I had originally started this review with the intention of slating Gryphon Knight Epic to hell and back. My first few plays had been teeth-gnashingly frustrating, and I was half-tempted to throw my computer away in a miserable huff. However, that is not what will be happening, as Gryphon Knight Epic is, appropriately, an odd beast. Like the annoying secondary character in a film where their behavior aggravates the protagonists to the point of their dismissal and future re-welcoming, this game started to grow on me very peculiarly.
The premise is an interesting one: Gryphon Knight Epic is a shmup, but it's a new spin on an old game. Usually in this genre, we get spaceships at our disposal, but Gryphon Knight Epic doesn't play by your rules. You play as a knight named Sir Oliver, who rides a gryphon and kills enemies with a souped-up crossbow that can be charged and fired off in a manner not too dissimilar from Mega Man's Mega Buster. This is an awesome idea to build a game on – how could I possibly have been mad at it?
The wider plot of the game is also a winner. A while ago, the good knight was on a mission with six friends to rid the world of evil and save the kingdom's princess. After the battle was won, they were rewarded with loot; the most interesting pieces of which were six weapons and an amulet. Because our randy hero spent too much time trying to seduce the princess (he succeeds), he loses out on the weapons and gets saddled with the amulet. However, the trouble is not over. These weapons are like the Horcruxes of Harry Potter in that if they're held for a long time, they begin to possess and make the wearer evil. The amulet, however, dispels evil spirits. So, Oliver and his gryphon Aquilo must set off to rescue his friends. It's a retro style of plot in that it's somewhat sparse, but it sets the action and level structure up brilliantly.
So if the game makes a good first impression, why does it frustrate so much? The keyboard controls are the most migraine-inducing set-up I have ever had the misfortune of working with. The controls on the keyboard are bunched up together uncomfortably, leading to too many awkward miss-presses which is death in a genre like the shmup, requiring care and precision. Happily, however, the game's recommended set-up with a standard gamepad works like a dream. Only on a gamepad are you playing Gryphon Knight Epic at its finest; indeed, the developers intended it as such: control of your gryphon is so much slicker and faster, and you can weave yourself in and out of the hail of bullets with ease. With a controller, the game becomes more of a choreographed dance, more like a retro title, and once that happens, that's when the game will click for you.
What does the actual core gameplay consist of, though? It's a scrolling 2D shoot-'em-up where projectiles come fast, and the enemies behind them come even faster. What this creates is a challenging little game where you always need to keep your wits about you, dodging everything that comes at you and eliminating it post-haste. Gryphon Knight challenges your reflexes, and when you overcome a level, there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. This game isn't easy by any stretch (though there are three modes of difficulty if you want to soften or harden the challenge), which can be attributed to the retro influences the game has taken.
These extend to the graphics, drawn in that familiar 16-bit style that Steam loves (for good reason: it's cheaper to produce, quicker, and often prettier) and everything looks colourful and sharp enough to burn Gryphon Knight Epic into your memory quickly. The graphical style is bright and chunky, like Mega Bloks, but still shiny and pretty to look at nonetheless. I don't use 'shiny' lightly, either, the game has this gleam to it, and I found my eyes turning to saucers on first glimpse. In simple terms, it is really, really pretty.
What's particularly encouraging is the replay value that the game holds. It's structured like a retro title, with a small collection of levels that can be beaten quickly, but due to the high difficulty, the challenge of trying to beat the game will last longer than the levels, if one were to run through them seamlessly. However, the game does offer up extra things to do that will stretch out play time. Oliver can collect his friends’ weapons and use them for himself. All of them can be upgraded multiple times. What's more, if you want to 100% this game, you'll need to backtrack to past levels and hunt out sections you might have missed, which just adds that little bit extra to the title.
Yet, oddly, the retro philosophy doesn't extend to the music. While some of the greatest retro soundtracks of all time have clear techno inspirations, especially in shoot-'em-up games, Gryphon Knight Epic takes a more intriguing approach. The soundtrack here sounds more ethereal and gentle, which sounds like they should feel out of place, but it oddly fits well with the game. It also proves to not be too distracting, which is exactly what you want when trying to manoeuvre yourself through a hail of bullets. What's more: the soundtrack is actually a beautiful piece of work that really ends up adding a lot to the overall sheen of the game.
Gryphon Knight Epic is a surprise in the purest, happiest sense. If you play this with a controller after suffering through the indignity of playing it on a keyboard, you'll find a colourful and well realised little shmup.
Gryphon Knight Epic (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
This shmup is slick and pretty. A job well done.