UPDATE: While our review of Azure Striker Gunvolt is primarily written for the original 3DS version of the game, we have updated the review with an additional section to address impressions of the belated PC port of Azure Striker Gunvolt, and its tie-in game, Mighty Gunvolt.
A lot of people miss the Mega Man series. This feeling only got worse when Mega Man progenitor, Keiji Inafune left Capcom to found his own independent developer, Comcept, and took his contacts at recent Mega Man game developer, Inti Creates with him. Thus the chances of an all-new Mega Man game from Capcom have become more grim than ever.
Fortunately, Inafune and Comcept, along with Inti Creates, are keeping the spirit of the Blue Bomber alive in their own new projects! While you might think of high-profile Kickstarter success to come, Mighty No. 9 in this regard, there’s actually another spiritual successor to Mega Man that has just recently seen release; Azure Striker Gunvolt!
The play mechanics of Azure Striker Gunvolt more than suspiciously resemble Inti’s Mega Man Zero games in particular, with just enough tweaks to avoid drawing attention to the fact that the game is obviously meant to sate the hunger of starved Mega Man fans that haven’t gotten any new offerings from Capcom. The protagonist, Gunvolt is even clad in blue, just like Mega Man, and sports a long hairdo that feels more than reminiscent of fellow series protagonist, Zero. Inafune really wants players to know that the lifeblood of his original creation flows throughout Azure Striker Gunvolt, which feels like a continuation of the modern Mega Man action game formula, only disguised as a new IP.
Whether treated as a Mega Man successor or taken on its own merits though, Azure Striker Gunvolt is a fast-paced and action-packed 3DS eShop offering that easily serves as one of the most thrilling digital download games available for Nintendo’s current handheld! It’s got a few issues with balance and brevity, but it still succeeds as a reminder of why Japanese action games maintain their own unique, challenging appeal, even with the industry supposedly moving away from them in the triple-A circuit.
Azure Striker Gunvolt looks colourful, but it likely won’t turn any heads in terms of its visual design. Inafune’s Mega Man Zero-esque style permeates the game’s environments, characters and enemy designs, though this also means that Azure Striker Gunvolt barely graduates past Game Boy Advance-level visuals. It looks about identical to the more recent Mega Man ZX games on the last-gen DS, but obviously, that’s well beneath what the 3DS/2DS is capable of.
Still, the modest visuals mean that the game is never taxed in terms of its fast-paced animations and framerate, even when the 3D Slider is cranked to maximum. Only the final boss battles occasionally slow down the action, and even then, it’s never for long. Azure Striker Gunvolt consistently moves along at a brisk clip, making its intense combat a real delight to behold for players.
While there is a 3D effect in the game, there isn’t too much done with it. Cranking the 3D Slider makes backgrounds appear to stretch a bit, but that’s all you’ll notice. Only in one stage is there an enemy that appears to shoot slime that appears to blot the screen and accentuate the 3D effects, but it really feels like an afterthought at that point. If you opt to switch off the 3D Slider, or are playing on a 2DS, you really won’t miss anything with the lack of 3D in those cases.
There’s a certain style that fans of Japanese action games like the Mega Man titles have come to expect, but even for a 3DS eShop game, it’s a bit surprising that Japan still doesn’t seem to have come up with a way to graduate the visuals of these kinds of games past 2003. Sure, it’s not fixing what isn’t broken, but surely the 3DS/2DS can afford a little more visual ambition than this.
The Mega Man games are highly beloved for their outstanding soundtracks, and while Azure Striker Gunvolt doesn’t quite reach that pedigree, it still contains plenty of great music. The speedy, tense and catchy tunes make the game especially appealing to play with a pair of headphones plugged in, and while it falls a bit beneath the standard, there’s an undeniable Mega Man vibe in the music. If you’re unfamiliar with those soundtracks, it’s essentially MIDI earworms with a blood-pumping edge that really get you in the mood to shoot things.
Just as the music holds true to traditional MIDI synth in Japanese action games, the sound effects have the same anime-style punch to them. The surging of Gunvolt’s electricity feels exaggerated and powerful, and the nice burst of enemy explosions is just as satisfying. Sure, a lot of this still sounds like the kind of sound effects that wouldn’t tax the Game Boy Advance speakers, but there’s something primally enjoyable about this style of MIDI audio for longtime gamers in particular.
While the original Japanese build of Azure Striker Gunvolt featured full voice acting, the voice acting has been removed in the English localization, which just features dialogue conveyed through silent text boxes. This is a bit disappointing, though some voice clips still play every so often, namely when bosses announce their special attacks, and pivotal cutscenes occur. The voice clips are just taken from the Japanese voices, though this shouldn’t bother enthusiasts of Japanese gaming too much.
