Inside Pulse 12

Review: Gryphon Knight Epic (PC)

Gryphon Knight Epic
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Cyber Rhino Studios
Publisher: Cyber Rhino Studios
Release Date: 08/20/15

While the traditional shooter genre has become something of an underground genre these days, at least in the US, there’s no absence of attempts to create innovation in the genre when they do come around. While some games simply try to be the very best shooters they can be (or, failing that, bullet hell), others try to tack on new mechanical conventions, such as puzzle solving elements, platformer cross-breeding or God knows what else, all in hopes of creating something new and different. Well, Gryphon Knight Epic is following that same trend, as it takes the basic concepts of side-scrolling shooters and adds in some new ideas by way of upgrade-based platformers, such as Mega Man and its ilk. The idea isn’t a bad one, and you can see how the concepts would make Gryphon Knight Epic a real stand-out experience if its core mechanics worked as well as other games in the genre. That, sadly, is where the game falters; for as much as its concepts and innovations are interesting, and its ideas could have given the game a lot of novelty and charm, the actual game itself has some serious mechanical missteps built into it that make it much harder to enjoy than it should be.

On magical weapons and magical lands

The plot in Gryphon Knight Epic is fairly standard: you take control of Sir Oliver, a gryphon knight who rides his dedicated steed, Aquila, into battle. Several years back, he and a covenant of strong warriors bested an evil dragon in battle, and all of his friends snagged some sweet weapons in the deal, while Oliver (who’d been knocked unconscious during battle) only ended up with an uninteresting amulet. Well, one day, while heading out to pick up groceries, Oliver is attacked by an evil version of himself who proclaims that the amulet protected Oliver from turning evil, somehow, but that all of his friends weren’t so lucky. Well, since Oliver is the only person who isn’t super evil now, it now falls to him to save his friends, defeat his evil self, and basically save the world. As plots go, this isn’t anything amazing, though there’s a mild attempt to give the plot some charm through the odd humorous exchange here and there, and it works fine enough to carry the experience along. You won’t really find anything here that’ll amaze you, but it works for what it is, and given that the game is more about its gameplay than its narrative, it’s fine enough.

Visually, Gryphon Knight Epic looks fine enough, especially if you like spritework, but its charm is more in its animation and style than its technical prowess. The game has a distinct early Playstation visual quality to its sprites; they have clear pixelization and aren’t as high-res as something like an Arc System Works fighting game, but they look competent enough that it isn’t an issue. The animation is quite solid, though, which makes up for a lot, and the art style is interesting, mixing various different genres of fantasy elements together to make something that’s interesting by way of its references. It is a very busy world, however, so while it’s nice that no two stages look the same, it’s problematic because it can cause you to lose track of bullets. Aurally, the game is fundamentally sound, though it never really goes beyond that point. The music is fine for the game and fits the tone but it’s nothing exciting, there’s no voice work to speak of, and the sound effects are, again, all perfectly fitting, but there’s just nothing here in the aural department that stands out. That’s kind of depressing, honestly, as shooters generally have a reputation for having awesome soundtracks, but given the subject matter, one assumes there was only so much that could be done.

On magic weapons and stage selects

At its core, Gryphon Knight Epic is a side scrolling shooter, though it’s hardly a conventional one by any stretch of the imagination. The game uses a lot of conventional mechanics, meaning that if you use a controller (and you really should), the stick and pad can both move you around, and you’re given two different shooting buttons, one for rapid fire, and one for special shots, which, by default, charges up the shot on your crossbow. You’re also given an item button, which utilizes whatever item you have on-hand at the moment, including potions, bombs and other power-ups you can equip between missions. The game also uses a direction change mechanic, meaning that if enemies come from behind you, you can turn around to shoot them down instead of dodging around them if you’d prefer. What’s odd about it, though, is that when you change directions you also change the direction you’re travelling in, allowing you to go backward in the level. This can be helpful if you want to return to part of the stage you’ve passed before, or if you want to kill off the respawning enemies, since they can drop curative crystals that improve your survival chances in the stage. This mechanic in general changes up a lot of the basic shooter elements you’d normally expect in such a game, though once you’ve figured this out the rest of the pieces fall into place easily enough, so it’s not too hard to figure out how the game works once that’s mastered. There’s also a fairly solid tutorial that helps to explain the basics, and you can jump back into it whenever you want if you’re not getting the basics as you’d like.

