Some genres just never die.
That’s not to say some shouldn’t – a wizened sage once prophesied the demise of the dating sim, but unfortunately this has yet come to pass. Nevertheless, the side scrolling “shoot’em up”, also known as the “shmup”, has been steadfastly plugging along. With the help of Kickstarter, independent Brazilian developers Cyber Rhino Studios are attempting to bring the shmup back to its former glory in the form of Gryphon Knight Epic, although they might be overcompensating with that title.
Flying onto the stage on your gryphon steed Aquila, you play as Sir Oliver, a dragon-slaying knight of Valiantskies armed with a trusty Crossbuster (also known as a repeating crossbow). After saving the kingdom with the help of his six friends, all of whom are competing for the “stereotype of the year” award, and looting the dragon’s hoard, Sir Oliver comes to realise that there is something amiss with his fellow warriors that requires investigation. Aggressive investigation. With a crossbow. Truth be told, the story of Gryphon Knight Epic is hardly compelling, treading the line between generic and parody, with the “narrative” only serving to vaguely link the eight stages together. The dialogue however is actually quite tongue in cheek and frequently references the tropes of Medieval adventure games, but sadly some of its nuances seems to be lost in translation and could benefit from better localisation.
Side scrolling shoot-em ups have a reputation for being notoriously difficult. The “bullet hell” sub genre pits players against an almost sadistic number of projectiles on the screen at any one time, and requires innumerable restarts before you can memorise the movements of enemies to ensure victory. In recent years the shoot’em up genre has survived not by diversifying and becoming more accessible, but by exploring all seven circles of “bullet hell” until even the most hardcore of players must admit defeat. Gryphon Knight Epic sits neatly in about the fifth circle of hell. Indeed, the difficulty here isn’t so much the number of enemies as it is the infuriating slowness of Sir Oliver, who is apparently so geriatric by this point in his career that he is sometimes completely incapable of dodging the attacks of his enemies at all. On normal (Knight) difficulty, the game often feels unfair – you try to dodge certain death only to be immediately slapped in the face for your insolence. What’s worse is that because the game boasts “exploration” as part of its charm, it allows you to change direction whenever you want. The problem here is that when you change direction in a game that automatically scrolls in the direction that you happen to be facing, whenever you turn around fresh enemies appear on the other side of the screen despite the fact that you’re absolutely certain you just passed through that area not two seconds ago and decimated anything with a pulse. Gryphon Knight Epic is difficult in the same way a person who counts cards presents a “challenge” at the poker table.
So, let’s presume that you really, really like shoot’em ups. This means that you won’t stop playing the game after the first 30 minutes because at first glance it seems too difficult. You may even be one of those rare breeds that “enjoy the challenge”. You might even persevere on normal difficulty rather than switching to easy mode like a certain reviewer did. But what is there that makes you want to play Gryphon Knight Epic over any other old shmup? Well, there’s the unique weapons that you can unlock after defeating each stage, such as the three arrow shooting Muuk Bow or the firework firing Ryuunabi Cannon, which you can cycle through at any time. There are also the “Squires”, little perks that provide you with boons like a shield or extra money. Finally there are potions that provide health, mana, invulnerability etc. All these require money to purchase or upgrade, which is granted upon defeating enemies. Unfortunately, the lower the difficulty level the less money you will receive, and more often than not you will see most of your hard earned coins invested in health potions that you will need if you want the privilege of existing. It’s very similar to council tax. If you truly want to sample all the variety that Gryphon Knight Epic has to offer, you will have to either be incredibly skilled or a masochist who enjoys grinding, and by extension, a lack of social life.
As I previously mentioned, the developers advertise “exploration” as part of their game’s appeal. The “exploration” mostly involves choosing to “go up” or “go down” at certain junctures, backtracking, and hitting switches. At one point there was a colour mixing mini-game that reminded me of the educational CD-Roms I used to play when I was still discovering the childhood delights of the “Rainbow Song”. Your reward for this brave foray into uncharted territories are magical Runes, which grant the wearer different passive and active abilities to help in your quest. It is of course perfectly possible to complete the game without these Runes, and the process of finding them can be so tedious that you soon begin to question your commitment to “exploration” after about 10 seconds of lazily floating back to the beginning of the stage only to be accosted by enemies that have no right to be there. If indeed you do decide that repeating levels and unlocking the mysteries of Valiantskies is not worth your time, the game proves to be very short unless you put yourself through the seemingly unending dying in “Knight” or, heaven forbid, “Epic” mode.
Whilst my less than obsessive attitude towards hellishly difficult shoot’em ups is no secret, I can clearly recognise the passion and direction behind Gryphon Knight Epic. A return to the heyday of 2D pixel art has clearly been attempted, although rather than the revolutionary pixel artistry of games like Fez we are given an aesthetic which many would simply regard as dated, while some would class as nostalgic. The music, although sometimes repetitive, fits well with the style of the game. Furthermore, even though Gryphon Knight Epic only has eight stages, they are all unique in setting (drawing upon all manner of cultures and time periods) and are filled with unique enemies, each having their own and surprisingly long entry in the game’s Compendium. It seems like the developers had a good foundation for world building but placed that talent in a game that does not benefit from it, and as a result it feels equally as cobbled together as it is diverse.
Gryphon Knight Epic is a game that caters well to its niche audience, which is undoubtedly comprised of those benevolent shmup obsessed souls that funded the Kickstarter campaign. Truly, it is a game that is fiendishly challenging for those that side scroll through life, and frustratingly unfair for your average Joe. Much like its setting, Gryphon Knight Epic proves to be somewhat of an anachronism in the world of modern games.