The audio feels pretty retro as far as handheld games go, but it also captures the best elements of retro Japanese MIDI audio. If you’ve ever had an appreciation for that sort of sound work, then Azure Striker Gunvolt will continue to be music to your ears!
Azure Striker Gunvolt unfolds in a familiar fashion. The game is an action-based 2D platformer with shooting elements, whereupon players must simply proceed through each stage, dashing and zapping their way through enemies and obstacles. At the end, they’ll face a boss, with players deciding the order of which of the six core bosses that they pursue, barring the intro stage and set of final stages.
Sound familiar? Yep, it’s pretty blatant Mega Man structuring.
At the very least though, Azure Striker Gunvolt contains some interesting new ideas to help separate it just a bit from its inspiration. Gunvolt may still fire bullets from his gun, but the bullets aren’t primarily meant for attacking in this case. Instead, you use them to ‘tag’ enemies, which you then zap using Gunvolt’s innate electrokinetic abilities. As you play through the game, you’ll get different guns as you defeat certain bosses (though the guns are simply dictated by how many bosses you’ve defeated, regardless of the order), which affects Gunvolt’s ability to tag and shoot in certain patterns, but most enemies must be dispatched with Gunvolt’s electric powers.
When you hold the A Button or R Button, Gunvolt will radiate a ‘Flash Field’ of electricity, which can mildly damage enemies caught in it, but will send electricity surging into enemies you’ve tagged, killing them quickly. Be aware however that when Gunvolt is using the Flash Field, his ‘Prevasion’ ability is disabled, whereupon he will avoid damage as long as he has spare Voltage. The Voltage is dictated by a percentage in the top left of the screen, and if the Voltage ever hits 0%, Gunvolt will be unable to use Flash Field or Prevasion, forcing the player to simply wait and try to avoid damage while Gunvolt naturally recharges.
It sounds quite different on paper, but once you get a handle on the mechanics, Azure Striker Gunvolt truly feels like a fresh, unique way to play Japanese action games. Dashing and leaping around as you tag and zap enemies feels incredibly satisfying to do, and players will certainly feel like a powerful badass as they take Gunvolt through each and every stage, without proceedings becoming too easy.
The mechanics lend themselves especially well to Azure Striker Gunvolt’s boss fights as well, which are pretty well universally superb. A couple of the bosses rely on cheap tactics, some of which kill you instantly, but thankfully, most of the battles are very well-designed, being speedy and deadly foes that challenge players to master both their offensive and defensive abilities. Unlike the Mega Man games, you can’t fight bosses in a certain order to get weapons and have advantages against subsequent foes, though this makes the boss encounters of Azure Striker Gunvolt all stand on equal footing, emphasizing skill and practice over simply showing up with the right arsenal in hand.
Even if you don’t steal boss weapons in this case however, completing stages will allow you to choose from a certain amount of mystery boxes, depending on which overall rank you scored. This potentially allows you to earn materials, which can be paid, along with VIG, the game’s currency, to a Synth Shop, allowing you to forge new equipment that can be equipped to Gunvolt to give him new abilities. This, paired with some abilities you unlock as you level up from destroying enemies, gives you some leeway over what kind of play style you want to emphasize when taking Gunvolt into battle.
With that said though, this is the first place where you’ll notice Azure Striker Gunvolt’s chief flaw; Balance issues. To start, you’ll literally never be wanting for VIG, as the game gives you way too much of it, yet the kinds of materials you can get your hands on are frustratingly arbitrary. Not only that, but if you choose to, you can ignore the crafting system entirely, as its new equipment is almost never necessary to proceed through the entire game. That’s not good, as it kills a lot of potential replayability in the game’s stages.
Even beyond the crafting, the way that Gunvolt’s Prevasion and Flash Field is set up potentially allows you to dash through stages and ignore most enemies. Your rank may suffer to a point, but as long as you keep your Kudos up (which are awarded for killing enemies in succession without being hit yourself), only the boss actually requires you to fight them. Gunvolt’s Prevasion constantly protects him from damage too, particularly since you can instantly recharge your Voltage by double-tapping Down on the Control Pad, which makes Gunvolt feel rather overpowered in many battles. On the flip side, when you take Prevasion away, Gunvolt feels too vulnerable, with many enemies’ attacks being nearly impossible to avoid, as if they’re counting on the Prevasion to prevent players from getting frustrated.
It’s easy to abuse Prevasion with several of the Challenges too, which players can optionally activate up to three of to potentially score bonus materials. These task players with beating stages under certain times, or beating stages with certain ranks, among other things. Since you can easily zip through most stages undeterred as long as you mind your Voltage though, many of the Challenges simply amount to how quickly you can dispatch a boss, not how quickly you can actually beat a stage. Given that Gunvolt possesses various super attacks that you can trigger by tapping them on the Touch Screen as well, dispatching bosses may not necessarily take you long either, once you start figuring out their attack patterns.
