Games have changed a lot in the past decade. Not just the way they look or control, but fundamentally, down to their inner workings. Thus, our expectations as gamers have naturally changed as well. These days, gamers expect every title they come across to stimulate their minds with intriguing plots, dazzle them with amazing presentations, and generally amaze them with various other bells and whistles like gimmicky interactivity and online play.
These days, to be successful, every action game needs to have the presentation of God of War, every shooter has to be as immersive as Half Life, every fighting game has to have the depth of Soul Calibur or Tekken.
It wasn't always like this. Little over a decade ago, all that mattered when it came to games was having a good time. All it took to have a good time was a fistful of quarters or a trip to your local bargain bin at Babbages (before it got devoured by the EBStop conglomerate, anyway). Somewhere, some way, you could find a way to have a good time with a game that offered nothing more than an outlet for simple stimulation. Gamers seemed to appreciate the concept of amusement a lot more, before there was any emphasis placed on cinematics or plot development.
Make no mistake, those types of games are still around. It seems like every week, a new niche title quietly slinks onto store shelves, attempting to hearken back to that simpler time. These games are typically shunned away like bothersome salesmen by the press for their shortcomings in plot or design (usually stemming from a lack in budget, not effort), because they don't meet the high expectations placed by their big-budget contemporaries (God Hand, for instance). These games are doomed to fall into obscurity, appreciated only by a small denomination of gamers who still fondly remember the days when you didn't have to devote 30+ hours to a game to get a rewarding experience out of it.
One such game is Gungrave, brainchild of Yasuhiro Nightow (Trigun), with mechnical designs from Kōsuke Fujishima (Ah! My Goddess, Sakura Taisen, some of Namco's Tales series), developed by Red Company (Bujingai, Thousand Arms, many other niche titles) and published by Sega, Gungrave represents the culmination of many great minds coming together to create something unique, visually striking, and most importantly of all, entertaining.
At first glance, Gungrave is your typical tale of revenge, and indeed that glance is pretty accurate, because that's essentially what Gungrave is. What sets it apart is the way the weathered premise is presented. From the moment the game begins, and the amazingly beautiful, cel-shaded cutscenes start, with the distinctive folk jazz style of Tsuneo Imahori (Trigun, Cowboy Bebop) blaring through your speakers, you know you're in for a very unique experience.
The story of Gungrave revolves around a man named "Beyond the Grave", an undead gunslinger who's brought back to life to destroy the crime syndicate that killed him. This shifty organization, called Millenion, has taken over the city with the help of a new drug called "Seed", which turns people into powerful, hideous mutants. Helping him is a scientist named Dr. T, an old friend of Brandon's (Grave's former self), and Mika, a mysterious young girl Brandon swore to protect before he died.
To battle the syndicate, Grave is armed to the teeth. His two pistols, which together are called Cerberus, and the huge coffin he carries on his back that functions as a bazooka, chain gun, and giant bludgeon, make him a one-man arsenal. Pressing square makes Grave shoot his pistols. If you stand still and mash the square button, Grave will begin going ballistic like something out of a Robert Rodriguez movie, dancing around like a mad man while plugging countless rounds into any enemy within range. His auto-targeting is extremely competent, but you can also manually lock on to a single enemy by pressing and holding L1. Pressing X makes Grave jump or dodge in any direction, depending on whether you're standing still or moving. The jump is only useful in situations where you need to clear an obstacle, but you'll be making use of the dodge quite often. While dodging and shooting, Grave will let out a quick burst of shots at a target. This is extremely useful in boss fights that require lots of dodging. Grave can also swing his coffin around like a huge bludgeon, taking down pesky enemies that get too close. Although Grave walks incredibly slow by default, he'll speed up tremendously by holding down the Circle button, although it's much more comfortably mapped to R1, because you'll want to be speeding along nearly all the time. There's some nasty slowdown when there's a lot of enemies around, but oddly enough, it contributes to the style (think "Bullet Time" a la Max Payne.)
While shooting up everything in sight, you will perform a "Beat" combo that signifies how many shots you've chained together in a certain amount of time. This not only includes enemies, but certain objects like cars and dumpsters as well. You can use these objects to boost your number of beats in between waves of enemies and give yourself a higher score. When the beat counter reaches a certain level, you'll begin acquiring Demolition energy. This energy is used to perform a special Demolition Shot attack.
At first, Grave's Demolition Shot: Death Blow is just a standard bazooka shot that explodes and kills anything directly in front of him. As you gain points by performing long beat combos and taking out enemies in stylish ways, you'll unlock more Demolition Shots. The second one you unlock is Bullet Dance, where Grave uses his coffin as a chain gun and spins around doing damage to everything in range, and after that, you get Hellhound Roar and Raging Inferno, which are stronger versions of the previous two Demolition shots. You can also use one of your Demolition shot stocks to heal yourself, and, occasionally, you can use a stock to perform a special finishing move on a weakened boss.
