.

She eventually ends up in Gun Gale Online, not knowing much about it, and after some rough training sessions, eventually finds out she’s proficient with a submachine gun. More importantly, she’s tiny and cute.

Karen, or rather LLENN, leans hard into the cute angle, covering herself in pink from head to toe along with her gun, and finds a sweet spot in the pink desert where she can use her small size and agility to start earning a rep as a vicious PK’er.

She also attracts the attention of one Pitohui, a seasoned GGO veteran who’s been around since the game was launched. But rather than kill her, “Pito” suggests they become friends and team up; apparently the GGO gender balance is quite lopsided in favor of men.

LLENN and Pito become fast friends and form a two-person team, and even set some conditions for meeting one another in real life. Something tells me LLENN’s mentioning of her favorite singer Kanzaki Elsa to Pito, and Pito’s lack of a response, suggests she might actually be the singer IRL, which would make their live meet-up that much more special for Karen.

And that pretty much does it for this episode. It sets up who Karen is, why she became LLENN, and how she met her first friend in GGO, leading right up to the start of the Squad Jam. We also briefly see the group of girls we saw in Karen’s living room watching her play, suggesting she eventually befriends them all, and that getting into VR MMOs was a good way to meet people without the stigma of her stature.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online – 01 – The Girl with the Pink P90 (First Impressions)

SAOA:GGO (rolls right off the tongue) gets right down to it, dropping us into a Gun Gale Online battle royale called Squad Jam beside teammates LLENN and M. Thanks to the patient tactical mind of M, much their time in the Jam is spent not getting shot at, and when they are, it’s to draw dumb enemies into getting shot by smarter ones, all while LM stays clean.

LLENN resents having to play the decoy, but can’t argue that it works, and you have to go with what works in a battle where the team that’s dominating are professional fighters IRL, likely in the game for the training. They show off their skills so blithely, M is convinced that winning isn’t their main objective.

LLENN and M’s is, however, so once the field has been thinned from 23 starting teams to 8, they head somewhere isolated where the pro team will come for them (uninterested as they are in ambushing their opponents).

The pros work like a well-oiled, by-the-book machine, precise and practiced in movement and speech. But because they’re so damn orthodox and true-to-life in their tactics, and since winning isn’t their goal, M thinks he knows how to beat them, and prepares a tiny surprise.

That surprise is the unbelievably diminutive LLENN popping out of a suitcase, previously just another unremarkable piece of the garbage strewn across the street that the pro team leader realizes is a hiding place a beat too late.

A beat is all LLENN needs to go off with her pinkP90, using her super-human speed and agility to take the pros down one by one until only two remain. M wasn’t under-utilizing LLENN before, he was saving her for when it was the right time for her to shine; when it mattered most.

The remaining two pros could probably have made a fight of it, but LLENN’s superhuman abilities render their training program contaminated, as M suspected…so they both resign. We pull back from LLENN on a TV as six school friends watch, then turn to their host, the very tall Karen, for whom LLENN is her avatar.

And there you have it. If you’re a hopeless SAO consumer as I apparently am, you were likely satisfied with this start, which had a nice pared-down feel to it despite the scope of the Squad Jam, easing us back into its world without piling on new faces or places.

Until the reveal of LLENN’s player, we were in-game the whole time. We followed just two gunners in a relatively compact location as they talked strategy, let things unfold and waited for pieces to get into optimal position before striking with all available force. And we learn Karen plays as a chibi in a kind of negative size-compensation.

Rakuen Tsuihou: Expelled from Paradise

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Hannah Brave (Braverade): It’s been a while since we last got together and watched a movie as a trio, so when I came upon a solid-looking film written by Urobuchi Gen (Aldnoah.Zero, Fate/Zero, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Psycho-Pass, Gargantia) and directed by Mizushima Seiji (Fullmetal Alchemist, Gundam 00, Natsuiro Kiseki, UN-GO), I thought I’d corral the staff (everyone but the busy Oigakkosan) and kick back for some shared big-budget sci-fi entertainment. Here’s Zane to start us off.

