For the students of Sakurazaki Academy, it looks like school’s out — outta luck, outta time, outta this dimension. The discovery of a dusty old mirror by mischievous demon girl Kurona has led to the popular place of learning somehow fusing with the dark arts, resulting in both the interior and the exterior of the building forming a cavernous, gothic castle, while replacing textbooks, playgrounds, and chalkboards with iron maidens, candlelit chandeliers, and a mass menagerie of demons, ghouls, and specters.
That Kurona… what a dickhead.
And while one would imagine that, for any young student, these events would be a positive boon, rivaling even the longest of snow days, it seems that most of Sakurazaki’s students and faculty have found themselves trapped within this nightmarish world, lost deep in its centuries-old design and perpetually hounded by unholy creatures. However, all is not lost. The brave and noble Kamizono sisters were yet to arrive for class when the strange phenomenon first occurred. And, fortunately for our damsels in distress, Shinobu and her younger sibling Maya also happen to be part-time professional demon hunters — duly honed in the fine art of kicking serious monster ass.
And thus, armed with an array of ancient magical arts, some surprisingly violent origami skills, and more than a round or two of good, old-fashioned lead, the Kamizonos don their finest demon-hunting armor (i.e. Goth Lolita outfits) and set out to teach Kurona and her newfound army of minions a lesson they won’t soon forget. One thing’s for sure, it’s going to be a hell of a semester for our girls.
Grim Guardians: Demon Purge (PlayStation [PS5 reviewed], PC, Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Inti Creates Co. Ltd.
Publisher: Inti Creates Co. Ltd.
Released: February 23, 2023
Developed by anime-lovin’ studio Inti Creates, Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is a spin-off title to the cheesecake series Gal*Gun, specifically Gal*Gun: Double Peace (note the initials). There is an irony here in that the Gal*Gun franchise was originally intended to fit within a 2D adventure genre, before the executive decision was made to make it a super-sexualized rail shooter instead. As such, Grim Guardians arguably sees the franchise experiment with what could have been, should the initial design plan have been followed.
And, in something of a double irony, it just might be the best game in the series.
At first glance, Grim Guardians looks to be a dyed-in-the-wool metroidvania, with a design that openly — and happily — apes the aesthetic of Konami’s much-loved vampire hunting franchise. But while there are certainly elements of backtracking and exploration at play here, Grim Guardians is an arcade platformer first and foremost. It chooses to focus on forward momentum, level negotiation, and bullet-pumping action, rather than attempting to mimic the RPG elements of its inspiration. Grim Guardians is, in many ways, quite comparable to Castlevania — in debt, even — but is more content to focus on ’90s style platforming action, than single map exploration. Much to its own benefit.
Gals ‘n’ Guns
One or two players step into the frilly skirts of The Kazimono Sisters, Shinobu and Maya. While younger sister Maya uses mythic origami arts — creating weapons and familiars out of paper with which to slay the enemy, Shinobu favors real-world weaponry such as machine guns, grenades, and rocket launches. This makes the elder sister better for ranged, long-distance combat, while Maya offers up powerful melee attacks, while also holding the key to traversal, thanks to her skill at making platforms, stairwells, or, *checks notes* umbrellas.
Both characters synergize as they make their way through the castle’s stages, combining their offensive and defensive abilities as best serve the given situation. In single-player, the characters are played simultaneously, tagging in-and-out as the moment requires. Additionally, if one of the girls falls in battle, then her sister can get her back in the action with a handy dose of button-mashing CPR. It’s no River City Girls’ “Kick their souls back into them”, but it gets the job done.
And so, the Kazimono sisters race through several distinct areas of the ghastly castles, battling a multitude of monsters, as well as end-of-stage bosses, while pressing ever closer to the ultimate showdown with Kurona in the castle’s tower. As they press through the dingy realm, our heroes are also tasked with rescuing their schoolyard chums, all of whom will be very familiar to Double Peace fans, and some of whom reward Shinobu and Maya with new weapons, skills, and abilities. It is with these additional items that exploration elements come into play, with the girls able to revisit previous stages and uncover various secrets, bonus items, and the most sequestered of their lost friends.
