At this point, Azure Striker Gunvolt is a series defined by stark changes in direction. It began as one of the many attempts at passing the torch from the Mega Man franchise while it was on hiatus, but it has now become a completely different beast in Gunvolt 3.
Sure, the foundation is still there. You run and gun through levels and fight bosses at the end to eventually reach the fortress stages, which are meant to put all your skills to the test. What’s different in Gunvolt is that series (and former Mega Man Zero) developer Inti Creates likes to experiment with controls, characters, and themes.
Every time you boot up a different Gunvolt game, you get greeted with different views on the Adepts (people with supernatural powers, basically), Muses, and the Sumeragi Group, which is at the forefront of most conflicts portrayed in the stories. Not only that, but they like to switch up protagonists very often as well.
Now, in the third main entry in the series, Inti has done it again. The new protagonist is Kirin, who once again features a completely different playstyle from Gunvolt, and surprisingly, isn’t even a full-fledged character in this entry. The question here is: How does Inti balance out its numerous changes in direction without losing the grip on what makes the series special? Well, let’s try to unwrap it now.
Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is an action-platformer game developed and published by Inti Creates exclusively for the Nintendo Switch (multiplatform versions will follow this winter). You can get it on the eShop for $30.
Story — Flying and Sinking at the Same Time
Gunvolt 3 chooses to forgo most of the plot points that Gunvolt 2 hinted at being important to instead basically reboot the whole thing. The second game had split its story between two campaigns: one where you play as Gunvolt and another where you play as Copen. It seems like the third game picks up from the true ending of Gunvolt’s campaign in the second, but the reason is a big spoiler so let’s sidestep it.
Even though it takes place on the same timeline, every possible storyline you could think of to follow Gunvolt 2’s events was ignored in favor of a decades-long time skip. Copen’s story branched off into the Luminous Avenger iX side games in another timeline, but even though he’s still in action on the main series’ timeline, you don’t get to see him at all in Gunvolt 3.
So… what exactly happens in Gunvolt 3? Well, Inti ripped away Gunvolt’s happy ending from the second game by making his powers uncontrollable. That made him get sealed away by the formerly completely hostile, now partially allied Sumeragi Group. His power got so strong that he is not even considered an Adept at this point, but a Primal Dragon instead (he even looks the part).
While Gunvolt was sealed, Sumeragi used his excess energy as a literal power supply, which backfired really badly. As decades passed, his energy started radiating slowly to other Adepts, which also transformed them into Primal Dragons as well. That is not the only problem though.
Sumeragi has been keeping him a complete secret even from Shadow Yakumo, an organization that keeps an eye on Sumeragi’s shadier side. They sent one of their agents, Kirin, to investigate. She’s our new protagonist, and I love her. You’ll also love her.
Kirin’s Septima is Radiant Fetters, which gameplay-wise is incredibly fun and deep, and story-wise serves as her way of sealing away other Septimas entirely. In the first level, she uses it (together with a kiss!) to partially seal Gunvolt’s dragon form when she discovers his location deep in the facility.
But instead of waking up as his own twink self, Gunvolt appears as a small dog that honestly looks more like a Pokémon than anything else. This is presumably because of the way Kirin’s seal combined with Gunvolt’s powers, which is a dynamic also relevant for the Image Pulses. Those are formed by a mixture of Gunvolt and Kirin’s past memories, which was enough to bring back an image of Lumen, his long-lost Muse.
She maintains the same gameplay function as in other games and is still the source of Inti’s attempts at creating an AI Idol by having her sing vocal tracks when you reach a certain level of Kudos. Unfortunately, her role in the plot is never properly explored, because she barely says a word throughout the whole game. Not even the nature of her existence as an Image Pulse instead of a whole being is explored (unless I missed an optional dialogue that touches on that).
Extra Characterization is Important
Oh, yeah. Gunvolt never focuses solely on telling a direct and quick story like Mega Man usually does, because it also has both Story Mode + and optional conversations with your comrades. Story Mode + allows you to listen to constant dialogue (mostly between Kirin and Gunvolt) while you play a level. You can customize the subtitles and portrait opacity to your liking, so it doesn’t necessarily get in your way.
Not only that but now, for the first time in the series, there are English voices available for these conversations that make them way easier to understand while you’re focused on playing. I still don’t believe they’re an ideal way of building characterization for the cast because you’re still going to be focused on the tight gameplay at the same time which will surely make you end up ignoring a big chunk of the dialogue.
It is kind of sad because I love the cast. In the first four main stages, instead of killing the Primal Dragons, you’re just sealing the Dragon Radiation that made them go berserk, so they join you later to form your team. They’re mostly dumb stereotypes, but they bounce off Kirin and Gunvolt well enough that it doesn’t become a big problem.
The Primal Dragons are introduced in their boss rooms as exaggeratedly negative portrayals of their character traits, which are softened up and turned into charming quirks after they join the team. For example, BB. He starts out as basically a harasser trying to desperately hit on Kirin to then become a regular dumb smooth talker type. That is character development, I guess?
