What makes a good sequel? It’s a question that there isn’t really a conclusive answer for, because there are so many different ways you can approach it.
In the world of video games, we’ve had titles that completely reinvent themselves from their previous installments, games that simply offer more of the same, and series that evolve, change and improve over time.
The sequel to Azure Striker Gunvolt takes a combination of approaches, building on the good work of the original and expanding it considerably. And, like its predecessor, it’s a cracking good time, particularly for those who grew up in the 16-bit era.
Azure Striker Gunvolt 2 follows on directly from the events of the first game’s True ending, so for the benefit of those who are yet to see that I shall refrain from significant spoilers in that regard. Suffice to say that Gunvolt is back, and finds himself facing off against a new troupe of Septimal adepts who are attempting to use their powers to assert their dominance over humanity and build a new “Eden” for themselves.
Perhaps the most significant new addition to Azure Striker Gunvolt 2 from both a narrative and a mechanical perspective is the fact that Gunvolt isn’t the only one chasing down the superpowered zealots of the Eden project; this time around a character called Copen, who put in a brief couple of appearances in the original as a staunchly anti-adept antagonist, has an important role in the narrative — and is also a playable character.
Each time you load a save file, you have the opportunity to choose whether you play as Gunvolt or Copen, and each has their own full set of levels to play through, story to follow and ending to achieve. Attaining the True ending to the game requires you to “beat” it with both characters, then repeat the last stage with one or both of them.
Gunvolt’s story revolves around Lumen being stripped of many of her powers, turning her into a child-like version of herself in the process. The original Azure Striker Gunvolt’s story made it abundantly clear that while Lumen herself has no intention of using her considerable powers to nefarious ends, her powers falling into the hands of those somewhat deficient in the scruples department would be Bad News for everyone involved. As such, Gunvolt sets out, with gimped Lumen in tow, to recover the “mirror shards” that contain her essence and prevent something very bad indeed from happening.
Copen’s narrative, meanwhile, explores this embittered young man in much more detail than we had a chance to see in the first game. We discover that he has a sister named Mytyl who is no longer able to speak, and is apparently bed-ridden. We also learn that he has a robotic drone companion named Lola who has something of a personal connection with Mytyl, too; she learned to communicate through conversing with the girl. That connection runs deeper, too, it seems; early in the narrative, Lola mysteriously gains the abilities of The Muse, seemingly triggered by Mytyl somehow, and is able to take on humanoid form to support Copen.
Both narrative paths involve their respective heroes battling their way through a series of stages and, between them, taking on “The Seven”, a group of adepts who have pledged allegiance to Eden and the main villain of the piece. Each route then concludes with an assault on Eden’s stronghold, appropriately enough known as “The Garden”, and a climactic final showdown. (Then a final final showdown if you’re on the True route.)
Along the way, we get a bit of time to explore both characters, primarily through their interactions with their main “partners” as they progress through their missions. In both cases, the “protagonist” and “support” characters complement one another perfectly; Gunvolt’s dry humour — often mistaken for him being overly serious — is offset nicely by Lumen’s sarcasm and light-hearted ribbing of him, while the fact Copen really does take everything much too seriously is highlighted perfectly by Lola’s energetic enthusiasm and girlishness. The latter also presents a nice twist in that in many ways, Lola behaves in a much more “human” way than her creator does.
The Seven are a colourful, interesting bunch, too, and are certainly highly memorable both in terms of personality and the ways they battle Gunvolt and Copen. Desna fights using her Septimally-powered hair as a weapon, for example; Ghauri’s fight is hard to concentrate on not because it is especially challenging, but because he is rapping (badly) through most of it; Teseo’s constant use of Internet slang and distinctly “trollish” behaviour makes slapping him down immensely satisfying.
The game ties all their respective narrative threads together quite nicely given its short runtime, too; we come to understand that some of The Seven truly believe in Eden’s mission, others seek to test their strength and others have joined the cause out of loyalty to those important to them. Much as the villains of the original Azure Striker Gunvolt were interesting antagonists in their own right, here, too, the game takes care to provide opportunities for us to empathise with the “villains” rather than simply making them generically “evil”.
And, much like the previous game also, the overall tone of Azure Striker Gunvolt 2 is rather dark, making its moments of levity all the more important to enjoy. The True ending in particular is rather bittersweet for both Gunvolt and Copen alike; while the cynical might say this is leaving things open for another sequel down the road, it’s also entirely in keeping for the series for no-one to really have what can truly be called a completely “happy” ending.
