Azure Striker: Gunvolt - Striker Pack
R0 - Japan - Inti Creates
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (10th September 2017).
The Film

"Azure Striker: Gunvolt - Striker Pack" 「蒼き雷霆(アームドブルー)ガンヴォルト - ストライカーパック」 (2017)

For the sake of the review, the game, characters, and terms will be referred to their English titles and names rather than the original Japanese titles and names.

In 2014, Inti Creates released the throwback platform game "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" exclusively on the Nintendo 3DS. Taking inspiration from the Capcom "Mega Man X" series, it was a retro 2D sidescroller where the player controlled Gunvolt AKA "GV" who could choose multiple stages to clear and acquire special attacks used by those stage bosses. Graphically speaking "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" also looked similar to the "Mega Man X" series using retro 16 bit style or early 32 bit style for another throwback to retro gaming. The game was highly acclaimed and a Windows version would be released the following year, but Inti Creates was not done there.

The anticipated sequel "Azure Striker: Gunvolt 2" was released in 2016 exclusively for the Nintendo 3DS. There wasn't much change to the game's design. Taking place after some time following the events of the first game, the sequel introduced an additional playable character with two parallel stories, but cosmetically the game did not have any major changes to the graphics and sounds. The sequel also enjoyed high praise by gamers and critics, but again this was not the end of "Gunvolt" - with the production of an animated short.

In early 2017, the original video anime short "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" was released worldwide on the Nintendo 3DS eShop in the original Japanese or English dubbed audio, with the opening events of the first game retold in traditional 2D animation, using the same voice actors from the game.

2016 also saw the release of both games physically, with "Azure Striker: Gunvolt - Striker Pack" on the 3DS in Japan and the United States which included both games on one gamecard. The "Gunvolt" series finally made its physical format jump to HD with "Azure Striker: Gunvolt - Striker Pack" for the Nintendo Switch and released on August 31st 2017 in Japan. The standard edition of the game included both games on one gamecard. The limited edition also included a DVD with the anime and a CD with side stories of three of the characters. As for non-Japanese releases the game was released worldwide on the same date but only as a downloadable title from the eShop. A physical release of the game has been confirmed for the United States on October 31st 2017, but the "Striker Pack" will only be a standard edition with the game only. A physical copy has not been announced for other regions.

As the Nintendo Switch and its games are region free with multiple language options the Japanese release is a desirable option for gamers who would like a physical copy of the "Striker Pack".



"Azure Striker: Gunvolt" begins with the story of Gunvolt, nicknamed "GV" by the members of QUILL - a rebel organization looking to take down the evil Sumeragi Group, a corporation that is imprisoning "Adepts" - people with super-human "septimal" powers. GV's mission is to infiltrate Sumeragi to assassinate Lumen - an Adept that is able to control others through her singing, and is being used by the corporation to control millions. GV's mission takes a turn as he finds that Lumen is housed within the body of a young girl named Joule, and cannot bring himself to kill her. He goes against the mission by instead rescuing her and to live off the grid in hiding. QUILL accepted his resignation though it would not be the last for them to count on him for help, as a few months later they would need his assistance to take down a group of Sumeragi agents - Adepts controlled by the evil group.

The story is not the most original. The rebels taking out the Death Star in "Star Wars", the mutant powers in "X-Men" and the battle between good and evil mutants. Countless animes and mangas have also dealt with super-human powers, so to find any originality in the game's story is not the main issue. The use of pop music to brainwash has also been a subject in films such as "Suicide Club" where a pop-idol girl group's song was used to cause teens to subconsciously commit suicide. Is the game having this making a point that Japanese idol pop music is brainwashing the population? There is some truth to that irony.

The gameplay as GV is similar to that of "Mega Man" which should not be a surprise, as Inti Creates was established by former Capcom employees who worked on the series, and Inti Creates were the developers of the "Mega Man Zero" and "Mega Man ZX" series that were published by Capcom. GV uses an upgradable gun which is not that powerful. What is powerful is his electric forcefield which can be used for both offense and defense during short periods. Once an enemy is shot with the gun and tagged, using the electricity can give serious damage to the enemy on screen whether they are in the forcefield range or not. But if the electricity is overused, GV overheats and becomes susceptible to attacks until he can recharge. Like the "Mega Man" series, each boss has a special attack that GV can acquire once beaten. The special attacks can be equipped - four at a time and are extremely useful in pinch situations or boss battles, whether reenergizing GV or giving serious damage to the enemies.

