Anyone who's been reading critical analysis of the arts over the years is no doubt familiar with the phrase style over substance. The terminology denotes an aesthetic at work in the piece of art being critiqued—the intentional or accidental creation of something that is breathtaking in its presentation, but rather empty beneath the surface. In many ways, the phrase is almost a backhanded compliment; it acknowledges that the artist created something that appeals to the senses, but only got it half right.
The whole style over substance thing tends to get bandied about a lot in film criticism. There's no shortage of filmmakers out there with a clear understanding of how to compose a shot or light a scene for maximum effect. Finding one who knows how to do this while also crafting an experience that gets beneath the surface of the subject matter is a more difficult undertaking. When asked to point out examples of style over substance in cinema, many people will point to the Italian horror directors, particularly Dario Argento and Mario Bava (which isn't an accurate depiction of their work, in my opinion). My own personal example is usually Takashi Ishii's 1998 film Gonin. Ishii's film is breathtaking in its execution—the scene compositions are captivating, the camera movements assured, and the overall visual presentation is striking. However, once you get past that, Gonin is simply another predictable heist film—all surface veneer but no engine under the hood.
Video games can also fall prey to the whole style over substance thing. There have been numerous titles over the past few years that attempt to cover up mediocre and unrefined gameplay with cool graphics. Perhaps no game in recent memory serves as a better example of style over substance than Sega's latest release, Gungrave.
When you get right down to it, Gungrave is a title with next-generation graphics used to cover up a gameplay engine that was showing its age back in the 16-bit era.
Players will take control of Grave, an undead assassin brought back from the dead by a mad scientist in order to take on the criminal organization that had Grave killed. Armed with his twin pistols and a huge coffin strapped to his back, Grave sets out to seek revenge in a neo-noir cyberpunk Tokyo. This mission for vengeance will take Grave all across the futuristic city and bring him face to face with about a bazillion bad guys, all of whom Grave must eliminate with extreme prejudice.
The game's visuals are nothing short of mesmerizing. With character designs from Yasuhiro Nightow (the man behind the anime series Trigun), Gungrave is certainly easy on the eyes. Grave is particularly well animated, featuring a cel-shaded look that meshes with the games backgrounds almost flawlessly. However, once one gets past the impressive look of the game, they're likely to discover that the gameplay mechanics of Gungrave simply aren't on par with the visual presentation.
The game is broken up into levels, each level set in a different area. Mission objectives for each level never change; the game admonishes the player to kick their ass! at each and every turn. Its in doing all this ass kicking that the game's flaws become readily apparent.
For all its visual splendor, Gungrave is really just a mindless shooter not unlike those from the Super Nintendo and Genesis era. The gameplay boils down to nothing more than shoot everything in sight and keep advancing. Grave is a big, lumbering lug, so trying to avoid the barrage of enemy bullets is essentially pointless. Thankfully, his resurrection from the dead seems to have made him abnormally strong, meaning he can take quite a bit of punishment before dying.
Players will maneuver Grave through each of the game's relatively non-descript levels blasting both the bad guys and any piece of destructible furniture in the environment. The more stuff Grave hits in a row, the higher his beat counter will go. This is the one innovation the game brings to the table, and its not really much of an innovation at all (its sort of like the combo system in Mars Matrix, only with a guy instead of a spaceship). To keep the beat count spiraling ever higher, players will have to plan ahead, figuring out how to get from one area to the next without losing all the beats they've accumulated along the way.
Grave can dispatch enemies in several different ways. He can use the twin pistols for the Chow Yun Fat effect, he can swing the coffin as a melee weapon if hes surrounded, or he can use one of the coffin's special attacks. The special attacks run the gamut from using the coffin as a rocket launcher (a la Robert Rodriguez's Desperado) or using it to restore health. Each level generally has an objective for Grave to complete. Sometimes its beating a boss, other times its killing one specific person. Any way you slice it, its nothing we haven't seen or done before.
After completing a stage, Grave is scored on his performance—the time it took to complete the level, the percentage of bad guys killed, Grave's style points (awarded for eliminating enemies in stylish ways), how much health he has left, etc. When the player scores highly enough, he can purchase upgraded special attacks for the coffin. Pretty exciting, eh?
This formulaic approach highlights another problem with the game: its incredibly repetitive. The first level of Gungrave isn't much different than the last one—and the mission objectives never change in any meaningful way. Sure, players will encounter some different enemies as they advance, but the shoot everything gameplay remains constant throughout. Luckily, Gungrave can be finished in around three hours—so it never really wears out its welcome.
It's a real shame that developers Red Company didn't spend as much time on the gameplay in Gungrave as they did on the graphics. Gungrave isn't without its charms—the mindless destruction of everything in the game's environments can be almost cathartic in some instances—but it becomes painfully obvious early on that this game is a one trick pony—using a trick that was showing its age five years ago.