Review by Rorschach

"Old school gaming gets a nextgen twist."

Gunvalkyrie

Originally slated for the Dreamcast, Gunvalkyrie (GV) made the development jump to the Xbox when Sega decided to exit the hardware market. While the death of the DC was a sad indictment of how caught up the gaming populace is with brand name (namely Sony), Smilebit’s jump to the Xbox has proven a masterstroke as GV is one of those games that not only shows off some of the most impressive graphics in a game yet but proves there is still some originality left in a market saturated by sequels and rehashes.

Gameplay: GV takes place in an alternate universe in which the sun never set on the British Empire, thanks in part to a mysterious power source that fell to earth after Haley’s Comet passed through the solar system early in the 19th century. This power source has allowed Britain and her allies to explore and colonise new far-flung worlds. One such place is Tir na Nog, but the colonists cannot be reached, they have suddenly gone silent. Kelly and Saburouta of the Gunvalkyrie unit (a specialist unit of enhanced human beings) are dispatched to find out what’s going on. They’re not going to like what they find…

GV can be best described as a mix of MDK 2’s difficulty, Space Harrier’s frenetic shooting action and Contra’s “one more go” replayability. You have a choice between playing with Kelly (higher maneuverability, wide spread weapons, low firepower) or Saburouta (high attack power, low maneuverability, more resilient) to tackle the truly massive landscapes of Tir na Nog. If you thought the landscapes of Halo were impressive, be prepared to suspend belief, as there’s a lot of ground to cover in GV and wave after wave of hostile insectoids who would like nothing better than to eat you. The manner in which you traverse the stage is thoroughly unique, in all my 16 years of playing games I haven’t encountered a control scheme as peculiar as the one implemented in GV. Instead of having a backpack that allows you to fly around the stage, you are given a finite boost meter that has enough juice in it to get you airbourne but little else. Once in the air, it’s up to you to combo by depressing the left analogue stick and pointing it in the direction you want to go. This provides a short burst forward but to keep from falling you must either hover (pulling back or pushing forward on the left stick relative to the direction you boosted) or boost in another direction. Done around enemies, continuous boosting will allow you to “combo up”, which increases your attack power and allows you to lock on to multiple targets. Do this 25 times and you’ll go Mobius, an invulnerable state that makes you death incarnate for a short period of time.

The right analogue stick controls where you aim your weapon and by depressing the stick in a certain direction allows you to quick turn in the desired direction. Sounds complicated? The first time you try it, it is. I almost gave up on GV because I had to unlearn a lot of conventional control techniques. However, once mastered, boosting and combos become second nature and it becomes hard to imagine any other way of combating the hoards of enemies that descend on you. If you ever played Space Harrier or even Smash TV, you can understand how intense the action can get in GV. In one section of the game I was almost overrun by aliens as they swarmed forward after catching me on the ground (not a place you want to be in GV). While the difficulty level is higher than most other games, it’s never cheap. Smilebit have created a game that challenges you to master it and keep refining your game playing technique. If a swarm of insectoid scum overruns you, it’s usually as a result of some mistake you’ve made and not some flaw in the game itself. Be prepared to sit down with GV, while it is not as immediately accessible as you may be used to, completing a stage in GV actually feels like an achievement rather than a chore. 8/10

Graphics: In many respects, GV serves as a technical demo for the Xbox, showing off some truly breath taking graphics and wonderful spot effects. The Valley stages tend to be more impressive than the indoor areas, but everything is so detailed and smooth you can’t help but drool. The characters are well animated and the weapons effects are quite detailed, each energy burst sends up an explosion and each bullet tears up a piece of dirt. The reflection on some of the surface hits home just how capable the Xbox is in recreating real world effects, more so because GV is, for all intents and purposes, a first generation game. GV is arguably the best looking game on the Xbox at this time (and on the market for that matter) and it bodes well for the 2nd and 3rd generation games to come. About the only soft spot is the occasional popup, enemies will magically appear in the middle distance before disappearing. But considering the size of some of the levels and the unprecedented view you have of them, the problem is forgivable. The bar has been raised again to new heights. 10/10

Sounds: The effects in GV are of a suitably high quality. The guns and the explosions sound impressive and the music complements the ingame action well. Kelly is well voiced when she deigns to speak and what little FMV there is, is well done. The booster effects in particular give you an idea of how much boost you have left and give the impression of straining under your characters weight. Well done. 9/10

Longevity: There are 14 levels in GV and the learning is steep after the first 3 levels are completed. GV holds your interest though as there are incentives to complete the stages at best speed and for killing all enemies. Power ups that can be bought that allow you to improve on your characters base statistics and an unlockable Ultimate mode ramps up the difficulty level to inhuman status. GV bears up well under repeat plays and presents new challenges long after the main game is finished. 8/10

Pros:
+ Quite possibly the best looking game to date (on any system).
+ Old school arcade action at it’s best. It’s hard and challenging.
+ New control system that rewards practice.
+ An original style of game for a change. There’s nothing else on the market quite like GV.

Cons:
- Controls are hard to come to grips with. May discourage some.
- This game is hard. Don’t expect a walk in the park.
- Difficult to master, may have some throwing their controllers across the room.
- GV is little more than an arcade shooter. Don’t expect an earth-shattering story.

Final Word: With JSRF already under its belt, Smilebit is proving to be a very versatile and a very valuable 3rd party developer for Microsoft. While the DC is nothing more than a memory for most, its legacy lives on through games like GV. If you’re looking for a challenge, GV is your game.

Overall: 9/10


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/27/02, Updated 06/30/02


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