Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Essentials #27: Gungrave / Gungrave: Overdose



Developed by Red Entertainment and published by Sega in 2002 for the Sony PlayStation 2, Gungrave was a behind-the-back shooter that had more in common with classic arcade shoot 'em ups than with contemporary third-person action games like Max Payne or Devil May Cry.

Modeled after the designs of titles like 1942 and Double Dragon, the game put players in control of Grave, a dead man somehow brought back and now carrying his armaments in his coffin Django-style, as he blasted his way through six levels of vengeance. The imperative "Kick their ass!!" would signal the start of each stage, thrusting the player right into the action. Grave would then have to clear the room of enemies using his twin hand cannons equipped with infinite ammo, after which a flashing arrow would direct the player to the next room or hallway to take on another wave of foes. The process would repeat, and, at the end of most stages, Grave would have to tangle with a level boss.

Simplifying the matter of aiming, Grave would auto-target enemies, or the player could manually lock on. Protected by a regenerating shield a la Halo, Grave could take a fair bit of punishment before enemies could get at his actual health. To further extend his existence, he could dive to the side while still shooting, or swing his coffin around to block small arms fire. The game encouraged players to stand their ground as long as possible, however, in order to keep the "Beat" count going by chaining together hits on enemies and destructible objects. Besides raising the player's score, the Beat counter fed into a meter that powered the "Demolition Shot," which operated much like the screen-clearing bombs in most arcade shooters.

At close range, Grave could knock guys down by swinging his coffin around, but the clumsy melee attack was only a last resort. For the most part, the player was expected to just repeatedly hammer the fire button as rapidly as possible, usually for minutes at a time. It may seem inconsistent of me to praise Gungrave after having criticized Devil May Cry 2 for its mindless press-fire-repeatedly shooting action, but, in Gungrave, you could at least see the foes that you were shooting at, and the environment was highly destructible as well, offering the player much more satisfying feedback for the button presses.

That said, Gungrave's gameplay was by no means genius. Most non-boss rooms did come down to just wailing on a single button over and over again until everything lay dead or destroyed. On a technical level, the game was full of camera and collision issues. And the incessant cacophony of gunfire sound effects could quickly attract the ire of neighbors. While I still found Gungrave a fun game with some memorable boss fights, that was not the reason I came to love it.

When discussing the best cinematics on the PS2, players are usually quick to point to Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Onimusha. I'm here to say that Gungrave topped them all. More than just effects-laden eye candy, the cut scenes were crafted with a mature professionalism beyond the game's PS2 peers. Although the artistry in painting the characters and the world they inhabited was impressive, Gungrave also exhibited a restraint rarely found in the medium, often spending its moments to brood on quieter scenes, leaving the action for the interactive segments. And, although the game told its story entirely through its pre-rendered movie sequences, it did not linger on talky melodrama. It said only as much as it needed to, leaving many of the details to the player's imagination, while sparing use of background music lent scenes a stark, haunting quality.

The cut scenes benefited greatly, no doubt, from Yasuhiro Nightow, author of the popular Trigun manga, providing character designs and concept as the basis. As in Trigun, Gungrave featured cool characters and slick action coating a story of emotional desolation in a world gone to hell.

There was little dialogue in the game. Grave himself never spoke. It was suggested that, as a dead man, he had no soul, no memory. As the player stepped into his shoes for that first gunfight, still virtually nothing was known about him. Gradually, we would gather that he was gunning for the heads of a syndicate he once belonged to. The history behind this enmity would remain unclear for some time, but we could infer that somebody was betrayed and that the outcome was Grave's first death.

Beyond being an instrument of revenge, Grave did not really take shape as a character until the cut scene at the beginning of the final stage, as he rode the elevator to the top of the syndicate's headquarters. The building was a tall one, and the long ride provided a mandatory respite, during which the player was shown glimpses of Grave's past. In life, he was Brandon, the most trusted lieutenant of Big Daddy, the former head of the syndicate. He was also held in high regard by Harry MacDowell, Big Daddy's ambitious subordinate, who would lead the coup to take his boss's place.

During these flashes, it would become clear that the tragedy of the Brandon character was not that he died, but that he never truly lived. He was as strong and loyal a comrade as you could ask for, but he seemingly had no personal ambitions of his own. Even when he was alive, he was a passive character hearing the requests of others. Big Daddy and Harry, in turn, each confided in him their dreams and uttered his name with a longing that he might rise to become the great man they believed he ought to have been, be it a partner or an heir. Most telling for me, however, was his interaction with Big Daddy's wife, Maria. Although she had fewer than five lines, I thought I detected a wistful affection in the actress's delivery that made me wonder how much of his own life Brandon had already missed at that point. Obviously, Brandon never became the man that any of these people needed, and, as the ride came to an end, the flashbacks gave way to the image of Grave's ever stolid face in the present.