Apart from the characters, the main plot didn’t do much for me though, because like in Luminous Avenger iX 2, it feels a bit like filler. Not as much as iX 2, considering that it introduced a new main character and a decent cliffhanger at the end, but very little happens in the story compared to the first two main titles.
The main focus is on the relationship between Adepts and their hidden, darker powers coupled with the moral questions that Sumeragi once again shatters to seek profit, but they’re just allusions, and they’re mostly placed at the very end of the story. It is a shame that the only Gunvolt that could live up to its story potential is still the second one for now.
Gameplay — Sidestepping Upwards
The gameplay of Gunvolt 3 is its shining pearl. It has the most focused system in the whole series and offers huge improvements and differences to impress both newcomers and veterans alike. It all begins with the new change in protagonists since now you get to control Kirin.
The main difference between her and the other protagonists in the series is how much she depends on the player being proactive. While both Gunvolt and Copen allow you to tag enemies and then hang around them dodging while you deal homing damage, Kirin needs to earn her potential dodges.
Her Radiant Fetters function as a ranged attack that deals no damage at all, but instead builds up a seal meter that can be cashed in either by hitting the enemy with her sword or by using Arc Chain, her damage-dealing instant dash that uses the power of Gunvolt’s electricity to function. She can use this ability after tagging any enemy with any number of talismans, and this mechanic is not wasted at all.
Gunvolt 2 had a little problem of offering two campaigns with only a few levels exclusive to each character, which made the fortress stages seem more generic than usual. This is not a complete knock against that game’s direction because it used the two characters well, but it still goes to show how much more focused Gunvolt 3 is.
Not even the first game used the main character’s abilities so well with the level and enemy designs. Kirin can hop around anywhere at insane speeds while taking advantage of the level architecture to get where she needs. You can tag multiple enemies (which disables their melee hitbox by the way) and then cash in with an Arc Chain at the end, or hit each one with an individual Arc Chain.
The latter scenario is often more useful than the former since you get both an extra jump for each Arc Chain and more Kudos from doing them individually. Also, the later you touch the ground, the more Kudos you get. Basically, Kirin is very OP, just like her other protagonist pals.
Mechanics and Difficulty
The secret to Gunvolt’s unique difficulty curve is still here, but better. Getting to the end of any title in the series is not that hard of a task, since you can ignore most of the hits with the Prevasion ability (which is still present in 3), a skill that negates damage by using up some of your easily rechargeable ammo instead. Not only that, but your character skills also make the moments where you do take damage way easier to deal with since some can heal you. It’s complete overkill.
That turns off a lot of fans (especially the Zero purists) but I believe it’s a clever way of introducing a slightly subtle easy mode. Since these games are meant to be immensely replayable, Inti chooses to let players decide when to take off the training wheels without insulting them. Prevasion also comes with the drawback of basically destroying your Kudos each time you use it, so scoring becomes something that only dedicated players can engage with properly.
Kudos serve both as score and to activate Lumen’s song, which in the case of Gunvolt 3 will power either playable character for a couple of minutes when you reach 1000, and again when you reach 4000. Now, you don’t lose all of them at once by getting hit one or two times, but instead, get your count frozen until you get the amount you lost back. This is way less punishing than the other systems and still lets learning players engage with Lumen’s mechanics.
It also means that checkpoints being optional is no longer a thing here. Before, you could ignore all of the checkpoints in order to maximize your Kudos multiplier, but with the Kudos Lock system, that’s not needed anymore. It’s overall a great change that made my first playthrough way more involved.
Even though I really love the genre, I’m not the best action platformer player, so it takes me a couple of playthroughs to start properly engaging with every mechanic. This makes Gunvolt 3 the prime choice for someone like me, which was already a thing in the other games, but now is exacerbated beautifully by the changes I mentioned.
Gunvolt 3 Is still a very easy game, though. There are unlockable hard modes that make the enemies and obstacles bigger threats, but you have to actively try to sabotage yourself in order to die in normal mode. Not even pitfalls instantly kill you here, and that may bother people looking for a challenge right after they boot up the game. As of now, you have to play through the whole thing and a bit more to get even a shred of challenge into the experience. Still, gunning for high scores may be enough to satiate that thirst.
Another proof of how this game is more focused than its predecessors is found in the mage Pulse system. At the end of every level, depending on your performance, you get a certain amount of Image Pulse pulls. Yeah, they work just like in a gacha game, but that’s technically how the materials system worked on the other games as well, only this time you get to see a star rating and a cute 2D artwork attached to what’s functionally just a buff.
Some Image Pulses are guaranteed on specific levels on your first play, and others are chosen at random using different pools. Although they seem weird at first, they work very naturally with your leveling progression and aren’t nearly as annoying to get as the materials you needed to craft equipment in the other titles. In the end, it’s a big win.
The Gunvolt question
Now, concerning Gunvolt. He’s technically here, but if you wanted a proper mode with just him, you’re out of luck. A good chunk of the fanbase showed concern for his role in Gunvolt 3 since the trailers seemed mysteriously careful with showing him in-game. This concern exists for a long time. Just for some perspective, out of the seven different games that bear the Gunvolt name, the titular character is only the sole protagonist in the first one. Even the deuteragonist/anti-hero Copen has gotten more games to himself with his two Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX spin-offs.
