Juiced, Jarring, and Very Very Blue
Lightning’s a miraculous thing. Unfathomable chemistries, in a heartbeat, channel such incredible energy from the clouds that, for just an instant, the sky extends to the earth and destroys anything on the way. For just an instant.
Playing Keiji Inafune’s latest creation, Azure Striker Gunvolt, is an experience not too dissimilar. Lightning fast and over before you can take a picture, Gunvolt is a game that screams of a world Inafune yearned to build in his Capcom years; a cyberpunk dystopia in sharp pixel resolution, comfortable and uncompromising in its choose-one, beat-all Megaman formula.
Built by conventions yet warping them radically, Gunvolt is a game made with tons of love and no restrictions. All of the oddities insinuated in the Megaman universe are manifested wholesale within this game: from transgender love-fiends to sexually frustrated unicorn men, every boss introduction hints at a no holds barred world of techno insanity. Unfortunately, what would normally be fleshed out over some dozen odd games has a single downloadable storyline, so all the characters don’t quite get the development they deserve.
Still, the writing is passionate, if a bit predictable and totally incoherent. Gunvolt’s banter is sophomoric and extreme, inventing words for expletives and punctuating standoffs with well-timed monologues. Literary information is crammed between gameplay, with poetry flashing the screen during specials and dense paragraphs coloring in the world during the brief load screens.
This Ain’t No Rock and Roll
I wouldn’t imagine many, though, would buy this game for its curt narrative. The main hook of this game is its innovative combat mechanics, based around the protagonist’s mutant ability to channel electricity through his body. After “tagging” a foe with your gun, holding on the trigger will tether them with voltage, no matter where you stand. The damage rate increases as you tag them repeatedly, and with various upgrades, multiple foes can be tagged and at varying angles, allowing for some quick and stylish deaths, skill permitting. There’s nothing like finding oneself completely surrounded, and within a few good shots, watching all the drones and tanks flare and explode to Gunvolt’s raised palm.
It’s a welcome change of pace to see a 2D shooter, a genre steeped in formula conventions, playing to a whole different flow. Instead of clawing at an enemy’s weak point in tradeoffs of vulnerability as in Megaman, the rhythm has been streamlined to a tag, dodge, dash. Because of this, the levels have more of a mad dash mentality. As you ease into his lightning-charged maneuverability, the most dangerous enemies prove not to be large or fast, but hidden.
Regardless of the incessant beating that Gunvolt takes on the way to a boss, the game is not hard to beat. As the default gear allows you to sponge damage with your rechargeable electricity, a tinge of Western gaming’s forgiving health bar coats the purest Japanese design. If you were to dash through a level ignoring all threats and reloading power along the way, no one will stop you. Seriously.
Because of this, the game’s first playthrough may disappoint those of the hardcore crowd for failing to present a challenge. Victories feel unfinished and new levels are never earned, though in line with the Japanese development school of thought, exploration rests in perfection.
Playing the Sunny Side, But Absolutely Fried
Every mission, after completion, has a set of unlockable challenges; requirements to toggle on levels for rare loot. The goals rest from certain completion times and rankings to no-hit runs and handicapped boss fights. With time, short cuts are memorized to Gunvolt’s twitchy blazing body as gear loadouts adapt and tactics solidify. Levels cease to be training grounds in survival, and start to become the playground of a psychic demigod.
Steadily, the focus of the game proves to be its rigorous ranking system. Points are racked up as voltage is discharged on enemies, with heavy bonuses for simultaneous kills, and the only time that combos are actually landed is when a checkpoint is reached or an offensive special is used. Think Tony Hawk tricks, but for keeps.
The mindset of these levels then goes from systematically tagging and frying enemies from afar, to vaulting within their ranks and experimenting with kills while weaving fire. Though death itself becomes a weak, benign encounter, the yearning for it is what counts as a 3,000 point combo is lost to a stray bullet and your own hubris.
Definitively, this is a single game split into two experiences, the hardcore and the casual, both of which are wholly intact. For that, however, Gunvolt lacks the bullet hell convention of pay-in-blood difficulty which marks the genre, but I’m sure that there are those that could get their $15 worth only because of it. Luckily, this game makes murder fun, so it’s never quite boring.
It’s not too hard on the eyes, either. The animation is seamless and the colors are crisp, to the point of being nearly hypnotic at times, and creativity was obviously poured into the sprites by the way they live on the screen. Gunvolt’s wiry gunplay and ethereal speed echo fantasies of a playable anime, and the backgrounds are heavily detailed in sleek grit and blurry holograms. It all comes together as you sear corporate spider-mechs and storm two-dimensional office halls to a signature house & club Megaman mix.
Of course, a few golden moments does not always earn one’s dollar. If you plan on buying this, keep in mind that the core experience will usually total some five hours to completion, give or take. Whether those are five hours you want to perfect is up to you. I’m shutting it down now with 20, although a good few of those were spent trying to attain the coveted S+ rank on the intro level.
If you’re still on the fence about whether this purchase is right for you, I can only aid you with these words-
Sacred Sword Agleam
Barbarous and Bathed In Blue
Cleaving Right Through Wrong
That was the haiku from the special Luxcalibur. It came in handy.
- Inventive and Refined Gameplay
- Enduring and Downright Bizarre
- Made for Hardcore, Allows for Casual
- Unchallenging Core Experience
- Too Short to Be Worth a Single Play
- Wait... Gunvolt's 14 Years Old?