Gungrave feels very much like an arcade game. It focuses on bombarding you with intense bouts of button-mashing violence rather than going into any sort of depth like a modern shooter. Also, like an arcade game, it's very short. There's 6 stages that take about 20 minutes to half an hour to clear, for a grand total of about 3 hours. This will obviously put off a lot of players, but remember, this game isn't trying to be long, and despite its length, it turns out very satisfying, thanks in large to some very enjoyable boss fights. As you'd expect from a game like this, there's goodies to unlock that'll keep you replaying, like a neat little character gallery that's presented like an action figure shop.
Gungrave's presentation is probably its strongest point. Nightow's conceptualization has created a world that while occasionally shows hints of Trigun, is an entirely unique and distinctive experience all its own that turns out to be much darker, colder, and grittier than his magnum opus of an anime. The action direction is superb and stylish, and easily rivals the action direction in any major Hollywood production. The cutscenes remain some of the best on PS2, which is quite a feat considering that Gungrave came out fairly early in PS2's life cycle. The characters are computer rendered, but are designed to look like traditional anime (similar to Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter but better), again lending a distinctive feel. The quality has only recently been matched by the cutscenes in later PS2 games like Rogue Galaxy.
Gungrave's in-game visuals are also very impressive, so much so, in fact, that the transition from cutscene to action is sometimes too smooth to notice if not for the delightful "Kick Their Ass!" message that appears at the beginning of every stage. All of the ingame graphics used a cel shading type technique, which, along with the outstandingly skilled use of color, gives the whole game a dark, comic book style feel. Some rough models aside, Gungrave looks really slick. Also helping Gungrave's presentation along is a superb soundtrack scored by the previously mentioned Tsuneo Imahori, who also composed Trigun and worked on a few of the more popular tracks in Cowboy Bebop. The ending song, "Here Comes the Rain" (which actually has English lyrics), is nice and quite fitting. The game also retains its natural Japanese audio track, which fits well considering the anime style of the game.
Gungrave mostly received lukewarm reviews because of its simplicity, but it was almost universally praised for its striking presentation. You can find it pretty much anywhere for dirt cheap, and for your few dollars, you'll definitely be rewarded with simple pleasure that doesn't take any commitment at all.
It seems that Gungrave was just popular enough to warrant a sequel, but not popular enough for that sequel to retail at full price. Overdose, was not published by Sega this time around, was released by Mastiff (also known localizing for La Pucelle Tactics and Gurumin) in the states as a budget title for the mere price of $14.99... by now, you can easily find it in EB/Gamestop or another game retailer for about five bucks. At this price, and with all of the new additions to the game, you're even more assured a great time for your money than you were with the original Gungrave.
Overdose picks up about 3 years after the first Gungrave. The last remnants of Millenion are coming together in an attempt to revive the syndicate and put Seed back on the streets. Naturally, Grave's back, along with Mika and a somewhat mysterious new companion, to put an end to this upstart before it can even really begin. But this time, things get complicated. Early on in Grave's mission, he runs into two new characters who seem to have the same plans as him. After some quick quarrelling, they introduce themselves properly and decide to work together to bring the syndicate down once and for all.
Joining Grave this time around are zombie samurai Juji Kabane and ghost rocker Rocketbilly Redcadillac. After the first mission, you can chose to restart the game as one of these two new characters or continue as Grave. Juji and Billy are completely different from Grave in almost every aspect, and this provides a lot more variety to Overdose compared to its predecessor.
Beyond the Grave
Grave is pretty much the same as he always was, wielding his pistols and slogging along his coffin of death.
Juji uses a pair of uzis with katana blades coming out of them. He's extremely agile, but his standard shots are somewhat weak compared to the other two characters. Where Juji excels is in close-range combat, where he can dice up small gatherings of enemies Dynasty Warriors style.
Billy, alternatively, is best played at range. He uses an enchanted guitar to throw bolts of electricity at his enemies. Unfortunately, while the bolts are rather powerful, he can't shoot them at the same rate as Grave or Juji can shoot their guns, so he can't handle full-on onslaughts as well as the other two characters, but he excels in boss fights.
