I say (ish) as this is the first PS2 game I’ll have reviewed. Published by Sega in 2002, it was one the early PS2 titles that ended up arriving just a little too late to fit in. By the time of it’s release Devil May Cry and Onimusha had already set the benchmark for Japanese action titles on the system, and a lot of what Gungrave offered seemed pretty drab in comparison. For those who did make the jump to pick it up, what seemed to be an incredibly generic title actually turned out to be an outstanding piece of retro entertainment on the new generation of console.
The start with, Gungrave has an incredible pedigree. The series is directed by Yasuhiro Nightow, the creator of Trigun, who also created the characters and story. The mechanical designer was actually Kosuke Fujishima, who also designed the characters for Sega’s own Sakura Wars, and the soundtrack was composed by Tsuneo Imahori who previously had contributed to the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack.
So what you have already is an immediately visually striking game with a folk jazz soundtrack. Not bad at all. Then you get to the premise. You take the role of ‘Beyond the Grave’, an undead gunman carrying a weaponised coffin on his back, brought back in order to life in order to take down the Syndicate that had you killed, ‘Millenion’. Millenion have taken over the entire city using a drug called ‘Seed’, which turns everyday citizens into horrifying mutants, making taking them out a bit of a challenge. Luckily, Brandon Heat did have some allies before he died and was reformed into Beyond the Grave, giving you some support in the form of the scientist Dr. T and Mika, a girl who Brandon apparently promised to protect before his demise.
The stages are pretty standard, as you move from one room to the next killing everyone to progress, however this is really where Gungrave sets itself apart. Beyond the Grave carries two very large handguns, that automatically lock on to any enemies around letting you blast them to pieces with the Square button. You can also use this in conjunction with a dive, which instead fires a very fast burst of rounds while dodging incoming enemy fire. However, you can also hammer Square from standing, which initiates one of his most damaging attack modes, where you’re free to rotate Grave as he automatically targets and fires at everyone around him with balletic style and at a furious pace.
Your other attack modes rest in the coffin, which as well as being useful as a shield and a hefty melee weapon contains a multi-barrelled rocket launcher and a chain gun, both of which can be used to devastating effect. Provided you have the ammo in the form of ‘Demolition Shots’, which are awarded when you have enough energy built up from performing ‘Beat’ combos. You get beat any time you attack anything in the game. That doesn’t just mean enemies, so while you’re charging from one room to the next it’s a great idea to keep an eye out for scenery to blast to keep up the counter between bouts. When you’re charged it up you’re free to unleash either a powerful linear attack or a weaker 360 degree rotary attack. You can also expend demolition shots to restore your health, meaning if you’re already filled to max capacity it’s well worth staying topped up on both health and Beat just in case.
Probably the greatest part of this feature is that every boss from Bob Poundmax (I love the names) onwards can be finished off in stylish fashion provided you have a final demolition shot left. They start off somewhat basic, but each finisher builds on the previous one, and so they’re well worth executing every time you’re able to. The presentation overall is pretty great, although the character models can be a little iffy at times, everything moves at a solid pace for the amount of carnage it has to keep up with. There is some slow down, but it contributes the same as it does in a Cave shooter or Bangai-O, serving really to emphasise the impressive action and give you a chance for respite rather than annoy you. The FMV is also pretty damn incredible, certainly not to the extent of the HD cinematics we tend to get these days, but for such an early game in the life-cycle of the PS2 they hold up outstandingly well.
One of the great criticisms held against it at the time may sound familiar. So long as you don’t spend too long struggling through it, the game can be completed in a little over three hours, with just six levels each taking about 30 minutes to clear. Between that, the exceptional presentation and the old-school sensibilities of arcade style fluid action, it suddenly becomes a whole look clearer. Gungrave was the PS2’s Vanquish. Gungrave does retain some replayability in the form of unlockable bonuses, including a very cool action figure style character gallery similar to Resident Evil 5, but for the most part it’s an incredibly brief but entirely satisfying experience.
It also received a sequel titled Gungrave: Overdose, which is also hugely worth picking up. The cut-scenes are sadly absent for the most part, but it adds two extra characters that play remarkably differently to Grave, including a blind gunslinger-swordsman and a ghost who obliterates his enemies using an electric guitar. His name is also Rocketbilly Redcadillac. It’s a little more over the top than the original game, and I kind of prefer the purity of Gungrave, but that said it’s much longer than the first game and the two extra characters provide a real incentive to charge through it again.
Both games can now be picked up for pennies, hell Overdose actually retailed at $14.99, but if you can get one of them the original is just a fantastic lost-gem of a game. If Vanquish failed anywhere, it was maybe that it tried to deliver much too serious a product, as I find the world of Gungrave a lot more exciting in its ridiculousness than Vanquish’s parallels with the real world situation. Then again, considering no one even remembers Gungrave that probably wasn’t a bad decision to make. Still, if you ever wondered why they thought releasing an allegedly ‘three hour retail game’ in 2010 would work, it’s probably because they played Gungrave in 2002.
Gungrave initiates every battle scene with KICK THEIR ASS! in huge lettering, and if following that up with a relentless bombardment of gunfire, backslung-coffin-rocket-launchers and folk jazz isn’t something to be remembered for, then what the bloody hell is? A-.