I’ve often said that when a game comes out, provided it’s not a sequel or some series, I commend the attempts at trying to switch things up. Just like editorial coverage, what can be most compelling to your audience is covering a subject that almost no one else has or covering something familiar in a completely new way. I also love shoot-em-ups (shmups for short from here on out) to the point that I want to play every single one that has ever come out. Gryphon Knight Epic is trying to switch up the horizontal shmup somewhat, combining the mechanics of some of my favorite titles with new mechanics not often seen in this genre. I wish I could say it this is without its detriments, or even that this is the only place Gryphon Knight Epic stumbles, but that’s not the case. On the plus side it is a competent, beautiful game that balances its difficulty in such a way that it can be appreciated outside the shmup mega fan circles.
You play as the epic knight Sir Oliver, who in the past has slain a dragon with the help of a handful of other warriors, and now has relaxed to a relatively boring existence married to the rescued princess. He’s got a pot belly, he’s lazy, and although he hates to admit it he misses the adventure. When his dark half appears it’s time to track down his now cursed former allies and put an end to the evil in the land. As you can imagine from that setup, developer Cyber Rhino Studios has chosen a more RPG-esque route with the plot and is pining for some comedic relief when it can appropriately sneak it in. This is a great reward for when you fight tooth and nail to get through a brutal level and prior to a boss battle get a slight chuckle. The same can be said for the random cutscenes – if you would call the scrolling text and bright single image as a cutscene – where subtle jokes like his son having a massive mustache is a wink and a nod to the player. It’s a weird wrapper for a game that is ultimately a hybrid between Gradius and R-Type, but one that I can appreciate nonetheless.
Sir Oliver has a gryphon, a mythological animal that has the body of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle, as his companion and mount. Like many shmups, especially those by development studio Cave, Sir Oliver is the only part of the admittedly massive sprite that has a hit box essentially cutting the real estate for damage in half. Unlike Cave shooters, however, this is still a bit too much space and with the equally massive size of the enemy sprites and projectiles it lacks that proper spacing needed to navigate busy screens. Additionally there is a lot going on at once as you traverse the land and the game integrates a system where you can go off on branching paths for either items or alternative routes through a level, along with the ability to switch the direction you are facing and flying with the push of a button. At first it seems like breath of fresh air; just imagine not having to freak out every time a pickup passes you by in traditional shmups or a crafty little devil pops right in behind you like I experienced in Gradius III. In practice, however, it doesn’t quite have the effect you would hope for or want. For starters, this ability to switch direction means that the annoying aforementioned enemies aren’t just a random headache but a consistent appearance that feels like a spammed cheat. Boss battles like to heavily employ this method with screen full of things that want to hurt you and only a tiny spot to safely hang out for a few seconds in, my brain struggled to suddenly start switching sides. I guess I also never thought about all of those enemies and items in front of me that would suddenly be at my back, which I’m not sure Cyber Rhino thought much about either because the clear level design is still that of flying to the right with a barrage coming at you. The screen also takes just a bit too long to swap perspectives, make room for the other direction in the form of a camera pan, and then have the action start moving in the opposite direction. This is realistic, but not fun. So for a more modern tight shmup, Gryphon Epic Knight fails in both how it detects hits and the new free form of path progression, but that’s not all it brings to the table and what’s left is great.
As mentioned, this title doesn’t only take from the mechanics of the last 30 years of shmups, but also many of the aesthetics and attributes of RPGs. This means that your Sir Oliver can level up weapons, have companions, use spells, and the bright shining super cheat: the potion. That’s right, the days of one hit and you’re gone are over. Sir Oliver can not only withstand a default 100 points of damage (each hit can take off various amounts of life), but he can also heal with a potion to avoid a pesky and frustrating death. Each level is made up of two somewhat lengthy stages, each with a boss battle, and those boss battles usually consist of a large scale enemy the first stage and a dual rider/mount enemy for the second stage. The ability to heal on these bosses takes away from probably the most challenging part of the traditional shmup, which is facing the boss after tackling the brutal level and potentially having a weakened or less powered up state. While that may frustrate the hardcore, I’m certain that this is a massive appeal to both the traditional gamer and even those like me who hate having to start R-Type all over again just because I died once. You level up through the use of money, which is cumulative and does not go away unless it’s spent or a small amount is taken when you die (I want to say 10-20 percent). This means that much like the rouge-light genre, you are consistently making progress on your character even if you are not overcoming the level and eventually, just like an RPG, you are able to beat the level simply because you are now strong enough. In truth there aren’t enough upgrades and they effects aren’t crazy enough for that last part to be true, eventually you will be at your strongest with the most amount of potions and best companion but if you cannot beat the level you just have to try over and over. Still, the fact that your level progress is saved, you can continue endlessly (or at least it seemed that way) and getting to the boss locks you at that point until you continue, Gyphon Epic Knight is completely beatable.
Coupled with the old school vibe of the gameplay are the big chunky hand-drawn sprites, nostalgia-heavy soundtrack, and great art design. This game brought me back to an earlier time but with bright upscaled graphics at up to 1080p, which is definitely not what my Super NES looks like when I hook it up to my HDTV. The controls are pretty responsive, which aside from my issues with the slow speed of Sir Oliver (or his gryphon) and the somewhat loose feel, meant that every death was probably my fault (I think). I even hooked up my Street Fighter six button pad from my 360 to the PC and it felt like I was basically playing this title with a Genesis pad, something I’m not used to feeling with even the most throwback of today’s modern shmups. Character and art design were enchanting, even if the source material was all basically borrowed from fantasy popular culture, but the hybrid of various eras did amuse me like when you see bipedal lizards riding pterodactyls. I also loved the boss designs, which were as diverse as the six areas you will explore.
Gryphon Knight Epic is trying to skate the line of being for a larger audience than the niche shmup genre garners these days, but also attempting to appeal to this group as well. It’s ability to do so is halted by a bit of poor game design and a hit box on a sprite that is, in my opinion, a bit too large for the hardcore shmup crowd to appreciate. Furthermore the enemies you will be dodging are large lumbering sprites that take up a lot of real estate and come in droves that it’s not the same as dodging the crazy patterns you traditionally see in bullet hell shooters. That said the consistent leveling and many handicaps that can get you through the game much easier than most shmups I’ve ever played means that much like Sine Mora, you are expected to experience this game as more of a campaign story that obstacle course. It was a good change of pace and makes the audience potential for this title stand out of the pack for all gamers as opposed to the hardcore few that probably wouldn’t be able to handle the game’s larger setbacks and take it as a serious game in the genre. If you have always wanted to enjoy a shmup but found the first few levels of almost every game you played far too restrictive, this may be the game for you, but remember you will still have to put in the time and repeat levels in order to see the credits. No seriously, the last level is a boss rush that you have to achieve in one life. It’s quite a challenge, but one that you can properly prepare for and feel quite accomplished when you overcome.
Final Score: 3 out of 5
This game was provided by the developer for the purposes of a review. It was played on a PC via Steam code for a total of eight hours and completed in approximately five or six. This title is currently available on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux for $12.99.