GunValkyrie is Smilebit’s bastard child. Both Panzer Dragoon and Jet Set Radio Future, Smilebit’s other two Xbox offerings, have received critical acclaim nearly unanimously across video game review websites and magazines, but GunValkyrie’s release was received with a decidedly less enthusiastic reaction from the overall media. A few short hours after the gaming public got their hands on GunValkyrie, cries of frustration and the sound of controllers being launched across rooms echoed ominously throughout Xbox owners’ households, and gamers flocked in droves to game retailers demanding their money back. “It’s too hard to control,” they complained. “You can’t even strafe in this game!”
After the dust settled and the crowds returned home satisfied with getting their money back, a few diligent gamers were still hunched in front of their televisions, determined to come to grips with the game’s difficult control scheme. In the end, it was these few assiduous gamers who truly came to appreciate GunValkyrie for being one of the most unique and entertaining gameplay experiences on the Xbox console. But, before I get into my justification on why this largely misunderstood title is worthy of your attention, I need to backtrack a bit and elaborate on the world that is GunValkyrie.
The game’s story takes place in an alternative history in which Britain has become the dominant superpower in the world. This is entirely due to a British scientist’s discovery of a new, omnipotent power source captured from Haley’s Comet during its cyclical passing of the Earth in 1907. After years of using the newfound energy for benevolent purposes, Dr. Hebble (the afore mentioned scientist) suddenly disappears, and soon after strange insect-like creatures begin attacking Earth colonies on various planets. In the game you play the role of the Haley’s Chosen (Kelly and Saburouta), the only two people on Earth who can safely channel the new energy without being destroyed by it. The job of the Chosen is to make sure the power source never falls into the wrong hands, so naturally they set out immediately to investigate the correlation between Dr. Hebble’s disappearance and the strange alien sightings.
Both members of the Haley’s Chosen are equipped with sophisticated armor units called Gearskins that can temporarily propel their wearers airborne, and the main aspect of gameplay consists of boosting around levels cleansing the area of aliens. There are fifteen levels in the game and they are broken up into ‘Defeat all enemies,’ ‘Clear all enemies in X minutes,’ ‘Retrieve X item’ and boss stages. Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of these level objectives, because the true challenge of playing GunValkyrie is mastering the use of your Gearskin’s boost feature to stay airborne, defeat your foes, and accrue as many points as humanly possible in the process.
Now that I’ve covered the basics I want to discuss the area of GunValkyrie that is subject to the most debate: the controls. In defense of those who gave up on this title early, GunValkyrie does require a good deal of patience due to its considerably steep learning curve. For those used to the Halo-style control scheme that maps moving/strafing to the left analog stick and looking/turning to the right, GunValkyrie’s controls will seem highly unintuitive. In the game the left control stick is used for both moving and turning, while the right is dedicated completely to looking/aiming. The issue many people have with this set-up is that the ability to strafe has been completely removed. Despite this seemingly glaring omission, once a few hours have been spent with the game, it becomes apparent that the controls in GunValkyrie are brilliantly implemented and suit the gameplay perfectly.
The key to understanding why Smilebit chose this control set-up is mastering the various boost techniques in the game. By clicking down the left analog stick and pressing in a direction, your character will begin a ‘boost dash.’ Unfortunately, if you keep holding down the analog stick you will run out of fuel in a few seconds, so learning how to rapidly boost in different directions is a must if you want to conserve enough fuel to stay airborne for long periods of time. Not only does repeated boosting conserve fuel and keep you off the ground (which is a place you absolutely do NOT want to be due to the massive number of swarming aliens), but it also builds up your boost gauge (a counter in the lower left-hand corner of the screen). Once you build your boost gauge up to 25 you enter the ‘Mobius State,’ thereby gaining unlimited use of your Napalm/Meteor Crash special attacks and ten precious seconds of invulnerability. After becoming comfortable with these advanced boost techniques you realize that strafing, in fact, possible, but only while you are in the air.
After each level you are awarded points based on criteria such as the amount of time taken to complete the stage, number of advanced boost techniques used, number of enemies defeated, etc. These points are switched over to money and before starting the next level you are given a chance to upgrade some of your equipment at the shop. Increased lock-on capacity for your gun, larger fuel tank for your Gearskin and a few other power-ups can be purchased to help make your life easier in the game’s later levels. Kelly will upgrade Gearskins automatically towards the end of the story mode and become the faster, more powerful (and aptly named) Kelly-2. If you find the ‘Haley’s Core’ hidden on each of the levels Kelly will transform into her all-powerful final form: Kelly-3. For some reason Smilebit decided to not allow any transformations for the game’s other character Saburouta, and because of this he often gets neglected in favor of Kelly.
Once the Story Mode is completed you unlock the Challenge Mode. This new mode allows you to go back to any of the game’s fifteen levels (including boss stages) and try to get the highest score. This adds a good deal to the title’s longevity, because the Challenge Mode is just as addicting as trying to beat your fastest times in a racing game. You can even use Kelly-2 and Kelly-3 (once you’ve unlocked them in Story Mode) in your efforts to best your previous top scores.
GunValkyrie was originally being developed for the Dreamcast, but after that console died an early death Smilebit decided in mid development to release the game for the Xbox. It would have been easy for Smilebit to release an inferior looking game, but thankfully they put much time and energy into tapping the Xbox’s power. Bump mapping is put to good use in the game by creating a realistic looking shine on all metal objects such as the characters’ Gearskin armor and the various metallic surroundings of the Civilian Base levels. Both indoor and outdoor environments are extremely vibrant and detailed and the framerate stays rock solid for 99% of the game. Some stages, such as lava filled Naglfar’s Pit levels, feature some incredible shimmering heat wave and particle effects that look absolutely gorgeous. The insectoid enemies in the game are well designed, and the bosses are some of the most impressive in recent memory. Smilebit once again delivers a graphical masterpiece and GunValkyrie stands as one of the best looking games on the Xbox system.
The other half of the game’s presentation, the audio, is nearly as impressive as the visuals. Monster screeches, gunshots and other sound effects are top notch and suit the game perfectly. One of the best uses of ambient sound can be heard in the Naglfar’s Pit level, where bits and pieces of Dr. Hebble’s speech mingles hauntingly with the background music. The game’s music mostly consists of upbeat percussion-based efforts that help supplement Gunvalkyrie’s intense insect-blasting gameplay. It’s too bad that the background tunes don’t react intelligently to changing gameplay situations, as the same fast-paced music plays the entire level whether you are frantically fighting aliens or just walking down an empty corridor. Because of this the music can sometimes grate on your nerves, but not so bad that you are forced to reach for the mute button.
In the end GunValkyrie stands as an excellent game that is absolutely worth your attention. Underneath the initially unintuitive controls and steep learning curve is a kick-butt old school shooter with gorgeous graphics and some extraordinarily fun gameplay. Maybe only hardcore gamers will put out enough effort to experience GunValkyrie to the fullest, but those who do will be treated to one of the best action/shooter games on the Xbox.
Alternate view – Matt Wadleigh
GunValkyrie certainly is a beautiful game, but graphics alone aren’t what I’m looking for. The story progression involves you having to read countless screens that aren’t narrated, the controls are frustrating for about the first five hours or so of gameplay, and the linearity and backtracking involved in some of the levels is frustrating and tedious. It’s a great concept though, and with some better implementation of those concepts I really think that GunValkyrie could have set itself above the rest of the crowd, but instead it’s my opinion that it’s strictly average fare.