Zane Kalish (sesameacrylic): Let’s see…BOOBS! Agh, let me start over. 98% of humanity has left earth (or, to my mind, expelled themselves) and abandoned their physical bodies to live in the Utopian cyber-society called DEVA.

Our heroine, Angela Balzac (not un-ironically named for the author of The Human Comedy, and voiced by the awesome Kugimiya Rie), comes from that all-digital world, and as an officer in System Security, is responsible for preserving the status quo.

That means going where she’s sent. So when an Earth-based hacker named “Frontier Setter” offers the citizens of DEVA the chance to travel the stars aboard the Genesis Ark, Angela transfers her consciousness into a artificially-created body and travels to Earth to deal with the threat.

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Preston Yamazuka (MagicalChurlSukui): Once there, she meets her guide Dingo, a charming, Han Solo-esque rogue. Following close behind him is a huge swarm of giant sandworms, and he has her help slaughter them so he can sell the meat to locals. Then Dingo deactivates the network link on her mecha, rendering it a useless hulk that he sells for scrap.

At this point you may be saying “Wow, this guy’s a dick!”, but taking Angela off the network was actually a good idea considering she’s after a master hacker. And Angela gives as good as she gets, dick-wise

Hannah: Indeed. The opening act is all about the clash of cultures between Angela’s clean, gleaming, sterile Utopian DEVA and Dingo’s dusty, dirty, slimy, crude world. The Angela of this early part of the film is insuffrably arrogant and condescending, which makes sense considering where she’s from. She also refuses any kind of help or offers of food and rest, stating that time is of the essence and she wants to complete the mission by herself.

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Zane: Those refusals, borne out of her independent spirit and her pride (she’s not going to rely on some primitive earth ape!) come back to bite Angela pretty hard, as she learns that living on earth, in a body, isn’t so easy. When she gets cornered by some unsavory sorts in a town alley, she can only fight them so long (and a kick-ass fight it is) before she runs out of gas.

Either due to a lack of food and rest or some kind of bug, Angela takes ill, and Dingo must nurse her back to health. This is the first time her armor starts to crack and I feel sympathy for her, but it won’t be the last. But it wasn’t just arrogance that led to her illness; it was ignorance, having never been in a physical body, she had no baseline for what was supposed to feel normal or abnormal.

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Preston: Once Angela’s better, she and Dingo track down a supplier of a substance that can be used for rocket fuel, who lets them monitor a buy. Curiously, Frontier Setter sends only remote-controlled vintage robots, many of them custom-designed, on the deal.

Then the couple finds a lone robot that seems like more of a welcoming party than a sentry, and they learn the truth: “Frontier Setter” isn’t a human being, it’s the AI for the Genesis Ark project, which has been left on for more than a century, and is not only carrying out its original directive (remotely building the Ark up in orbit), but has gained sentience. Enter WALL-E comparisons (especially since DEVA is a lot like that film’s Axiom)!

Hannah: This encounter and revelation is the point at which the film becomes more than a sci-fi unlikely buddy flick and enters more philosophical ground, the likes of which Asimov and Dick often tread upon. Frontier Setter is an independent sentient artificial Intelligence in a world where most of humanity has adopted virtual collective existence out in orbit.

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Zane: What’s fascinating about Setter is how Dingo has more in common with him, with regards to everything form what humanity is and should be, to rock music (Setter even writes his own based on what he’s heard), than Dingo has with Angela. Angela, and the place she’s from, is far more alien. Body of flesh, body of metal, doesn’t matter; they think the same.

Hannah: The encounter also marks the successful completion of Angela’s mission. When Setter arranges the necessary equipment to zap her back to DEVA (he lives to serve humans, after all), Angela prepares to leave, but not without offering her heartfelt thanks to Dingo for all he’s done for her.

