Mega Man Co-Creator and Producer Keiji Inafune returns to the 2D action genre that he had a hand in creating and perfecting nearly 30 years ago, and he does so bringing along the talented Inti Creates studio which most recently helped him bring his visions to life in Mega Man 9, Mega Man 10 and the Mega Man Zero games.
Of course, Capcom saw to it that Mega Man's life support was all but cut shortly after his brief resurrection, and Inafune left the company shortly afterwards.
With the aid of a smaller company, and without the pressure of without being tied down to Mega Man's established rules, Azure Striker Gunvolt gives the best look at the ideas of unbridled Inafune.
Infaune is able to make any game he sees fit in the indie market, and Azure Striker Gunvolt is one of his first. How does it stack up next to his 30 years of legacy?
Keeps You Wanting More
I don't think it should come as a surprise to anyone that Azure Striker Gunvolt is a really solid video game. Like Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight before it, Inti Creates uses its latest game to show a fine, inherent knowledge of the 2D action genre, and its ability to separate all that both makes it fun and holds it back.
Gone is the "lives" system. Gone is the instant death from spikes. Gone is having to start over from the beginning of the level if you screw up too much. Gone is in impenetrable learning curve. Like a classic Mega Man game, cranking it out to Azure Striker Gunvolt's ending in a single afternoon is a pretty easy feat with even a minimal understanding of its driving mechanics.
However, to hang up the ole' guns and call it a wrap then and there would be missing the point.
Azure Striker Gunvolt is a game that seeks to reward improvement. Those who succeed and can clear a level with minimal damage, maximum combo points, and a decent time get extra goodies for improving Gunvolt's equipment and skills.
Those who die a lot, take their time, and get caught up in costly fire fights get a big, fat, shameful "C" on their report card. No Game Overs, no "Sorry, try again" scenarios. Just a constant reminder of the long way to go before they can hang out at the big kids' table.
Once the game is cleared, the immediate instinct should be to jump back in and take every last lesson learned into blasting through the levels which proved hardest. Maybe they'll be easier this time around! Maybe not, but that "C" just has to go away.
In the meantime, Gunvolt can continue to fight with a purpose beyond self-improvement. Collect hidden jewels, improve his gear and skills, even accept challenges found in the game's Challenge Mode. Azure Striker Gunvolt provides far more reasons to jump into the game than just a personal goal of getting better.
Those satisfied with clearing a game for just another notch in their belts will not get the full value out of Azure Striker Gunvolt. It is a game built around the idea of replay value and getting to intimately understand the mechanics and level design to the point where it can be beaten with that on perfect run.
Then, and only then, can the ole' guns be truly hung up and Azure Striker Gunvolt can be claimed beaten.
However, a game with just replay value is useless if it's not fun. How do the mechanics and level design stand up?
Combat in Azure Striker Gunvolt is nothing short of phenomenal. Inafune has shown a desire to move the action platformer beyond just jumping and shooting, and he more than succeeds here than he ever has before with a strategic element unique to this game.
Gunvolt's arsenal in any stage has just two weapons on hand: his pistol and his electric field. Alone, neither is very helpful in clearing a room of baddies. Bullets do chip damage at best and the electric field might cause an enemy's life to drain slowly enough for it do die after 20 seconds. In a lightning fast action game like this, that's an eternity!
Instead of blindly using these two attacks separately, Azure Striker Gunvolt relies on the idea of "tagging" enemies. When a bullet strikes an enemy, it causes Gunvolt's electric field to focus on a single point, causing far more damage than the previously described unfocused electric attack.
From there, it's all timing. Go all out and hit an enemy with the focused electric attack, and Gunvolt might get somewhere. However, the electric field also acts as his health shield, his gliding mechanic for slower drops, and even a line of defense against physical projectiles like rockets. If he overheats, nothing will stop him from getting ripped to pieces by a batch of spikes or an over-eager enemy.
Guns can vary through bullet patterns. A rapid fire straight line, a charged attack which can penetrate five enemies, a spread canon, a manual aiming reticle. Each has its uses, but each serves the same purpose of tagging those enemies and frying them to pieces.
Rudimentary Platforming, Brilliant Bosses
Sadly, the strength of Azure Striker Gunvolt's combat only makes the game's weakness that much more noticeable: the level design. Inti Creates has all the makings and trappings of an excellent action game developer, but when it comes to platforming, it always comes up a bit short of the classics.
Each of Gunvolt's stages has a particular theme that it pulls off well, like weather effects, timed elevators, boosters, or destructible crates, but never once does the game challenge inner platforming primal urges of the typical Mega Man fan. No tough jumps, no smart level design leading to tense moments of twitch platforming or jumping up a wall to stay alive.
Azure Striker Gunvolt's stage design is rudimentary at best, but the real question is whether this was a conscious decision or not. Did Inti Creates purposefully make a straightforward platformer so the action could shine better, or like the later Mega Man ZX games, is it just out of ideas on how to make clever set pieces?
Regardless, the other 50 percent of the game is top notch: the boss fights. Azure Striker Gunvolt leaves a little to be desired in its trash mobs, but the main foes waiting for him at the end of each trek promise to make him work for his victory.
Each bleed with character and has their own charming points and brutal attack patterns, with Merak's Lazy Laser attack a clear favorite among fans. Don't count out the Elise twins either. They are bound to cause the loss of a few strands of hair.
Managing that electric field meter is one thing, but boss battles also come down to swift reflexes combined with the character's tight control and finding that one perfect moment to slam him in the face with a special attack. Each encounter with the bosses is very intense, and like all the best boss fights in history, they will test your knowledge of everything you should have learned up to that point.
Yeah, Azure Striker Gunvolt has a story, but it's best left ignored. Inti Create's plot is all over the place, and the characters aren't especially memorable in any way. In the end, the graphics and music trump the narrative, but don't let that detract from how great they are.
This is a gorgeous game to both look at and listen to, even if the J-Pop songs playing after scoring 1,000+ combo are shrill enough to wake the dead.
Azure Striker Gunvolt could be the next big Nintendo 3DS franchise from Inti Creates, and I wouldn't mind one bit.
There's no getting around that the flat levels are a core issue of this game. Azure Striker Gunvolt could have clearly benefitted from more time and budget to get the uninspired level design and weak platforming working on the Mega Man standards of quality.
Thankfully, the combat challenges and excellent boss fights more than do their fair share to make up for it And hey, it's just the first game, right? Give it a break!
Azure Striker Gunvolt could be the next big Nintendo 3DS franchise from Inti Creates, and I wouldn't mind one bit. As long as Inti Creates learns from the criticisms and feedback, moving it forward in a positive motion, avoiding the safety net that Mega Man fell into so many times over his career.
Disclaimer: We purchased Azure Striker Gunvolt with personal funds and beat the single player campaign and a handful of challenges before writing this review.