Review by bluberry

"holyvision still hasn't beaten my Diahelm score."

When you enter the ominous, surreal Naglfar's Pit, you'll momentarily hate GunValkyrie. As accommodating as the game's early design is toward advanced players, it allows you to get away with an awfully noticeable lack of skill. Outside of a few high jumps, the game's most unique aspects are by and large ignorable as you're starting out, and the exciting aerial combat can be brushed aside in favor of hugging the ground and unceremoniously picking off enemies from a distance. Hell, you might even have fun doing it - conveniently placed columns, slopes, and ledges will give you a real sense of accomplishment despite the fact that you suck, and getting surrounded by a horde of foes and subsequently warding them off can be pretty amusing.

But Naglfar's Pit will always be looming in the distance.

A five story tall crater featuring a floor smothered in brownish acid, its gloomy atmosphere and solemn, haunting vocal music are topped only by the perilous landscape itself. The sole methods of navigation are sporadically placed columns and floating platforms that laggardly spiral upwards around the center of the pit. These things are damn far apart, and it goes without saying that a variety of unfriendly forces will try to keep you from the summit. Crumbling ledges, flying bombardier insects, exploding spiders; even miniature tornadoes! And as if that wasn't enough, a particularly nasty miniboss is waiting for you at the top. Unless you've somehow kept your health intact, expect to die a less than glamorous death at the hands of this fiendish automaton's wide bullet spreads and unpredictable charges.

Daunting, no? You're more than given the ability to emerge victorious, though, thanks to the totally badass jetpack, and once you're coerced into acknowledging its existence, it becomes an essential part of your balanced GunValkyrie breakfast. Your days of picking enemy critters off from long distance will soon be replaced by abundant chances to fly around at a whim and rain missiles (amongst other forms of death) down from above. Intuitively, clicking the left stick in allows you to soar forth in the chosen direction, while the left trigger can be used to propel yourself upwards. The right stick executes turns and aiming. Yes, those wily bastards found a use for that clicky-stick crap, and a pretty damn slick one while they were at it.

Fortunately, you'll have a myriad of environments in which you can screw around with the jetpack. While a couple paint jobs wear thin on repeat visits, each of the four locales in the main quest's ten stages is spot-on in terms of both atmosphere and scenario. Whether you're exploring the lifeless hallways and intricate amphitheaters of the Civilian Base, negotiating the sporadic wind gusts and claustrophobic caverns of the Valley, or descending the organic ramps and dying tree roots of the cylindrical Yggdrasil, the diversity of GunValkyrie's world is a tremendous boon. Smilebit's artistic staff was at the top of its game with character designs, too. Both the sleek, sexy Kelly and the stiff, nearly robotic samurai Saborouta look spectacular, and the menacing creatures serve as eye candy almost moreso than cannon fodder.

Basic design is also pretty consistent in its excellence, as even the first level hits the nail right on the head. Placing you at the bottom of the barren Valley while a gorgeous collage of pastels looms in the sky above, the steep ledges and rock pathways give you plenty of chances to exercise your volitant prowess. Plus, after you reach the oasis at the end and claim the item you're there for, you get to go through the whole thing backwards while more and more enemies pile in. If you know what you're doing, the descending trek can be managed without touching the ground at all, as your character of choice can soar above the ranks of your opposition while gradually lowering with the landscape thanks to the fuel gauge. With just about every stage being a brilliantly crafted blast of awesome, GunValkyrie almost hits a perfect bullseye.

Almost.

Sadly, it simply falls flat on its face in one of the later stages. Your third outing in the Civilian Base is almost entirely a vertical shaft that you have to descend by free-fall while picking off as many enemies as possible. Theoretically: brilliant. Thanks to the lackadaisical design, though, the whole thing ends up being either a ridiculous scavenger hunt for new victims or an effortless four-minute ride depending on whether you play for score; no matter which way you cut the mustard, Civ 3 sucks. The shamefully poor map system, which tries to paint a 3D environment onto a 2D canvas, doesn't help. Design problems aren't just quarantined to this one stage, either. The whole game can become a bit stale at times thanks to the ubiquitousness of ground-based foes that simply can't stand up to your aerial onslaught. As much fun as mutated scorpions and enormous beetles are, their impact is lessened when all they can do is pray.

Any dullness brought on by the laid back enemies, though, is more than made up for by the quintet of frenzied boss battles. Early on, for instance, you'll encounter Diahelm, who lords over a golden octagonal arena. A purple, reflective jellyfish that employs an arsenal of electric attacks, this mammoth beast is no pushover. Initially, he maniacally attempts to slam himself onto you from above, vulnerable only at the bottom in those precious moments before his attacks. As you chip away at his well-being, though, he drops the whole slamming act and simply tries to swirl around and try to catch you in his path; your only course of action is to propel yourself high into the air and aim your gunfire straight at his core. The rest of the gang is just as intense, whether you're dueling the ice monster Nidhogg, warding off a pack of alien worms known as Mimir, or circling the disco-ball of death dubbed Svart.

This is by no means a perfect game. One of the stages blows, the whole thing is a bit too short, and some of the opposition could stand to actually oppose you a bit more. However, that hardly undermines the fact that the majority of the game is a blast. Almost all of the stages are admirably designed, and the bosses spice up the action perfectly. It's also technologically enthralling; the visual atmosphere is excellent, and while the wheezing missiles, clanking boots, and simple, catchy tunes are far from legendary, they're quite agreeable. More than anything, though, it's worth playing for the intuitive and innovative jetpack, which you'll grow to adore after you notice it's there. Once you conquer Naglfar's Pit, you'll love GunValkyrie.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/20/04


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