Stages are mostly non-linear where the player is able to choose the stage one would like to go as well as replaying the stages to acquire secret items or getting better scores and times. There are occasional times such as when Joule is kidnapped that certain stages are not selectable until she is rescued. The game does not have "lives" so once GV loses all his energy and dies, the player restarts from the last checkpoint in the level with infinite continues. One is able to abort the mission and go back to the stage select menu but experience and items acquired from that stage would be lost. With this in mind it could be a little frustrating that your special attacks cannot be changed within the level but must be done before entering. So if you find yourself at the boss and you have not equipped yourself with a special attack you wanted, you must abort the mission to start again. The stages themselves are very well made with the level designs that are not too hard to maneuver through. There are multiple secrets and hidden items as well as a few shortcuts, but most of the levels are fairly linear in the direction to go, rarely having a case of getting lost. Stages and bosses are usually cleared around 10 minutes each - if one doesn't use continues so they are not too lengthy or too short.

The game's dialogue is done with voice acting and text to accompany the voices. Voices are entirely in Japanese only, with in game text available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish options. It is also possible to play the game with the Japanese audio turned off. It is possible to change languages of a save file but one must exit the game first.

As for difficulty, it is not unfair. Enemies and bosses have specific patterns and it is all about remembering the repetitions. Boss battles can be frustrating and difficult especially in the latter half of the game but it is all about the patience of the player rather than the blame of the computer controlled bosses. When first starting the game, getting "C" ratings in cleared courses might be the norm, but replay can easily give "A" ratings in many of the stages. Controls are very smooth and responsive, with very easy gameplay. Shoot, jump, electrocute, and the occasional special attack. It's definitely an easy to pick up and play for newcomers and for veteran gamers while still giving challenges along the way, especially in seeing the true ending which can only be seen after collecting all the hidden jewels. "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" is an incredibly fun game, and even with its flaws still provides hours of great gameplay.



"Azure Striker: Gunvolt 2" takes place a while after the events of the first game. Without giving away too many spoilers, after the efforts of Sumeragi failed, there is a new threat from the international organization Eden, which controls a team of powerful Adepts. Not only is GV back to take down Eden, but his rival Copen is also back to take down the larger evil. The two must join forces for the greater good and save the world.

The biggest difference in the sequel is the parallel storylines of GV and Copen, which the player can choose whose story to follow and continue at any time. GV controls basically the same as the first game with the tagging and electrocuting, while Copen has differing EX weapons as his skill rather than electricity. It will certainly take some getting used to for people who became familiar with GV's moves for so long. As stated the two characters' stories move in parallel form. You may continue playing the game for a while as GV only if one would like. One may alter between characters after each mission. Again, it is up to the player to decide. But GV cannot play one of Copen's missions and vice versa. This addition makes "Azure Striker: Gunvolt 2" slightly more challenging for veteran players but many have stated that even with the new character, the game itself seems easier than the first game. But that may be due to most people struggling through the first game on a learning curve have found the second time around as the easier gameplay. The second game may be for people looking for a new challenge but the game starts off for newcomers as well, giving a basic tutorial on GV's moves as well as reminding people that the game does not autosave.

Controls are basically the same as the first game with the same button combinations. One thing that was added was that the "X" button now does the special attack in addition to the "R" trigger. In the first game the "R" trigger was used for the special attack but with the move to the new "X" button, this causes issue to accidentally pressing the "X" button when one did not mean to. I personally pressed the "X" button on so many occasions accidentally wasting the special attack on a screen when no enemies appeared. It is possible to change the "X" button to something else, in the menu options thankfully.

Another thing that was slightly changed was with the audio. Again the voices are entirely in Japanese only, with in game text available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish options. Unlike the first game, it is impossible to mute the Japanese audio.

Like the first game the graphics are on par with the 16 bit era and no major upgrade was made from the first game to the second, so if one were to see images of the sequel it is easy to mistake it for the first. This is not entirely a bad thing as it keeps things very consistent. "Azure Striker: Gunvolt 2" doesn't break much new ground but it does keep things very fast paced and entertaining with hours of gameplay along with the similar style of frustration with the battles. Once the player gets the repetitions down, the game should be fairly easy.

