"Now this is more like it." That's what anyone who played 2002's Gungrave, a stylish but very short and shallow PS2 shooter, would almost certainly think after playing the sequel, Gungrave: Overdose. The new game makes good on the potential of its predecessor by delivering a much more intense, more challenging, and ultimately more satisfying experience, and it throws in a surprisingly involving and well-produced story for good measure. It also has its predecessor's flair, courtesy of writer and character designer Yasuhiro Nightow, best known for his work on the Trigun anime series. And while Gungrave: Overdose is still a basic single-player shooter at its core, its good-sized series of action-packed missions, multiple difficulty settings, three different playable characters, and dirt-cheap $15 retail price make it an excellent value. It's easy to recommend to anyone who likes the idea of a game about blowing up an awful lot of stuff and blowing away an awful lot of bad guys without having to think about any of it too much.
In Gungrave: Overdose, you once again play as Beyond the Grave, a silent one-man army who's equipped with two deadly handguns that can fire round after round without any need for reloading. Grave also happens to have this large coffin chained to him, and he can use it to thrash any foes in his vicinity or destroy any obstacles that stand in his way. This device doubles as a shield and triples as an extremely powerful cannon, which is awfully convenient. Grave is pretty quick on his feet, too. There's a lot of satisfaction to be had in employing Grave's ridiculously overpowered tactics.
Early on in the story, which doesn't assume your familiarity with the setting, Grave and his young friend Mika encounter two drifters--Juji Kabane, a blind and embittered swordsman, and Rocketbilly Redcadillac, who is perhaps best described by the fact that he fights with an electric guitar. The plot focuses on our unlikely antiheroes tracking down a sadistic drug lord and his cohorts. The story itself unfolds in between and sometimes during the missions, using decent semi-animated comic-book-style panels with voice-over, as well as the occasional fully animated cutscene. These cutscenes look outstanding for the most part, especially those in which Grave and his allies can be seen finishing off the boss opponents you'll be fighting at the end of certain levels. And while the story may seem long-winded at first, it'll probably grow on you and actually become quite engaging by the time you reach the conclusion. Even though there's really nothing in here that wouldn't be typical of an action-themed anime series, you can tell that considerable effort and talent went into the production of this game's storyline, and the results are much better than average.
Despite the rather convoluted story, the action in Gungrave: Overdose is completely straightforward but plenty over the top, which is a good combination. This is a game in which the object is to make your way from one end of a level to the other while shooting absolutely everything that moves--and everything that doesn't move, just in case. Enemies come in various shapes and sizes, always attack in droves and usually from every angle, and use both ranged and close-combat weapons against you. Some foes are actually fairly good at avoiding your attacks, while others will fire powerful missiles at you while hiding behind nearly impregnable shields. So, in short, the odds don't look good, what with so many armed thugs in every level--yet your character is immensely strong, to the point where you'll almost feel bad for the bad guys.
The gameplay isn't as painfully simplistic or easy as in the original Gungrave, but there's only a marginal amount of added complexity, so Overdose still has its predecessor's pick-up-and-play appeal. That appeal comes from your ability to obliterate absolutely everything in your surroundings as you unload with your weapons. Spectacular explosions can be seen everywhere, and objects like crates, bookcases, pillars, statues, computers, cars, and window panes routinely get blown to splinters, shards, and smithereens. It's an especially good-looking effect since all this stuff tends to go through progressive stages of damage. For example, a flurry of shots will rip big chunks out of a stone pillar before the whole thing finally collapses into rubble. The destruction of objects in the environment can be tactically useful, though it's usually just collateral damage during a given skirmish in one of the game's countless corridors or rooms (the levels are very basic in their layout). Blowing up inanimate objects is more than just for show for another reason, in that your hits all count toward a combo meter, which fuels your ability to execute demolition shots--extremely powerful attacks that can flatten every foe around you, while also recharging some of your shields.