She also offers him DEVA citizenship, and without putting on the hard sell, simply asks him why he prefers Earth. His powerful response is a veritable thesis on the human condition and questions like “Where are we going?”.

Preston: Angela considers physical bodies a kind of “flesh prison”, but Dingo thinks she’s swapped that prison for an even more insidious prison of the mind, in which society is always assessing and judging itself and doling out resources proportional to a person’s usefulness to society.

That’s ideal for Angela, but anathema for Dingo, and probably Setter to, were he to upload to DEVA. It’s a great exchange because neither party is totally wrong or right; humanity has always survived by compromising between extremes.

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Zane: Angela was clearly on Earth too long, because upon making her report to her superiors, she is surprised to learn they don’t recognize the handshake promise of a “rogue AI” that could potentially destroy DEVA (even though he’d never ever do that), and consider Angela’s return to DEVA without “completing her mission” a serious blunder on her part. Then she refuses to return to Earth to destroy Frontier Setter, and the DEVA brass imprisons her into a frightening void that eventually takes the form of an eerie forest of loneliness.

Hannah: So Angela did catch a bug down on Earth: a bug in the form of a different way of thinking from the rigid dogma of DEVA, which believes all potential threats must be eliminated without review. And in her and particularly Dingo’s interaction with Setter, she’s come to think of the AI as just as much a person as any human, digitized or no.

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Preston: That new-found respect and empathy for Setter and his desire to explore the galaxy has thoroughly transformed Angela from smug, superior, arrogant, advancement-obsessed automaton to a passionate, independent, thinking, feeling human being.

Setter proves he deserves the esteem when he comes to rescue her from her prison, resulting in an awesome journey through cyberspace that briefly transforms Setter into a pixelated hat with an “F” and Angela into a blocky SD figure.

Zane: Blocky Angela was awesome! But so is regular Angela, who once Setter takes her to the armory of a DEVA defense ship, licks her chops like a kid in a candy store and starts to devise a way to repel DEVA’s massive attack on Setter’s launch site.

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Hannah: After so much time on God’s green earth, it was good to see the film move into space for some truly beautiful kinetic space battle scenes, in which Angela’s Setter-equipped and multiple support-ship-escorted mecha is a far better flyer and shooter than the virtual humans pursuing them.

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Preston: One thing the show is definitely very light on for such an expansive setting is actual human characters with lines, so it’s startling to suddenly see other DEVA security officers screaming across the desert in their mechas, headed Setter’s way.

These girls are exactly like Angela was earlier in the film: absolutely loyal and firm in their belief what they’re doing and only what they’re doing is right and good. As in The Matrix, anyone still “plugged in” is a threat to anyone who isn’t; there’s a relentlessness to their outright refusal to negotiate or even speak to their targets before opening fire.

They still have their proverbial heads in the sand where now Angela has popped hers out and now sees with her own eyes. But it says something about these DEVA humans that it’s just as likely these girls would undergo the very same transformation as Angela if they had the same experiences she had.

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Zane: The show wisely avoids adding a romantic angle to things, with Angela and Dingo having more of a platonic friendship of mutual respect/esteem and lots of mutual life-saving. This is good for two reasons.

First, there’s already a lot of stuff going on in this film, so we didn’t really need a love story as well. Second, in an effort to get a head start on her fellow officers, Angela stopped her physical clone body’s growth prematurely, leaving her with the appearance of a 16-year-old girl.

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Hannah: When confronted with lots and lots of awesome sci-fi action, I’m usually quick to say I could watch this stuff all day, but even I got a little fatigued by the final siege, exciting and amazing a technical achievement as it is. I respected the sequence more than I loved it, simply because it contributes to the fact this film was nearly two hours long and didn’t really have to be.