In both games, the Japanese voice acting is done by professional voice actors. Kaito Ishikawa as GV has appeared in a number of anime series, theatrical features such as "Your Name." (2016), and multiple games such as "Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky" (2013) as the title character. Megu Sakuragawa as Joule was featured in the popular series and mobile game "Love Live! School Idol Project". Many of the names involved in the "Gunvolt" series are fairly new to the voice acting world, with many of the actors resumes not extending back to the last decade. They've certainly took cues from the anime and game world of the recent generation, and their work is not out of step with recent trends even if the game looks retro. There are no cut scenes within the game and when the faces of the characters appear on screen there is no movement at all, giving a comic aspect rather than animation. But with the 2017 original video animation, movement was finally put to the models.



Yoshinori Odaka has been in the world of anime since the 1990s, working as a director, voice actor, producer, artist, and more on series such as "G.T.O.", "Bleach", "Full Metal Alchemist", and more. Directing and producing the original video animation of "Azure Striker: Gunvolt", the 22 minute animated short was the telling of the opening of the first game - basically GV rescuing Joule from Sumeragi. The capture, torture scene, the train sequence are all told but in flashback form, with Joule remembering the heroic duty of GV and how her life was forever indebted to him. The game's voice actors return for the project and the 2D animation is on par with modern 2D animation - colorful and bright, with limited amounts of movement in dialogue scenes and fast paced blurring effects for the action.

As the short is really an introduction, it is disappointing to know that this is the only episode produced. Granted a series could be made since a consistent story is already there in the two games, it's a little unfortunate that nothing has been announced to continue the story in animated form, and that the short itself does not break any particular new ground. Also to note that the English dubbed version of the short includes voices by Josh Keller, Peter Von Gomm among others, which their voices are not available in-game.

The "Gunvolt" series has been a very well made retro style throwback while also catering to the anime crowds with the storytelling plus the music. Thankfully the Nintendo Switch "Azure Striker: Gunvolt - Striker Pack" limited edition gathers everything together as well as more added bonuses. All the DLC and updates made for the games are included in the Striker Pack as well as a DVD with the anime and extras, plus a bonus CD that includes audio episodes that are side stories from the game - taking place between the first and second games.

Note the Nintendo Switch game is region free and can be played on any Nintendo Switch console worldwide, and the DVD is region 0 NTSC which can be played on any DVD or Blu-ray player worldwide

Video

Inti Creates presents the animated short of "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement in the NTSC format. Being a modern anime production there is little to fault in the transfer but it does seem overly bright in the color palate especially with blue tones which GV is known for with his uniform and his blue electric power. The artificial motion blurring and limited animation is expected, and there are no issues of errors within the transfer. It is presented in a higher resolution than on the small 3DS screen, though it is not where a high definition Blu-ray transfer would be, but more on that later.

The runtime of the animated short is 21:44.

The following are screenshots of the original video animation:











The Nintendo Switch port of the "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" games boosts the original Nintendo 3DS 240p at 30 frames per second to a full 1080p at 60 frames per second in docked mode on television and 720p at 60 frames per second in handheld mode. The movement is smoother and there are no framerate issues as it consistently plays with no lag or slowdown. Graphically it makes a bit of improvement but as retro gamers should know, 16 bit style graphics do look blocky and pixely on larger televisions and this is no exception. There was no effort to boost the resolution of the characters and backgrounds so there is no artificial sharpening or softening of the image. With the dual screen 3DS original having the gameplay on the top screen with menus and info on the bottom, the screens have been combined onto a single screen for the Switch ports of the games and they have been done quite well, but not as organized and not as easy to access like the 3DS versions were.

The graphics for the characters appearing on screen during the dialogue have been redone in high definition, looking very clean and colorful with no issues of pixelation. The visuals presented here are the biggest upgrade from the 3DS to the Switch graphics, which looked good before but look much clearer in HD.

The following are screenshots of the first "Azure Striker: Gunvolt", taken directly from the Nintendo Switch and resized:









The following are screenshots of "Azure Striker: Gunvolt 2", taken directly from the Nintendo Switch and resized:







Audio

For the DVD there are two audio options available.

Japanese LPCM 2.0 stereo
English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo


The original Japanese track is given a lossless LPCM audio track and it sounds quite good. Dialogue is clear, the effects are loud and crisp, and the sometimes cringeworthy pop music is also balanced well. Stereo separation is effectively used and is a pleasing track overall. The English dub is given a standard Dolby Digital track and is on a lower level than the original Japanese. The English sounds fairly well balanced like the Japanese track but as for any fan that became used to the original voice acting from the games, it will be an awkward encounter.

