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Bargain Bin Laden #6: Gunvalkyrie

9:59 PM on 02.04.2007 // Aaron Linde

I'd like to think that our usual audiences would be present and accounted for today, but let's face it: most of you are watching the game, drunk and awash in nacho cheese. I could phone this one in and nobody'd be the wiser! This week's Bargain Bin Laden features everyone's favorite bargain bin purchase: ramen noodles!

Forget it. I'll behave, I swear. 

You might notice that our selection for this week, Gunvalkyrie, has something in common with both past and future BBL features; it was developed by Smilebit, just as Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta (coming soon!) were. Three of the Xbox's finest titles, all spewed forth from the gaping maw of the same developer -- that's quite a pedigree.

Gunvalkyrie might be the hardest game you'll play on the Xbox. It'll chew you up, spit you out, and crap on your corpse, and you'll love every minute of it, given enough time to surmount the game's nigh-insurmountable learning curve. But don't be afraid, lad. Take my hand and hit the jump to read why you must own this game.

 

Gunvalkyrie (XBOX)
Original Release: March 30, 2002
Developed by: Smilebit
Bargain Binned: $5.99 at GameStop/EBGames, as cheap or cheaper elsewhere. 

I won't lie to you; for the first half-hour or so of gameplay, you'll hate this game and you'll curse me for suggesting that you even think about buying it. The controls will feel clunky, slow, wretched. You'll wonder how developers get away with creating characters that turn like Sherman tanks. But believe me when I say that Gunvalkyrie is a deep game with similarly deep controls, and once you get the hang of them, you'll be zipping through the air like the player in the above video and having a blast doing it.

I'll take a moment to give the story a once-over, because it's batshit insane. Gunvalkyrie takes place in the early 20th century -- 1903, to be exact. You might wonder why the protagonists in this particular game are fighting in jetpacks on some unknown planet on the frontier of space in 1903, because I certainly was. Let's let Wikipedia do the talking:
[Gunvalkyrie] takes place in 1906 when the British Empire rules all of Earth and several extrasolar colony worlds, powered by technology brought to the planet by Halley's Comet.

The divergence between the storyline and the Real World is sometime in the 19th century. A scientist, referred to as "The Great Genius", discovers a wide range of scientific breakthroughs, including fusion and nuclear power, genetic engineering, computers, space travel and countless others. With these technologies the British Empire quickly conquers the Earth, and he is regarded as god by everyone on Earth, even to the point where when he speaks out against Queen Victoria she is overthrown and he is chosen to lead. He institutes a variety of radical reforms, bringing humanity up to modern societal standards (eg. multiculturalism, sexual freedom, equality). He dies shortly before the game begins.
So there you go. The player takes control of one of two members of the elite Gun Valkyrie military unit (est. 1887) to defend a colony planet called Tir na Nog from hostile alien insects.

But let's be frank, here: stories in games like these, especially a story such as this, is more or less unnecessary. What matters is aerial-based combat at high speeds -- how you go about doing that is the beauty of this game.

Basic third-person action controls are tweaked slightly in the creation of Gunvalkyrie's unique control scheme. Left analog controls movement, right analog controls your aim reticle, but in a much slower fashion -- mostly for precision aiming. Your jetpack-esque exoskeleton is more or less the foundation for all aerial acrobatics and combat; pressing the left trigger button when on the ground prompts a leap into the air, and pressing it again engages a jet-boost. This is where it gets tricky: to perform directional boosts, likesay, a quick shot forward through the air, you have to lean the left analog stick forward and click down. This directional boost can be made in any direction, and it's something you need to get used to quick -- you'll be doing a lot of it.

Your ability to boost is dependent upon a finite meter in the lower-left portion of your screen; your boost meter is depleted while, naturally, boosting in any given direction, and is replenished once you hit the ground or stop using your boost. The key to keeping aerial is to use your boost for maneuvering while destroying enemies versus strictly traveling -- the more you play the game, the more you'll understand, I promise.

And man, you'll be getting a lot of playtime in -- mostly on levels you'll be trying to beat for quite awhile. Gunvalkyrie is ruthless, unforgiving, and a cast-iron bitch in almost every respect, but it's one of those games that isn't unfair in its difficulty. If you die, you'll know what you did wrong. Smilebit did a hell of a job polishing the game and balancing the difficulty, and it shows in just how often Gunvalkyrie will rope you in after a particularly difficult level that killed you within mere minutes. Once you get hooked, you'll keep coming back for more.

Artistically, Gunvalkyrie's a winner. The graphics are excellent, especially for a game that came along relatively early in the Xbox's lifespan, and the music sets a powerful if not unusual tone for the game's progression. The menus are slick, polished, and reflect Smilebit's attention to the finest details; this game has remarkably high production value, which more people would know were they not spooked by the unrelenting difficulty. 

But here's what I love about this game, when you get right down to the heart of it: last week, I spouted off for a page or two over Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, and any of you who have gotten around to playing that game knows that the first time you play is vastly different than, say, the last time you picked it up. Games with unusual or unconventional control schemes have that way of surprising you, especially if you revisit the first level and absolutely slay it with your thoroughly developed play style. Gunvalkyrie is no different. It'll beat you like a bitch for a few hours, but the better you get at it, the more you enjoy it, the more that the game itself becomes different by virtue of your play. Make sure to revisit that first canyon level after giving the game a few days, and you'll see exactly what I mean; you'll be dealing the hurt back upon your oppressors fiftyfold. 

It's extremely rewarding gameplay, an amazing Xbox experience that nobody should miss, and absolutely and utterly dirt cheap. Five bucks for a game that might take you two weeks to best? What are you waiting for? Buy this game! 

 

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