Review – Azure Striker Gunvolt 3
When you look at The Godfather III from a purely subjective space, you can easily see that the derision it received was unfounded, particularly as time went on. The story of Michael Corleone is encapsulated well in the first two movies, and the third, while interesting and expansive on the universe as a whole, is wildly unnecessary, painting a broken picture of a character who was so powerful and captivating in the previous films. The criticism of Sofia Coppola’s performance is wildly outdated and frankly insulting knowing what we know now and, what many forget, is the film still scored the Best Picture award, so someone clearly thought it was worth its salt. Wrapping up a trilogy is hard work, and it won’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try.
For Inti Creates, the pressure was on with the creation of Azure Striker Gunvolt 3, which may be the final installment in the series (but who knows for sure?). Picking up some time after the events of Striker 2, you are now playing the role of Kirin, a battle priestess of the Shadow Yakumo, who is initially tasked with finding out why massive amounts of Glaives are being produced and finds a massive thunder dragon who wants to wreck her to pieces.
Kirin, being a badass from the drop, easily defeats the dragon and finds out that it is actually Gunvolt, our main game hero, who apparently turned into a Berserk Adept, which is an unfortunate side effect of experimenting on people with magical powers to try and harness them for evil or whatever. Freed, Gunvolt does not become the new lead, instead choosing to accompany Kirin on her Mega Man style quest to defeat and free other Berserk Adepts that have taken over various areas, ultimately leading to a resistance group called ATEMS that wants to control even more power, and the whole thing can take several paragraphs, a review movie and two PowerPoints to fully understand.
Which is a bit of a shame, because I personally think that Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is the best in so many ways of the three core games, and yet it’s one of the hardest to understand for storytelling. Building off of the chaotic score machinations of the previous games (The Kudos System, the stage rankings, Lumen’s help), many traditional elements are upgraded and preserved to keep the continuity of the previous titles intact.
Checkpoints are now mandatory, but I think that’s to help keep up with the stronger enemies and much stronger bosses than previous installments. The Kudos System has a lock that prevents backsliding of points just from taking damage, only resetting if you actually die. Image Pulses, which replace the Equipment and Skill systems, allow for passive, swappable abilities to better customize your fighting (and also gives you incentive to explore the levels more). The Pulses are made from Chips, and enough chips generate a Pulse that is a character from this game and also previous games (because every single game ever needs a collectable aspect).
The stage selection is a bit more open to a point, but still focused on making sure that the storyline is moving along in a straightforward fashion for when it’s applicable. It’s the nod and a wink to having choices, but understanding that certain things need to happen at certain moments, and the player being okay with this because what you do in each level in terms of action is so unbelievably satisfying I would have been alright with no choices whatsoever.
The developers have gone above and beyond the appeal of previous Azure Striker Gunvolt games by having an amazing duality between Kirin and Gunvolt. Gunvolt can only appear after a certain amount of power has been built up, and then he is able to unleash many of his traditional powers of running, blasting, energy arcs and bringing out his massive sword to do untold amounts of damage. His character does improve as time goes on, gaining new skills and becoming more powerful, including being able to exist longer. He is, for all intents and purposes, a deus ex machina intervention for certain bosses or when the screen is full with easy to hit enemies.
It’s a little bit of a tease that your first time using Gunvolt is completely unfettered, and, after that, he’s much weaker, limited in how long he can fight, and, even later, occasionally blows up and ends the game if you’re not careful (that’s actually a thing and it’s awful and hilarious). It’s really cool, and I’m glad we didn’t get rid of him entirely, but he isn’t my favorite thing when it comes to the intense, frequent combat that is the core love of the game.
Instead, it is Kirin who is the apple of my eye, and thank God because she’s the main player for most of this. Kirin uses a system of talismans that she flings to “tag” enemies and objects before striking them down with her sword. The more talismans stacked on an enemy, the stronger the blow and the higher chance of a near instant death. But it gets even better than that. Thanks to omnidirectional (or at least multi directional) talisman tossing, Kirin is able to mark several objects at once and then unleashing an electrical jumping surge, which deals damage as well as catapults her to areas that she could otherwise not reach.
The result is a fluidity in the fighting and movement that brings us to a momentum that I never really felt in previous Gunvolt games. While I loved feeling like the supercharged version of Mega Man before, Kirin controls and reacts like she’s actually a bolt of lightning, like a kaminari goddess of vengeance that blows through everything in front of her. With fast enough reflexes, you are able to tag, strike, jump, tag and continue to orchestrate a symphony of pure mayhem and articulated destruction with purpose. It’s just like Helen Hunt once said,” You’ve never seen her miss this house, and that house, and then come after you!”
