Gunvalkyrie is the latest Xbox title from Smilebit, the Sega subsidiary responsible for the Jet Set Radio series. The game puts you in the role of two jetpack-toting warriors with large cannons, but most of the game is focused less on blasting enemies and more on platform jumping and figuring out how to get around the game's unforgiving terrain. While it all could have worked out nicely and been a solid action game, the game's touchy and occasionally awkward control pushes the game past the "nice, firm challenge" stage and up into the "frustrating trial-and-error" difficulty level.
The game takes place in the year 1906--and it has jetpacks and laser cannons and interplanetary travel. What, didn't they teach you about the early 20th century jetpacks and space travel back in elementary school? All kidding aside, the game takes place in an alternate past, where the passing of Halley's Comet and the harnessing of the comet's energy led to all sorts of scientific discoveries. The force behind these discoveries is Dr. Hebble Gate. All is going well until the doctor disappears and one of the empire's colonized planets goes silent. Turns out that the planet, known as Tir na Nog, has been overrun by gaming's most overused enemies: giant alien insects. The Gunvalkyrie organization sends two of its agents to Tir na Nog to investigate and stop the bug threat. This is, as they say, where you come in.
The game progresses in a linear fashion. While you are occasionally given a choice of which level to tackle next, you will eventually have to visit each level in a tier to progress. Each level has its own objectives, which range from simply getting to the end of a level to timed missions that charge you with the task of removing every enemy from the environment. With only a couple of exceptions, you're given a choice of character at the beginning of each level. Kelly is small and agile. Her weapons aren't the most powerful in the world, but she can dash out of the way of incoming fire much faster than Saburouta, who has a more limited selection of weapons but does more damage with each hit. In between levels, you are given a bit of text to read, and this progresses the storyline and the ability to purchase power-ups. Money is earned by completing levels--the better you do on a level, the more money you earn. You can purchase upgrades for your weapons, enhanced shielding, and the like. The most coveted purchase is more fuel for your jetpack, which lets you fly higher and at greater distances, but these items are so pricey that you'd really have to pinch pennies throughout the game to afford them.
The game is, for the most part, your standard third-person action game with a twist: the jetpack. The jetpack has only a few seconds of boost power, but it recharges whenever you aren't using it. You can boost in any of the four compass directions, and you can also use it to move straight up. In the game's later stages, you'll have to use some combination of the two to get around effectively, since lots of areas are rife with floating platforms, and the trick is figuring out exactly how to get from place to place without falling to the ground below. The control for the jetpack is a little awkward, especially when you consider how underused the controller's face buttons are. Jumping and boosting up is accomplished with the left trigger. Boosting in a direction is done by pushing the left stick in and pushing a direction. A retrobooster lets you slowly sink to the ground, giving you some elevation between you and the army of ugly spiders that are constantly trying to bite you, but this superhelpful maneuver is done by quickly boosting forward and then boosting back. This jerky motion is a real hassle when you're working in tight spaces and trying to land on small pillars, and when you consider that the controller's A button isn't being used for anything whatsoever, it seems almost silly that such an important function wasn't given its own button. The options screen offers no help whatsoever, since the game's controls can't be remapped in any way. The inability to strafe also gets in the way in some of the game's indoor levels, which come complete with tight corridors. The right stick, which is used for aiming and looking around, won't turn your character, making it only useful for aiming. A more conventional control scheme--using the right stick to turn and look and the left stick to move and strafe--would have worked wonders here. Plus, the inability to change the controls in any way is extremely frustrating.
Graphically, the valley environment is overused and has some repetitive textures, and the enemies are almost entirely made up of boring giant bugs, but aside from those gripes, the game looks great. The player characters look really cool, have a nice, shiny metallic quality to them, and move around in a very fluid manner. Special effects, like the heat wash effect, are also very well done. Some of the game's environments are pretty large, and there's no noticeable pop-up on the environment. Enemies and other objects in the world do pop-up in a noticeable way, but the draw distance is far enough out that it never becomes a problem. The one graphical effect that the game really could have used is a shadow. Considering how often you'll be trying to land on one small, specific piece of ground, a shadow that shows where you'll touch down would have really made flying around easier to judge. Considering that in some levels, one misstep on a landing can cause five or 10 minutes of backtracking, making accurate landings is extremely important. The game's sound is decent, and the soundtrack is a pretty good, but overall, Gunvalkyrie is a quiet game. None of the weapons make emphatic noises, and the whole game has a very subdued, understated sound that clashes when put up against the action.
Gunvalkyrie is almost a good game, and it won't be surprising to see some people looking past the game's problems and having some fun with it. It could have controlled better, and the mission objectives could have been more exciting, but it's still a cool-looking game with a reasonably cool premise, despite its reliance on ultraclichéd gigantic insects. A rental should easily determine which side of the fence you'll fall on.