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  1. Azure Striker Gunvolt was a game that was released in summer 2014 (spring 2015 to all of you poor folks in Europe/Australia) to a mixed reception. It was very much love it or hate it- many making direct comparisons to Mega Man (as was bound to happen, due to the developers- Inti Creates –having worked on the Mega Man Zero and ZX series) found it dull and lacking, while those who went in without those expectations found it to be decent, at the very least. Despite its flaws, I adored the first game- it had its own identity and did its own thing, not trying to be like Mega Man or cash in on it. So, needless to say, I was hyped when they announced a sequel in early 2015 and teased it with concept art (spoiler alert: that concept art is nowhere in the game). However, for a whole year nothing was shown- until Magfest 2016, where the first footage was revealed as well as the protagonist’s new design and the game’s theme song. Then, in the March 2016 Direct, a full trailer was shown- revealing a ton of new info, including a new playable character. I’ll spare you the details of the steady info releases leading up to release, and just jump into what you probably want to read: my thoughts on the game. Localization Yes, this gets its own section- and is the very first one, no less. The first game’s localization was very controversial, thanks to the majority of in-game text being cut so they could rush out it stateside and the rest being not-so-accurately localized by 8-4. These cuts were talks with an important NPC and mid-stage chatter (think Star Fox)- seemingly nothing that effects the core experience, but I’d compare it to a Tales Of game not having the skits localized. So much characterization, worldbuilding, and just plain funny moments were dumped. Inti Creates was aware, and for the Steam release of the first game included a “Japanese Voice Mode” with the original Japanese voiceacting intact and a much more faithful localization. This game’s localization much more closely resembles the Steam version’s. All the Japanese voice acting is intact (I’m mostly neutral on that matter), and all mid-stage dialogue and NPC chats are kept intact. There are many, many interactions that –as a fan of the first game- got me chuckling, and I almost always had a smile on my face while reading them. In general there are many callbacks to the first game that work to help establish a greater sense of continuity between the two. Even then, there’s still a few that are entertaining if you don’t know the characters at all- for instance, the contemplation of bottomless pits. However, the big caveat about the mid-stage dialogue (and the touted reason that it was cut from the original’s localization) is that it covers up a diagonal swipe (mostly the bottom) of the screen. In most instances it’s not a big deal, but can be frustrating on certain bosses. Fortunately, it can easily be toggled in the pause menu (“Story Mode+”), so that if you don’t care much for the banter/are replaying missions you don’t have to deal with it. The game’s rated T for Mild Language, Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, and Suggestive Themes- compared to the first one’s E10+ for Mild Language and Fantasy Violence. I personally think ASG1 was borderline T, but ASG2 definitely earned that rating. There is not one instance of the infamous “gack” or “jitt”; instead, all the other main expletives of the English language are used. Notable points include Gunvolt himself saying “Go to hell!” and Copen (the second playable character) repeatedly labeling psychics/Adepts as “bastards”, as well as a general stream of craps, damns, and hells with a side of “pain in the ass” and "now I'm pissed/you've pissed me off". Why all that counts as only mild language beats me- the first one had several blatant innuendos and shares its rating with the Lego games, so it's obvious the ESRB works in mysterious ways. There’s also a certain boss character who’s an explicit masochist- in the mandatory boss-rush rematch that is the closest tie this game has to standard Mega Man tradition, she states that the main character killing her the first time was a “sign of young love”, and that since she loves him she wants to reciprocate the “favor”. This ‘aint Mega Man, folks. There were name changes here and there, and I'm certain the localized dialogue isn't 100% true to the Japanese voice acting, but I don’t give a damn about the literalist camp (thank the amount of nitpicking FE14’s localization has gotten). This game’s localization is heads-and-shoulders above the first one’s. Gameplay Finally, the meat of the review. ASG2’s gameplay at first glance is just like the first one’s- something that anybody familiar with Inti Creates should expect. Gunvolt’s “main” weapon- his gun –is used mostly just to tag enemies. Enemies can be tagged up to three times, or you can tag three different enemies. The main weapon in his arsenal is the Flashfield- acts as a weak area-of-effect, damage-over-time attack around you, but rapidly