There are no subtitles provided for the short. One additional minor oversight is that the titles and opening prologue text are in Japanese rather than the English version found on the English download version. English viewers will see the Japanese "Armed Blue: Gunvolt" screen and miss the minor opening text info.


For the two games of "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" and "Azure Striker: Gunvolt 2" there is one audio track available on both:

Japanese LPCM 5.1

The Japanese audio track is presented in a fully lossless 5.1 mix, but in fact it is basically a 2.0 stereo track spread to 5.1. Dialogue, music, and effects are mostly used within the standard left and right channels with little use for the surrounds or center. Considering this is a 2D platformer and not a game encompassing a 3D environment a full 5.1 track is not exactly necessary and the stereo audio gets the job well done. There are no issues with volume levels in the game's default.

The in game text is available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish for both games, switchable on the main menu.

Extras

The standard physical edition of "Azure Striker: Gunvolt - Striker Pack" has the Nintendo Switch Gamecard in the standard Nintendo Switch case. The limited edition also includes the DVD of the anime short with some extras plus a CD.


DISC ONE (DVD)

Teaser Trailer (0:32)
A dialogue free teaser.
in anamorphic 1.78:1, Dolby Digital 2.0 with Japanese text

Trailer (1:00)
Another that is dialogue free, but also includes Japanese and English text for worldwide viewers. The Japanese text retains the original names while the English text refers to the English names.
in anamorphic 1.78:1, Dolby Digital 2.0 with Japanese and English text

Nintendo eShop Promo Trailer - Japanese Version (1:40)
The promo trailer featuring dialogue and showcasing the voice actors is presented here.
in anamorphic 1.78:1, in Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 with Japanese text

Nintendo eShop Promo Trailer - English Version (1:40)
The same trailer but with English voices and all text replaced to English is presented here.
in anamorphic 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with English text


DISC TWO "Drama CD: Acura / Cyan / Ouka Stories" (CD)

The CD presents three stories of three of the characters following the events of the first game and prior to the second. The first track "Caution" is an introduction by Asimov, detailing that there may be spoilers for people that haven't finished the first game. The CD titles use the Japanese names - Acura is Copen's Japanese name, Cyan is Joule's Japanese name, and Ouka is Quinn's Japanese name. The CD presents the voice actors reprising their roles and the music and effects taken directly from the game. The sound dramas are presented in the original Japanese.

1. "Caution" (0:46)
2. Copen I (Acura I) (2:57)
3. Copen II (Acura II) (4:58)
4. Joule I (Cyan I) (6:09)
5. Joule II (Cyan II) (3:07)
6. Joule III (Cyan III) (6:18)
7. Quinn I (Ouka I) (6:58)



These are a nice assortment of extras for the games and having the animated short on physical media. Though it should be noted that Happinet in conjunction with Inti Creates will release the short on Blu-ray on September 28th 2017. It will have the same trailers as the DVD and includes two CDs with music from the game and bonus tracks such as karaoke versions. The drama CD included in the "Striker Pack" will not be available with the Blu-ray set.

Packaging

The Limited Edition is housed in a DVD tall sized box which holds the DVD case and the Nintendo Switch game case. The DVD case is a clear plastic keep case holding the DVD and the CD with double sided artwork and information in Japanese. The Switch game case is identical to the Japanese standard release down to the barcode which is differing from the outer box. Strangely the inside artwork is completely blank in the Switch case. Also there is no instruction booklet, as all instructions are available within games - the norm for these days.

Overall

"Azure Striker: Gunvolt - Striker Pack" Limited Edition is an excellent way for people to catch up to the series by including both of the "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" games with all the previously released DLC content, plus the English-friendly DVD and the CD. Fans who already own the games on the 3DS may find it difficult for an upgrade to the Switch version, as the games themselves do not have significant upgrades or additional exclusives. The games are an immense amount of fun with good replay value, the animated short film is fairly average and is much too short, while the Japanese only audio CD does not have much interest but is filler curiosity. The set still comes as highly recommended for newcomers and veterans alike to the "Gunvolt" universe.

The rating in the final grade below is for the animated short, and the extras rating is for the DVD and CD content while the overall is for the entire limited edition set. These are the ratings for the games:

- "Azure Striker: Gunvolt" - A
- "Azure Striker: Gunvolt 2" - A-

The Film: B- Video: B+ Audio: A Extras: C- Overall: A

 


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