But he is in fact in Gunvolt 3. You can summon him once your Fetters Gauge reaches 100%, but it can go over it until the gauge reaches 300%, which will make him last longer. He plays as he did in the other games, but with Lumen’s song always on. He has infinite energy and jumps and even got his own Arc Chain. He’s insanely overpowered, even more than in any other game.
That’s exactly why I see his role in this game as more of a super mode than a proper character. There is a way to use him from the beginning of a stage with fewer insane buffs (I won’t spoil how, though), but he still only lasts until your Fetters Gauge runs out.
I see this as being a fine way to shift focus to Kirin. As much as I love Gunvolt as a character, I’m not that loyal to consistent franchise iteration that I would get upset that he’s not fully playable here. I understand that the people who really love his playstyle would love to see more of him on his own series, but if we keep getting characters as interesting as Kirin in the meantime, it’s fine.
I believe the desire to get Gunvolt back as the main protagonist may come from a place of always expecting games in this genre to be loyal to the previous titles gameplay-wise, and to only evolve select granular mechanics in the meantime. Hell, people still want new mainline Mega Man games even after 11 of those and many, many more spinoffs.
The action platformer, much unlike its platformer kin, lends itself to iteration better than most. It doesn’t need new gimmicks to work, similarly to character action games like Devil May Cry of Ninja Gaiden, but in 2D. This means that dealing away with a character entirely means way more than it would in another franchise.
Still, I argue that Kirin was worth the hassle. It’s clear that the team in charge of the combat worked incredibly hard to make her loop work. Her boss fights are incredibly nuanced since you need to strategize your Arc Chain usage in order to dodge properly (and at the right time). Not only that, but her standard melee combos also offer a wide array of options to damage dealing that work well against specific boss patterns.
It’s a delight to play, and I’d argue even more fun than the time I had with Copen. Kirin is agile, proactive, and allows for insane skill expression, in a way that makes me feel confident in comparing her to Zero in his own franchise. It works wonders for Gunvolt’s already strong core gameplay, and also offers way more replayability with the added Hard and Very Hard unlockable modes.
Graphics & Sound — Pixel Art at its Finest
Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 is beautiful. It’s easily the most gorgeous game that Inti has ever crafted. The Gunvolt series began as a 3DS franchise, but ever since it ditched the console for modern platforms, the games have started to look progressively more breathtaking. That doesn’t mean they weren’t beautiful before, but now it’s a whole other story.
For starters, there is an ungodly amount of 2D artwork scattered around this game. The Dragon Saviors HQ (Kirin and Gunvolt’s newly formed squad within Sumeragi) constantly changes to reflect the number of people you’ve managed to recruit along your journey, the cutscenes often cut from the standard dialogue boxes layered onto the gameplay to beautiful CGs, and each of the Image Pulses comes with 2D art and pixel art of the character.
It has just a lot more artwork than ever before, and it makes the story feel more personal since you get to see more of the characters interacting in unique ways and in the most impactful scenes. It also doesn’t hurt that the matte paintings displayed on the level backgrounds are varied, detailed, and often change multiple times on the same level.
This goes to show how much the budget increased since the first entry. Gunvolt 3 is one of those games you can point at when talking about the potential of gorgeous sprite art in modern games. It’s astounding. Each moving sprite gets different transparent layers to add to their movements as well, alongside effects like the bloom on certain attacks. Did I also mention that the pixel density is off the charts?
Some bosses look like they were a pain to animate considering how complex their designs are, and just the amount of animations present is staggering. It feels prestigious to play a sprite-based game that looks this good in 2022.
Between the Soundtrack and the Idol
The sound department also does not disappoint at all, but mostly if we’re talking about the sounds themselves, or if you usually like Gunvolt’s OSTs. I’m going to come clean here: I really don’t feel anything when listening to any soundtracks in this series. Some Mega Man tracks (especially in the classic saga) sound appealing to me, but that’s about it.
That said, my personal dislike toward this specific mixture of a bunch of synth hits that try to emulate an orchestral atmosphere with one or two real instruments mixed in awkwardly should not be representative of the opinion the fanbase has at large. Many fans love the tracks present in these games, and I’m not going to take that away from them.
I’d say the same thing for Lumen’s vocal tracks. They follow the same style but with some insanely unfitting melodies for what could form decent pop songs. Look, I’m pretty open when it comes to music. Everything goes, from experimental to pop to weird old-timey game stuff. But I honestly can’t grasp what Inti is going for with these Idol tracks. They sound really similar to the Luminous Avenger iX ones and often blend together.
There’s no need for me to keep injecting my own weird negative perspective into what’s a perfectly serviceable soundtrack, so let me gush about the one song I kinda liked: Memoria of “He”. It lets melodies build up without constantly raising the stakes (even though it still does), offers melodic breaks every now and then, and has an insanely pretty outro with a small piano section.
Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a key provided by Inti Creates.