Reviews from

in the past

It’s always great to play a game that takes a simple approach to game play, nails it, and runs with it to the finish line. GunGrave is one of the best examples of this.
If you’re old enough to remember just how huge Max Payne was in the 6th generation (For those who don’t, Final Fantasy and Star Wars copied that formula), you’ll remember most of the games that aped its mechanics not doing to much to mess with such a winning system. GunGrave does boldly subvert this, in the most 180 degree way possible. Instead of being focused on nonstop fluid movement, GunGrave wants you to stand still.
With a combat system designed around gaining a high hit count, the game optimizes the narrow hallways you’ll be trudging through expecting you to stand still, hit square, and be aware of your surroundings, shooting absolutely everything.
Your attack animations are much faster when standing still, with Grave doing stylish gun kata desperado esque aiming, and you’ll quickly rack up a high hit count, as enemies often are just far away enough shooting at you that you can quickly swerve in place and shoot them to keep your combo going. Enemies also have just enough but not too much health to add a fair amount to your hit count without the game feeling overly generous, and when you do need to move forward to reach more targets, you can risk moving slowly, with less accuracy, or dodge rolling forward, which maintains your standing still shooting speed, but leaves you wide open to eating enemy fire. The flow of combat is instantly learnable and it then falls on the player to memorize the level design.
And what great level design at that, while I did criticize the empty hallway levels in my Ghost Rider review, the emphasis was on “empty”. In GunGrave, each combat segment has strategically placed enemies and objects where a skilled player can get the most out of each layout. And there is a great risk versus reward dilemma for every mob, do you shoot up objects immediately to get a high initial beat count? Or do you take the safe route and rush to a point to take care of enemies first, then shoot and move towards the remaining objects. There’s a lot of fun in either the thrill of clearing out everything, or strategically planting yourself and taking out every object and mook line by line. This loop never wears out its welcome thanks to the games short length, which is a great show of restraint.

