Video Game Review – Azure Striker Gunvolt (Version Reviewed: 3DS)

While the Mega Man franchise has seen little development since the retro-inspired Mega Man 9 and 10 released some time ago, a number of imitators and homages – including the similarly-staffed Kickstarter success Mighty No. 9 – have taken up the mantle. Azure Striker Gunvolt, finally released in Europe after a period of overseas availability, is one such successor to Mega Man. Gunvolt is quite distinct from any of the Mega Man games by virtue of its core gameplay gimmick, the “Flashfield” weapon, yet the same techniques and mechanics that have contributed to the originals’ success – intuitive level design, well-designed boss fights based on pattern recognition and situational upgrades – are all in evidence. Technically it is a largely well-executed game, but as a whole product it falls down slightly owing to a number of both fundamental and very specific flaws.

The core mechanic of Gunvolt is arguably its greatest distancing-point from Mega Man. Rather than having a number of boss-themed weapons which form a weakness chain (fire beating ice, etcetera), the player’s core method of dealing damage remains the “flashfield,” an area-of-effect weapon with a secondary homing laser effect that feels a lot like an arcade space shooter weapon. Gameplay centres on tagging enemies and interactive objects with the weak basic gun, then activating the field to hit all tagged enemies with the homing laser a little like Radiant Silvergun. Boss weapons change the pattern of the tagging gun (for example adding a directed shot, or a 45-degree angled split shot) and the number of tags permitted at once. These help to tag bosses more easily, providing a sort of weakness without the pattern-destroying difficult removal of classic Mega Man games – although their execution is not quite perfect, with several being very situational in usage and the basic weapon generally being the best for most instances. Removing the inherent massive bonus damage that using a weakness weapon gives means that the bosses are theoretically able to show off their whole pattern in every fight – and the player needs to be able to master that pattern. This is qualified by the patterns being generally easily learned (even if dodging is not inherently easy) and the game having a distinct lack of instant-kill hazards (with the exception of bottomless pits) compared to classic Mega Man. Spikes and lava are not instant death, but do affect score and level ranking due to inflicting a large chunk of damage, while a lot of boss attacks (with one exception which stands out as poor design) are not instant-kill or even heavy single-hit damage but instead attrition-based attacks that wear the player’s resources down.

This is good boss design – something a lot of the games which Gunvolt draws on sometimes lacks. Each boss has three phases, with a subtly evolving pattern in each phase building to a finishing move that requires the player to master all of the previous attacks’ patterns. It is the same rule of three design as the levels themselves – each level will introduce a gimmick safely, then with a recoverable hazard like a shallow pit which causes minor damage from enemies, and then with a more lethal hazard like a bottomless pit or more complex enemy arrangement. This gameplay design is a real strength of the game – the levels are well-paced, teach the player the rules of their gimmicks, and build to a boss that itself has the same three-step learning process. Unfortunately, the “skill” mechanic then undoes all of this. The skills are limited-use weapons which either clear the screen and deal heavy damage, or heal the player – meaning that it becomes quite possible to damage-race and abuse invincibility frames granted by skill use to simply avoid entire phases of boss fights. For a game that sets up very much learnable patterns to then offer a way to skip fights seems counterproductive, and yet also almost excuses lazier level design late in the game. The boss refights, a cliché of Mega Man returned in slightly modified form in Gunvolt, are a mixture of genuinely inventive revisitations of past battles (adding environmental hazards, new attacks and so on) and simple rote repeats with no chance to really recover between battles. Here the skills, allowing the player to skip awkward patterns, are almost necessary to conserve resources – when a better-paced level similar to Mega Man X‘s refights-as-part-of-a-stage would have been superior. Indeed, the closing levels – usually in Mega Man the culmination of level design combining all the previous levels’ gimmicks and ideas in innovative ways – are a disappointment in Gunvolt, plain gauntlets of enemies (one of which is an elevator ride of boss fights, and another an open corridor with an easy miniboss repeated several times).

Thus mechanically several quibbles – the general scarcity of instant-death making its presence more irritating than it should be, the weakness of the final levels which should be a climax of the game and the situational usage of most unlockable upgrades – detract from a solid and entertaining core. Yet perhaps equally irritating to me is the overbearing, mediocre writing. Gunvolt at its worst is still significantly better-designed in terms of basic obstacle layout and enemy placement than some of Mega Man‘s levels. It is at its best close to Shovel Knight in its elegance of design permitting flawless movement through enemy patterns. But the gameplay is interspersed with truly obnoxious dialogue that falls prey – at least in translation – to the problems so many video game plots have. The basic story is a very unremarkable one, which would not be a problem were it not presented so portentiously and pseudo-philosophically. The characters are all paper-thin archetypes but written as if the player is supposed to really be engaged with them – the taciturn protagonist who learns what love is, the mysterious innocent girl who he opens up to and fights to save, an old mentor with a dark secret and so on. The basic plot of a plot token (in the form of a young girl) being pursued by the bad guys and forcing the protagonist to go rogue to try and save her is dressed up in a pretentious word salad of “meaningful” proper nouns (the space station Firmament and space elevator Babel, the plot device being the Muse’s Song etcetera) and technobabble (terms like Septimal Energy thrown around repeatedly). It feels empty, and yet is a constant presence throughout the game with cutscenes not specifically long but frequent and uninteresting. The game’s plot could be summed up in a short text crawl of “the enemy want this thing I have, I will stop them” and little would be lost because the efforts at characterisation are so poor that the bits around this basic storyline are completely uninteresting. As a personal peeve, the dialogue tends towards the tin-eared in its localisation – the creation of futuristic swear-words in a science-fiction story annoys me whether it’s Gunvolt‘s “Jitt” or Battlestar Galactica‘s “Frack” and the comedy personalities of the bosses are uninspiring.

Thus Gunvolt is a conflicting game. Mechanically it is generally very good; the flaws do detract from its good qualities but the idea of a game downplaying the instant-death mazes and bosses that are either frustrating or trivial based on stage order of Mega Man appeals to me. Some of the patterns are perhaps too reliant on precision for the availability of health resources and the responsiveness of the 3DS joystick, but these tend to fall at the end of the game, where high difficulty has a natural home. The homing laser/flashfield mechanic is a good twist, giving a real sense of flow to the level design (supported by good checkpointing, a frequently underestimated aspect of game design), while the mobility upgrades such as double jumps, wall jumps and a controlled float make the platforming responsive and forgiving. Yet the presentation lets it down; it is far too confident in the quality of its plot, and overplays a thin offering with poor writing. Similarly while the main stages are diverse and well-designed, the endgame is less of a climax combining all previous knowledge and more of a simple pattern-recognition endurance test. It is a game I would still recommend, although with a number of caveats that other players may have more tolerance for.


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