Aside from the two new characters, Gungrave has been changed quite a bit. The general idea remains the same; run through stages mowing down wave after wave of enemies, but now you have a few more ways to do so. One thing that's been tweaked heavily are the close-range attacks. What was a single-hit anti-siege attack in Gungrave now functions as fully fledged melee attacks that can be linked together in Overdose. Grave can now perform a 3 hit combo with his coffin, the last hit capable of being charged, while Juji slices up enemies and Billy swings his guitar about using telekinesis. Also new to the game are charged shots. Grave and Billy can charge their ranged attacks to unleash a much more powerful shot. The longer you charge, the more shots will be unleashed once you release the button. These attacks are especially good against bosses. Juji can't charge his shot, but he can charge his melee attacks in the same manner to unleash a flurry of sword waves that slice up anything in front of him. All characters are also set to run without holding down a button, which speeds up the game a tiny bit. The addition of motion blur and more impressively destructible environments also add to the chaotic action movie flair.
The Demolition Shots have returned and still function quite the same, only now each character can gain 9 of them. Really, there's just 3, and 2 more increasingly powerful versions of each type, making the previous ones useless. Overdose, like its predecessor, also sports some bonus unlockables, including an alternate costume for each character. Overdose pretty much looks identical to the first game, which is a good thing because the first game looked great. The resolution has been lowered, but that's also a good thing because it hides some of the flaws in the character models. The music is also of the same calibre, much of the more thematic material returning untouched from the previous instalment. What bothers me a little is that they opted for English voices this time around, and it's a fairly poor, albeit typical job by the voice actors. Another problem is that the recording quality for the in-game is extremely poor, many of the voices sounding very scratchy and annoying. Most of the enemy taunts were left in Japanese too, with them yelling out "kuso!" and "ike!" ("Shit!" and "Go!", respectively) amidst all of the gunfire.
Unfortunately, Overdose's presentation, which is where Gungrave really excelled, takes a bit of a hit. The cutscenes aren't as frequent. Instead, we get a lot of dialog exchanges while watching character portraits change expressions and bounce around the screen in a vain attempt to indicate action. The cutscenes that are there, though, are still really impressive, with excellent cinematics and choreography. It should be noted that once again, Yasuhiro Nightow conceptualized the game, so much of the sense of style from the first game returns here in tact.
Shortcomings aside, Overdose is a much better game than the first Gungrave. It offers a lengthier campaign, more challenge, and a lot more variety - and at the bargain price, you couldn't have asked for a better game.
Shortly after the release of the first Gungrave game, an anime was put into production and released in 2003. The anime creates an entire mythology around the Gungrave duo, perhaps more than it needed considering it's just a run-and-gun shooter. Nevertheless, it works, and the Gungrave anime provides a fascinating and intimate look deeper into the vague characters that populate the game. Unlike most video game-based animes I've seen, the Gungrave anime is entirely competent to stand on its own, whether you've played the games or not.
Ironically, although anime director Yasuhiro Nightow conceptualized the Gungrave game, he had very little to do with the Gungrave anime, which was directed by Toshiyuki Tsuru. Tsuru, who directed a few of the Naruto movies, took great care in carrying over the characters from the game into the anime. The character relationships played on in the game are fleshed out beautifully here. Rather than simply delving right into the action, the Gungrave anime starts off 13 years before the events of the game, setting up the relationship between the game's protagonist, Brandon Heat (Grave), and antagonist, Harry McDowell, who were best friends at the time. Brandon and Harry are strays who have to fight to survive on the mean streets along with their group of punk friends.
A tragic story unfolds as Brandon and Harry get themselves into trouble far too big for them to handle, and several of their friends get killed by the mafia. We follow them on their desperate struggle to gain more power in order to avenge their dead friends, to the point where that quest for power consumes them until they've lost sight of what their intentions were. This eventually leads to a huge rift growing between Harry and Brandon, and that of course is how Grave came to be. After nearly two volumes of setting up Harry and Brandon's past, the anime launches into the action found in the game. Once again, great care was taken is transforming moments from the game to the anime. Some of the boss fights from the game are perfectly recreated here, like the fight with Bear Walken.
The drama is also done extremely well, and it's surprisingly emotional considering the source material. I've never seen a video game anime executed so well. What really helps it along is the performance of the characters. The voice acting performances are fairly strong, the Japanese track being done by the same actors who played their parts in the game and the English audio track being done by many familiar voices, namely the talents from Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and Trigun.
Where the anime falters somewhat is in its visual presentation. Although it was done by the same anime studio that did Trigun, the budget obviously wasn't there. The character designs are a little bit off, and the animation is somewhat mediocre. Also, the bleakness and cold metallic feeling from the game were somewhat lost in translation. Certain parts of it are just a bit too warm. On the other hand, the soundtrack is excellent. You'll hear many of the same tunes from the game in the anime, and also a few tracks that would later appear in Gungrave: Overdose.
Overall, it's a surprisingly good anime, and I'd recommend it to anyone who even remotely likes the games, or even if you haven't played the game, so long as you're not obsessed with animation quality.