The pedigree behind Azure Striker Gunvolt is the stuff of dreams for a Mega Man-inspired game. Inti Creates, after all, was the team behind the excellent Mega Man Zero series, the Mega Man ZX series, and the classic Mega Man "rebirth" titles Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10.
As easy as it would have been, though, to slap a new coat of paint over an old experience, Azure Striker Gunvolt is similar in a superficial sense only, easing you into a surprisingly unique and versatile system of combat.
At first, it feels like familiar ground. You are a hero clad in blue with a weak projectile weapon. You can jump, blast, wall-jump, and dash. You fight through torturous stages and themed bosses that you can tackle in any order, and then take on the final gauntlet, featuring rematches with the bosses you've fought before.
Again, however, the similarity is superficial, as the ways in which all of these things are handled feel surprisingly fresh.
For starters, Gunvolt's moveset requires a degree of precision and reflex that his robotic forebears didn't have to face. Their wall-jumps, for instance, were built off of a slow, downward slide that gave the player plenty of time to figure out how to manoeuvre around obstacles and enemies. Gunvolt's wall-jump has no such luxury, consisting of an immediate kick off the wall in question, with no built-in time for consideration.
Gunvolt has to react to things constantly, without there always being the benefit of forethought. A great example of this is a main-stage scramble to stay ahead of rapidly rising water levels. Collectibles about, enemies in the way, and ladders in difficult to reach places. It's a lot to consider, and yet if you pause to consider any of it, you've as good as failed. You need to make your decisions — any decisions — immediately, and then stick with them, reacting and addressing the new problems you've created as you go. It's a brilliant, glorious sequence, and by no means the only time Gunvolt's body is required to stay ahead of his mind.
The dash is also handled differently. Whereas Mega Man, X, and Zero all had flat termination points for their dashes (or slides), Gunvolt simply gets a short burst of speed that can be re-deployed at will. This turns the dash into more of a strategically employed sprint, allowing Gunvolt greater speed sustained over longer distances, at the extremely high cost of manoeuvrability and a further reduction in reaction time.
Even the simple acts of jumping and shooting have nuances of their own. The jumping can be customised by abilities that allow you to jump two or even three times in the air, air dash multiple times, and more. These are earned by synthesising upgrades using the elements found in post-stage bonus games, adding another nugget of strategy to the experience: do you use up your collected elements to create a smaller, but helpful, upgrade now, or save them to create a much more useful upgrade later?
Gunvolt's pistol — true to his name — is what makes the game truly shine. At first it seems clear enough; you fire your weak projectiles at enemies, who lose a small amount of health each time a shot connects. However the primary attack comes after that. Each enemy that gets hit by a projectile is also "tagged." From there, you can activate an electricity field around Gunvolt, which deals significant — and continuous — damage to all tagged enemies. You can even tag enemies up to three times, which results in your field zapping them with electricity that's three times as strong.
It is this attack style that lends the game its kinetic identity, playing not quite like anything we've seen before, and turning the entire combat experience into a kind of aggressive evasion.
In Mega Man games and spinoffs, the typical approach to fighting is to hit the enemy as hard as you can, react to their next move, and get in a position to hit them again. Gunvolt, however, deals continuous damage, meaning he only needs to get in position once in order to tag the enemy. After that, the battle becomes a glorious ballet of evasion and resource management. Gunvolt will jump, sprint, and dodge his way around counter-attacks while he keeps his electricity field pumping damage into the baddies around him, also keeping an eye on how much energy he has left. If the electricity runs too long, Gunvolt will overheat and lose his ability to use any electricity-based moves until the cooldown is complete.
Tougher enemies, like bosses, make overheating a real threat. You'll be tempted to deal as much electrical damage as you can, but keeping the electricity field active too long means you'll be rendered helpless until Gunvolt gets his energy back. Instead you'll want to tag, electrocute, and strategically choose when to lay off the offensive to give Gunvolt a chance to recharge. Recharging happens naturally with time, but you can speed up the process by pressing down twice...which locks Gunvolt in place briefly and adds a whole other element to the graceful dance of these impressive boss fights.
While the game can be completed simply by clearing all of the stages, it's worth seeking out gems hidden (sometimes deviously so) throughout the game for a purpose we will stubbornly refuse to reveal here, and it's also worth taking on the optional challenges that require you to handle specific situations, bosses, and stages in a particular way. These challenges not only help you to learn the nuances of Gunvolt's controls, but reward you with rare elements that allow you to synthesize more helpful upgrades.
So far, so great. The presentation is gorgeous, the soundtrack phenomenal, and the overall atmosphere of the game — including noir-tinged narration and at least one genuinely clever plot-twist — is fantastic. It's a well-rounded, deceptively deep, and engrossing experience.
The disappointment comes with the difficulty. While there are plenty of traps and fiendish stage layouts to keep you guessing, Gunvolt is a bit too durable, and death does not come often. When it does, there's a chance he will be revived to resume the battle, with enhanced powers and upgrades, meaning that even if you do die, it's likely you'll instantly reincarnate with abilities that allow you to crush your enemies almost instantly. There's also no limit to the amount of lives you have, which allows you to fight bosses repeatedly until you finally win. This can render that victory less satisfying, as instead of learning each boss's pattern, detail for detail, you can eventually just brute-force your way through the fight with as many chances as you need.
The lack of difficulty, however, is a minor complaint, as the challenges, hidden items, stage rankings, and other surprises do require much more care in terms of how you handle yourself in the game. It's worth bringing up, but anyone truly craving a devious challenge can still find it.
Azure Striker Gunvolt is a well-crafted, cohesive experience that both serves as a brilliant title in its own right and a promise of even more incredible things to come should it get a sequel. While it's tailor-made to appeal to fans of Mega Man (and the Zero series in particular), it's absolutely different enough to warrant a play even if you didn't enjoy those games. There's nothing quite like Azure Striker Gunvolt out there, and fans of hardcore platformers in general will be well-served by its shockingly versatile addition to the genre.
Azure Striker Gunvolt isn't just a great game; it's something of a revelation, finding an entirely new — and rich — approach to the hardcore-platforming genre. While it makes no secrets of its inspirations, the gameplay itself is unique and anything but superficial comparisons fall away quickly. The core experience is arguably over a bit too easily, but hidden items, unlockable items and skills, level-specific challenges, and a few other surprises make this a game you're more likely to return to than you may think. It may not be a flawless experience, but it's a thoroughly rewarding one.