Ride the lightning…
It was supposed to be an easy job. The Sumeragi Group – the corrupt worldwide conglomerate responsible for rounding up anyone with superpowers – had its hands on something that could amplify psychic abilities. As a member of the underground resistance, all Gunvolt had to do was infiltrate the building, track down the target, and destroy it with his unique electrical powers. Nothing more, nothing less. It should’ve taken him only a night, if that. It was anything but simple, though; his target wasn’t an object, but Joule, a young girl whose singing was literally magical. Refusing to kill an innocent for the sake of his mission, Gunvolt opted to rescue her instead. With the world’s largest corporation and several of its most dangerous warriors gunning for them, this pair of unlikely heroes has to survive long enough to bring down Sumeragi and bring freedom back to their world.
At a glance, Azure Striker Gunvolt’s story has a lot going for it. It’s set in a future dystopia, and its hero is surprisingly downbeat and world-weary. There’s a lot of potential to be had in a main character who is both a fugitive and freelance gun-for-hire; he’s not a savior, but an irritable young man trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the game can’t decide on its tone or character development. Aside from a few lines of pre-mission conversation, Gunvolt never grows as a person. Despite being the unwitting lynchpin in everyone’s plans, Joule has very little personality beyond acting in the typical distressed damsel/magical support role. For a game that tries to take itself seriously, most of the cast seems silly and out of place. For example, Elise is a boss with dual bodies and personalities. The split between her shy and aggressive personae is briefly played for drama and horror, but quickly devolves into cliched banter. Zonda – an explicitly bigender character who uses gender-neutral pronouns (an admittedly bold and welcome move on the writers’ part) – is nothing more than a lustful, innuendo-spouting caricature of a villain. Copen, the rogue gunman stealing everyone else’s powers, is the only one to get any semblance of depth, dignity, and proper motivation. The sheer amount of missed narrative opportunities is staggering.
Once you get into battle, you’ll probably stop caring. Azure Striker Gunvolt is a spiritual successor to the Mega Man X series, and it shows. The dashing, wall kicking, and general stage layouts are taken straight from the game’s SNES predecessors. After the intro, you’ll be given a choice of six missions (eventually unlocking four more stages and a series of gauntlets) that can be completed in any order, each with their own theme and boss battle. None of them are particularly difficult; the stages are linear, checkpoints are frequent, and the platforming is decent at best. Gunvolt focuses more on action, not jumping or exploration. Since he has the power to generate electricity, his effectiveness as a fighter depends on how much energy he puts out. He can pull up a circular forcefield to gradually damage everything nearby and temporarily alter his jump physics, or he can tag enemies with magnetized bullets and use them as makeshift lightning rods. Either method will drain his energy, forcing you to either wait for the onscreen meter to recharge, or automatically replenish it with a quick double-tap on the directional pad. Depending on what gear you have equipped, any damage you take will also take a chunk out of Gunvolt’s power supply instead of his life bar. The built-in limitation keeps an otherwise cheap gameplay mechanic in balance, and encourages players to get better at evasion instead of spamming attacks. Screw up too much, however, and Joule can step in to sing an infinite energy song and bail you out. Rinse and repeat enough times, and you’ll destroy Sumeragi in no time.
Going by just the default settings, it’s easy to believe that Azure Striker Gunvolt is shallow and repetitive. And honestly, it is. Missions take only a few minutes to complete, it’s difficult to actually die on even the hardest stages, and tagging and zapping everything gets old fast. The real meat of the game takes a little more effort to uncover. If you take a peek at the in-game menu before going on a mission, you’ll uncover a wide variety of optional objectives for each level. That one stage you’ve practically memorized? Try beating it in under four minutes, without taking damage, destroying a set number of enemies, or doing it with certain weapons. There’s also an arcade-style score multiplier that resets whenever you’re injured or activate a checkpoint, so you’ll have to do a perfect run to maximize your score. Joule will even start singing different songs if you manage to get the multiplier high enough. Since your performance is graded and ranked all the way up to S+, knowledge of every gameplay mechanic is vital. Beating the game is easy, but fully mastering it is something else entirely.
The payoff for the extra effort is an assortment of customizable techniques. With the spare parts you earn from beating missions, it’s possible to craft gear to boost Gunvolt’s energy output, perform aerial jumps and dashes, prevent knockback from incoming attacks, and reduce damage. Depending on how you design his equipment, Gunvolt will move completely different from his original loadout, thus allowing you to tackle old stages in new ways. Unfortunately, his tag-and-zap combat mechanics remain constant. There are six guns that can tag different amounts of enemies or have altered bullet trajectories, but little else. Only one unlockable pistol trades off electrical attacks for heavy-damage bullets, but there’s still nowhere near enough variety. You can learn a handful of super-powered attacks or support abilities via leveling up, but they usually boil down to screen-filling projectiles and health/energy replenishments. Since they’re limited to a few uses per level, they’re really only helpful during boss fights. Aside from that, there isn’t really anything else Gunvolt can do as a fighter. Consider Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero, the series that directly influenced this game. Players were given access to several secondary attacks and a much wider variety of weapons. Gunvolt’s relatively limited gunplay is a disappointing reminder of what could’ve been.
The game tries to distract you from such shortcomings by making everything as loud and flashy as possible. Gunvolt’s purple forcefields and multicolored lightning bolts are bright and well-animated; even his idle animation includes electrical currents coming out of his shoes. There’s something strangely satisfying about tagging a whole roomful of enemies and zapping until they all explode in tandem. Joule’s fully-voiced support songs give the stages some much-needed intensity. Some of her unlockable anthems, like “Rouge Shimmer” and “Beyond the Blue,” would fit well in a techno or j-pop concert. Your foes are bland in comparison, but they’re designed and positioned well enough. You’d be surprised how annoying an automated laser turret or generic, flame-throwing soldiers can be when they’re next to a platform or surrounded by spikes. The levels are more impressive in terms of setting and design. Most of them manage to make sense within the story while adding some variety. For example, one mission involves climbing and shutting down Sumeragi’s media tower. Not only does it destroy Sumeragi’s broadcasting, but it also turns the entire level into a sheer vertical ascent through numerous obstacles. You don’t just destroy a company train shipment, but fight off the gigantic spider tank guarding the convoy as well. Though the bosses have one-dimensional personalities, their combat abilities are impressive. Viper is more than a temperamental, fireball-spewing warrior; he can turn the entire battlefield into a miniature shoot’em-up challenge. Elise’s dual bodies and personalities have to be killed in sync, forcing you to tag and time your attacks accordingly. These clever ideas demonstrate how much thought was put into their design, and how far things have come from the Mega Man games of old.
It’s still got a ways to go, though. Azure Striker Gunvolt has some interesting concepts, but doesn’t fully utilize them. The dystopian setting has tons of potential in terms of the cast and overall narrative, but the inconsistent tone and the characters’ shallow personalities make the story utterly forgettable. The lack of weapon variety is disappointing as well. Gunvolt can control electricity; you’d think there’d be something more creative to do with his powers than just tagging and zapping. The quick levels, repetitive battles, and easy default settings are hardly satisfying. But if you take the time to delve deeper into what the game offers, you’ll be rewarded for the effort. The wide variety of customizable gear lets you tackle levels in different ways. The optional secondary objectives are often grueling, and maxing out your high scores practically requires perfection. All while dazzling you with flashy attacks, creative bosses, and a pulse-pounding soundtrack. Azure Striker Gunvolt is by no means a perfect game, but it’s a great reminder of why the best gameplay designs are timeless. This lighting is worth the ride.
*Header image taken from NintendoLife.com.