There are some minor issues with certain sections, due to how big Grave is, when turning he can often obscure your view of what you need to shoot, and the camera occasionally glues its self to his back. This is most egregious during a train set piece where you need to shoot missiles and a helicopter outside from the windows, but it’s highly likely you’ll hit the bezels between the windows instead, my only advice is when you see that hit count on screen to plant your self there and hit square until you need to dodge, and unfortunately due to the missiles and helicopter constantly moving horizontally, you can’t just memorize a spot and circle back, you can only hope RNG is in your favor. This is only one of two low points of the game play thankfully, but you can only wish they just dropped this segment entirely.
In order to make this approach work, the health system is very similar to the Halo games, you have shield meter that will refill after no one is hitting you for a few seconds, and health meter that can only be restored with demolition shots (more on those later). You’ll clue in quickly as to which enemy to focus on to not have your shield drained by smg toting enemies melting it the quickest. This makes what could have devolved into senseless square whacking into strategic shooting galleries where you constantly shift focus to smg enemies that could melt your shield and zerg rushing big brutes and melee weapon wielders to keep a combo going. It’s incredibly rewarding to engage with such well designed, smart combat. With the game expecting you to notice these things with explicitly telling you as well, so it doesn’t feel condescending.
As I said in my Ghost Rider review, when an action game includes a screen nuke mechanic, it’s beyond imperative for it to be conveyed to the player why, and most importantly, when to use it, and then properly balancing it. While Ghost Rider was designed around you using the nuke as soon as you get it in order to get your feet in the water to maintain a good combo rhythm, in GunGrave it’s the opposite, and just as well designed.
You only have two demolition shots, with two upgraded versions you unlock via getting high ranks . The first shoots vertically and kills any enemies in front of you, and the second is a 360 spin that kills enemies surrounding you in close. The caveat to using either of these is that your combo count is reset to zero every time, and during boss fights, the damage they deal is minuscule compared to a high volume regular shot volley from your regular pistols, taking out only 10% of a bosses health bar. It’s great that the game treated these as bail outs for mistakes that you can’t fall back on, the only way to build up meter and stocks for demolition shots is get a high combo count, and you only build chunks of meter every 20 hits. So you will need to play well regardless of how invested you may be in getting the most out of the game mechanically. As you won’t have access to your bail outs if you aren’t that invested regardless.
You can also spend a demolition shot on refilling 70% of your health meter, which is a much better use of them. Playing well will cap your max number of demo shots at 9, which during boss fights is invaluable as you can heal often while getting your bearings. Much like the offensive shots, healing also resets your combo to zero, but if you’ve been playing well during the levels, and getting high hit counts on bosses before you heal, this won’t affect your end rank in a significant way. It’s always great to play an action game that knows when and why to use your nuclear option, and GunGrave is one of the best at it.
Boss fights in GunGrave are (mostly) thrilling and engaging. For the most part, you’ll have an empty flat plain to give you enough lanes to dodge bosses attacks. The first boss does an excellent job cluing you in for how they work. If a boss is coming at you from above with a ground slam, you just hold circle while holding the stick backwards to fast hop. Vertical charges just need you to dodge left or right, and projectiles need you to dodge left or right, then run by holding circle. Every bosses attack is very well telegraphed and they only have a handful of moves, so mastery of the fights will come quickly as long as you are observant. Boss AI knows when to react and counter as well. Once your shot volley starts melting their HP, they’ll signal to you that they are ready to attack, so you can’t camp and shoot under any circumstances. The game does a great job of making you feel powerful during these fights, as bosses will lose bits or armor and limbs as they lose more and more health, which is a great detail.
There is one bad boss fight unfortunately. At the start of chapter 6, you’ll engage in what you think would be a rival fight, but it feels anything but that. He’ll charge at you, then when his health hits 40%, he’ll run behind a pillar and start recovering his health. This wouldn’t be to much of an issue if the pillars weren’t made intentionally huge to slow you down and obscure your vision to make the fight artificially harder. What you need to do is let him recover, wear him down again, and then repeat as he will recover less and less health each time. But this is incredibly boring and blatant padding. It’s genuinely astounding how poorly designed this fight is. It’s the absolute low point of an otherwise stellar game.
GunGraves story is quite poor. While you are presented with an incredibly interesting and visually rich world to engage with, the game makes no effort to make any of its character or its plot writing as interesting or rich. And it’s a shame, cause you have all the makings of a classic battle shounen story here. An elite organization you fight through a gauntlet one by one, a planet where classes are separated by wealth, (with the lower classes living in the lower levels, and the elite classes living skyward) and a great visual contrast between these classes with dirty industrial lower levels, and cyberpunk and angelic far future tech for the higher levels. It’s an utter waste.
Grave himself doesn’t express or assert himself in an interesting way, which is incredibly important for silent protagonists. And Mika and DR T are simply just there for the ride. The reach of the Syndicates influence is never really conveyed. We have no idea if they control the planet or just a few businesses, and Harry is a very one note antagonist, he betrays Grave and that’s it. You track him down and kill him, and then the game just ends. If the game actually had a few more cut scenes to flesh out every one, the game would be a masterclass, rather than just outstanding.
Visually GunGrave is outstanding. With character designs from the author of Trigun, you’ll get some really cool looking elements like bulky rectangular weapons, incredibly busy and loud patterned trench coats, and heavy uses of red and gun metal gray through out. This is paired with beautiful, fluid animations that take clear influence from Desperado and John woo films, with gun kata-like shooting and environmental destruction everywhere.
Mech designs also feature a prominent Japanese manga artist. Kousuke Fujishima lends his skill for the vehicle designs here, and they are as good as you’d expect. With bulky and bubbly juttings and rounded, steam punkish looks. As well as heavy uses of lenses and windows.
All of this is presented in a gorgeous cel shaded look that makes everything pop. From graves dusty brown trench coat giving off a smooth sheen that draws your attention, to huge bosses oozing detail with exposed sinew and veins that pulsate and tear. Lighting is also outstanding, with dingy lower levels being dim and dirty, and the aristocratic upper levels being bright white and angelic.
UI has a ton of personality, looking like you’re going through a well used weapons cache, with metal plates and skulls everywhere. The skull in your health meter will growl when you gain meter, which is a really cool detail, and while menu navigation is stick only, you won’t be constantly menuing, so this annoyance isn’t to much of an issue.
While the story isn’t great, cut scene direction will make you wish it was. Models move with an intentional stiffness which contributes very well to the gritty, dreary atmosphere the plot seems to want to convey, and one of the coolest choices artistically is to give only very important characters mouth animations, which is a clever way of hiding the games AA budget.
Optimization is never an issue either, no matter if you are being swarmed by a horde of mooks, or fighting one of the gigantic well detailed bosses, the game maintains a locked rock solid 60fps.
The games OST is composed by the same guy who did the music for the Trigun Anime, though thankfully unlike other anime/television/film composers who try their hand at video games and trip over themselves adapting to a medium that requires a different approach (See Hiroyuki Sawano’s terrible Xenoblade X score, or BloodBorne’s cluster fuck of trash) that isn’t the case here. You’ll get a Trumpet heavy ost that wonderfully compliments the games high octane fast paced gameplay. Stand out tracks include Ear fudge, with its trumpet heavy tempo contrasting wonderfully with the ambient backing track, China moon’s slow gingerly saxophones and steady percussion section, and Tough Cookie’s serene pianos and fast paced drums blending with the bombastic trumpets.
The most memorable track in the game that will stick with you though is “Here comes the rain”, that plays during the stage select screen, a calming ballad that helps you decompress after the intense action you just experienced.
It’s one of the most enjoyable and memorable OSTs I experienced in a shooter, that I will definitely keep listening too outside of the game.
GunGrave is a fantastic game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. You have a great combat system that requires strategic thinking and memorization, great visuals, and a outstanding ost. While it is kneecapped by a barely there, severely under cooked story, the incredible combat and level design makes this a must play.