Review: Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure

There’s something about Nihon Falcom games that just draws you in and grips you like a vice. Though their budget-friendly retro visuals might call to mind low-rent indie fare, their titles exhibit a level of polish that even most AAA studios can’t hope to match. Responsive controls and tight, old-school gameplay are their hallmarks, though they also excel at crafting rich, inviting worlds in which players can lose themselves. In many ways, Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure is a bug departure from their usual output – instead of building on NES and PC-Engine Action RPGs, this quirky little game apes the style of 32-bit classics like Megaman Legends– yet it still bears those hallmarks with pride. The game flew under most gamers’ radar when it hit the PSP in 2007, but thanks to steam greenlight it has a second chance to shine on PC.

Parin’s life seems to be going downhill fast when her globe-trotting parents send her to live in Tiese town with her grandfather. The old mining village scarcely has any residents, and none of them are children. She soon finds playmates, though, when she stumbles through a gap in a wall and into a Burton-esque town full of friendly monsters that only children can see. From then on she spends her days playing with her new friends, until a group of evil Phantoms attacks the town and kidnaps them. Without a second thought, Parin takes up a magical drill at the center of town and sets out to rescue her friends – oh, and also get their furniture back.

Yeah, this is another weird game, as is exemplified by the items you can find over the course of your adventure. Gurumin has an RPG-style equipment system, but where other games might deck you out in shields and armor, here you can put on goggles to keep water out of your eyes while swimming or wear a ribbon that “reduces trap damage… for some reason” (that’s the in-game description). If you’re particularly vigilant you can unlock outfits to go with the headgear and parade Parin around in adorable cosplay. Some getups even give her new voice clips (for example, she shrieks like a monkey while attacking in the monkey costume). Falcom’s trademark attention to detail is applied in some charmingly off-kilter ways here.

2015-03-28_00046
Of course a lot of that charm would be lost without a solid localization, and while Mastiff isn’t quite up to snuff with XSeed or Atlus, their translation efforts serve the game perfectly. Gurumin has the tone and aesthetic of a Saturday morning cartoon, and Mastiff has given it a script to match, full of goofy jokes and colorful characters. Those characters are voiced by a cast of cartoon veterans like Steve Blum, Tara Strong, and Robin Atkin-Downes, all of whom turn in delightfully hammy, over-the-top performances. The writing certainly won’t move you in the same way as Trails in the Sky, but it’s sure to put a smile on your face.

Gameplay is a careful blend of many different PS1 and N64 classics, though if you put a gun to my head I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly which ones. In many ways, Gurumin feels like a 3D evolution of the Ys games, and since Ys owes a lot to The Legend of Zelda, it shares a lot of design elements with Ocarina of Time – crate puzzles included. At the same time though, the game places a heavy emphasis on platforming in addition to combat and puzzle solving, so Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon or Ape Escape might be better points of comparison, but then it’s a lot more methodical than either of those games. Ultimately, despite evoking nostalgia for a ton of old titles, it’s difficult to pigeonhole Gurumin as being derivative of any one – another hallmark of Falcom’s brand.

2015-03-28_00022
Hard as Gurumin is to classify, it can be even harder to play. Things start out simple, with a few basic enemy types and environmental hazards. Regular phantoms can be dealt with using standard attacks, while those wearing armor need to be hit with a charged blow first, and flying enemies necessitate jump attacks. Gurumin  wastes no time mixing these dynamics up, though, equipping regular phantoms with weapons and elemental projectiles that change their attack patterns, tossing in bigger variants that can eat and dish out more damage, and pitting you against specialized enemies like spiders and seed-spitting plants. Dealing with enemy type demands an entirely different strategy, and the game throws them at you in increasingly complex formations that force you to think on your feet. This is how you build a good difficulty curve.

While all those special enemies can be intimidating, they also represent an opportunity. If you manage to land a critical hit on them, they’ll drop their equipment when they die. You can salvage the junk they leave behind and use it to upgrade your own gear – make your goggles water-proof instead of merely water-resistant, for instance. Landing critical attacks also builds your drill level, which boosts your overall attack power, while getting hit decreases it. It would be mighty frustrating to rely on random chance for all these upgrades, but thankfully Gurumin handles critical hits differently from most action RPGs. At the top of the screen a meter tracks the beat of whatever song is playing in the background, and attacks made in time to that beat are automatic crits. On the hardest difficulty setting, only critical attacks do damage.

2015-03-28_00043

This system adds another layer to what might otherwise be an overly-frenetic, button-mashy combat system, and forces you to keep a cool head if you want to stay effective in battle. It also means that the game’s background music sets the pace for each level in a very literal sense. Falcom Sound Team JDK are among the best composers in the business, and Gurumin, while not their strongest work, is one of the most fun soundtracks they’ve ever produced, full of upbeat, chirpy jingles with memorable hooks. With a lesser team the rhythm combat would have fallen flat, but it ends up being one of the game’s strongest features.

Like many of Falcom’s games, this is a dungeon crawler at heart, but unlike Brandish or Ys it doesn’t lock you into a linear level progression. The game’s overworld (which itself will feel instantly familiar to anyone who grew up with a PS1) is divided into several different regions which you can tackle in largely any order you want. Each level is distinctive and well-designed, presenting new puzzles and platforming challenges to overcome, so even if you do choose to go through each area in order the game is never dragged down by repetition. Once you beat an area’s boss you can take on mirrored versions of old stages for an extra challenge, assuming you’re up for it. At the end of each stage you’ll find a piece of monster furniture, which you can return to its owner to clear some of the miasma that blankets the world and unlock new stages.

Of course, you can’t return that furniture without first rescuing its owner, and to do that you’ll have to throw down in a boss fight. Gurumin’s bosses are fairly archetypal – you have the armored bruiser, the flying monster who conveniently leaves you a way to reach him in the air, and the shadow clone of the protagonist – but they’re well-designed and a lot of fun to fight. Instead of following set patterns they jump randomly between several different attacks that leave them vulnerable in different ways, so you need to pay attention and react instead of just skirting by on rote memorization. On higher difficulties each boss fight feels like a gauntlet, and it’s immensely satisfying to overcome them.

2015-03-28_00009
Closing Comments:

If you miss the glory days of PS1 and N64 platformers, then consider Gurumin a must-play. Though it is very much its own game, it’s built on the same design philosophies that made the classics classic, and like all Nihon Falcom games it’s been polished to a mirror sheen. The music-driven combat is brilliant, fast and challenging, and the enemy and level design is fine-tuned to let you get the most out of it. Its cel-shaded, low-poly art style is perfectly suited to bringing its lovable cast of characters to life and painting a cute yet macabre world reminiscent of Caroline and Okage: Shadow King. Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure will make you grin like you’re a kid again from beginning to end.