In Depth Review: Gungrave [PS2]
Gungrave is based on the anime of the same name, which I have never seen and probably won't actively seek out although it does look cool from what I've seen in the game. Grave, the protagonist, is an undead gunman with a huge coffin and two huge guns, affectionately known as the Cereberus. He's out to take revenge or, something -- I won't lie and say I paid much attention to the story. What's there is probably directly from the anime. What I played Gungrave for is the gunplay.
My Dogz iz my Gunz
Gunplay. Right. Well, Gungrave's got Gunplay in spades. Similar to games like Max Payne, you direct Grave around levels... and shoot lots and lots of sh1t. You have unlimited ammo, and there is no reloading -- just lots and lots of shooting. Grave can also swing that huge coffin he has on his back as a melee attack. Things get really fun when the level's enemies are both near and far, in front and behind, and you're mixing it up between pummeling them with the coffin and blasting foes with your twin guns. Grave can dive forward, backwards, left or right while shooting, and the lock-on targeting makes taking enemies out a cinch.
But even with such simple mechanics, it gets chaotic and intense at several moments throughout the game. Both you and enemies are constantly hiding behind structures as they slice you, throw explosives and shoot their own guns at you. You'll have to rest at certain points to recharge your shield energy, which, when depleted, will allow enemies to begin depleting your life points.
You're also encouraged to hit as many enemies (and destroyable objects in the stage) in as continuous a string as possible, in order to accrue "beat" points. That's basically your combo meter, if anything; it goes up each time you make contact with a bullet or your coffin. Every time your beat counter hits 20, you get energy for a devastation blast; every 5 beats after the first 20 nets you some more energy. When your devastation meter, which is in the upper right hand corner, fills up, you gain another devastation blast for a total of nine. Now, think of your devastation blast as a power bomb in traditional shmups -- it's a special move designed to take out everything in your immediate vicinity. You can choose between four as you progress throughout the game, but you start off with one and must accumulate them by performing well in each stage.
Strike a Pose, There's Nothing To It
Another twist to the combat is the... style. Yes, you're encouraged to shoot things "stylishly" in this game -- although admittedly, the "style" never really comes through like it does in a game like Viewtiful Joe. The simplest thing to do is, while in combat, to press the "Select" button to uh, strike what the instruction booklet calls "Stylish Pose." At first I thought they were kinda cool looking in that anime sort of way, but after a while they just look funny. Nothing detrimental though; it's just kind of mind boggling how pressing Select while fighting is supposed to make the gameplay interesting.
What really does try to make the style portion of the game interesting is that style can also be accrued by getting as close to enemies as possible. It's this type of gameplay -- encouraging you to play dangerously -- that I find cool in general. You saw it in Ikaruga, where you had to get close to absorb bullets of your color as efficiently as possible, or even in something as simple as Onimusha 2 where the key to defeating enemies for big bonuses was to wait until the very last second before they hit you to strike back.
However, the game doesn't become that much more interesting because of this aspect. Perhaps it's because of the fact that your coffin has a wide swath of motion that can really take lots of enemies out, or that you just need to lock on and mash on fire. But, please do not mistake this for me calling it "bad" -- it's a good thing, and though it could have been more interesting, I do like it. It's one of the things that makes the battles intense despite their simplicity.
It seems to me, however, that the entire game would work better if it controlled just a little better. As it is, there's no way to control the camera angle without moving. Controlled from the third person, Grave doesn't always have the camera following behind him at all times in a manageable fashion. Of course, third person games in general should let you see behind you sometimes, but because it stays zoomed in to Grave quite a bit, you rarely get the benefit of seeing behind him when he's runnin sideways.
Grave also doesn't turn particularly well while running forward, as I found myself stopping every so often to make sharper turns. Thank goodness Red implemented the 180 degree turn button, so that Grave can spin around quickly to face what's behind him. This is useful no matter what angle you're looking at, because at the very least it gives you a view of everything around you -- important, since as I mentioned before, the camera is otherwise unwieldy and just downright impolite. By no means, however, does the presence of a 180 turn button excuse the camera's poor execution. Just bear that in mind.
I've heard problems with the lock on mechanic, as well, but frankly I haven't really experienced them. Either that, or I did but I never noticed. The deal is this: there's so frickin' much on the screen that you just want to blast away at all of it, and whether or not you're locked on to something properly, you're still hitting something and at some point, you realize that hitting anything is better than not hitting at all. By the time I might have started getting flustered with the lock on, I had decimated enough enemies to be able to manage what was left pretty handily.
Grave does come with an acceptable assortment of dodging ability -- he can basically dive in any direction, a la Max Payne, and that's good enough for these battles. You're actually pretty hard to hit if you keep shoot dodging and running around, which makes the game a bit easier than you'd expect. Still though, it's intense enough that at some points you'll go running for cover. And that's a good thing -- just being able to walk through the game practically unscathed is not something I wanted from this title.