There are four elements to the game that make it way more involved than typical shooters, however. First off, the direction changing mechanic doesn’t just work to allow you to backtrack for power-ups, as each stage is broken up into segments that allow you to specify the direction you wish to travel in. In theory, this just breaks up the stages a bit, but many stages have hidden pathways, either providing alternate routes or paths to special prizes, such as gold stores or crystals that improve your powers. You’ll have to unlock them, though, which can mean a bit of backtracking, but it’s an interesting use of the idea, and it’s easy to see how it could be used to great effect. Second, you can take on stages in any order (though some are locked until others are completed), so you can basically decide how you want to progress, ala something like Mega Man. This is also referenced in the game (aside from a brief shot of his skull for some reason) in the weapons you collect; each time you beat a boss, you gain their weaponry, which draw from your regenerating magic bar, and can offer interesting effects and attack variety that could make other bosses and stages easier. Finally, when you’re not in battle, you can also visit two different shops with the gold you acquire during play. The first offers you the ability to upgrade your weapons and crystal effects, allowing you improved travel options, better damage, and lower effect costs. The second allows you to buy items to use in battle as well as helper units (options, basically) who fly around your character performing effects, such as shooting, defending you and so on. These can be upgraded with crystals found in the level for better effectiveness, though taking damage loses some of their level in the process.

On getting back in the saddle again and again

You can plow through the game in around four to six hours, depending on how much time you spend searching for secrets in levels, but there’s some motivation to return once the game is complete. For one thing, each stage keeps track of whether or not you’ve found its crystal, allowing you to return to a stage if you miss out so you can search again if you wish. Also, it’s basically impossible to upgrade every weapon and skill to its maximum without a bit of grinding, so for those who want to max out everything, there’s plenty of value in grinding out some stages for more cash. There are also three different difficulty levels for each stage, which the game keeps track of completion-wise, allowing you to go back and try a stage on a harder difficulty if you so desire. Finally, the game also has a fairly robust compliment of Trophies to unlock if that’s a thing you’re into, so anyone who loves maxing out their Trophy count will probably get a few more hours out of the game.

That said, it’s really hard to recommend Gryphon Knight Epic, because for as much imagination as it has, the core mechanics aren’t great. The biggest issue is that the player hitbox, compared to other shooters of its ilk, is quite large, making it really hard to avoid taking hits in most stages on anything above the easiest difficulty level. That’s not the worst thing by itself, since you can heal with power-ups and crystals (on lower difficulties anyway) but your helper units lose a lot of their bar each time you take a hit, and crystals only refill a little bit of their power, meaning it’s quite easy to end up with your helpers basically incapable of helping, which gets annoying fast. Even with those two issues, though, the game would probably be fine if it felt mechanically sound, but honestly, the game just feels poorly paced, thanks to slow level scrolling and character movement speed, and a turning mechanic that can be actively disruptive since it completely changes the scrolling direction of the stage itself. It also doesn’t help that the difficulties feel unbalanced; Easy is just right, while the higher difficulties feel like they’re too hard or outright insane, and there’s less “challenge” and more “frustration” here. A smaller hitbox, the ability to control directional movement and a bit better pacing and balance in general would have made this a more memorable experience overall, but what’s here now is just a bunch of good ideas wrapped in a shell that doesn’t use them to their full potential.

Gryphon Knight Epic DOES have some good ideas to show off, in the end, and anyone who’s interested in concept more than execution, or really loves shooters, will find something worthwhile here, but everyone else will find more frustration than fun. The story and audio are fine and do the job of carrying the game along with the above average visual presentation, and the core gameplay is mostly standard shooter systems with a directional change mechanic that, while it takes some getting used to, is easily understood enough to work with. The big positive of the game is that it has a lot of really good ideas, offering stage exploration and secrets, player choice in the order of stage progression, special weapons taken from boss fights and upgrade options that can be purchased to keep the game interesting, and a stronger game would’ve benefitted well from these concepts. Unfortunately, the game in question doesn’t work as well as its novelties do, as the player hitbox is too large, helpers become ineffective in a hurry, the pacing and difficulties aren’t balanced properly, and the visuals can make it hard to track bullets at times. Gryphon Knight Epic isn’t bad for a first attempt, and the developer has shown a desire to listen to the community, so it’s possible that the game might be tuned or a sequel might improve the experience, but the game as it is feels like a lot of lost potential. Anyone who loves shooters a whole lot might find some fun here, but anyone else is going to find this too frustrating to really enjoy in the long run.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Gryphon Knight Epic is a game with a bunch of good idea wrapped up in an experience that makes it hard to enjoy them, and while diehard shooter fans may find something to love in the game, everyone else will find it to be hard to swallow at the best of times. The story and audio are fine enough to carry the game along, and the visual presentation is interesting enough to pick up the slack when the presentation cannot otherwise. The gameplay is simple enough to understand outside of a turning mechanic that’ll take some adjusting to, but the game has a lot of interesting ideas, such as hidden pathways and weapons acquired from boss encounters, to make the game feel fresh, and there’s a lot of content to keep it going beyond its initial playthrough. However, a larger than normal hitbox, helpers that bottom out in effectiveness fast, pacing and difficulty balance issues and visuals that can make it hard to track bullets at points make the game harder to enjoy than it should be, and limit the game in frustrating ways. With some strong tuning Gryphon Knight Epic could be a winner, and a sequel could be a real winner, but as it stands right now, this is only going to appeal to the most diehard of shooting fans, as it’s too frustrating and poorly executed to keep the interest of anyone else for long.