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Review: Azure Striker Gunvolt 3

27 Jul 2022

Twenty years ago (holy crap has it really been that long?), the development studio Inti Creates got their start working on the Mega Man franchise with the much-beloved Mega Man Zero series. After producing a number of games in various different subseries in the franchise, Mega Man went into its famous content drought. But that didn’t slow Inti Creates down.

Taking what they learned and adding their own flair, in 2014, they introduced the world to Azure Striker Gunvolt. Now, in 2022, Gunvolt has become a long running franchise in its own right, dropping six games in less than a decade. Going from a small 3DS exclusive to a multi-platform franchise with a cult fanbase, its a series that doesn’t appear to be losing steam anytime soon.

After spending the last few years working on spinoffs, though, Inti Creates has decided that it was time to revisit the core of the series. Six years after the last mainline entry, though, how well does this return hold up?

Developed and published by Inti Creates, Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is set for release on July 28th, 2022, for Nintendo Switch, and August 2nd, 2022, for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. The Switch version was played for this review.

Work Like a Dog

Returning to the original series timeline, Gunvolt 3 kicks off after Gunvolt 2…but not directly. More like far, far into the future.

We follow the new protagonist Kirin, a “battle priestess” for an organization known as Shadow Yakumo (which she seems very proud of, as she shouts its name near constantly). Shadow Yakumo is tasked to watch over perennial series baddy baddies, the Sumeragi Group, and Gunvolt 3 starts off with Kirin storming Sumeragi’s HQ after receiving news of the company amassing powerful items known as “Binding Blades.”

It’s here that she finds a dragon-like creature being bound by said Blades. After defeating and bringing it under control, it turns out this dragon is everyone’s favorite Azure Striker, Gunvolt. And…he’s now a dog like creature. Finding himself alive again far in the future, Gunvolt teams up with Kirin to infiltrate Sumeragi Group and look into a new phenomenon affecting the world: Adepts randomly turning into “Primal Dragons,” the same thing Gunvolt had just been saved from.

Much like the rest of the series, the core story here is a mostly entertaining one loaded up with all the anime bullshit you’d ever want. Having another character take the spotlight from Gunvolt in a core series entry is a bold move, but Kirin turns out to be a greatly entertaining character. And, outside of her early shouting and boasting about Shadow Yakumo, she’s surprisingly grounded as well. Gunvolt’s arc is interesting, especially for players with background in the rest of the series. Him coming to terms with his past as well as suddenly being flung into the far future provides some nicely emotional moments.

The cast surrounding them, though, are another story. Anime cliché upon anime cliché, the side characters and antagonists feel to me to be the weakest they’ve been. So many of them rely on a singular personality trait, some of which are incredibly strange (why the hell is one of them obsessed with Christmas? I never got a real answer.).

Also, the early game is absolutely awash in exposition, to the point of frustration. I understand that it’s been six years since the last mainline entry, so Gunvolt 3 is attempting to remind the player of everything that has happened. But the intro sequence and storyline is just pain. If you’re already familiar with this world, honestly, just skip everything between the opening stage and the first stage select screen.

Fetterless and Free Flying

Whilst the character writing feels weak compared to the rest of the series that I’ve played, the core gameplay itself feels the best and tightest it has ever been.

Much like the rest of the Gunvolt series, the core gameplay here revolves around tagging enemies first before attacking them. In this case, Kirin is able to throw a limited set of talismans that stick to enemies. Her main weapon is a sword, and while she can use it to straight-up hit enemies, it’s not the most efficient way. The more talismans she sticks to an enemy, the more damage her sword will put out. With enough of them, any enemy can be taken out in one swing.

Also in Kirin’s arsenal is a teleporting attack that will instantly warp her to all marked enemies to attack. This attack quickly becomes the key to Gunvolt 3, at least when it comes to traversing stages. If multiple enemies are marked, Kirin will strike every single one of them at the press of a button. These warp strikes can also be chained together, assisted by Kirin gaining a single mid-air jump after performing a warp attack. If you’re good enough with your aim, you can continue chaining these over and over and almost never touch the ground.

This feels to be the intended way of play, as the stage design constantly encourages you to fly through with chain attacks. Sometimes a chain will naturally lead you to a shortcut through the stage, but even if it doesn’t, a keen eye and fast hands can have Kirin just flying over huge parts of any given stage. There were points where I felt like I was nearly speedrunning a stage, being so focused in on combos that I never slowed down.

