Quest Through Bullet Hell and Back in Gryphon Knight Epic

The “bullet hell” formula has been a staple of the shoot-’em-up genre since the early ’90s, and while it owes its popularity to the fact that it works exceptionally well, innovation is always welcome. Treasure’s games like Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga have been praised for their refreshing take on the genre’s conventions.  More recently games like Sine Mora and Resogun have offered novel alternatives to the typical shooter experience. Gryphon Knight Epic, which is currently in the midst of a kickstarter campaign, is described by its developers as a Medieval SHMUP, but from what I’ve played it’s much more than just a typical shooting game with a medieval aesthetic.

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Gryphon Knight Epic places a heavy emphasis on narrative and character development. The cast is weird in an endearing way, and the story is rife with whimsy. Players take control of Sir Oliver and his trusty gryphon steed Aquila. Sir Oliver’s friends and allies have all mysteriously turned evil, and to get answers he must take them out in some truly impressive boss fights. The boss of the demo is an elf king named Simiel, who comes armed with the traditional elven bow, but in an interesting twist he mounts a gorilla to take Oliver on. These kooky designs are a nice change from all the helicopters, spaceships, and magical girls that infest the genre.

Gryphon Knight is so different from your typical scrolling shooter that it’s easy to forget that you’re playing a SHMUP. With an emphasis on branching paths and free exploration, it’s more reminiscent of Capcom’s Ghouls ‘N Ghosts than anything else. That to me is more alluring than simply labeling it as a shooter with a medieval paint-job.

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Level progression is mostly linear but not on rails, so you’re free to turn the gryphon around and move both backward and forward. This shakes things up when it comes to combat, as threats can come from all directions. The levels are structured in the same manner as a side scrolling 2D action game, with prompts indicating when you can proceed to a new area or even backtrack to an old one. Most shooters have you pick up where you die when you lose a life, but Gryphon Knight uses a checkpoint system that makes it feel more like an action adventure game. Rather than simply providing pretty backdrops for shooting action, Gryphon Knight Epic offers levels that have proper structure and substance. Your surroundings add a layer of depth to combat, forcing you to evade obstacles while dodging bullets and take on enemies in close-quarters.

In most shooters a boss is merely an overgrown sprite spewing an insane cluster of bullets, but in Gryphon Knight the bosses deliver a variety of projectile and melee attacks, and they even move around in unique patterns. Again, these bosses draw parallels to Ghouls ‘N Ghosts and even Mega Man. A giant tree blocks your way to Simiel, and it’s a challenging fight indeed. The demo ended some moments into the battle with the elf king, but I got a taste of a fun duel that left me wanting more. While I wasn’t able to experience this feature in the demo, winning these duels will allow Sir Oliver to use their abilities, not unlike the Blue Bomber. Sir Oliver also has a charged shot much like Mega Man X, which can be very handy against tougher foes.

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Gryphon Knight Epic already shows a lot of promise — the demo certainly leaves a good impression and fans of Capcom’s classic platformers should find a lot to love here. While the game may have the sensibilities of a SHMUP, it has the spirit of a hardcore action-adventure romp. If a retro hybrid of some of the most hardcore games out there sounds up your alley, you should check out Gryphon Knight’s Kickstarter campaign and perhaps cast a vote on its Steam Greenlight page.