Gungrave is an extremely short and easy third-person shooter. But it's got a lot of style. Featuring character designs by popular anime artist Yasuhiro Nightow, best known for his Trigun series, Gungrave definitely looks cool. It's also a textbook case for why great graphics don't do you much good if the underlying game is shallow.
Throughout Gungrave, you play as a mysterious, silent man called Grave, who looks like a cross between a cowboy and a vampire. He's got a few distinguishing characteristics--he's apparently a zombie, but more noticeably, he carries an enormous sarcophagus on his back, which probably explains his bad posture. Grave also sports a couple of high-powered pistols. He can fire these pistols rapidly and continuously, never once having to stop to reload. His coffinlike accessory also turns out to be a weapon. Initially it can fire a devastating rocket, but you can later unlock several other so-called "demolition shots" that are even more powerful. Gungrave consists of six short levels, which basically are all identical, in that you must make your way from point A to point B while gunning down who-knows-how-many wimpy enemies.
Actually, it's not so much that the enemies are wimpy--it's that Grave is practically unstoppable. Though you'll often find yourself in rooms filled with enemies firing at you, their attacks cause little damage, and they usually just chip away at Grave's shield meter. Much like in last year's Halo, if you can avoid getting hit for a couple of moments, your shields charge right back up to full, and you cannot be harmed as long as you have shields. This was an innovative little twist in Halo, but here, you'll never be forced into a tactical retreat to recharge. That's because, when you're in trouble, you can either use one of your demolition shots (you can build your supply of these shots up to nine just by rapidly blowing stuff up), or you can use a "recover life" ability that gives you half your health back and instantly recharges your shields. Gungrave isn't challenging even without the recharge life ability. In the rare event that you run out of health (possibly against one of the game's quick yet predictable bosses), you can restart an unlimited number of times back at a checkpoint a couple of minutes earlier.
About 10 years ago, simple action games like this gave you limited continues, didn't let you save your progress, and often forced you to restart at the beginning of a level when you died. But even if Gungrave did all that, it would still be easy. The game is a cakewalk from start to finish at the default difficulty setting, though to be fair, one of the boss battles is moderately tough on the hard setting.
The deal is, you'll fire your pistols constantly throughout the game, and the game will do the aiming for you. Just about any enemy onscreen will automatically get gunned down as you shoot, though you'll sometimes get ambushed from behind. Even then, all you have to do is turn around. Grave shoots quickly, but you only need to tap the button rhythmically to get him to shoot as quickly as possible, and you can even toggle on a rapid-fire option if that's too much trouble.
Gungrave was apparently inspired by a couple of the best action games from last year: Devil May Cry and Max Payne. The nonstop shooting and stylish visuals are a nod to the former, while Grave's ability to launch himself in any direction while shooting works much like in the latter. Besides his Max Payne-style "shootdodges," Grave can also swing his coffin around to execute a melee attack of sorts, though you might as well just keep shooting. Furthermore, you can push the select button at any time to make him strike one of several cool poses. But basically, the only tactical consideration ever to be made while playing Gungrave is whether to shoot while moving or shoot while standing still. You shoot more rapidly while standing still, but you're harder to hit while moving. That's all there is to it.
Most of the game's six environments aren't very interesting, and despite the game's futuristic setting, they look much like the typical sewers, subways, and slums you've probably seen before in other games. Nevertheless, Gungrave looks impressive overall. In addition to all the smoothly animated, stylized, and cel-shaded characters, the environments in Gungrave are all highly destructible. Errant gunfire causes just about everything around you to rip apart or explode, creating the sense that you're wreaking some real havoc. All the explosions frequently cause the game's frame rate to slip and its action to slow down, but this almost seems to be for dramatic effect rather than due to technical shortcomings. You can't make excuses for the game's extremely short view distance, though, which prevents you from seeing more than about 25 feet ahead at any given point. You'll also notice a lot of aliasing--that ugly stepladder effect that's hurt the image quality of many PlayStation 2 games--in some of the backgrounds. Gungrave does feature some impressive cutscenes, involving the sullen Grave and his companions, a young girl named Mika and the kindly Dr. T. These cutscenes subtly combine traditional cel animation and computer graphics to excellent effect, creating a distinctive look and mood for the game. But then it's back to the same simple action.
Gungrave sounds good, though most of the audio consists of the continuous low thudding of your guns going off, like something you'd hear at a construction site. Still, some token screams and explosions serve the graphics nicely, and the game's musical score effectively runs the gamut from rock to ambient electronic melodies to twangy Western tunes. Clearly, most of the development time went into the production values. Though, judging by how little there is to Gungrave, the game couldn't have been in development for very long.
There's some replay value in Gungrave. You receive a ranking after finishing the game, and you can unlock some extras like a slow-motion mode and the ability to start off on any level. You also gain access to a sort of gallery that lets you examine the game's various 3D character models up close, as though they were a collection of action figures. None of this changes the fact that Gungrave just isn't very engaging. Despite the game's lack of length, if it were much longer, it just would have gotten boring.
Gungrave is a competently made, attractive game that's decidedly slick. But at just two to three hours from start to finish, it can't in good conscience be recommended to anybody--at least not when it's sporting the same price tag as countless other longer, more interesting, and better games. Die-hard fans of Nightow's work will probably break down and buy it anyway, and they'll likely end up spending more time rationalizing their purchase than actually playing the game. For what it's worth, Gungrave is the sort of game you could have running on your PS2 when a bunch of non-gamer friends come over to your place. They might be impressed by the cutscenes and the graphics, and they, like you, should be able to breeze through all six stages in a sitting.