What I appreciate is that this feeling comes down to building skill with Kirin’s arsenal. Which is why it’s frustrating that Gunvolt 3 essentially comes with a built-in game breaking cheat code: Gunvolt himself.

So long as you’ve built an energy bar to at least 100%, you can hold a trigger button to swap over to controlling Gunvolt. With the story establishing that he’s essentially become the most powerful Adept to ever exist, this translates to gameplay by basically being an instant win button. With infinite jumps, the ability to warp attack like Kirin, the series’ famous “Prevasion” mechanic that means he can’t take damage, and his screen-filling lightning attacks, it’s near impossible to lose when Gunvolt is on the field.

Luckily, making use of Gunvolt is completely optional. And I guess I can appreciate that Inti Create included what’s essentially a built-in easy mode for players that are struggling with the stages and just want to see the story. For those that do want a challenge, you can choose to not equip Prevasion to Kirin and just ignore summoning Gunvolt.

Unfortunately, the franchise’s other famous instant win mechanic, “Anthem,” (where the game will randomly decide to revive you if you die and crank up your power to godlike) is not optional. I found myself rerunning a few stages where I died to the boss and was Anthem’ed back to life, since I felt like I didn’t beat the boss legitimately.

Outside of the core gameplay, Gunvolt 3 also includes a gacha-like system called Image Pulse. At the end of each stage, depending on what rank you get, you earn pulls at this system to receive random buffs and attack skills that can be attached to Kirin. These range from increased XP to greater jumping height and the aforementioned ability to give Kirin Prevasion. Money earned during each stage can also be used to upgrade the higher-ranking Pulses that you may pull. The system works, and doesn’t use real money or anything, but having a full mobile-game-style Gacha system here just feels kind of weird.

Lastly, much like other Gunvolt games, Gunvolt 3 is incredibly short if you’re just going for simple completion. I was able to go from starting the game to viewing the credits in just under five hours. However, the series has always been built around mastering stages to get better ranks, so I imagine most going into this game already expect this.

Speaking in New Tongues

Whilst Inti Creates brought this franchise into HD back with Luminous Avenger iX, Gunvolt 3 marks the first time the core story is presented with modern design sensibility. Gunvolt 3 looks great in general, even as your speedily flinging yourself across the sky. The sprites are greatly detailed and often impressively emotive during some story moments. There are a number of setpieces across the game that are still stuck in my mind.

However, the series’ insistence on plastering dialogue across the screen during action feels like it reaches its pinnacle of annoyance here. It becomes incredibly difficult to chain attacks or tackle some of the more difficult platforming challenges when a third of the screen is being taken up with banter between Gunvolt and Kirin. After reaching a boss where this dialogue was actively obscuring tells for attacks, I dug around in the settings and found an option to turn these overlays off entirely.

While these overlays were a necessary evil in the past, as prior Gunvolt games were voiced entirely in Japanese, Gunvolt 3 marks the first game in the franchise to receive an English dub. And, for the most part, all of the actors here turn in great performances. Well…great in the terms of “yup, this sounds like a dubbed anime.”

However, I do have to give particular notice to Gunvolt’s English VA, Sean Chiplock. The performance Chiplock turns in is the highlight of the game, especially during some of the more emotional moments of the story. Phenomenal work…if only the inner-monologue parts of Gunvolt’s dialogue didn’t sound like it was quickly recorded in an airplane bathroom. Seriously, while 99% of the voice acting here is perfectly clear, Gunvolt’s inner dialogue sounds like the dubbing studio completely forgot to record it and had to get Chiplock to perform it into a phone real quick before deadline.

Balances As All Things Should Be

Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is a game of give and take. The core gameplay here feels like it’s the best it’s ever been, but that “completely the level for free” Gunvolt button is always there and always tempting. Gunvolt and Kirin are written surprisingly well, but everyone else around them has been hit with the cliché hammer. The new English voice acting is great, except for the moments where it sounds like a perform was actively being smothered with pillows.

Even with every positive being cancelled out, I still lean on the positive side about Gunvolt 3 overall. It has its rough moments and pain points, but pulling off a perfect combo and just soaring though the air is pure joy. And even with the ability to break the game as Gunvolt, players that choose to stick with Kirin will still find this game incredibly rewarding to play.

Returning Gunvolt fans will find plenty to love here, and I believe this game can act as a great entry point for newcomers as well. Whether you want to master the systems and chase high scores, or just feel like a god smiting every obstacle in front of them, there’s still plenty to enjoy.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Inti Creates for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.