As we’ve already seen, one of Inti Creates’ biggest strengths as a developer is its ability to understand what made the games of the past great while simultaneously updating them with modern conveniences and conventions.
Azure Striker Gunvolt, a relatively new series from the company but one which has already gone on to be popular and well-received, is a great example of this philosophy at work. Adopting a pleasingly chunky but detailed late 16-bit pixel art look and combining it with delicious 2D art, excellent storytelling and a well-crafted world, the game provides a wonderful experience, whether you enjoy it on its original host platform of the 3DS, its port to PC or its most recent incarnation on Nintendo Switch as part of the Azure Striker Gunvolt Striker Pack alongside its sequel.
Let’s take a closer look at where this game from and what makes it tick… or rather buzz, perhaps.
Inti Creates, as we’ve previously discussed, shot to prominence with its contributions to Capcom’s popular Mega Man series in the form of Mega Man Zero, Mega Man ZX and, later, the authentically “modern retro” Mega Man 9 and 10. It will thus come as no surprise to hear that Azure Striker Gunvolt takes more than a few cues from the Mega Man series along the way — though it also manages to incorporate enough unique elements of its own to make it a distinctive experience in its own right.
The setting of Gunvolt presents an interesting take on the superhero genre. While the world as a whole has supposedly been united and given universal peace by the world-spanning corporation known as Sumeragi, there is a certain amount of unrest due to the existence of individuals known as “adepts”. These individuals have the power to manipulate an energy known as “septima” to have various effects and accomplish superhuman feats.
The story opens as Gunvolt, an adept with command over the power of electricity, is dispatched on a mission to assassinate another adept known as Lumen. The organisation Gunvolt works for believes that Lumen’s septimally-powered voice is being used by Sumeragi to subjugate and control the world’s population of adepts, so naturally she is a threat to a particular class of people that is already feared by many.
Of course, things aren’t quite that simple; “Lumen” turns out to be the septimal projection of a young girl named Joule who has been held captive by Sumeragi’s researchers. Gunvolt, being an inherently decent sort of chap, decides that he can’t bring himself to kill her, instead taking her with him and sheltering her at his apartment. From here, Gunvolt undertakes a series of missions to discover exactly what Sumeragi is up to, and why Joule and Lumen appear to be so important to the whole situation.
Gunvolt’s overall narrative is surprisingly strong and in-depth for a game of this type. While Gunvolt tends to fall into the rather taciturn hero trope, the characters he interacts with throughout the game contrast well with him, and there’s an enjoyable combination of comedy and pathos throughout the game, particularly when dealing with the main boss characters.
These seven foes each embody one of the different Seven Deadly Sins in various ways. One, for example, is extremely lazy, so he uses weapons and portals to try and defeat Gunvolt without having to move around too much. Another has a gluttonous hunger for a drug that enhances and amplifies his abilities, and many of his attacks involve trying to consume Gunvolt; another still has a split personality reflecting the concept of envy.
Although many of these bosses don’t get a lot of time on screen, their appearances primarily limited to the obligatory Villainous Monologue before the battle encounter begins and, in some cases — spoiler, I guess — a more challenging reprise of their battle later in the game, they’re all interesting, memorable characters with enjoyable back stories and ways of relating to Gunvolt. Gunvolt himself is pretty unflappable in most situations, though each of the seven boss characters raise interesting questions about living your life with these immense, terrifying powers and what it means to be “more than human”.
Despite having plenty of humour throughout, the game as a whole is pretty dark in tone. The finale in particular — both in its “normal” and “true” incarnations — is a real downer, though thankfully now you can chase it down with the sequel rather than simply having to accept what happened despite all of your best efforts. Rather than being disappointing, however, it feels entirely appropriate; the dark tone feels consistently implemented throughout. While Gunvolt is a cool hero for sure, there’s an unshakeable sense of inevitable tragedy running through the game right from the outset, and this gives the narrative as a whole an enjoyably “mature” sense to it rather than feeling like Saturday morning cartoon fluff, as this sort of thing can easily descend into.
So on the whole the narrative is pretty great. But how does it actually play?
The basic gameplay in Azure Striker Gunvolt involves proceeding through a level defeating enemies and ultimately smacking down that level’s boss. Gunvolt can run, jump and dash, and it’s possible to unlock the ability to double jump or air dash. Attacking is probably the most distinctive aspect of the game; while Gunvolt has a gun, it doesn’t do much damage by itself. Instead, it’s primarily used to “tag” enemies which can then be locked on to with his “Flashfield” — a seething ball of electricity that will make quick work of most tagged enemies as well as having secondary benefits such as powering electrical items or slowing Gunvolt’s descent while falling.