The game’s level design and boss fights are still good, but it’s a shame that Azure Striker Gunvolt is a bit wanting for polish. As fun as its combat is and as cool as its premise and villains are, the game really could have used a bit more refinement. It’s a shame, because this game currently stands as one of the most exciting games on offer in the 3DS eShop.
Azure Striker Gunvolt takes place in a futuristic world dominated by the Sumeragi Corporation. Sumeragi has captured a powerful computer program called The Muse, which is said to be able to influence the world to follow Sumeragi’s perfect world order. Holding The Muse above the world, Sumeragi promises to use the program to quell the menace of Adepts, people who naturally develop psychic-based superpowers. Standing in resistance to Sumeragi is Quill, a resistance group that believes in fighting for the freedom of humankind, and among Quill’s members is Gunvolt, an Adept with dominion over electricity.
When Quill enacts an operation to destroy The Muse and cripple Sumeragi, Gunvolt carries out the mission, and is shocked to see that the program is not a program at all, but the psychic manifestation of a young, innocent girl named Joule. Rescuing Joule and defecting from Quill, Gunvolt becomes a freelancer, but nonetheless finds himself in battle against the forces of Sumeragi, who command their own deadly Adepts.
Azure Striker Gunvolt hits the familiar plot beats of a Mega Man-style action game, and it never becomes complicated. Still, the premise is great, and the world feels rich, being ripe for expanding upon in potential follow-ups.
THE PC VERSION
Almost exactly a year after Azure Striker Gunvolt initially launched on the 3DS eShop, a PC port has now been released on Steam. There have been a handful of new additions added to the PC port, including a Russian language option, a Speed Run mode, and some all-new screen template options that are meant to mimic the two-screen presentation from the original 3DS release. You also get the benefit of Steam Trading Cards, Steam Achievements and full gamepad support in the PC build, which also has the benefit of having very minimal system requirements.
Despite those PC-specific bonuses however, it’s painfully apparent that Azure Striker Gunvolt was originally built around the 3DS hardware. Even the PC port is restricted to 30fps performance, and the graphics appear even more disappointing on PC, where they’re clearly blown up, and especially primitive-looking on a larger display. Fortunately, many of the PC-specific issues, including control glitches, stability issues and other such technical difficulties, have since been patched out, though the PC version is still inclined to crash at times, and still has a couple of small bugs that you won’t find on 3DS. Fortunately, Mighty Gunvolt, which is again being awarded free to purchasers of Azure Striker Gunvolt on Steam for a limited time, seems to run just fine, though the game is still shallow and unremarkable by itself, and again, it definitely doesn’t benefit from having its primitive-looking graphics blown up on a larger display.
Fortunately, the game remains fast-paced and challenging on PC, and you won’t really notice the 30fps cap, given the snappy gameplay. With that said however, it’s almost unfeasible to play through Azure Striker Gunvolt on a keyboard, with the game’s quick, fluid pace really forcing it to be played with a gamepad. An Xbox One controller will be the best option for many players, since its more precise D-Pad definitely allows for the most reliable movement, something that is often crucial in Azure Striker Gunvolt.
The 3DS version of Azure Striker Gunvolt is still the best way to play the game, but if you don’t have the option of playing on 3DS, the PC version is an acceptable port, especially with the low system requirements. It’s better optimized for play on Steam with its handful of patches now, but the game’s handheld roots are painfully apparent on PC, so bear that in mind.
Azure Striker Gunvolt is a great way to scratch your Mega Man itch while you await Mighty No. 9’s release next year. Truth be told, we already saw a superior Mega Man-inspired game this year in Yacht Club Games’ Kickstarter success, Shovel Knight, a game that’s also readily available on the 3DS eShop (and the Wii U eShop for that matter) for around the same price. Still, if you’ve already played through that, Azure Striker Gunvolt makes for a solid and more authentic follow-up course.
If you’re up to the challenge, you could feasibly blow through the entirety of Azure Striker Gunvolt, two endings and all, in just a few hours, but even so, chasing higher ranks and fully outfitting Gunvolt merits some replayability for avid fans of these kinds of games. Again, Shovel Knight presents higher replay value, particularly in its 3DS build, but Azure Striker Gunvolt compensates with its authentic Japanese flavouring and fast-paced challenge factor. It’s also slightly cheaper at merely $14.99, for what that’s worth.
It’s not quite on the level of a true Mega Man offering, but the game’s heart is in the right place, and it comes with no shortage of franchise potential, thanks to how entertaining and exciting Azure Striker Gunvolt is to play. Here’s hoping that Gunvolt takes up arms again some time soon.
Azure Striker Gunvolt is a fun and action-packed Mega Man successor for the 3DS eShop and Steam, even if its design occasionally has some rough edges.