depletes the health of tagged enemies (how rapid depends on how many times they’ve been tagged). However, alongside streamlining and tweaking, a new playable character was introduced- Copen, the rival character from the first game. Copen plays quite differently from GV- his gun is his main method of attack, and perfectly damaging in it’s own right. However, by dashing into enemies he can tag them- giving his gun a homing effect and much greater damage. He also has air dashes- up to three at a time, while being able to do an extra one for each enemy tagged. His other main difference are his EX weapons- essentially, he has a drone with a Variable Weapons System. As you defeat bosses, new attacks based off of them are unlocked. Though dash-and-blast is his bread-and-butter, the EX weapons provide a nice way to mix things up and do some burst damage. Now, for the streamlining- and there’s quite a bit of it. Firstly, the kudos system. In the first game, your score was heavily dependent on “kudos” (Project Gotham Racing flashbacks, anyone?) that were earned by defeating enemies, with bonuses awarded for killing multiple enemies at the same time, killing them in the air, and things of the sort. However, if you took one hit you lost all the kudos you had gained- checkpoints throughout the level were the primary way to store them, as well as using powerful offensive skills. ASG2 fixes things by introducing three kudos levels: gutless, cautious, and fearless. Gutless keeps you from losing kudos at all, but greatly lowers the amount that you earn. Fearless, on the other hand, is ASG1’s style- but with a bonus to kudos earned. Cautious is the default; with it, you can take three hits before kudos drain- hits that recharge when you use offensive skills. Instead of just mapping out levels and trying to do a no-damage run, kudos management is much more on-the-fly and dynamic- do I wait for the next checkpoint to replenish the hit counter, or should I use an offensive skill to store them here and now? Another instance of streamlining is the new plugs system. In ASG1, each gun had different attributes and could make a certain amount of tags total- this ranged from a measly one to a godly eight. The plugs system makes things so that the amount of times you can tag enemies isn’t tied to the guns themselves, encouraging you to use more of them (in ASG1 there was a pretty linear two-step progression on which gun was best to equip). The default is three, but you can either limit yourself to two and increase your damage dealt or increase the amount of tags you can make to four- but lessen damage dealt. It’s a much more tactical choice- or something that you just don’t bother with at all (like yours truly). Long story short, all guns are now created equal. On the topic of item synthesis, that has also been streamlined. Though replaying levels to get materials for synthesis is still essential, upgrading equipment is much easier. Instead of creating two of the same item and then merging them for a higher fee, items gain XP throughout stages. After four stages, they level up- encouraging you to re-play old stages. However, grinding to upgrade gear isn’t the only reason to replay stages- the challenge system has also been tweaked. You no longer need to accept challenges, or are limited to just three of them- after completion of a stage, the game tells you if you have completed challenges and to report them. However, there’s still a knock against this- you can’t complete any challenges while playing a stage for the first time, and unlocks are still staggered. What this means is that even though I got an S rank on a mission first try, I’d have to re-play to first get the B and then A rank challenges done before I’d even have the chance of knocking out the S-rank challenge. It’s better than the way the first game handled the system, but the biggest issue is still there. Stages Spoiler alert: if you found ASG1’s stages to be bland and boring from a platforming perspective, it’s more of the same here. The intro stages take place around a giant ship, and each stage still has a metallic, technological slant to it. The seven main stages are: -a “haunted” manor -sewers -a clinical database halfway in cyberspace -an orbital elevator (the orbital elevator from the first one, but with a completely different layout) -a scrapyard -a highway that has been overrun with purple crystals -and a frozen-over luxury hotel Though they have different color pallets, most of them aren’t that different aesthetically- with the exception of the haunted manor (home stage to the aforementioned teenage masochist boss). Inti Creates is the main development force behind Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and this stage seems like a shout-out to that game’s roots. It’s a Victorian-style mansion with breakable stain-glass windows that leave behind money and sometimes even enemies. It has torture devices and traps throughout, and honest-to-goodness zombies that rise out of puddles of blood. And the music is primarily a jazz-organ riff, further cementing the