The boss fights are a particular highlight of the game. While the levels themselves require a certain amount of skill and understanding of the mechanics to pass through, the boss fights are a true test of your skills, with each one feeling markedly different from the last.
Unfolding across three distinct, learnable phases with minimal randomness, Azure Striker Gunvolt’s boss fights are about learning to recognise tells in the boss’ animations, when it is safe to unleash your attacks — and, perhaps most importantly, how to deal with each foe’s unique “ultimate” attack, which happens at least once as part of the final phase of your confrontation. Each of these initially appear devastating and unavoidable, but they all have a “trick” to them which can be learned and mastered over time. Finally getting the hang of each of these is immensely satisfying, and a core part of the overall game experience.
Much like Mega Man games, progression through Azure Striker Gunvolt is non-linear to a certain degree once you’ve beaten the prologue mission. Unlike Mega Man, however, you don’t absorb different abilities from boss characters and said bosses don’t have particular “weaknesses” as such. In other words, you’re free to tackle each of the game’s main stages in whatever order you see fit, without there really being a “best” order as such.
That’s not to say Gunvolt himself doesn’t evolve and change over time, mind you. He earns experience and levels up as he defeats enemies, with each new level increasing his maximum health and occasionally unlocking a powerful offensive or defensive ability. There’s also a rather in-depth crafting system that requires Gunvolt to collect materials from each of the stages — all of which can be replayed as many times as you wish — and use them to create various items that enhance his abilities in various ways.
The equipment system is probably the most interesting thing about Azure Striker Gunvolt’s overall progression, because it opens up a variety of different ways to play the game.
As you complete levels, you unlock different types of bullet for Gunvolt’s gun, which provide different ways to aim at and lock on to enemies. One allows you to “bend” your shots in different directions, for example, making it useful for hitting difficult to reach enemies or item boxes, while another shoots out a drone which fires all around, making it much easier to defeat foes surrounding you. The latter in particular is absolutely essential to master the use of in the late stages of the game.
On top of that, Gunvolt is able to equip two contact lenses, one ring and one pendant. The lenses have all manner of different effects that primarily relate to how his attacks work; some, for example, allow him to do a greater amount of damage but consume more of the energy required to maintain his Flashfield; others, meanwhile, might increase his maximum stock of energy or decrease the rate at which it is consumed.
Rings, meanwhile, tend to provide some sort of extra ability, including the aforementioned air dash and double jump (or “air hop”, as it’s called here). The best rings allow both of these manoeuvres to be repeated for as long as Gunvolt has energy remaining, but constructing them is no simple process!
Finally, Gunvolt’s pendant provides some sort of passive benefit such as reducing damage taken as well as, in many cases, enabling one of the game’s most distinctive mechanics. Known as “Prevasion”, this allows Gunvolt to avoid taking damage as long as he has energy remaining and isn’t already actively using it for something else such as his Flashfield. Prevasion is extremely powerful and present on most pendants, though interestingly it is disabled on many of the more powerful items, including the one you need to equip to see the game’s true ending. Learning to take advantage of it is key to surviving during an initial runthrough; learning to live without it is an essential part of mastering the game as a whole.
Azure Striker Gunvolt’s mechanics might initially seem complex, particularly to those used to more simplistic run-and-gun gameplay, but before long them become second nature. The fluidity of the game’s movement and the way Gunvolt’s abilities work give a real sense of power to you as the player, but not so much that you feel invincible. On the contrary, Gunvolt is actually rather vulnerable in some situations, so understanding when to run in guns and Flashfield blazing and when to hang back to assess the situation is a key part to getting through the game, particularly in its challenging later stages and post-game “Special Missions”.
One interesting aspect of Azure Striker Gunvolt’s gameplay that rewards skillful play is its “Kudos” system. Taking the form of a score bonus that builds up as you defeat enemies without getting hit (whether that hit causes you direct damage or simply triggers Prevasion), Kudos encourages you to improve how you play over time, with a rather enjoyable bonus being that Lumen will sing for you if you manage to rack up a thousand points or more, boosting your abilities in the process. (Lumen will also sing for you if you remembered to talk to her before a mission and subsequently suck at staying alive, but if this happens you’ll lose any further ability to rack up Kudos. Evidently “The Muse” only has a finite amount of respect to give.)
