Inti Creates is one of the most talented retro-style platform developers out there. While Nintendo continues to look for ways to modernise the 2D platformer in its Mario, Donkey Kong, and other properties, Inti Creates focuses on pixels, classic level design, and challenging, taut mechanics. Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is very much cut from this cloth.
The game is set in the Gal*Gun universe, though it’s entirely unrelated to the Gal*Gun games. Basically, two of the characters from the series (Shinobu and Maya) are transported to a very gothic, very Castlevania-like castle, and need to track down and defeat the evil Kurona to get taken back to the “real world.” There’s nothing much to this narrative and Inti Creates doesn’t let it get in the way of jumping straight into the reason that you’re playing the game – to experience a very Castlevania-like adventure, with all the ugly monsters, grim aesthetics and challenging platforming that entails.
It’s important to clarify that this is a Castlevania-like game instead of a Metroidvania. You won’t be backtracking to use newly acquired abilities to access previously inaccessible parts of old areas as you travel a maze-like map. Instead, you’re set on a pretty linear journey that is always quite clear about where you need to go next. There’s the occasional secret and bonus to discover, but for the most part, you’re following a pretty strict path through this particular journey.
This is actually a pretty confident move by the team at Inti Creates. One of the big benefits of the Metroidvania formula for developers is that it does give players things to think about as they play. Combat and platforming aren’t the only aspects, exploration and puzzle-solving are a big part of the genre as well. These are all supplementary forms of engagement that can help to hide weaknesses by throwing a lot of different features at players. By doing away with those elements, Inti Creates is making everything about the game that platforming action. There’s nowhere for Grim Guardians to hide. Luckily for that team, they’re just that adept at it.
Grim Guardians has an easy mode, but it was really meant to be played on the more challenging setting, where enemy patterns are dangerous and boss battles will make your hands sweat. It’s not challenging by disempowering players, though. You’re in control of two fairly nimble characters, and because one is strong at ranged combat, and the other at melee, you’re equipped with a wide range of tools to counter the threats that you face. Just like in Castlevania there are also limited-use secondary items that can be picked up along the way to give you further tactical options.
Enemies are placed cleverly throughout levels to maximise the challenge that they offer, and bosses will test all of your dexterity. The biggest criticism that can be levelled at the game is that Inti Creates has done all of this before in some way or another. However, whether you see that as the company treading water or playing with its strengths is really down to your own perspective.
There is one creative little quirk that the developers have added which is a nice touch. If either of your two characters runs out of health, it doesn’t mean a lost life. Rather, you need to try and solo your way from the nearest checkpoint with your other character, to reach the downed body to revive them. It’s a cute twist on a very familiar formula now (thanks to Dark Souls and its ilk), and it does add nice tension to those desperate rescue attempts. Unfortunately, it also means that checkpoints are spaced reasonably far apart (to make such revival attempts challenging) and the game’s save system absolutely sucks. In 2023 there needs to be options to save anywhere without losing progress.
In addition to being experts in precision platforming, Inti Creates is also well known for creating retro-looking games that are just gorgeous, and Grim Guardians is one of the better efforts here. The sprites have smooth, intricate animations (almost too intricate, given how small they are), and the gothic aesthetics for the monsters and environments is the perfect balance between the dark and horrific and elegant and beautiful. Too many games that aim for a gothic atmosphere neglect the latter quality and it sets the wrong tone. There is also the occasional CG still art, which is also the closest the game gets to the Gal*Gun series it supposedly belongs to. There’s a light touch of fan service in those (though nowhere near the extent of Gal*Gun) and they are of exceptionally high quality. A neat reward for making progress through the game, if you will.
Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is Inti Creates at its safest, working in a genre it is most comfortable with. That’s not a criticism, given how talented the developer is at this stuff. If you enjoy the older Castlevania games, you’re going to love this. At the same time, as confident as this production is, it’s hard not to wish that the team at Inti Creates had pushed themselves a little further for this outing. It’s just a little too safe for broader appeal beyond its main niche.