It’s incredible to have your expectations destroyed, to think you know what’s coming only to face something entirely different. I thought I knew what to expect from an action game like Azure Striker Gunvolt. While Inti Creates work on the Mega Man series spanned across several unique franchises, the gameplay remained largely the same. What we have with Gunvolt is a studio showing what they can build from the ground up. While expectations led me to believe I was receiving another take on Mega Man, Gunvolt is instead the start of something completely new.
The strategy on display here is what makes the strongest impression. Gunvolts handgun is useless as a weapon, but it isn’t window dressing either. Instead its function is to tag enemies, effectively locking-on to the enemies and setting them up for the real damage. With your targets set, Gunvolt unleashes the Flashfield, a circle of electricity that acts as a barrier and a method to attack enemies from afar. Lighting shoots out from the Flashfield, connecting with enemies and draining their health bars. The attack lasts for as long as the associated energy bar lasts. For as creative as this is, the foes you face are what makes Gunvolt so special.
While a basic description of the Flashfield sounds like a glorified “fire and forget”, the game’s adversaries don’t let you make a fool of them. There’s generally a trick to most, requiring the player to observe first before acting. Many enemies have moments of vulnerability, leaving themselves open to be tagged, while others can be tagged at any moment but when you can attack them is another matter. The bosses up the ante, and punish players quickly if they go in
guns lightning blazing. These encounters are the highlight of Gunvolt, serving as perfect examples of the games strategic side. The bosses all have three stages of progression (as indicated by their health bar), and Gunvolt’s speed is crucial as you adapt to their changing movesets. I was constantly on my toes, as these adversaries can get out of Gunvolt’s target locks at a moments notice, causing me to waste energy if not careful (Gunvolt can overheat if not careful if he overuses Flashfield, leaving him powerless for a few moments). A sore point with these encounters is that in the boss’s third and final phase, a special move is used, and in most cases that action is a one-hit-kill. I had my share of repeating encounters from the beginning, myself often resorting to a special move of Gunvolt’s just to survive.
Even still, I’d commend the game for its handling of difficulty. Despite the do-overs, I recognize that the fault is my own, some deaths even came as a result of hubris. If I was willing, I could have made extensive use of Prevasion (and by the game’s end, I most certainly was), an ability that allows the players to avoid damage so long as their EP meter is full. The catch is that should you do so, the game’s combo system immediately dials back to zero. In turn, your post-mission ranking and rewards take a hit. This is pretty indicative of Gunvolt‘s approach to difficulty; every opportunity to make the game easier takes something else away. While you can avoid repeating stages and taking on their optional Challenges (ex. clear a stage in less than seven minutes, attack three foes at once with the Flashfield) , you’ll have a hard time upgrading Gunvolt. Before I realized this, I was swimming in currency, but couldn’t synthesize the enhancements I wanted due to a lack of the materials that are handed out after a successful mission. So while players can always move forward, they’re missing out on some content by not going that extra mile (a measure that must be taken should you want the game’s true ending). Of course, this is all optional, which allows players to enjoy the game how they please.
To not speak of Gunvolt‘s visuals would be a crime, for as much as Inti Creates is breaking away from their past as a Mega Man studio, they’ve carried on the tradition of spectacular sprite work. While the backgrounds are of a more refined quality, the characters have the rigid, blocky outlines that I enjoy so much more. The animations are great too, and always include little details that nerds like me obsess over (bullets from Gunvolt’s pistol bounce off walls, as opposed to going “through” them).
The music and narrative add much to the experience as well. While it comes at a moment of failure, Lumen’s Anthem is a favourite of mine. Playing at the moment of your resurrection, it’s incredibly motivating, cheering you on as Gunvolt has one more chance to overcome the challenge ahead of him. While the overall story is serviceable, the dialogue is a real joy. It’s very funny, with space age curse words like “Horsejitt” injecting some humour, while also skirting around any rating issues. The characters are all unique, particularly Lumen, who boasts an attitude that targets our protagonist at every opportunity.
Inti Creates shines in this rare chance to escape the Mega Man mould. While their work on 9, 10, and the Zero series put them on the map, Azure Striker Gunvolt serves as an example of a studio that can step out from its own shadow. It defied my every expectation, and I hope it does the same for you.