The original implementation of this mechanic in the 3DS version was rather unforgiving in an already challenging game, so for later ports such as the Switch version, the option was provided to use one of three different modes. The easiest of these does not lose your Kudos bonus when you get hit, though it is still consumed and added to your score if you hit a checkpoint or use an offensive skill. The middle setting loses all your Kudos if you take three hits. And the top setting loses all your Kudos if you get hit at all. The trade-off for all this is that the harder settings provide you with a much larger multiplier when you “bank” your accumulated Kudos to add to your score. Those seeking to attain the elusive S+ ranks on each level (or just grind for crafting materials more efficiently, since higher ranks shower you with much more loot at a level’s conclusion) will need to get the hang of avoiding harm as much as possible to play on these more difficult settings.
Azure Striker Gunvolt is challenging, make no mistake, but it remains surprisingly accessible throughout, even for those less familiar with Inti Creates’ particular brand of highly technical action platformer. The levelling up system provides you with the opportunity to “grind” if you want to make the later boss battles in particular noticeably easier to survive, while those who really rate their skills can prove themselves with items that deliberately limit Gunvolt’s statistics and abilities in exchange for other powerful benefits. There’s even a gun you unlock after completing all the game’s main challenges that effectively removes the Flashfield mechanic and turns the game into straight-up Mega Man; this provides a very interesting twist on levels you might be able to breeze through by that point, and it’s worth replaying at least a few areas just to see how much it changes the overall feel of things.
One final intriguing part of the Azure Striker Gunvolt story is the matter of its localisation. Originally outsourced to veteran localisation company 8-4, the initial Western release of the game as a downloadable title for 3DS drew a great deal of criticism for the amount of content it cut from the game — most notably the substantial amount of dialogue that unfolded during missions, as well as the original Japanese voices. I spoke to Matt Papa from Inti Creates about exactly what happened.
“This all happened before I joined the company,” he explained, “and there were of course reasons for it at the time, but when all was said and done, I wanted to give fans the content they deserved and wanted. Now, since the game was localised without having voices in it, that gave the localisation staff a lot more creative freedom to formulate the narrative, add lines where they need extra room and so on.”
One of the main criticisms of the original localisation was that this “creative freedom” took excessive liberties with the original script — a sequence involving unconventional pronouns such as “xir” was often brought up to highlight this — while fans simply wanted something that was true to the original Japanese. And making this happen was not simply a matter of putting the original voices back in, as it happened.
“When you add voices back into a script that was localised without having to match things up to voices, there’s going to be places where things don’t sync up,” Papa told me. “Nothing crazy about that at all, but it was not something we could leave as is. So, rather than disrespect the job the original localisers did, I decided to relocalise the game so that it would match up with the voices — and, of course, complete localisation work for the mid-stage dialogue that was never put into the original release.
“It was the first game I ever localised,” he added, “and since this was something I wanted to do, I had to find a way to complete this work on top of the day-to-day work I had, which meant a lot of late nights and working on the localisation in my free time. It was absolutely worthwhile, and I’d do it again if I had to. But hopefully I won’t have to, hehe.”
Papa’s decision to re-localise the game in this way is not something we see happening all that often in the business; indeed, prior to the days of Internet-connected consoles, it was all but impossible for developers, publishers and localisers to go back and “correct” mistakes on an official basis, though fans have often stepped in with homebrew or hacked versions of games.
Nowadays, however, there are times when Western publishers choose to re-localise as an act of good faith towards their Western audience. Notable examples in recent memory at the time of writing include the PC game Cherry Tree High Comedy Club replacing its heavily Americanised names (localised by the same team who transplanted Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney from Japan to America) with the option to use the original Japanese ones, and NIS America’s substantial effort to re-translate Ys VIII after many fans expressed their dissatisfaction with how the English version had turned out.
Papa’s new localisation of Azure Striker Gunvolt was initially seen in the PC release of the game via Steam, and was subsequently included in the Nintendo Switch version. The 3DS version was patched, too, so all three versions now have parity in terms of content — and, more importantly, the team learned from its initial mistakes and did not subsequently repeat them with Azure Striker Gunvolt 2.
“Everything is either done from scratch by us or overseen and edited by us,” added Papa. “So we are involved with every localisation that goes into our games. Gunvolt’s initial version didn’t affect this at all, it’s simply a matter of since September 2014, we now have internal staff who can work on localisation, so that’s what we do.”
It was perhaps a slightly bumpy road getting there, then, but the version of Azure Striker Gunvolt you can play at the time of writing now presents an experience that is true to its creators’ original intentions, both in terms of gameplay and narrative.
And that experience, it has to be said, is a great one. It’s a game filled with memorable characters, enjoyable mechanics and a surprisingly deep metagame if you care to explore it in depth.
And then when you’re done with all that there’s another one to enjoy, too. Can’t complain at that, really, can you?
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