Do you know, I went back to my old primary school a while ago, hoping to find I-don't-know-what, and it was as though nothing had changed. Everything looked slightly shinier, and the kids had different faces, but all the teachers, their lessons, their methods and the various things I disliked had endured in my absence. Coincidentally, that pretty much sums up Gun Valkyrie.
Gun Valkyrie is the oldest of the old school. Developed by Smilebit, it's a single player 3D shoot 'em up which throws scores of practically identical bad guys at you en masse in various locations and demands their complete obliteration. As you progress through the game's ten massive levels, blasting aliens and rocket-hopping around like a crazed gazelle, you are given the opportunity to upgrade your kit based on how many GV you receive for your endeavours. Each mission rewards you with a certain number of GV, dictated by factors including speed, kill volume, secrets uncovered and so forth. You can upgrade guns and your gearskin (mech suit), and you can also buy single-use items to recharge your shields and abilities mid-level.
The game is set in the Victorian era. Unlike our timeline, everything from automated food dispensers to space travel has already been invented thanks to respected scientist Dr. Hebble, and the British Empire still controls most of the world. Unfortunately though, Hebble's gone a bit loopy and has attacked the human colony of Tir na Nog in deep space, and a team led by his daughter, Poe, has been dispatched in his fiery wake. The team consists of two mech-suited jet-packed marine types named Kelly and Saburouta, and you can play as either throughout the game. Their abilities and weapons differ only slightly, but Kelly is considered the easier of the two to play.
Nothing new there, nothing new here
The most obvious thing that stands between Gun Valkyrie and stardom is its beleaguered control system. Your most critical apparatus, the jetpack, is controlled using the left trigger, which first has you jump into the air, and then struggles against the realities of gravity in trying to boost you further. It's useful for getting out of a tight spot, but not much else. You can augment this simple leapfrog approach by clicking the left thumbstick to 'dash' and hover, whilst by itself the thumbstick moves you back and forward and strafes left and right.
The idea is to move with the left side of the pad and then aim using the right side, but it doesn't really work. The right thumbstick controls looking around and is intrinsically important to juggling movement and dashing (and yes, we all hate clicking in the thumbstick whilst trying to manoeuvre), but for some reason it won't let you turn around properly as you move. There is a method for turning on a pinhead, but it's even more complex. Most of the time, you have to put up with the direction you're facing and watch as the camera and your character both refuse to respond to your turning arc properly.
It would be an easier problem to deal with if you had a small radar screen plotting your enemies' positions, but if you want to know where the bad guys are concentrated, you have to hit the white button to bring up the map. But this doesn't let you see other sections of the level, so if you're trying to round up the last few remaining enemies you still have to trawl the whole level looking for them. Thankfully, handling the weapons is an easier task to perform. You select one of your three possibles using the face buttons - with the basic unlimited blaster on button Y, the plasma grapple hook on B and a Halley's Comet special on button X - and then fire with the right trigger. Alas, if only the rest of the control system were this straightforward. Yes, Smilebit, the story behind the game takes a different path through history, but that doesn't mean you have to shun recognised control systems in favour of this unwieldy menace.
It may not handle particularly well, but Gun Valkyrie certainly looks nice, and it also sounds at least reasonable. Graphics are stunningly detailed throughout the game, and the main characters are beautifully rendered, right down to Kelly's rather revealing elasticised underwear, and even the menu interface has a characteristic polygonal look to it. Background music is passable (and almost reminiscent of the Transformers movie soundtrack at times) and the sound effects (blasting of guns, braying of monsters) are quite fitting.
Levels take place both indoors and outside, and look good in both cases. Outside it's a world of wreckage-packed canyons, dysfunctional satellite arrays suspended across gorges, and giant mushrooms for reaching higher ground. Indoors the player is treated to huge Victorian-esque metallic designs with neon pink bounce pads in the more frustrating levels and lots of little intricate archways and corridors. Enemies are mostly arachnid or insects in different shades of red and black, but they too are nicely detailed, and die convincingly before fading away into nothing, while effects like motion blur and heat haze add to the already hectic fight scenes. As you upgrade yourself, you develop some truly awesome moves to light up the scenery and bust open your foes. At first you can just click down on both thumbsticks and pirouette, killing everybody in the direct vicinity, but before long you end up with the Meteor Crash attack, which is as devastating as it sounds.
A distinct lack of scenery pop-up or slowdowns is another plus. Imagine fifty Magma Spiders from Devil May Cry standing over you, with a huge rolling landscape behind them, and that's pretty much the effect you get in Gun Valkyrie. Enemies tend to get clipped after a certain distance, but it's a long way off and it's usually not a problem, as you can't lock onto them from there anyway.
Frustration, you say?
If you buy into the old school shooter mythos and purchase Gun Valkyrie, you'll soon learn the true meaning of frustration. First off, it's inexcusably hard. The later levels rapidly degenerate into one big attempt to stay away from the sea of bad guys on the ground by fighting the various airborne enemies (a terrible inclusion, given the combative control system), and level design is in complete disarray for the most part, although thankfully you can often pick between two or three missions instead of having to replay just one over and over again until you crack it.
Worse still, the graphics sometimes obscure your objectives and enemies. For the most part this doesn't matter, but for some reason, the motives behind which I won't even begin to speculate on, Smilebit has included a handful of levels involving freefall descent down huge circular tunnels laced with enemies. Once you've mastered hovering this is slightly easier to do, but even so, it's a process of falling down and picking off as many as possible with your lock-on and early warning system going mental trying to keep track, before bouncing back up on a neon pink pad and doing the same again until they're all dead, at which point the door at the bottom will unlock. It's frustrating, it's daft, the fact that you can't see much is almost entirely the fault of graphical over-complexity, and it didn't need to be included at all.
Often, graphic detail is actually mistaken for secret items. You're supposedly searching levels for secret blue Halley orbs on the side, each of which contains the soul of a colonist, but by the fifth or sixth level I completely gave up trying to find hidden extras, as I had absolutely no desire to painstakingly trawl every single recess or rocky outcropping in search of the bloody things. I have no desire to play through those levels again either, meaning that the scoreboard for level rankings is somewhat redundant. The highlights of the game are actually the boss battles; each boss is a typical shoot 'em up finale character with recognisable patterns and weaknesses, and the final boss is possibly the greatest ever conceived in terms of sheer size and resilience. But you'll probably give up before you get to the second one. Given the choice, I would have…
As much as I like the game's storyline and relentlessly impressive visuals, Gun Valkyrie is marred by feeble level design with huge, trussed up rooms connected by pointless corridors, and a control system which redefines the word 'awkward'. And it's too hard. I'm not bad at games, but even I've only beaten this one with Saburouta under absolutely perfect conditions. If you fancy a casual blaster, this just isn't it, especially when it will cost you anything up to Ł45. If you must buy absolutely everything that Sega ever puts its name to then go for it, but for the rest of you, unless you're a die-hard shoot 'em up fan, steer well clear. The Xbox has much better games than Gun Valkyrie.