Gungrave is an odd case. As a game, it was good fun, which, as some people would tell you, is what video games are all about. On the other hand, its best elements were not even the playable portions. The story could have easily existed outside the interactive medium, but it ended up in a game, and, in my opinion, it made the game worth experiencing above many others. Did that make it a great game? I guess it depends on what we think games are and need to be. All I know is that Gungrave is fantastic.

Gungrave - The Animated Series

Between the releases of the video games, fans were treated to an anime adaptation of the first Gungrave. Given that the cinematic story was the best part of the game, it made sense to give it a second chance in a different medium, perhaps opening it up to a new audience of people who may not have had any interest in playing the game.

Ably animated by Madhouse, the show looked comparable to most any modestly budgeted television anime. It was not nearly as striking as the stylized cel-shaded CG look of the game, but it was serviceable, and, fortunately, the series relied less on action sequences than one might have expected.

Beginning around the same time as the game's opening, the first of the show's twenty-six episodes set up Grave's battle against the syndicate. With the second episode, the scene flashed back Berserk-style to the early days of Brandon and Harry MacDowell as low-level street toughs, and, for most of the remainder, the series continued from there in linear fashion, eventually catching back up with the present to cover the events of the game.

Following the rise and gradual corruption of Harry as he climbed up the ranks of the criminal underworld over several years, with Brandon always by his side, the show was basically a mafia drama driven more by character development than by cheaply animated action.

For fans of the game, the flashback episodes provided backstory and clarified the tragic course of events leading up to the story's present. It was a testament to the original game's narrative efficiency that the details of the show so perfectly aligned with my inferences from the game's limited dialogue. Brandon was indeed a very quiet fellow by nature and not just a video game silent protagonist. He and Harry were best friends once upon a time. And Maria was more than just the wife of the boss. But the series did depart from its source material with its ending, which was nearly the reverse of the game's, and was, in my opinion, complete rubbish.

The game remained, in my mind, the true Gungrave experience, but, taken on its own, the show was a thoroughly enthralling story well worth a look for any anime fan.

Gungrave: Overdose

The original Gungrave was not exactly a hit in North America, so the fate of its 2004 sequel was somewhat in doubt as Sega seemed to have dropped out of the picture. Fortunately, Mastiff, a small publisher just starting up, picked it up for release as a budget title.

Gungrave: Overdose retained the same basic gameplay and structure of the first game, but it sported a faster pace, thanks to increased speed of movement and more streamlined level designs. Some new moves also served to lessen the monotony of the original's somewhat one-dimensional bullet-storm action. Grave could now set his coffin down as a shield, or swing it around him continuously to reflect barrages of missiles and other heavy projectiles. The latter ability was of particular importance, as the sequel introduced many enemies that could only be beaten by flinging their own attacks back at them. When occurring with groups of regular enemies using small arms, these foes required special attention and the ability to gracefully transition from offense to defense. The result was a considerably more dynamic and strategic action game that was still a lot of fun.

Two additional playable characters added further variety. The swordsman Juji Kabane specialized in melee combat, providing an unexpected departure from the original shooting action of Grave's game. Meanwhile, his partner, Rocketbilly Redcadillac, wielded an electric guitar that could fire deadly lightning strikes at long range. Unfortunately, the player could not simply alternate characters between stages. If the player wanted to use Juji or Billy, they would have to unlock them by completing the first stage with Grave before starting a new playthrough with one of them instead. This meant the player was expected to play the game through multiple times in order to enjoy the different characters. While the game was short and fun, that was still asking a lot for most players.

As much as the action was an improvement over the original, the story and cinematics were sadly a major step back. While there were still a handful of spectacular cut scenes, the newly dialogue-heavy plot developed primarily through still images and character portraits accompanying text read aloud by the English dub cast. Unfortunately, there was no option for a Japanese language track. While the English voice actors were reasonably talented cartoon veterans, I had already come to associate the returning characters with their Japanese voices, so the switch over was jarring. It didn't help that there were too few actors for the parts, resulting in one awkward scene where Cam Clarke had a conversation with himself as two different characters who didn't sound quite distinct enough.

Yasuhiro Nightow was still credited for character design and concept, but the more lighthearted, banter-filled story of Gungrave: Overdose felt wholly unnecessary as an addition to the beautifully self-contained tale of the first game. The still mute Grave became practically a supporting character in his own game, as he and the other protagonists took on a new fight that no longer seemed personal.

Gungrave: Overdose offered much improved gameplay over the original, actually holding its own as a genuine classic of arcade action design. The first game's best qualities did not carry over, however, so it's hard to recommend one over the other, which is why I've decided simply to list them together.