Version tested: PlayStation 2
With the exception of the odd hardcore Japanese release, the old-skool shoot 'em up genre has pretty much been put out to pasture. The relentless killathons of old, like Gremlin's long forgotten Loaded and the thousands of 2D shooters of the 8 and 16-bit era are but fond memories of the days before RSI crippled ageing gamers everywhere.
But Gungrave unashamedly dusts off the template of 'kill everything in sight', dresses it up in Trigun creator Yasuhiro Nightow's supremely stylish Manga clothes, and asks the player to create as much carnage as possible across "six intense stages fighting waves of gun-toting thugs".
The story makes little sense, but graphic novel fans will no doubt buy into it: you're an undead assassin by the name of Grave, sent to destroy a shady criminal organisation. Each level is interspersed with various cut scenes that are top quality, but subtitled - sparing us the hell of dreadful English voiceovers at least.
In between levels you get to engage in fairly pointless conversations, but they fail to offer any insight - it's simply there to deliver more background information and take up a bit more of your time.
Not exactly complex
So what of the game? It's hardly what you'd describe as complex. After a week playing the intricate Splinter Cell, this is almost the polar opposite. Essentially the guide to playing Gungrave is as follows: move around the coffin carrying Grave with the left stick, shoot at the numerous oncoming enemies with your dual pistols by pressing square rapidly, and target them individually with L1. You can fire a limited number of special weapons to dispense with particularly stubborn baddies (or big groups of them). If you get crowded out by enemies, then you can swing your coffin by tapping R1, or alternatively hit circle and run away if you're taking a bit of a pounding.
The health system has a little in common with Halo's; with a rechargeable shield giving you initial protection. Allowing your shields to recharge fully allows you to plough through most situations unscathed, although rocket firing baddies and the increasingly tough boss monsters at the end of each level will test you to the limit.
Gorgeous, delicious visuals
The thing that strikes you immediately about Gungrave is its superb graphics. The FMV sequences set the scene beautifully - especially if you're a fan of Nightow's work, and thoughtfully they never go on in the way that so many Japanese games believe is mandatory. The in game visuals make a pleasant change too, and the stylised, well animated, Manga look gives the game a character more in keeping with graphic novels than videogames. Being a balls out shooter, just about everything can be destroyed, so stationary scenery such as barrels and vehicles all blow up spectacularly if you feel the need to wage some destruction. It often helps to just blow the crap out of everything, as enemies tend to use scenery as cover, and it adds a level of satisfaction to the gratuitous carnage, and to top it all you get rewarded at the end of the level for clearing - resulting in weapons power-ups.
But the initial impressive feelings of exciting relentless action give way to sterile boredom once the repetitive - and on rails - nature of the gameplay becomes apparent. Given that there are only six levels, to find ourselves on level five on our first go wasn't an especially promising sign - after less than three hours. Ok, there are harder difficulty levels, but the overriding issue is that there's just not enough to keep you interested for any great length of time. Each level is one long winding path, and there's no need to worry about locked doors or anything even remotely resembling puzzle solving. It's just a case of blamblam blam blam blam, blammablamblam, until you either finish the level or you're too bored to notice those rocket wielding enemies behind you. If you die, you're given unlimited continues to keep ploughing through, but it was level four by the time we experienced one death - and that was on the boss.
Admittedly, the latter bosses are quite entertaining, and well realised in the top notch visuals department, but the attack patterns are hardly groundbreaking. It's all been seen and done before in dozens of better games over the decades.
At times Gungrave feels as ho-hum and pointless as that disgrace to software State Of Emergency, but with an attacking onslaught, rather than fleeing innocents. It also has that on rails feel of gun games like Time Crisis, except that you have control over your direction. But maybe this sounds appealing to you - if you want a mindless, good looking blast that you can dive straight into, then by all means give it a crack, but stood next to any of the better games of the year, Gungrave feels like a depressingly hollow experience designed to showcase some nifty graphics. You might get an hour's entertainment from it, but for forty quid, that's a hefty price to pay for something you'll probably never want to come back to once you've given it a run through. Maybe Gungrave is worth a rental if you're a fan of the art style and instant action gameplay, but at the full price you'd be mad to consider parting with hard earned cash for this.
4 / 10