Pinch me, I must be dreaming. I have played a Gungrave sequel, a quiet 18 years after the series last graced my PlayStation 2. I didn’t even need to utilise a monkey paw or anything.
Gungrave G.O.R.E is a balls-to-the-wall super shoot ‘em up from developer Iggymob – a group of people that clearly understand that the world needs classic arcade-style shooters now more than ever. It’s the third mainline title in the Gungrave series, the brainchild of legendary manga artist Yasuhiro Nightow – probably most known for the manga/anime series Trigun. Gungrave is a series that never garnered any notable accolades, but those who know it love it for all its weird and wonderful eccentricities. There are dozens of us! DOZENS!
A target rich environment – including the cursed pokies
Step into the boots of Beyond the Grave, a reanimated super assassin that seems to find himself fighting the good fight for whatever outfit currently needs him. Generally he will always be dealing with this seedy alien bullshit named…well, SEED…that has a curious habit of turning people into crazy super-powered monsters. Enter a new chapter with Grave chasing down a mafia clan that is back in the SEED business, with a twist that a shadowy puppet master might have an overarching plot that concerns his adopted daughter Mika – just another day in the office for the deadman.
Thankfully, Grave is a problem solver, which is convenient when all of his solutions involve bullets in varying quantities. You’ll blam, blast and barrage your way through a massive variety of kill corridors, open arenas and the odd boss fight – occasionally shaking things up with a different playable character – leaving a gorgeous swathe of destruction in your wake.
You are a force of nature, and the game has no qualms with portraying you as such. Ammo is no issue, and your slightly undead nature means that punishment and pain don’t really apply to you in a traditional sense. Instead, you have a massive regenerating shield that takes the brunt of your punishment, and once this is broken your precious (and somewhat meagre) HP is now under threat. When your HP is entirely depleted, the game displays a literal GAME OVER screen, before you scurry back to your last checkpoint. There are a variety of ways to get your shield healthy again, such as taking cover (pathetic) or executing sufficiently hurt enemies (epic) to get a chunk of your shield immediately replenished. And while HP does not regenerate passively, you can use your demolition shots (super moves) to get a generous portion replenished.
That is a seriously high calibre handgun
Realistically, it is a game about finesse. Sure, you may be giving away bullets like candy at a Christmas parade, but in truth the finer quality of the moment-to-moment gameplay boils down to what you choose to do and when. Your twin handguns snap-aim at enemies, but what if you press down the precision aim trigger and blast a propane tank behind some hunkered down grenade tossers? What if you use your grappling hook to drag yourself into a huge group of goons and rapidly deploy a devastating close range ultra-nuke explosive shot? While it may be easiest to plod ever forward, developing RSI in your trigger finger as you fire over and over and over, really it’s up to you whether you want to erode the enemies’ numbers – or fucking decimate them.
This all becomes ever clearer as you drop accrued DNA (the game’s version of experience) into stronger stats and unlockable demolition shots. The combo system, which awards you with charges for special moves, hinges on you choosing key demolition shots that best suit your needs. The majority of these madcap attacks will see Grave utilise his Death Hauler coffin to quite literally whip out the big guns – transforming his back bling into anything from a missile defense system, a flamethrower or even a giant pulsing death beam. And those are the more pedestrian options. Each level will likely only see you utilising these moves a handful of times, so putting some thought into what might best suit can be hugely rewarding. One stage had me grinding my teeth at how often I’d be swarmed – so grabbing an ability that lets me dash through enemies for massive damage was just what the doctor ordered. There is even a particularly nutty ability that lets you slow time, handy for learning a boss’s attack pattern when they have an awfully shitty habit of one-shotting you – ever useful for when you want to eliminate some guesswork from a longer fight.
Enemy variety is present in spades, with the full gamut of mafia goons to military types and all manner of monstrous mega mutants represented. And they are not stingy with the enemies – screens will rapidly fill with a herd of bullet-hungry baddies. Some will rush you and engage melee, others will hang back and piff projectiles at you, and you better watch your back, because these dudes will come from every angle. At first I was slightly irritated with how often a hit marker would show that some ambitious antagonistic arsehole was shooting right up my backside, but seeing how the developers had carefully created both animations and entry points I couldn’t help but be impressed. They will rappel from the roof, leap out of windows, or even warp into reality – they weren’t simply materialising like the USS Enterprise had beamed them down to blast my butt, they arrived with point and purpose. It was my responsibility to show them some high calibre hospitality when they arrived.
Nah, It doesn’t look like you stepped in anything
Late in the game some of the more unique enemies will change up your tempo quite a bit. Some of the more speccy bozos can come equipped with homing rockets, or perhaps a railgun that will shatter your all-important shield. It’s a fun little micro-conundrum that will be introduced at key opportunities, providing a fun interlude to your regularly programmed perforation. At times you may even anticipate the impending arrival of these guys, based on how a level is progressing – making you feel all the more epic when you nail them with an express gift of a rocket to the face.
Of my opposition, the more involved enemy designs are wicked. Swamp thing wannabes and spiky abominations are happy to lope into view and demand your attention, while yakuza goons and American-styled mercenaries fill out the more stock-standard baddies role. It’s easy to attribute the visual interest to the input from Ikumi Nakamura (of Ghostwire: Tokyo fame), who provided her artistic skills to many unfortunate souls within the game. Her style can be clearly seen within some of the later boss phases, where shit starts to get real supernatural and wacky. Overall it does a lot to elevate the game’s already G.O.R.Egeous presentation, with its bright colours and bonkers visual effects when the combat really starts to pop off. It is somewhat of a bummer that some of the cooler enemies just sort of…turn up without any proper introduction, but in the grand scheme of things it means that the pomp and ceremony is reserved for the more impactful introductions.
