Based on the popular Japanese shooter series, Gunslinger Stratos takes us to an alternate reality where two worlds are engaging in war games in an artificial playing field reminiscent of modern day Japan. These war games, overseen by enigmatic Timekeepers and fought by very special chosen individuals, are intended as a ‘safe’ way for these two worlds to determine which one deserves to live – to avoid a massive conflict between the two worlds that could result in the death of both.
Or so they’re told… a strange girl keeps appearing to some of the chosen warriors and trying to talk to them, but they seem unable to hear her before she fades away. Until she appears before our protagonist, Tohru. Tohru is able to pick up bits and pieces, and becomes fascinated by her – seeking to understand whatever message she’s trying to tell them… and it all spirals outward from there.
The really interesting catch to this is that the two worlds aren’t really two different worlds. They’re variants of the same world just with divergent histories, and the characters exist in both worlds albeit with subtly different personalities. So you end up with a vast, dynamic mirror match where the ‘players’ understand each other to some extent, but not perfectly. It is fascinating to watch, and as it plays into the later episodes, builds some interesting rivalries.
Unfortunately, alongside the interesting parts, there are also some shortcomings. For one, it becomes extremely confusing to tell who you’re looking at at times. The main 4 or 5 characters are generally pretty obvious since you see them enough that you can recognize the two versions pretty easily. But the dozen or so side characters just blend together, and you can never really tell who you’re looking at a lot of the time.
And, ultimately, they use the ‘rivalry’ as a justification for spoiling what would’ve been a great place to end matters. They finish what should be the final conflict, only to start a nonsensical – but fun to watch – second final battle that just makes no sense.
What characters you actually get to know are pretty interesting, if a bit predictable. The world we get to see the most features our three protagonists. Tohru is your gestalt orphan – the type you’ve seen a million times – kind to a fault, except he’s a bit dumber than you usually see, which makes him endearing. Kyouka, the primary love interest, is a bit of a prodigy herself. She’s exceptionally good at everything, but her almost bitter anger towards her brother Kyouma helps to give her believability. Anger, you ask? Well you see Kyouma is absurdly overprotective, and often picks on Tohru for daring to be his darling sister’s friend. In a way, he treats her like property – like a precious commodity – and she simply cannot stand that.
I quite liked the concept that people have a sort of core personality that is theirs, uniquely and distinctly, but that experience refines that personality in a different way, leading to subtle variations between characters. For example, the two Kyouka’s have an argument while fighting, and one of them simply sounds like a more mature version of the other due to a more sobering past… but when put to an extreme, they both reply with the exact same words simultaneously.
One of the problems is that the show is too short, and has too flimsy of a premise, to really build a lot of characters. You end up getting to know Tohru, Kyouka, and Kyouma… but not many others. This makes it hard to feel sad when certain characters die – and make no mistake, when I say safe I only mean relative to an all out world war, their lives are still on the line here – even if the surrounding characters are traumatized.
But, all of that is really just fluff anyways… because as with any shooter – and make no mistake, this is basically the anime equivalent of a third person shooter – the action is the highpoint, and with the various styles of each character you get quite a show. Each character represents a distinct style, reminiscent of the character archetypes in any shooter (heavy, medic, etc.). The two sides have largely the same arsenal, which makes for some dramatic and hilarious fights.
With a fairly flimsy premise, a weak supporting cast, and far too little time to really develop matters, this show is best taken lightly… but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its distinct charm. The battles are good, the ending is funny, and if you ignore the awkward plot devices in a few places you’ll be in for a treat.