The action naturally lulls in Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 once you reach the bosses, and by lull, I mean “stick to one room and get the living hell kicked out of you.” I feel like Inti Creates got too many notes from people complaining that bosses were too easy or something, because they upped the ante in a BIG way.
Nowadays, the bosses bring different styles and approaches that almost seem to defy what the gameplay is meant to be. Grazie is literally a living danmaku boss, forcing you to do expertly timed dashes and dodges to avoid getting riddled with bullets. Prado mixes environmental attacks with his own melee and ranged damage to keep you aware of literally everything around you. The twin strikes of Viper and Jota were enough that I had to quietly put down my controller and go scream in a field for a little while before coming back.
If that wasn’t enough, the fact that a mysterious character named Djinn will just randomly revive the bosses on occasion was just brutally unfair. I mean, yes, sometimes I get randomly revived, but I’m the hero! I don’t care if I get a bonus for defeating a revived boss, that’s a pain in the butt.
Visually, it’s awesome to see Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 staying true to its roots in spite of being up on the big screen. While the anime cutscenes and portraits are more gorgeous than ever (and holy crap, are they GORGEOUS), the pixel art density for the main gameplay is perfection. I’ve seen Inti Creates hone their pixel skills more and more over the years (I love Curse of the Moon more than Ritual of the Night), and it comes home to roost on the Xbox.
The classic palette is exploited to allow for more action, more explosions, more of everything that made the series burst into life on the 3DS. You really get the duality of the classic sensation in a brand new package, using a tool the way it was intended and not as a way to simply generate hype or interest. These games work best when you don’t need to worry about the engine chugging or any sort of dip in playback, and I didn’t see a single moment of letdown in all of the carnage that I saw across my playthrough. Certainly not the last playthrough either, so I’ll double down on this opinion once I get time to revisit it.
My one glaring complaint is in the storytelling style throughout the game. While plenty is relegated to cutscenes between missions and pre-renders that let you breathe and read, there are so many moments in Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 where I am trying to slash, blast, dodge and explore these carefully crafted levels, and the main characters won’t shut up. There’s so much dialogue being exchanged between Gunvolt, Kirin, and whomever we’re having a conversation with that it’s absolutely distracting.
What’s really irritating is that the conversations aren’t constant, and I feel like there’s an equal amount of unimportant ejactulation regarding the world and character’s takes on things, and then actual story-driven explanations that pass by in the blink of an eye. The only way to enjoy a level entirely is to first play it through and complete it with blinders on, then go back and play more relaxed, finding somewhere to hunker down when the talking starts so you can take in everything that’s happening.
However, this complaint is ultimately a matter of artistic style versus personal taste, and it doesn’t change how much fun I found in this symphony of action, platforming and explosions. Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is the culmination of everything that this series has brought to the table so far, presented in a beautiful arrangement all its own. The controls feel so strange at first, but quickly become intuitive and comfortable to mimic the movement style on screen.
The music drives you forward, giving equal amounts of cyberpunk and sci-fi anime vibes, and the voicework is top notch (though I will insist on using the Japanese voices because Grazie is the same actress as Shania from Xenoblade Chronicles 3).
It’s a beautifully put together package, and this isn’t the lackluster ending of a trilogy gone off the rails. This is a tight, enjoyable and absolutely true embodiment of what Inti Creates has been building all these years. For fans, it’s everything they could want. And for first timers…well, maybe pick up the Cliff’s Notes on what’s happened. It’s a lot, but it’s worth it.
Pixel gameplay mixed with high production anime cutscenes and portraits make for a visually appealing game for both passive and active viewing.
Intense fighting that fluctuates between Mega Man and a 2D Mirror’s Edge, it works so well when you’re in a groove and hurts you so badly when you flub.
Solid soundtrack and top notch voice acting, the intermittent chatter in the middle of missions was more distracting than ambient.
Easily my favorite Gunvolt title, the stronger approach to combat left me more satisfied, while the stronger boss battles swung between “I am a champion” and “I live in the woods now.”
Final Verdict: 8.0
Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC, and Nintendo Switch
Reviewed on Xbox One S.
A copy of Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 was provided by the publisher.