If this all sounds simplistic, then it’s by design. Grim Guardians, at least initially, has no aspirations of being anything less than a simple platform actioner. In fact, for the first few hours, it almost seems a little too simplistic. An enjoyable game in its own right, but a little humdrum. In addition, the challenge also leans way too far on the side of easy, (I implore you to play on “Veteran” mode, and even then you shouldn’t have too much of a struggle.)
Intriguingly, however, Grim Guardians does actually evolve as you play it, offering up a little more adventure, exploration, and mystery than what appears to have been initially on offer. To say more would give a little too much away, but while Grim Guardians seems a little bland on its first viewing, the game does expand somewhat, with some fun surprises and gameplay tweaks rearing their head as our sisters venture deeper into its splatteriffic kingdom.
Importantly, Grim Guardians is simply a joy to play. Uncomplicated? Absolutely, but it offers fun and dynamic action — especially in co-op — while wooing players with some wonderful pixel visuals, very cooly-designed monsters, and a variety of different locations and scenarios. While the storyline itself is thin, the dopey dialogue is great — often laugh-out-loud funny — and is accompanied by attractive character portraits and top-quality splash art. Speaking of splashes, Demon Purge is also surprisingly gory, at least in pixelated fashion, with buckets of the red stuff as well as a penchant for head-splitting and body scissoring.
‘Not a Scooby Clue…’
Grim Guardians wears its love for the games that inspired it on its sleeve, with many a familiar “stand-in” for that series ghouls, stages, mechanics, locales, and effects. (Yes, Virginia, there are Medusa Head variants). A cool score replicates the famously smooth basslines and frantic piano bashing of Super Castlevania IV, while stages set in underground waterways, labyrinthine libraries, and moonlit clock towers come off as a tribute to, not a rip-off of, the Belmont family adventures. Hell, even a floating orb closes out each stage, only it has its own fanservice twist. Naturally.
Grim Guardians loves Castlevania, and that certainly counts for something, at least where its own design is concerned. It might not have close to the epic scale, dramatic weight, or prestige class of a Symphony of the Night, but, importantly, Demon Purge does not attempt to overreach, instead choosing to focus on its own, more attainable goals.
Outside of its main campaign, Grim Guardians: Demon Purge does not have many extras to offer. Completing the game on Veteran unlocks a “Legendary” difficulty setting — which, frankly, should have been available from the get-go. Grim Guardians retails at a relatively easy price point, and while I initially thought it still might be a pinch too high, I changed my mind as more of the game’s secrets unfurled. Players can choose from English and Japanese voice tracks, (although the cutscenes are only available in Japanese). Both tracks feature fun, quality voice acting, imbuing life and personality into the game’s cast of comical heroes and villains. I really want to join the curry club.
Class is in Session
Grim Guardians isn’t Castlevania, or Bloodstained, or even Gal*Gun, ironically. But it is easily recommendable for fans of all of the above… Perhaps just fans of video games. Capturing the aesthetic of a 16-bit horror platformer and marrying it with a questionable rail shooter franchise seems like a bad fit, and, indeed, Grim Guardians is not without its fair share of flaws. For the most part, however, this spin-off experiment has been a success, offering up a fine tribute to old-school platformers while still stamping a sense of its own identity onto the proceedings.
It’s fast, cute, and funny. It has great co-op action, nostalgic visuals, solid sound design, and is ready to rock at a fairly modest price. It’s just, as the idiom goes, good, old-fashioned fun. And in a world of billion-dollar budgets, HBO adaptations, legal acquisitions, and endless social media discourse, maybe gaming could use a little 16-bit exorcism right about now.
Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is a hearty tribute not only to early ’90s platformers, but to video gaming itself, offering up stress-free thrills, comedic characters, cool co-op action, and even a fistful of secrets and surprises, all visually and aurally punctuated with delightful, nostalgic style. While not as deep, as complex, nor as prestige as its inspirations, Grim Guardians achieves its humble goals handily, offering up a cheerful dose of retro action while sporting a likable personality all of its own.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]