The shooter is such a straightforward, often vacuous genre that its conventions seem doomed to be endlessly recycled. Change the story, change the guns, change the bad guys, but its still just point-and-shoot. As the genre has slowly and sporadically evolved through advances in artificial intelligence, environmental interaction, and narrative immersion, the mechanics themselves have remained virtually unchanged. But what if the next creative step in the genre had nothing to do with the aforementioned elements, but instead involved a new approach to how the game itself is played? What if altering the control mechanics could alter the gameplay so dramatically as to create an entirely new perspective on the timeless, fundamental shooting element itself? Enter Gunvalkyrie, an action sci-fi shooter from little-known developer Smilebit.
A small development wing of Sega, Smilebit is perhaps best known for the unique, cross-genre game Jet Set Radio and its sequel, Jet Set Radio Future. Members of the team were also responsible for the stellar Panzer Dragoon games released on the Sega Saturn console in the mid 1990s, which shattered the conventions of the rail shooter by integrating 360° camera rotation. Gunvalkyrie continues Smilebits distinguished tradition with an unusual approach to control and navigation that has left some players frustrated and others captivated. I belong to the latter category.
Presented in a style that draws influences from such diverse sources as Japanese anime, modern American science fiction films, and H.G. Wells novels, Gunvalkyrie is set in an alternate timeline in the early 1900s, when an eccentric British scientist named Dr. Hebble Gate has found a way to produce massive amounts of energy from materials found within the wreckage of Halleys Comet. The human race enters a second Renaissance, making massive technological advances in only a few decades, including travel into deep space. Humans begin to colonize other planets while Dr. Hebble continues his secretive research into the energy found in Halleys Comet. But of course all is not well. Dr. Hebble and the colonists of a distant planet called Tir Na Nog have mysteriously disappeared, and grotesque insect-like monsters are swarming the ruins of the colonies. Two supersoldiers enlisted by a military arm of the British government (the games namesake) are dispatched to wipe out the hostile creatures, find Dr. Hebble, and uncover the mysteries of his bizarre research.
At the start of each mission, players can choose between Kelly, an agile but underpowered heroine, and Saborouta, a slower but more powerful samurai warrior built like a human tank. Along the way, scores from each level are tallied for "GV points," which are used to purchase upgrades for more sophisticated defenses, items, and weaponry. Each character is equipped with a jet pack, and this is the key concept that makes Gunvalkyrie unique. Once the game begins, the creative design of the game slowly begins to show through, and those patient enough to learn the nuances of the controls will be in for an action game like no other.
The left and right analog sticks perform movement and aiming, respectively. However, unlike shooters such as Max Payne or MDK2, characters can only aim in the direction they are facing and cannot be turned by using the right thumbstick. All movement is accomplished by the left thumbstick, which rotates the characters and moves them forward or back. Players expecting to conquer the game with precision strafing will be sorely disappointed. The left trigger executes a jump, and when held down or pulled a second time will activate the jetpack (the jetpack has a limited charge that is quickly replenished when the character lands). Once in the air, a quick dash (called a "boost dash") forward, backward, or to either side is performed by depressing the left thumbstick while simultaneously pushing it in the desired direction; a quick pull of the stick in the opposite direction will cause the character to hover. A quick turn is accomplished by performing the identical "click and push" with the right thumbstick. The right trigger is used to fire.
If it sounds complicated, thats because it is. It is not, however, restrictive or overbearing. It took yours truly approximately half an hour to fully understand how the game is meant to be played, and another couple of hours to really master the control scheme. Along the way, I questioned why Smilebit had chosen to restrict the looking mechanism. I am certainly not the first; when Gunvalkyrie debuted at last years E3 show, players complained about the controls. When the game was previewed by gaming publications, players complained about the controls. Why, then, would Smilebit so stubbornly stick to their guns, declining to even include the option to alter the control scheme? It is because Gunvalkyrie is not meant to be played like Max Payne, Halo, or MDK2. The kind of movement that can be accomplished in Gunvalkyrie is totally unique, amazingly precise, and wonderfully engaging to experience. The unorthodox controls play to the games strengths; while it is not possible to rotate the character with the right stick, the independent movement and looking mechanisms allow you to move in a straight line while rotating the camera to fire. While precision strafing is lost, it is compensated for by the precision gained in flight. The emphasis in Gunvalkyrie is on flight, movement, and positioning. A skilled player will spend a great deal of time in the air, dashing about hordes of alien creatures with spectacular speed and rapid targeting. Once the controls become second nature, the logic of their seemingly cumbersome setup becomes apparent.
The action in Gunvalkyrie is sudden, persistent, and unceasingly intense. The story provides an atmospheric backdrop, but it is not directly integrated into the game a la Halo or Half-Life. While Gunvalkyrie allows full 3D movement, its style is most reminiscent of rail shooters such as Panzer Dragoon and Star Fox; each level consists of a linear mission (which is usually "destroy all enemies!"), and the levels—though often quite large and occasionally very open—are deliberately crafted to sustain the games feverish pace. The game is set up in a very traditional shooter fashion: linear stages followed by a boss, which culminate with a series of boss characters toward the end of the game. Defeating the game unlocks a new mode, but most of the replay value comes from trying to attain higher scores on the levels to buy more elaborate upgrades. In this respect, Gunvalkyrie comes off a bit lacking. As engaging as it is, the game is surprisingly short. Its like being served a succulent steak, taking a few bites, then having it pulled away.
The levels are not widely varied, but range from open desert canyons to mazes of indoor hallways. The limited variety and number of levels is the games only real weakness. The levels are all quite uniquely inspired, so its a shame that the game isnt a bit longer or more diverse. Nonetheless, the game is so stylish and the graphics are so nicely detailed (particularly the main characters) that the worlds are worth revisiting. Sound is effective as well. The effects for the jetpack pack a lot of punch, and the guns pack a satisfying "oomph." I was a bit disappointed in the music, which, though fairly good and suited to the game well, is purely electronic. After these developers did such an exceptional job with the orchestral soundtrack to the Panzer Dragoon series, I was expecting a bit more.
Mechanical innovation is often viewed as strictly contextual, in that it solves a problem or improves the functionality of a gameplay element. Gunvalkyrie challenges this perception by eschewing the conventions of its genre with a complex, unorthodox control scheme that radically shapes the direction of the game. A number of critics have hastily dismissed Gunvalkyrie as being too cumbersome to be worth mastering, and certainly too difficult to be enjoyable. I firmly disagree. Those with the patience and the desire to master Gunvalkyries control configuration will discover a game that is both remarkably original and highly rewarding. Only its brevity and its reliance on conventional linear progression hold it back. If the levels flowed more logically and the story were more intertwined with the game itself rather than being relegated to text and sparse cutscenes, Gunvalkyrie would be a masterpiece. Nonetheless, I applaud Smilebit for their willingness to explore new approaches to the 3D shooter. Gunvalkyrie shows that complexity can be both approachable and compelling, and that gamers are far from seeing the limits of its time-tested genre.