Way back in 2014, Inti Creates—of Mega Man Zero and Mega Man ZX fame—made waves in the action platforming space when it released Azure Striker Gunvolt, a clear successor to its previous work on the Blue Bomber. Though that initial release was kinda similar to older Mega Man games, this franchise has evolved far beyond those roots as new ideas and gameplay concepts have come into the fold. Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 represents the next step on this path of new ideas, and while it isn’t a revolutionary new take on the Gunvolt formula, it offers up a tightly designed and intensely addictive adventure that no fan of the franchise will want to miss out on.
Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 picks up several years after the events of the second entry and begins by following a new character named Kirin. Kirin is a feisty battle priestess working for a shadow organization that endeavors to contain a new Septimal threat where some Septima users are losing control of their powers and turning into powerful, chaotic dragons. The first dragon that Kirin takes down turns out to be Gunvolt himself, who quickly remembers who he is and joins forces with her to neutralize the remaining dragons and get to the heart of what caused their emergence in the first place.
It's a fine narrative, but also a good example of why the ‘show, don’t tell’ philosophy is so important in storytelling. Dialogue is often heavy with exposition as characters clumsily explain concepts, names, and organizations to each other, and it has the effect of hollowing out the emotional connection one might have to the story. More importantly, the story zips so quickly from plot point to point that it can often be rather hard to follow what’s going on, despite the heavy exposition. Luckily, the memorable cast helps to make it all a little more bearable, each member of Gunvolt’s ‘Bureau of Dragon Saviors’ is quite distinct from the next and the dynamics in the group make for some fun exchanges.
Gameplay feels like an evolution of what came before in the previous two entries and has you mostly playing as Kirin, while Gunvolt can occasionally tag in for her temporarily. Much like how Copen was handled in the second entry, Kirin plays similarly to Gunvolt’s base style with some key differences. Her main weapon is a close-range katana, but it’s not really intended to be used on its own. Repeatedly tapping the ‘Y’ button will cause her to throw talismans forward, which ‘mark’ her enemies and make them more vulnerable to her blade. You then can either dispatch them in one swipe when you reach them, or you can enter a quick input and teleport slash all marked enemies on screen in one go.
In practice, this leads to an impressively smooth flow where you’re running through a stage, tossing talismans everywhere, and leaving a trail of destruction as you teleport from enemy to enemy in rapid succession. Several segments of levels can even be completed without ever touching the ground if you’re both quick and accurate with your throws, and it feels amazing once the playstyle finally clicks and you find yourself reacting without having to think. It’s impressive how Inti Creates has managed to now produce a third playstyle that can feel so distinct yet so similar to what Copen and Gunvolt were capable of.
Those of you who preferred Gunvolt’s ‘tag and run’ playstyle will be pleased to know that he still features here as a playable character, albeit as more of a ‘limit break’ than as his own distinct character. Below Kirin’s health, there’s an energy gauge that increases as she both takes and doles out damage, and once it’s reached at least 100%, you can switch to Gunvolt. When Gunvolt is out, the energy bar begins to slowly decrease with each passing second and this also acts as his health bar, meaning it drops significantly more for any damage he takes. Once the energy gauge reaches zero, Kirin tags back in and starts rebuilding it once more.
This is an interesting way of integrating the two distinct playstyles into any given level, though it does feel a little bit odd that the main character of the franchise is now relegated to more of a supporting role. Still, Gunvolt plays just like he did in the previous games, albeit while doing a lot more damage for plot reasons. Loading enemies up with pins and then nuking them with lightning feels just as satisfying as it has in previous entries, while any semblance of platforming difficulty is immediately wiped away by Gunvolt’s Kirby-like ability to infinitely jump.
Regardless of who you’re playing as, your performance in a stage is mostly tracked by a scoring system called Kudos which rewards you for riskier and more calculated gameplay. You get Kudos for every kill you register, but the amount you can earn goes up exponentially if you can do trickier things like consecutive aerial kills or defeating a boss character with a skill. In a notable change from previous entries, you no longer lose your built up kudos if you take damage. Instead, you get a “Kudos Lock” which forces you to earn a certain amount of Kudos before you can start adding to your total again. At the end of a stage, your Kudos is then converted with a few other factors to a total score that then determines the grade you receive; “S++” is the hardest to accomplish and requires essentially a perfect run of a level.
