In Azure Striker: Gunvolt, you charge through a series of missions in the order of your choosing within a colorful 2D world, contending with pitfalls and robo-fodder until you engage in a boss battle confined to a single screen arena, and if you're successful, you're rewarded with a new type of gun. So, yes, it shares a few things in common with Mega Man. But, what I've just described is in effect an armature, a skeleton, and the game that's designed around it, which forms its own identity through experimental mechanics and an electric, eye-catching presentation, is a fast-paced ride and a fantastic side-scrolling action experience. Although the main mission path isn't difficult to finish, completing Gunvolt's optional trials and seeing everything through to the end will challenge and please even the most hardened veteran looking for a fresh, Mega Man-like experience.
The story behind young Gunvolt's charge takes cues from X-Men's cautionary tale of mutant discrimination and Final Fantasy VII's energy-monopolizing megacorporation, Shinra Electric Power Company. Sumeragi, an ancient order that's seized control of the world's energy supply, is using captive adepts--people with special powers who were once feared by humanity--to control its slice of the economy. Gunvolt's an adept with the ability to control electricity, and before being rescued and initiated the ranks of the resistance group, QUILL, he was one of Sumeragi's prisoners. The story definitely takes a backseat to the action, but with self-aware writing and an array of strong personalities, you'll get a kick out of the game's story sequences even if it doesn't grip you on an emotional level.
Gunvolt comes from Inti Creates, a team with twelve years of Mega Man games under its belt, so it's not surprising that a gun is central to the action in Gunvolt. Thankfully, the flow of action deviates from your traditional run-and-gun side-scroller, which is a pleasant surprise given that you still, for the most part, run to the right while firing a pistol. Rather than firing bullets in the traditional sense, your sidearm shoots metallic tags that allow the lightning from Gunvolt's spherical Flashfield to arc across the screen and inflict damage. Since you'll drain your fuel reserves--known as EP--after a few seconds, you can't keep it activated indefinitely. Deplete your EP meter and you'll overheat, which delays the amount of time before the auto-recharge effect kicks in. You have the ability to recharge it on the fly by double tapping the directional pad, but only if the field is disabled and you haven't already overheated. During a frantic barrage of incoming fire, this is easier said than done.
Quickly and cleanly soaring through missions while managing your EP levels is a dance that takes time to master, but every little bit of progress pays off in the rankings and rewards you receive at the end of each mission. The ranking you receive, in addition to the number of collectible medallions you find during each mission, give you chances to reveal squares on a grid representing different materials at the end of a level, though you only get to walk away with one per mission. These materials are used to synthesize new equipment that alter Gunvolt's movement abilities and EP expenditure, and as you progress, taking advantage of these possibilities make Gunvolt a more adept soldier, and the hunt for higher rankings that much more enjoyable.
Quickly and cleanly soaring through missions while managing your EP levels is a dance that takes time to master...
Though you earn a new type of pistol for each boss you defeat, new weapons simply introduce new paths for your tag bullets or increase the number of tags that you can interact with at a given time. There's room to master the intricacies of each, but you're better off focusing on improving the speed of your game and the destructiveness of your Flashfield. By stringing together consecutive attacks on enemies without taking damage, the amount of experience you earn increases. The faster you level up, the sooner you unlock new offensive or recovery skills that become critical tools during more challenging boss battles. They're often powerful, with some capable of fully recharging your health or cutting a boss's health in half, but with only three, slowly recharging skill points to spend at any given time, it's impossible to abuse the more powerful skills that eat up two points at once. If you need some extra help, however, there's an optional roll-of-the-dice that you can initiate between levels that gives you the chance for a one time revival upon death during your next outing, which also gives Gunvolt an EP meter that never drains and a mid-air jump that never tires.
Gunvolt can be challenging at times, but these moments are limited to endgame boss battles and optional skill trials, the latter of which are necessary for obtaining some of the rarer synth materials. Some early trials are a walk in the park, but the challenges that follow are incredibly demanding, and one slip up can make the difference between a successful or failed attempt. Playing with the equipment and crafting system can make things easier, but you quickly find that completing challenges, more than the main mission path, is the ultimate sign of mastering Gunvolt's abilities.
It's enjoyable to be able to breeze through the main game while learning how to wield Gunvolt's abilities with newfound confidence, but considering that most levels can be completed in about ten minutes, and there are just over ten to explore, it's also a bit deflating when the game runs out of new things for you to see. The challenges and the hunt for hidden items are worthwhile endeavors that will encourage you to play for a few additional hours, but you're still repeatedly retracing your steps, and this is Gunvolt's only downfall. That's not to say you won't find yourself going back in for just one more run, but this take on the core Mega Man formula ultimately runs out of new scenarios quicker than it deserves to given how exciting and fun it is to play.