Wow, it’s been 18 years since Gungrave: Overdose released on the PS2! Gungrave was one of many weird, mid-budget games you could find on that old console, the likes of which you don’t see as often anymore. The thing you need to be ready for is that Gungrave G.O.R.E. is exactly as janky as those old PS2 titles and a significant step down compared to the kings of the character action genre like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. But it also rocks so, so much.
Studio IGGYMOB set its sights high with this resurrection of the fan-favorite action game. They even brought Grave’s big daddy Yasuhiro Nightow back to handle the character designs. So at the very least, the production values are there. Grave lumbers around like, well, a resurrected dead man with a coffin chained to his arms. Mission accomplished. They may have tried a bit too hard to make Mika and Quartz look angelic and pretty, but overall the character design is up to Nightow’s standard. Animation can be a bit wonky, and I noticed some heavy frame skipping during hectic moments. Finishers also feel oddly weightless; Grave shoots out people’s knees or rips… something out of people’s general neck/chest area, but the enemy bodies keel over onto the ground, perfectly preserved for the open-casket wake. Also, the voice acting isn’t quite up to par with the visuals; the quality is all over the place, and Grave’s voice (when he does speak) is extremely ill-fitting. They can’t all be Steve Blum, but the acting is a definite weak spot.
But with that out of the way, what about the gameplay? Well, it takes some getting used to. Where in most character action games, you’d hold down a button to make your character shoot their guns until whatever they shot at was dead, Grave needs you to flutter the trigger to keep shooting; just pressing it shoots a quartet of bullets, but holding the button down prepares a charged shot. You can’t press the button too fast (or at least, you need to move around), or else Grave goes into a frenzy and does this weird 360-shooting move. It’s a control decision that gets tiring on your fingers, and it only gets weirder when you must keep dodging around to avoid getting hit. And your attacks are stiff in ways that feel antagonistic; melee attacks deflect missiles and grenades, but only if you’re standing still—a directional melee move can’t deflect anything. Close-range finishing moves on enemies restore a portion of your shields—but not ranged finishers. You can’t dodge through grenades, missiles, or explosions. Add Grave’s slow gait and hefty weight, and it feels like a Devil May Cry that hates you. It doesn’t help that so many earlier levels are so repetitive—or cheap. The entire game is simply following the arrows leading you to another wave of enemies to mow down, and early on, you can face some frustrating situations like a train stage where you have an instant Game Over if you fall off the car.
The progression system can also be rough. Because stages rate you on your remaining life, your clear time, et cetera, how many points you get to spend on upgrades is gated by how well you do in stages. Perfectly fair, but Gungrave G.O.R.E. has some stringent rules on how high your Beat Combo should be before you get a good grade. It felt like no matter how well I did, I couldn’t get higher than a B. To get enough skills and upgrades to make it through a gauntlet of fortified enemies, I needed to replay a few earlier levels several times. Things like this really dragged down my experience with this game.
But then, the levels start taking you to more exotic locations, like the jungles of Vietnam or a gangster’s fortified casino. Some waves take place in inspired settings like a dark room backlit with neon, where the only things you can see are the muzzle flashes from your guns and the weapons of your enemies. Bosses are simple but fun. While Gungrave G.O.R.E. is clunky and stiff to play, it still manages to be wildly engaging once it gets going. Some waves and enemies can be unforgiving—stages that face you off against bomb-throwing enemies and enemies with shields and Gatling gunners are just plain unfair, I’m going to say that. But when you manage to get through with a well-timed Demolition Shot, even by the skin of your teeth, you’re rewarded with an incredible fight against a boss or a nifty level where you play as one of Grave’s buddies like Bunji (who plays like a faster Grave) or Quartz (who has a very satisfying melee-oriented move set). G.O.R.E. could have used more x-factors like the dark rooms or side-character levels, and it needed to introduce them earlier to hook players in, but what little variety it manages to throw at you is nevertheless engaging. I never liked the controls, but I did get used to them, and I definitely had a lot more fun when I did.
And honestly, what more could you ask for from Gungrave? Grave was never the darling of the ball, strutting in with refined controls and silky-smooth graphics. He was never Dante, kicking the desk to get a pizza in his mouth with an enthusiastic and wacky “woohoo.” Grave hails from a much rougher, dingier neighborhood. He keeps disturbingly quiet as he breaks a guy’s neck with his bare hands; it’s what he does. The controls are a little janky, the characters are completely bonkers (I can only hope longtime fans are excited for the return of one Zell Condorblood), and the game prompts you to “kick their ass” every time you load into a stage with an absolutely metal banner wreathed in skulls, cables, and clockwork gears. Gungrave G.O.R.E., like many of those too-experimental-for-their-own-good PS2 games, is not a great game—but it is a good game, and if you can see past its flaws, it’s wild enough to endear itself to you and persist in your memory. And sometimes, charm like that is all a game needs. Grave’s a little smelly and doesn’t talk much, but he’s my undead cowboy with the multi-purpose coffin. I can think of no better way for him to come back than with a stylish action game that’s rough around the edges.