My favourite film of all time is The Crow. I have seen the film so many times that I can recite it from heart. “It can’t rain all the time…. I thought I’d use your front door… And I say I’m dead, and I move.” It’s a classic. One of my favourite scenes in the film is the one where “The Crow”, Eric Draven, marches into a room full of gangsters and proceeds to gun the lot of them down. Because he’s undead he’s immune to their bullets in return, so instead, he does all these amazing stunts as neither the filmmakers nor fiction needed to concern themselves with the risk to Draven’s character. It was a true power fantasy kind of action scene, and Brandon Lee, as Draven, did that scene so damned cool that I was convinced that one day video games would get to the point that they would be able to do action like that and that this would be the ultimate in video game action. Gungrave G.O.R.E is that game. Sadly, I now question everything I assumed would make for a cool video game, because Gungrave is terrible.
The developers at Korean studio, Iggymob, have done everything they can to amp the action of G.O.R.E up to the maximum. It’s basically a run-and-gun game, where hordes of enemies attack you from every corner, and you need to keep blasting away. A combo system that relies on you constantly filling enemies with bullets also incentivises you to power through these levels, while taking as few breathers as possible. There is no nuance or subtlety to any of this. It is pure stand-and-deliver stuff.
Admittedly it does look cool at a top level. Every bit as cool as Eric Draven. The protagonist, Grave, is a fascinating bit of character design (originally from Japanese legend, Naitō Yasuhiro), in the same vein as the over-the-top urban goth look they painted Brandon Lee in. This guy carries a coffin on his back (which doubles as his melee weapon), and dual pistols that fellow gun-loving, big action star, Bayonetta, would find to be impressive. Unlike Bayonetta, Grave’s not a nimble dancer in battle. Instead, he stomps his way through, guns blazing with total accuracy from all angles that he makes John Wick look like an amateur.
There’s certainly a 90’s/naughties-era aesthetic about Gungrave G.O.R.E and the protagonist’s appearance and behaviour. While I don’t think that the urban goth look is as counter-culturally cool as it was when Brandon Lee did it back with the Crow, as an older millennial that remembers that era, yeah, G.O.R.E works for me. The entire game is basically that scene from The Crow that runs on (what feels like) forever.
But that’s also why it becomes tiring to play about ten minutes in, and doesn’t improve from there. Grave doesn’t bother dodging enemy bullets for the most part – he has a powerful “shield” (which is invisible) that makes him as effectively invulnerable as Eric Draven. While this isn’t explained within the game itself, if you drop into the “history” section from the main menu, the run-through of the plot of the previous two Gungrave titles will fill you in on just how thematically related Grave and Draven really are. Grave’s “shield” can absorb an incredible amount of punishment before it disappears completely and then Grave starts to lose a little health from an equally massive pool of that. If he can avoid being hit for even a second or two, that shield starts regenerating and is quickly back at full. Furthermore, certain special attacks will also result in some immediate shield recovery. Even on the highest difficulty setting, you are outright encouraged to see nothing that you’re fighting against as a risk, and instead, just drive through shooting at everything with no concern.
It’s not to say the game is inherently easy. The sheer volume of enemies that you’ll face, and the fact that there are some attack patterns that can effectively get you stuck in an unbreakable pattern of damage, means that you can see the “game over” screen. It’s just that the game does everything it can to force you to play it as a blunt instrument that can’t be stopped. There’s no strategy, no tactics, just the need to keep those guns rat-a-tatting and knowing when to time the occasional special attack. The greatest developers in the world couldn’t sustain something this simple over an entire video game.
Boss battles are the sole exception, but they’re frustrating for other reasons. In these battles, you do need to move around and get out of the way of big attacks, but Grave isn’t the most nimble guy, so while he has a dodge button, half the time you’re still going to be hit while you’re waiting for him to leap out of the way. This is especially infuriating given that some bosses have attacks that will deplete almost all of the shield, if not insta-kill, and were clearly not designed with a cumbersome protagonist in mind. Add in a general lack of variety in attack patterns, and the boss design in Gungrave is at the poor end of the PS2/PS3 era throwbacks.
Every action game needs a “sword of Damocles” hovering over the character’s head, and that needs to be carefully balanced. It’s important that players feel empowered and that they can take on entire armies single-handedly. Action games sell a fantasy, after all. But it’s also important to give players a reason to stay invested – a challenge that gives the button mashing a point. Gungrave gets it wrong on two counts. Firstly, during the actual levels, there’s no sword of Damocles at all. You’ll simply feel like a functionally invulnerable undead meat tank slowly cutting down entire armies that, despite blasting bullets and missiles at you, aren’t really able to hurt you. Then, against the bosses, it’s often the exact opposite, and suddenly the illusion that Grave is a brutally powerful and effective being is shattered. You stop feeling cool against these bosses when you’re scrambling about and desperately wishing Grave would drop that stupid coffin for five seconds so he could actually move a bit.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing of all, however, is that there are other playable characters in Gungrave G.O.R.E, and if there was one thing this game desperately needed it was for those characters to offer a completely different experience. I’m not going to spoil who those characters are for people that are fans of the series, because I’m fairly certain they’re meant to be an exciting surprise, but unfortunately, they fail to add variety or nuance to the package. The closest was a melee-focused character, which had a bit of potential but ultimately makes you realise that the Gungrave engine was built around ranged combat.
Putting aside the gameplay, the narrative is… well, it’s for the best that the developers didn’t try and make too much of it. The story has something to do with an island of gangsters, where someone has set up some kind of experiment facility, which is turning the gangsters into mutant monsters, and Grave is there to shoot up all the monsters. It’ll make slightly more sense if you watch the “history” catch-up video, but even then the plot in this thing is so thin it’s largely irrelevant. Because the game is so incredibly linear, there’s no real room for emergent storytelling, and because the focus is on such extreme action there’s never really a sense of setting or characterisation, either. Your attachment to the narrative rests entirely on whether you connect with a surly, Crow-like undead revenant with a coffin on his back. And perhaps you do. It’s a flimsy concept to rest an entire narrative on, though.
The few cutscenes that go with the plot are spectacular, and the team at Iggymob has generally delivered some amazing art direction to really sell the brutally B-grade aesthetic with the extreme gore. Unfortunately, the voice acting fails to land the right notes in English. Pulling off cheesy B-grade in performance is actually harder than it sounds, and none of the actors quite got there with their efforts in this one. The best solution here is to switch the voice track over to Japanese. The downside to doing that is that a good chunk of what storytelling is in the game happens while within the levels, and unless you understand Japanese, you’re for a hard time following along, as the English subtitles are a little hard to focus on when you’re being flocked by a hundred goons.
I was really looking forward to Gungrave G.O.R.E. While I’m not deeply invested in the series, I enjoyed Gungrave: Overdose on the PlayStation 2 as an entertaingly trashy B-action exprerience. Unfortunately, while I do admire the attempt to give players the power fantasy of playing as a guy so utterly, brutally powerful that he can calmly walk through a bullet ballet, Gungrave G.O.R.E burns its goodwill far too quickly and from there it’s too exhausting to bother with.