GunValkyrie (Xbox) review
"Poor GunValkyrie didn't stand a chance. From Sega came a tough but gorgeous game where a hot chick flies around with a jetpack and blows shit up... alright, on a system whose raisons d'être were Halo and Dead or Alive, that was probably a good move. But development team Smilebit stupidly—wonderfully, valiantly, but really quite stupidly just the same—refused to cater to any modern gamer's taste, and predictably, gamers hated their game because of it. There's no instant satisfaction to be found h..."
Poor GunValkyrie didn't stand a chance. From Sega came a tough but gorgeous game where a hot chick flies around with a jetpack and blows shit up... alright, on a system whose raisons d'être were Halo and Dead or Alive, that was probably a good move. But development team Smilebit stupidly--wonderfully, valiantly, but really quite stupidly just the same--refused to cater to any modern gamer's taste, and predictably, gamers hated their game because of it. There's no instant satisfaction to be found here, even as much as the concept suggests otherwise. GunValkyrie isn't just hard. It's difficult.
Fire up the first map and try going straight up with the jetpack. You'll barely make it thirty feet before you run out of fuel and have to land to recharge. Try to fly over a pit, and you won't even make it halfway across. Keeping altitude when you're trying to bombard hordes of alien spiders from above with missiles is a challange in and of itself, and you might as well dip heroine Kelly's kinky boots in steak sauce when you fail. It's still heaps of fun, mind you, since you're still raining death with a bloody jetpack--but you'll be painfully aware that you're bumbling through the first few stages.
That all changes in Naglfar's Pit, where things take a sharp turn toward old-school HATRED. It's a cavern full of corrosive acid, with shaky columns and floating slabs of rock popping up at different heights all over. Half of the platforms have little enemies on them that explode when you get near, and some of the others will crumble the moment you land on them. Oversized wasps attack from above while tornadoes roar between the columns just to keep you on your toes; the creepy ambiance of the soundtrack can only seem mocking in light of how bombastic the level itself is.
It's tough, but Naglfar's Pit isn't unfair. You've had the tools to beat it ever since you pressed the start button, and it's just up to you to finally learn how to use them. After a few minutes of failure you'll notice how short bursts are more fuel-efficient than just blazing ahead, or how easy it is to gain height when you keep a sharp eye out for all of the little nooks and crannies you could land on midway. You'll fall from a fifth of the way to the top and you'll fall from halfway to the top, but even starting all the fuck over again from the bottom every time, it becomes less and less tough to reclaim your ground. Little consolation when you do finally make it and then anticlimactically lose to a miniboss, but even defeat feels triumphant when you can suddenly redo in four minutes what you were struggling to do in forty.
GunValkyrie isn't just difficult. It's brilliant.
Every stage is about coming to grips with another limitation. Monstrous preying mantis Nidhogg waits in an iced-over cavern with an oppressively low ceiling, and learning to stay airborne is a must since there's no good way to dodge on foot. Ice shards blanket the arena and fence you in, so you'll have to hone your skills even more to avoid Nidhogg's missile attacks. A skilled player can wipe the floor with him in fifty seconds flat. An unskilled player wouldn't even survive that long. GunValkyrie's brilliant difficulty curve makes sure that you'll always be in between the extremes.
Later, you'll drop through a futuristic tech base that you only wish was as sterile as its architecture, and at the center of it is a mile-high shaft that you free-fall to the bottom of. Yet another trick to pick up: using the jetpack to fall at your own pace, wiping out security turrets and web-shooting parasites by the dozen so that you can get more points and buy a health extension or better lock-on missiles after the level ends. Miss a few too many and you can always try again, assuming you have the wits about you to steer into one of the huge pink trampolines that're just floating around.
Jetpacks and trampolines... it doesn't make any sense, but your inner child will love this game!
By the end you'll have it all down so well that you can fly around as effortlessly as the grotesque final boss, the disturbing baby-faced archangel Ivaldi. Live or die, that's the point where you've already won (though you'll certainly want to live for your pride's sake). After all, you don't really spend the game fighting with the bugs and the bosses, but rather your own inability to put that hunk of junk on your back to good use. Admittedly, Smilebit's design philosophy can keep you from wanting more, since once you're at the top of your game you'll wish that the opposition actually bothered to oppose you more. No matter. Starting all over and racking up S-ranks without even touching the ground is cathartic, and GunValkyrie is so perfectly built around the joy of just getting better that it couldn't possibly be any other way.
Featured community review by mardraum (August 30, 2007)
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