An important thing to note about Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is that it’s clear the main focus of the gameplay is on this ranking and scoring system. If you’re really taking your time with it, this game will only last you about five hours before you reach the credits, but simply playing through the story is only the beginning. The way these stages are designed, you’re expected to constantly run them and memorize things like enemy placement and boss patterns until you can execute a run of a stage basically without getting hit or even touching the ground. Each level is short and easy to retry as you’re getting in your practice, and it can be amazingly rewarding when you finally manage to get that high rank you’ve been attempting for so long. Given this, we would say that though Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is probably worthwhile for those just looking to play it through once or twice, you’re really missing out on a lot of the intended experience if you don’t want to grind ranks. This game is really geared towards perfectionist players that like to push the limits of a game’s mechanics and aren’t afraid to rapidly run the same levels dozens of times until absolute mastery is achieved.
Getting higher ranks isn’t entirely dependent upon your own skill, however, as there are some RPG-lite mechanics present to help make certain things easier. For example, you can equip up to four active skills that can call on the help of characters from both this game and past ones, giving you boons like a temporary shield or a powerful AoE attack. Additionally, you can set up passive effects that will grant you things like increased EXP gain or a longer grace window after taking damage. None of these skills radically change the way you approach any given level, but they are helpful in sometimes covering for you when you inevitably make mistakes.
Something that seems a little more divisive here, however, is that you’re not given a whole lot of control over which skills you can acquire. Unlike in the last main entry, which rewarded you with materials in stages that you would use to craft new equipment, here you instead get all your “Image Pulses” via a randomized gacha pull at the end of each stage. Picking up more of a level’s collectible Image Chips nets you more pulls at the end, but it’s otherwise entirely up to RNGesus whether you get any new (or good) Skill Image Pulses.
This isn’t a devastating change by any means, but it does feel like a notable step back from what was done in the last game, as you now simply have to get lucky if you’d like to make a specific build to make those S++ attempts a little more consistent. Eventually you build up quite a reserve of Image Pulses to pick from, but we would’ve liked this aspect of the game design to have been a little less random, as finishing a replayed stage and only getting dupes for your trouble is just irritating.
Visually, it’s clear that Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 has been designed on stronger hardware, as the detailed spritework mixes better with the high quality artwork for the environments. Seeing things like an arcade, a Shinto castle, or an in-universe equivalent of an Amazon distribution center all done up in a far future, technologically advanced art style makes for some memorable sights that’ll have you reaching for the capture button pretty frequently. The pixel art is clearly a descendant of the work seen in the Mega Man Zero and Mega Man ZX games, and it looks great whether you’re viewing on the TV or the Switch screen. We especially appreciated the functionality offered by the art style, as having all the enemies done in spritework here has the effect of differentiating them a bit from the backgrounds, which makes them that much easier to target and react to on your speedruns.
As for audio, Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 keeps things moving with a soundtrack that mixes EDM beats with rock music to match the intense and zenlike state of zipping through stages, while there are some more downtempo jazz tracks sprinkled in there to add in some variety. This is then supported by near constant back and forth dialogue between Gunvolt, Kirin, and whoever the level’s boss happens to be. Most of this dialogue is forgettable, but the voice cast does a great job with the lines they’re given.
It's tough to say whether Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is a clear improvement over its predecessors, but this entry is every bit as action-packed and razor sharp as them. Kirin offers up a refreshing new take on the tried and tested gameplay, while the tight level designs and focus on the ranking system make this one a highly replayable experience. The only real downsides here are that the gacha system feels awkwardly implemented and the story can be a slog, but both these things are easily ignored when the thrilling gameplay really gets its hooks in you. If you at all enjoyed the previous entries, it goes without saying that you owe it to yourself to pick up Azure Striker Gunvolt 3, but we’d encourage newcomers to give it a shot, too. Action platformers like this don’t come along too often, and we’re pleased to report that Inti Creates clearly hasn’t lost its mojo in this space.