Inti Creates have become synonymous with action platformers over recent years, even beating Capcom at their own game with their excellent Mega Man X series. The Ichikawa-based outfit challenge their former masters once again with the first original Switch entry in their acclaimed Gunvolt series. Can they make their mark among the sea of 2D-inspired games on the Switch? Let’s find out.
Sporting a mouthful of a title, Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX is the first in a spinoff series from the main Gunvolt franchise focusing on Copen, better known to folks in the game as the titular Luminous Avenger iX. Essentially a stopgap until Azure Striker Gunvolt 3, this game follows on from Azure Striker Gunvolt 2 focusing on Copen’s campaign against the shadowy Sumeragi Group. The human race has been divided into two groups: ‘Minos’, who are essentially regular human beings, and ‘Adepts’, who possess special abilities allowing them to bend energy to their will.
Without spoiling the plot too much, the Adepts now outnumber the Minos and the Sumeragi Group have embraced a social Darwinist approach towards the Minos by hunting down the so-called ‘inferior’ race. This is where Copen comes in. With a burning hatred for the Sumeragi Group, Copen has taken it upon himself to protect the Minos from their wrath, becoming a bit of a hero in the process. He is accompanied by Lola, a robot he somehow managed to build all by himself despite being a 14-year-old kid, and goes out to save the Minos with his buddy while taking out his hatred of Adepts in the process. All very anime-like stuff then, but this serves as fitting context for the gameplay.
Speaking of the gameplay, this is where Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX really shines. Those already familiar with the series will know what to expect, but the game certainly wears its Mega Man connections on its sleeves. Inti Creates make no secret of the fact that action platformers are their passion, so in that sense the game truly feels like a labour of love.
Aside from your standard blaster and SP Skill ability which Copen is armed with from the start, players gradually unlock EX Weapons as they progress through the game. However, by far the most crucial element of the gameplay is the air combo system. By ‘dashing’ into an enemy, Copen will lock on to that foe allowing for a combination of homing shots. Mastering this ability as well as performing it mid-air against multiple enemies is essential if you want to get very far in this game. While the game isn’t overly difficult, the air combo system is necessary for defeating most of the game’s bosses, and even some elements of the stages require skilful mid-air targeting of enemies for progression.
This is where we get to perhaps the only real fault with the game. Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX arms players with a wide range of a abilities adding a dense yet rewarding level of skill to its gameplay mechanics, but doesn’t do a great job of introducing them to the player. Perhaps assuming that players are already familiar with the series, the initial stage opens by introducing the basic fundamentals, but most newcomers will find themselves digging through the menus looking for the manual detailing how to actually pull off all the things referred to by the game.
While games certainly shouldn’t need to hold the player’s hand, mastery of at least the core elements of the gameplay is so essential that burying away explanations in a manual using the system’s built-in web browser is a tad uninituitive for the series’ first Switch outing. The result can be things occurring throughout the game without the player fully understanding the reason why. For example, upon death the player is occasionally saved by Copen’s companion, Lola, who performs an ability called Anthem. This recovers Copen’s HP and sends him into an ‘Overdrive’ state, but initially seems to be triggered completely at random. Digging through to the last page of the manual reveals that this happens more frequently if players ‘talk’ to their comrades, but it was a bit baffling until we found this out. None of this negatively impacts the gameplay, which is a joy, but this is one game where studying the manual certainly isn’t optional if you are new to the series.
Moving back to the positives, the presentation is quite sublime. The music is perfect match for the futuristic setting of the game which evokes strong memories of Sega’s seminal Phantasy Star Online series which has a not-dissimilar vibe. Studio veterans Ippo Yamada and Ryo Kamikawa have pulled out all the stops here with some truly memorable tracks. The visual presentation is similarly appealing, albeit a tad more divisive. The entire game takes place within the same futuristic city which does limit the types of terrain which this game can feature – don’t expect any tropical jungle levels here! But the game does a good job of providing variety within this singular visual theme, be it the city slums, buildings, medical centres, or even those dastardly sky levels with floating platforms that are the bane of so many gamers.
Given that this isn’t exactly the longest game in the world, there’s enough variety in the stages here to make the lone setting a non-issue. A little more contentious is the decision to layer 2D sprites over high resolution polygon backgrounds. The pixel art style is a trademark of the studio and certainly looks lovely, with little visual flares such as the transparent shadow behind Copen serving to demonstrate how much care went into the sprites. The issue is that the sprites are significantly lower resolution than the polygon backgrounds themselves. This can look a little jarring at times, even if this contrast is a deliberate stylistic choice. Nonetheless, it still looks pleasing while holding a rock-solid 60fps throughout the entire game.
The strength of the plot and characters is something which really deserves to be mentioned. Despite the brevity of character interactions, they are nevertheless presented in a way which makes you genuinely feel an attachment not just to the protagonist but also the supporting cast. Some may only have a couple of lines during the course of the game, but their importance and necessity to the crew is never in question.
These interactions are implemented in a way that never slows down the pace of a game which fundamentally places a heavy emphasis on action. Instead, they largely take place within the game’s main hub area where you can also spend credits on new upgrades and choose the next stage to undertake, though there may be some plot exposition before boss battles which can also give insights into the characters and may be useful for newcomers to the series. Let’s be clear – this isn’t Lord of the Rings, but it does all serve to give some sense of purpose and anticipation to what would otherwise be a stream of similar stages.
The length of Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX may be a sticking point for some, though in fairness this is reflected in the price and its placing as a spin-off until the arrival of Azure Striker Gunvolt 3. There are essentially ten main stages accompanied by two boss rush stages, although players will find themselves returning to the earliest stages once they have mastered the game’s mechanics and unlocked more abilities. Each stage is completable in under 10 minutes, and you don’t need to be Einstein to figure out that you can speed through the game in a single sitting.
The game derives its longevity through the mastery of its stages. Not only are there emblems to collect throughout, but players will need to replay stages to acquire enough credits to purchase more upgrades, which are priced so that they cannot all be obtained in one playthrough. The final boss is suitably tricky, so many players will likely find themselves revisiting previous stages at some point.
What we have here is a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding action platformer which lives up to the quality as expected from the studio. Its minor quibbles do little to tarnish what is a charming game and all-round rewarding experience. The ride does end a little too quickly and veterans of the genre may desire a bit more of a challenge, but on the whole this is a great little game which confirms the studio as being perhaps the best in their field.