It’s a kick-propelled rocket
Over the game’s 14+ hours, I completed dozens of levels and was surprised at how well Iggymob had made each one feel unique and interesting. While the format of a level will rarely change in a dramatic way – you will always be moving forward, blasting things – it was the layout and visuals of each area that kept my attention. From city streets, to a rainforest, to science facilities and even a pretty radical casino, it felt great that my destructive world tour was always somewhere fresh and exciting. Within some of these levels would be the odd gimmick area, such as a jumping puzzle or perhaps a deadly level hazard. These were a mixed bag, but to the developer’s credit I was amazed when a particularly frustrating puzzle actually solved itself after I had messed it up a few too many times, like a game journalist at the mercy of a Cuphead tutorial.
One section saw me running on the rooftop of a moving train, dodging the bullets of bad dudes and the occasional low hanging sign. The entire situation was electrifyingly silly, particularly as the signposts would happily blitz their way through scores of baddies well before ever threatening me. However the margin for error was razor thin, once I realised that this segment was effectively a timed experience – get to a safe railcar before an unavoidable tunnel roof splatters Grave. With my deaths easily hitting the double digits, I felt the heat rising in my veins, but upon completing this gauntlet I heard the post-level screen music and found myself super amped at my success. Is it a smidge too unforgiving? Maybe – but you can’t deny the fist pumping when you just…play better and make it through.
The level-by-level format of the game does a lot to cement its identity as a proper arcade experience, with levels ranging from as quick as five minutes in length, through to as long as 15–20 minutes if a boss encounter was present. Once a run is completed, the game smashes to some absolutely ball-bustingly epic end-level music, where you can catch your breath and perhaps spend some experience or swap out demolition shots. This retro arcade style, from how you blast through levels racking gigantic scores, to the end screen ranking you on everything from time to kill rate to overall artistic expression is fitting and nostalgic. Is it repetitive? Yes. Is it worth repeating? Fuck yes.
Uh oh, their pre-workout is kicking in
At times you may even find yourself enjoying a particular level well enough that you’ll want to replay it for a higher score, with the game even rewarding you with a full allotment of EXP for doing so. My first instinct was that I could theoretically replay older levels across all their difficulties, then return to my current game progress a great deal stronger – like grinding your Pokémon before a gym battle. But it became readily apparent this was no secret – the game doesn’t care if you want to grind its content. Within the upgrade area, I even noticed a handy little button that would let me reset my build progress at any time. This would return every single point of experience I had ever spent, and I could go hog wild trying something else. Gungrave isn’t about rigid investment – it wants you to have fun, dammit. Want to dump every point into gun damage? Go for it. Want to become an immovable wall of bullshit and melee folks to death with your coffin? All gravy.
I liken the game’s replayability to somewhat like a racing game – you familiarise yourself with the turns and obstacles, and when you replay you push for a better time. You know that the hairpin is coming up, so slam on the handbrake and flank a bunch of squishy nerds for a huge boost to your beat count. There is a jump after this slalom so keep a demolition charge ready to clear a huge room of beefy buggers. You get into the rhythm of the game and know exactly what notes to hit when – it’s like jazz baby. I mean racing. Jazz racing.
Speaking of jazz – the game has a soundtrack that travels the full gamut of rocking video game music, utilising everything from crazy electro synth to electric strings and even face melting saxophone wails. This is all courtesy of Shibata Tetsuya (known for his work on Devil May Cry) and masterfully pairs with the power fantasy on offer. The sheer attitude that comes through during firefights, boss encounters and even the fucking level-up screen is palpable – you feel like your mission is to end bad guys and rock the hell out. I do find myself a little confused by some of the more demure tracks in the game having such high real estate in earlier levels, the dissonance between them and the action tracks being a real hefty swing from zero to eleven at a moment’s notice – but this rectifies well before the midway point.
Nobody told Grave about firing mortars indoors
It’s not all classic gravy however. There is still a hefty amount of jank within the gameplay – but it’s not overtly upsetting jank. The same breath that curses how you can get stunlocked by missile hits also wants to praise how the window to missile parry with your melee attack is a mile wide. One moment you are annoyed that jumping over a railing seems to sequence break an encounter – the very next instant you are elated that your discovery has put you behind a huge swathe of goons who are now single-filing their way into your bullet buffet. And the fact that using a demolition shot gives you a bucket of invincibility frames means boss encounters are handled a whole new way once that discovery is made. It’s a game made with passion by a group of people who deeply care about the subject matter, and its imperfections are mere burrs on an otherwise smooth surface. One could argue that more sections with the other characters would be appreciated, or that perhaps a jukebox menu option to jam out to the soundtrack unimpeded would be amazing – but these are minor gripes.
I can imagine anyone who plays the game for 10 minutes might find themselves wondering where the gameplay could go from there. The very nature of Gungrave is that it takes a shallow concept, and deepens it via player choice – encouraging opportunities to craft your own power fantasy. It’s likely that no two people will have an identical playthrough experience, and that is exciting to me. It’s like playing freeform jazz, but eventually your trumpet has buttons for a flamethrower or a deathbeam. It isn’t a game that has come to sit at the AAA table and exchange blows with the likes of Elden Ring, it has simply blown the dust off of a delicious niche that I am sad was forgotten all too quickly, and for that it deserves proper commendation.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Prime Matter
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
- November 22, 2022