Review: Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX 2
You know what series is deceptively difficult to make work? Mega Man.
The thing about the Mega Man franchise and its derivations is that all of them are based upon a rather simple template. You go around and fight a few bosses, acquiring weapons from each of them, then you go through a fortress stage and you fight the final bosses and then that’s it. The fact of the rather set formula makes it feel very easy to just cut and paste a new set of bosses and levels in there and then have it all just work, because any given set is the same as any other, right?
But if you’ve played some of the lesser entries in the franchise (Mega Man 5 and Mega Man X6 spring to mind) you know how easy it is to subtly get that formula wrong. At the best of times, these games are intricate dances in which you feel at once consistently pressured but never overwhelmed, in control and yet always on your guard, graceful but forever on the defensive. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of subtle choices make all the difference.
With that in mind… it’s time to talk about Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX 2, which releases on January 27th for basically every platform under the sun (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, and PC via Steam). The Steam version was played for this review.
It’s a Robot World
So here’s the plot, and stop me if you’ve heard this one. Following the events of Luminous Avenger iX, the protagonist Copen is doing something rather vague when a portal opens up for some reason. What reason would that be? That’s not important right now. What’s important is that it drops him into a strange world wherein there’s a gigantic tower that might contain the key to getting back to his world with his helper Kohaku and his cute robot companion Lola, helped along by a new robot girl native to the new world named Null.
Surprising no one, the path to getting up the tower is going to involve fighting a whole lot of themed bosses, each of which has a weakness to another boss’ weapon and has a special attack of their own, themed around certain aesthetics like wind and fire and… oh, you already guessed that part. Yeah, it’s… all pretty much what you expect.
This is, of course, fine. There’s absolutely nothing saying that a given game absolutely needs to have a crazy original plot or even, like… not a basic excuse plot, and the genre of game that Luminous Avenger iX 2 is aiming for almost requires an excuse plot. It’s a plot in which slightly-gruff Copen has to hack his way through things while his companions act cute and likable around him, and that’s hit rather comfortably. It’s basic, but it does the job of giving you clear stakes and a reason for what you’re doing. That’s enough.
Hacking, Slashing, Shooting, Jumping
What this game is and was always going to basically live or die on was the strength of its gameplay. That’s kind of the core here. And I mentioned the Mega Man games at the start because, well… this game is not attempting to be Mega Man, but it is definitely part of the overall ecology of games inspired by them.
This is not a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. I adore the Mega Man franchise. But this is also where Luminous Avenger iX 2 kind of stumbles a fair bit, because… well, it’s just not a very good example of this general ecosystem, and that’s the case for a number of subtle reasons and one big reason.
First and foremost, all of the basics are here. Copen has a dash that pushes back anything he collides with, a three-hit melee attack, an air attack, and a special lock-on by smacking into something with an air dash. He can hover, kick off of walls (no sliding down walls, though, if you’re expecting that particular Mega Man X trick to work like I kept having to force my muscle memory out of), and angle his air dashes up to get a bit more height and distance. He also has a number of special weapons activated by a button press and cycled between with shoulder buttons. All standard pieces and all stuff that should be familiar to players of this genre. So far, so good.
The subtle problem here is… well, it’s hard to really articulate, but the core element of it is that Copen never feels like he moves with precision. It always felt like his controls were just a little loose, like I wasn’t given the tools to dodge incoming damage or to make it through things. Some of this – I am absolutely sure – comes down to my expectations of things controlling a little more like I’m familiar with. I absolutely own that and it’s on me, not a failure of the game. But it’s also a result of slightly loose-feeling controls, of odd movements, of just lots of subtle choices in momentum and design that make things never feel quite as responsive as they should.
But the other and more significant issue is that it doesn’t matter, because with one button press you can just heal yourself back to full life any time you want.
I’m honestly confused about how this is supposed to work. There’s no cooldown I could find, no real balancing mechanism beyond just… not hitting that button at any time it feels convenient. Sure, I think there’s got to be some drawback to your score and your ranking if you just tank hits constantly and heal from them, but I couldn’t immediately find it and the game isn’t forthcoming in telling you about it.
Right there, it kind of destroys a lot of the fun of the game. Heck, the first time I threw myself into a pit, I got immediately revived and given a huge boost without losing any progress, like the game was worried I would lose interest if I died. And… well… yeah, I kind of have to make that Mega Man comparison, because part of what I love about these games is that they will kill you. Repeatedly. The stages have a flow to them that make death possible through many means, including steady attrition of your health, and early on you have to learn the stage and how to avoid taking damage until you can dance through the whole thing without a risk in the world.
Letting you just heal to full at any time with no drawbacks removes that. And it kind of made the game feel… simplistic, at least to me.
Visually, this is a gorgeous game. The pixel art is sharp and detailed, with animations full of personality and a lovely spray of debris as you hack apart robots. I particularly liked how several of them had a specific “bisected” animation depending on how you dispatched your opponents, which added a welcome bit of visual flair to the proceedings. The enemy sprites are large and detailed, which seems slightly counterbalanced by the fact that you tend to only have a couple on screen at any given time.
I mentioned before that the story is kind of an excuse plot, and I stand by that, but one thing I can’t call any sort of an excuse is the general voice acting. It’s well-directed, energetic, and delivers the lines with a sense of personality across the board. The boss fights in particular have to get a fair bit of personality across in a pretty short span of time, so that’s to everyone’s credit.
Music, unfortunately, feels like another minor letdown. It’s just kind of there, and you can sort of feel what it was going for, but it never really grabbed me and I never found myself thinking very fondly of it. It was functional without being memorable.
Less than luminary
I don’t hate this game by any means. Heck, I’m reluctant to even call it a bad game. Whatever negative things you can say about Luminous Avenger iX 2, it’s clear that this was a labor of love and put together by people who cared about what they were doing and how the game would ultimately feel. It’s just that… along the way, some decisions were made that have pretty big knock-on effects for gameplay, and ultimate it feels like the game was so worried that players would stop if things got too hard that it made itself simpler.
But this has knock-on effects. After all, there’s no need to worry about giving you useful vectors of attack if your ability to dodge or not has little impact on your ability to clear the stage. You don’t need to worry about things being easily dodged if, again, you can just heal up whenever you need to. The list goes on, and it drags down the experience on a whole.
That doesn’t mean the game is truly dire or a disaster. Indeed, if you’re a fan of the franchise or you want something that feels a bit like a good old-school hack-and-slash platformer, you’ll get some enjoyment out of the game. But it ultimately feels like a very pretty and well-intentioned game that made itself too easy and ultimately lost out on its main appeal.
Review copy provided courtesy of Inti Creates for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Inti Creates.