You can absorb a ton of damage in Gungrave. There are no health power-ups, but since you have Halo-style recharging shields, you don't really need any. The game is actually quite easy in the early going, which may bring back unpleasant memories of the previous game's complete lack of difficulty. However, Gungrave: Overdose actually gets pretty tough by the end, and it features at least a couple of relatively difficult boss battles that may take you several tries to get past. At any rate, by the end of the game, you'll be fighting droves of hardy, powerful foes. You'll be shoot-dodging like Max Payne all over the place while deflecting enemy rockets back at their targets and using demolition shots to keep yourself alive and prevent your foes from overwhelming you. All the while, you'll be mashing on the fire button, though there's an optional rapid-fire mode if your trigger finger isn't up to snuff.
Grave is the main character, though you may optionally play through the game as either of his two companions once you encounter them. Each one controls basically the same as Grave, but each has his own noticeably different characteristics as a fighter--Juji's sword attacks are immensely strong, while Billy's shockingly powerful electric guitar makes up for his relative weakness in close combat. The characters can use charge-up attacks for extra damage, go into an attack flurry if they fire while standing still, and even block incoming projectiles, though the best defense is a good offense in this game. For what it's worth, all the action is conducted solo. You'll never get to have these characters fighting side by side, and there aren't any multiplayer features either.
Nevertheless, as a pure arcade-style shooter, Gungrave: Overdose works well. The mechanics are just fine, apart from occasional issues with the third-person camera perspective getting blocked, and the occasionally clumsy lock-on targeting (which is rarely needed, since you automatically take aim at anything in front of you). There are always plenty of things to shoot at, though the levels lack a sense of urgency or suspense. It's pretty much all room-to-room combat, and you're free to take a breather in between skirmishes--but this doesn't really hurt the game, since its simplicity is mostly to its credit.
The original Gungrave could be finished at the hard difficulty setting in a couple of hours or less. This one takes four or five times longer. You earn points based on your performance at the end of each level, and with increasing point totals come various unlockable extras, including new demolition shot types for each character, alternate costumes, and gameplay tweaks. There's also a harder-than-hard difficulty mode that opens up after you finish the game for the first time. Since Gungrave: Overdose is an instant-gratification type of game, and has just enough depth and variety between its different difficulty modes and playable characters, it's the sort of game that you'd probably want to come back to even after you've made it through all the levels once.
The highly destructible environments are the best aspect of the graphics in Gungrave: Overdose, though some of the character designs--including some of the later bosses--are very cool, too. But the game itself is heavily aliased (that is, the lines look all jaggy), and all the mayhem onscreen routinely causes the frame rate to take a serious nosedive, which can be annoying at times. Just as often, though, the game's slowdown is intentional (as when a demolition shot goes off), and even when it isn't, it's still satisfying in a way--you don't often see this much bad news going down onscreen on your PS2. It's also worth mentioning that the enemies in the game are well animated and bleed profusely when hit. If you're going to get an M rating, you might as well go all out.
Deafening gunfire dominates the audio component of the game. You'll also hear bad guys emit the same types of yelps over and over as you kill them in droves, and when playing as Juji or Billy, you'll unfortunately have to get used to hearing their same catchphrases over and over. The game's selection of music is actually pretty limited, but it includes a number of jazzy tunes and a few Spaghetti Western-style themes, all to help establish the sci-fi-anime-cowboy thing it has going on. So the soundtrack is pretty good, though sadly the same can't really be said of the game's voice acting. The speech is of noticeably low quality just from a production standpoint, as it seems to have been recorded at a low bit rate, to the point where it sounds like you're listening to it on the radio. Furthermore, the voice-acting performances themselves--despite being provided by some experienced cartoon voice actors--are wooden and bland. It's as if the actors read all the dialogue out of context, since a lot of the inflections just aren't what you'd expect, and the characters' apparent emotions don't match the tone of their speech. With that said, it's not really much worse than the quality of the voice work in your average cartoon. In spite of this, Gungrave: Overdose sounds fairly good overall, since the gunfire and explosions are appropriately loud and distinct.
The original Gungrave was a mediocre game that was pretty slick but just didn't set its sights very high. Overdose is much, much better overall, and it provides an entertainingly over-the-top shooting experience that's well worth the unusually low asking price. Yet possibly the best thing that can be said about Gungrave: Overdose is that, regardless of the differences between it and its predecessor, and regardless of its tempting price point, it is a simple, fun, and worthwhile shooter strictly on its own merits.