Gameplay-wise, there’s a strong distinction between the two playable characters. Gunvolt handles much as he did in the previous game, firing weak bullets to tag enemies and subsequently finishing them off with his electrical Flashfield, while Copen’s gameplay initially appears more akin to a traditional Mega Man-style game, since he has a gun that actually does a decent amount of damage.
Spending a bit of time with Copen reveals that it’s not quite a simple platform shooter, however; there’s a strong emphasis on using his air-dash ability to lock on to enemies before destroying them, preferably chaining as many kills as possible together before touching the ground again. And like Gunvolt has his energy to manage, Copen powers many of his abilities through “Bullits” that you’ll have to remember to reload every so often.
While Gunvolt unlocks new skills as he levels up as in the previous game, Copen has the Mega Man-esque ability to use Lola to absorb abilities from the bosses he has defeated, which can subsequently be used as “EX weapons”. These are all pleasingly varied in the way they work, ranging from melee attacks that can also be used to assist with mobility to devastating ranged attacks that can also lock on alongside Copen’s gun.
Copen’s progression is also a little different to Gunvolt’s. While the latter is still able to craft and equip contact lenses, rings and pendants in the same way as the previous game, Copen instead crafts new components for his jacket. Each component takes up a certain amount of “memory”, but beyond that you can combine them as you see fit — and the memory capacity expands as Copen levels up. In this way, Copen has a bit more flexibility and potential for different loadouts than his rival — though much as in the previous title, you probably won’t be crafting much at all until the later stages of the game or even the post-game challenges.
Azure Striker Gunvolt 2 is, on the whole, significantly easier than its predecessor. Most players won’t run into a difficulty wall at any point in the main story, unlike the original game, which had a sharp spike in difficulty in the last couple of levels.
Like the previous game, Azure Striker Gunvolt 2 also allows you to rack up the “Kudos” score bonus through gameplay, and in fact is the original source of what is now known as the “Gutless” mode, whereby you don’t lose your accumulated Kudos if you take damage. This mode was subsequently backported into the original game, though even then attaining higher ranks required fast clears as well as stylish play. Here, it’s extremely easy to attain the second-to-top S-rank in most levels without really making much of an effort at all, though the elusive S+ will still take a bit of practice.
All that said, this is a game made to be replayed. Both Gunvolt and Copen have a large list of “Challenges” to complete, which generally requires beating each level at least three times under various circumstances. There’s incentive to do so, too; clearing the game with both characters’ Challenge completion percentage at 80% or more unlocks an extra scene during the True ending.
And for those who want more of a challenge, beating the game unlocks Score Attack and Speedrun modes, which are fairly self-explanatory — though the latter in particular is noteworthy for putting a few twists on the formula by deliberately limiting your power to level 1 and increasing your attack strength as you rack up Kudos. The 3DS eShop version of the game also features additional downloadable challenges for these modes, and these are included in the retail Striker Pack release of the game for Switch and 3DS. So there’s certainly plenty here to keep you busy, even after you’ve cleared the main story and the challenging “Special Missions” that unlock afterwards.
So is it a good sequel? Yes, absolutely. Not only does it feature a natural progression of the series narrative that acknowledges the major happenings of the previous game, it allows its characters to continue to develop and grow as people. Its gameplay and presentation represent beautiful refinements on the already gorgeous original game, and the new gameplay elements brought in with Copen slot naturally into the existing structure of the game without feeling tacked on or out of place.
Best of all, as I’ve already teased, there’s very much the potential for us to see more Gunvolt and Copen at some point in the future — and it will be very interesting to see where the story goes if we do, since the events that transpire in the finale are… significant, to say the least.
Suffice to say, then, that the Azure Striker Gunvolt series as a whole is a very good time indeed, showing well beyond any doubt that Inti Creates has the skills and talent to make not only games that play extremely well — which I think we already knew by this point — but games that tell fascinating, compelling, emotionally engaging stories with wonderfully memorable characters, too.
Azure Striker Gunvolt has absolutely become a new favourite of mine — both from among Inti Creates’ portfolio, and in the broader medium in general. If you’ve slept on it until now like I had, be sure to make some time for it; you won’t be disappointed.
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