If you can slow down enough to take a look at the scenery, Gungrave is actually a pretty stylish-looking game. It uses cel-shading to retain the anime feel, and all the characters really look like 3-d cartoons as opposed to blocky disasters. I recall seeing a bit of the ol' PS2 jagginess, which is always -- ALWAYS a bother, but other than that it handles itself pretty smoothly. The coloring seems to be well done as it tries -- I assume -- to be faithful to the anime's coloring scheme.
Two small complaints: at certain points in the game, the visuals just start to grind down to a halt. There's nothing in those scenes that would indicate more intense graphical processing, so just like in Astro Boy: The Omega Factor I found myself asking why the hell it was happening. And it did hamper the gameplay a little bit -- I couldn't move as easily, which restricted my dodging and such. But it happens rarely and not for too long, thankfully.
The other problem is that the draw distance seems pretty short in certain places. In those instances, everything that is about forty or fifty virtual feet -- give or take -- is enveloped by this black shroud. Things smoothly scroll in, so there's no ugly pop-up or anything, but it makes you wonder if developers still think they're programming friggin' Turok on the N64.
The ears may fare better depending on your taste in music. In my case, some of the smoother jazzy-ish tunes reminded me of the horror of beating people to a pulp in MvC2. Great game, unfitting music. Same thing here, except for the great game part. The music sometimes doesn't fit what's going on in the game, but then again, perhaps I need to watch the anime more. It's somehow not as grating as MvC2, so I can tolerate it going on while taking apart baddies with my gunz. But more metal, of which there is some in Gungrave -- and I hate metal -- would have actually gotten my blood pumping more.
It's hard to hear anything, though, over the roar of your gunz. You're firing so much -- and so is everyone else -- that your neighbors will complain about the guns more than they would about the metal that's coming out of your stereo. Or 50 Cent. Or Tim McGraw and Nelly. Oh god I hate that song. Moving on.
Easily the best part about the game's audio is that -- YES -- all of the recorded dialogue IS IN JAPANESE with subtitles for the Japanimpaired! You have no idea how much I appreciate this, even though I've forgotten most of my high school Japanese. During cutscenes (which are thankfully skippable for those who are running through the game second and third times), a lot of the storytelling happens in fully voice acted Japanese, and all of the in-game grunts and exclamations "sound" Japanese.
If you've been good and balanced, and have been playing Gungrave for like, 30 minutes at a time, as soon as you beat it -- given that you enjoyed your first run through -- you'll be ready to run through it again. The game's rating of your performance helps you get motivated to run through it again so that you can net a better rating. After each stage, it tallies how "stylishly" you played, how many things you've killed, how fast you've gone through a level, et cetera, and gives you a skull rating out of five (or six? I've never gotten more than five). At the end of the game, it tallies your entire total across the whole game. So you can imagine how sad I was to see that I got an embarrasingly low score on all fronts. Immediately I wanted to beat that low a$$ score.
Unfortunately, I was NOT good and balanced. I basically beat Gungrave in one sitting, and truth be told, two straight hours of Gungrave begins to get really tedious. It didn't help that the final stage was atrociously designed; it was basically a horde of elevated pillars where you cleared out the enemies, activated a staircase to the top of another pillar, cleared out the enemies, activa- you get the picture. (Halo, anyone?) Thankfully, when it starts to get eye-rollingly tedious, the final boss comes out at you, you beat it, and the game ends. So after I went through the game, I gave it a good few days' rest, I turned it on again, and it was fun once again. But I had to limit my sessions to at the very most two levels at a time, if that. Otherwise it just started to wear down on me again.
For those who are dedicated and can stand the eventual tedium, or for those who don't find too many things tedious, you can unlock bonus images of all the characters in the game and, presumably, the anime. You get to take a look at 3D representations of their "action figures", and they even come in those plastic containers that imprison so many of the GI Joes and He-Man toys we all loved as a kid. (Or Barbie. It's ok, you can admit it.)
Let's Fighting Love.
In the end, Gungrave is a fun if not flawed experience that is good for a rental. It's also a good budget title to pick up if you can find it for about five or ten bones. But in my opinion there's no real need to own the thing. So far I believe I can get the same experience out of its sequel, Gungrave: Overdose, which I do in fact own, and out of the hour that I put into it, it's got a lot more to the gameplay. If you want to play Gungrave, make sure you play it before the sequel, and even then, I question the necessity in doing such a thing. But if you do play it, and you're like me, it's not something you'll regret and ultimately it's enjoyable for short periods of time. Not necessarily a recommendation, but if you so incline, it's worth the play-through.