There are a lot of great games out there. A lot of good ones, too. Even more bad ones out there. However, rarely are there cool games. Not just cool, but effortlessly cool. Like, the kind of cool that happens when you see a friend immaculately dressed in the greatest outfit you’ve ever seen, and when asked how they pulled that look off, they simply shrug and nonchalantly tell you it was all something they pulled out of the closet. The kind of cool that you aspire to, but can never achieve because that means you had to try, and the nebulous concept of being cool means you either are or you aren’t, and no amount of trying can change that.
Gungrave is a PS2 game that is effortlessly cool. It is an extremely basic shooter at its core; imagine if Contra wasn’t so damned cerebral, you go from one room to another, mowing down (sometimes literal) faceless goons until the end credits roll an hour after you’ve pressed the start button. Gungrave is not deep. At all. It is a simple game that is over before you know it. This does not matter, because Gungrave is the coolest game you will play on your Playstation 2.
Gungrave is about a former mobster killed in a power struggle and brought back to life as a hulking brute in a cowboy hat, with a metal coffin (which also acts as a chaingun and a rocket launcher) and a pair of big handguns. Grave, as he is now known (short for “Beyond The Grave”), is back to get revenge, and that revenge involves a lot of people dying from multiple gunshot wounds.The plot is not super important, it’s there, but it’s not a big deal. If you want the full story, there is an anime adaptation that is supposed to be pretty good, so I might check it out myself pretty soon.
You look at Grave, with his big coat, his massive guns, carrying around this massively unwieldy object that doubles as another weapon, and you can probably tell that he was designed by the creator of Trigun (Yasuhiro Nightow). Now, I haven’t watched Trigun since I was a teenager, so I don’t know if it’s still good, but the characters looked cool, and that’s what’s important here. Nightow has a design sensibility of taking something so over-the-top, something that could just as easily have been some cringy edgelord bull shit no different than any other terrible violent video game character of the mid-2000s, and making it work in an aesthetic sense. Red Entertainment (the game’s developer), talented developers that they are (they made the Bonk series after all), took this design and made it work in a mechanical sense. Grave’s default method of movement is walking, not running. Walking. This seems like a bad idea for a character to slowly walk around in a frenetic shooter like this, but it all comes together in a thematic sense. Think about it: this hulking spirit of vengeance, slowly trudging down long hallways before he kicks down the door to a room full of literally dozens of mafia hitmen about to meet their doom, all to the squeals of saxophones and the frantic jazz/EDM fusion soundtrack. You are the anime badass. You are this unstoppable force of nature that will only leave disaster in your wake. If you’re good enough, you can clear an entire building without a hair out of place. Again, the shooting is basic, but it’s cool.
To the game’s credit, enemies don’t just run at you in a rush to die. They hide behind cover, attack in groups, ambush you from behind, all sorts of tactics. Of course, Grave has a solution to all of these problems. He can destroy cover with enough bullets. Shooting while dodging (a John Woo/Max Payne style dive) drastically increases fire rate, meaning groups of small enemies or one large enemy can be taken out in a single burst of bullets. Graves’ coffin can be used as a melee weapon for anything that’s too close or not directly in the line of fire. Or, you know, just kill enough enemies and destroy enough objects to fill up your kill gauge, and take out any annoyance with some rockets or chaingun fire. Gungrave operates on one verb, and that verb is “Kill.” Kill everything that moves. Kill everything that doesn’t move. Keep killing and don’t stop killing. Every level begins with a prompt tell you to KICK THEIR ASS!! Gungrave is a cool game where you get to do cool shit, and it rules.
I know that I said it’s simple and short, and I’ve also said in the past that those are not bad things. Gungrave is well made, it looks great, sounds great, doesn’t control or play like shit. You could definitely argue that there’s more style over substance, but the style is not there to hide any massive shortcomings or to disguise a bad game. It does what it needs to do, and ends before it has a chance to wear out its welcome. Probably because you’re encouraged to replay levels for a higher score (represented by skulls, the coolest form of judgement), and having too many levels that go on for too long would hurt that. Gungrave is only about an hour long, but it’s a damn good hour to spend. Did I mention that Gungrave is really cool? Feel like I may not have gotten that across.