referential atmosphere. Other stages have interesting gimmicks- the cyberspace one has wraparound physics, where bottomless pits spit you back out at the top and walking to one side of the screen can make you come out on the other. Another example is the sewers- the boss is a water-wielding Adept, who starts creating traps throughout the stage. These of course require some puzzle-solving. Though the actual stage layouts themselves are fairly basic (as ASG is explicitly more about action than platforming), they all have their own gimmicks that make them memorable and a step above the first game’s (notice a trend?). Bosses Thanks to the Cautious setting becoming default for Kudos management, bosses have become noticeably harder, with faster and harder-to-dodge attacks (hence why any serious playthrough of a stage should probably turn off mid-stage conversations). They still have fairly straightforward patterns- they’re just much harder to deal with. Stand-outs include the final boss’s first form—who gets crazier the lower health they are and are totally different from anything else you’ve fought. The game also has a good and bad ending system like the first one, though thankfully it's much more streamlined (Gunvolt 2: Streamlined, anybody?) and doesn't require looking things up on the internet to figure it out. Just get the bad ending with both characters, then pop into the last stage as either of them, run through it again, and you're on your way to the good ending. Below I'll discuss the true final bosses, which just so happen to be the easiest and hardest bosses in the game: The Story Inti Creates has always been better at worldbuilding and making characters over telling a straight-up story, with there being several different drama CDs and written side-stories to ASG1 that further flesh out the characters and the world. ASG1’s story was fairly simplistic and nothing special- like its predecessor, ASG2’ story is nothing special. However, there’s an added caveat- familiarity with the expanded universe is basically required to make sense of a couple of the events and references in-game, including the big ending twist. I’m not really going to talk about it’s contents all that much, because as I said it’s nothing special; if you’re familiar with Inti Creates’ other work, the things that you probably do appreciate about their writing is their dedication to worldbuilding and fleshing out characters through in-game interactions and spin-off material. That said… the wait to Gunvolt 3 is going to be long and hard. I almost feel sorry for Copen. Extra Features The game supports the Shovel Knight amiibo as a secret boss. As I have an OG 3DS and don’t have any amiibo, I can’t make comment on this. After getting the good ending, though, you unlock Runner mode- essentially, a mini speedrun mode with all dialogue and equipment bonuses removed (no prevasion). It's challenging, and I'm not quite good enough at the game to really utilize it yet. Those two features may not sound like much, but those are two more features than the original release of ASG1 had. The Character Select Screen Yes, this gets it’s own section. Because yes, despite there being a grand total of two playable characters, it is that awesome. Their artwork on it is awesome, the effect of when you switch between them (especially with 3D on) is awesome, the music is awesome… the CSS in general is more awesome than it has any right to be. Conclusion As a fan of the first game, Azure Striker Gunvolt 2 is an absolute blast and a treat that I would absolutely recommend to fellow fans of the first game. It streamlines and expands upon a lot, making it better than the first game in virtually every single regard. However, if you disliked the first game or are looking for your Mega Man fix, there is nothing here for you. Azure Striker Gunvolt isn’t meant to be an action-platformer throwback- it’s much more focused on action. In regards to the first game, the devs commented that they wanted to prove to themselves that they could create something that was similar yet different; something that was more accessible than Mega Man. Azure Striker Gunvolt is a fundamentally different game from Mega Man and does it’s own thing- something I greatly respect. Inti Creates has proven that they’re a competent developer without Capcom and their IPs. I’m looking forward to Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, not primarily because it’s a Castlevania throwback (I haven’t touched any game in that series, though I have a passing interest in it), but because it’s being developed by Inti Creates and I know that a game that is developed primarily by them is probably going to be good. I’m just never touching Gal-Gun with a thirty-foot pole. I’m sorry, but no- I will not go there. Random fun fact: Ghauri is one of the adepts who pretty much "raps" non-stap using rhymes. ACE, who have done work for One Piece and (as more of you will probably recognize them from) Xenoblade, is credited with overseeing said rap lyrics. Huh.
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