Preston:  Though things like Angela’s fierce battle faces, jumping from ammo store to ammo store, and Dingo doing what he can with his dune buggy and hidden arsenals, were all very impressive and fun, I won’t deny I too felt some tighter editing was in order leading up to the big finish.

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Zane: As for that big finish, I kinda assumed Setter would find some volunteers aboard DEVA to accompany him to the final frontier. Alas, there were zero takers. Dingo can’t go, ’cause he’s scared of heights. Even Angela declines.

Even though she’s been expelled from the “paradise” of DEVA to live a dirty physical world in a meat cage that requires daily sustenance and sleep, she already has plenty left to experience and explore on earth; she’s not ready to leave it.

Hannah: Setter laments that his century-long mission has failed, but his human friends disagree: to whomever he finds out there on his interstellar travels, Dingo and Angela are confident he’ll make a very good representative of mankind; certainly better than most DEVA inhabitants, and maybe even better than the two of them. He too is a child of humanity, with mechanical feet in both Angela’s world of rules and technology and Dingo’s world of dirt and guitar riffs.

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Sword Art Online II – 24 (Fin)

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SAO completed the Sleeping Knights’ mission and resolved Asuna’s family problems to my satisfaction, leaving one episode to do, well, whatever it wanted as a curtain call. Preston seemed pretty miffed that she watched so much Chaika only to get a rudely rushed finale, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case here.

The episode opens with a barbecue at Asuna and Kirito’s cabin; an opportunity for her new friends to meet her old friends. A montage follows, showing how they go on to fight more battles and go on missions as a united super-party, along with Asuna hanging out with her friends in the real world.

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But this isn’t just a goodbye to SAO, it’s a goodbye for Yuuki as well, who takes a turn for the worst. There’s nothing out of left field about this, though Asuna is still distraught that so soon after meeting Yuuki the universe means to rip her away.

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The Yuuki of the real world is too weak to talk, so Asuna grabs an Amusphere and meets her where they first met, on the isle with the great tree. Seeing the hale, healthy, and alert Yuuki there is a sight for sore eyes, but we know it won’t last long. This is her last full dive, and this time when she logs out, she won’t be waking up.

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There’s not much to say about Yuuki’s sendoff, except that it was pretty much perfectly done. Yes, it got pretty mushy there (even my roommate, who was watching SAO for the first time, teared up a little bit) but the emotions that let loose here were earned a long time ago. Asuna summons not only the other Sleeping Knights to say goodbye to Yuuki properly, but hundreds if not thousands of fellow players gather to pray for her safe journey to the hereafter, a fitting farewell to the finest swordsperson in the game.

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Yuuki could not have imagined a better way to go either; surrounded by friends and admirees alike; closing her eyes for the last time in the arms of someone she’s come to love like a sister. At her memorial service in the real world, those same masses from the game come to pay their respects, and Asuna is surprised to be able to meet Siune (An Si-eun), who took a turn for the better when her leukemia went into full remission not long after saying goodbye to Yuuki.

She also reports that at least one other Sleeping Knight seems to be on the mend as well. These aren’t taken as miracles endowed upon them by the departed Yuuki, but her love and strength, as well as Asuna’s, obviously helped their spirits and mindsets. And it’s understood that not all of the Knights will get better.

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Asuna also learns that Kirito knows Kurahashi too, and Kurahashi tells them that the original designs that led to the creation of the medical full-dive technology that’s now in development (and vastly helped by Yuuki’s cooperation in her last days) were created by none other than the late Kayaba Akihito AKA Heathcliff, the creator of SAO; an interesting (if sudden and oddly-timed) callback.

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We close with Asuna and Kirito enjoying a picnic with Sugu, Shino, Klein and the others in a park in Shinjuku. Yui is on Asuna’s shoulder, with eyes and ears to the real world, and probably more in the near future. Kirito and Asuna reiterate their desire to never leave each others’ sides, and as long as she keeps her grades up, she’ll be able to honor that desire. So Kirito…where’s the ring?

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