By Evan Norris 06th Oct 2019 | 1,040 views
The Gunvolt series has enjoyed quite a run since it debuted in 2014 with Azure Striker Gunvolt. It earned a sequel, a sub-series called Mighty Gunvolt, several cameos in games like Blade Strangers and Runbow, and, now, a spin-off called Luminous Avenger iX. Altogether, this is one of the best installments of the franchise, with gorgeous visuals, challenging boss fights, and smooth, entertaining gameplay. It suffers from some forgettable level layouts, an uneven story, and a short running time, but in mechanical terms this is a huge win for developer Inti Creates.
Luminous Avenger iX takes place in the near future in an unknown nation. The world is now populated mostly with Adepts, people with superhuman powers called "Septimas". Those without Septimas, known as Minos, are second-class citizens, or worse. The shadowy Adept organization Sumeragi, also known as the Institute for the Promotion of Human Evolution, is targeting and executing Minos, who live in hiding. Whispered among the dwindling Minos population is the name Luminous Avenger iX, a code-name for the anti-hero Copen, who has made it his life's mission to eradicate Sumeragi and prevent its genocidal plans.
The premise of Luminous Avenger iX, essentially an inverse of the X-Men movies, is fascinating. The actual plotline is less impressive. As Copen searches for the "Butterly Effect", a Sumeragi instrument of awesome power, he falls in league with a group of orphaned Minos children hiding from Adepts. The kids are all thinly-sketched and fall into several cliched buckets: the plucky leader, the brain, the reserved little one. There's also a tonal imbalance between the violent subject matter, high stakes, and Copen's hard edge on one hand and the peppy ensemble of children on the other. This is Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, multiplied. Fortunately, the story picks in the final chapter, with a surprising reveal of the big bad and a poetic ending.
Story is not the priority for Luminous Avenger iX, anyway. This is a title, like others in the Gunvolt canon, about fast-paced arcade action. Strictly in terms of battle mechanics, this is the series' strongest entry. It builds off Copen's playable sections in Azure Striker Gunvolt 2, making the moment-to-moment gameplay more fluid and breathless than ever. As in Azure Striker Gunvolt, you won't be simply taking shots at the myriad enemies in each map; you could fire Copen's photon laser gun but it won't make much of a dent. Rather the best way to dispatch opponents is to first dash into them and "mark" them, allowing each photon laser to curve from anywhere on screen directly into them. Each dash expends one segment of the Bullit gauge, but the gauge is refilled by one every time you make contact with an enemy. So, you could dash upward, downward, and sideways, bouncing off bad guys, recharging Bullits, and spraying photon lasers from the beginning to end of each level—ostensibly without ever touching the ground.
This system of Bullit expenditure and recharge turns the action in Luminous Avenger iX into an aerial ballet. It's truly special. The only downside—and it's something that's troubled the series for a while—is this action takes place in several unimaginative levels. There are a few interesting stages, including a tower where Copen jumps between hover-cars and a facility where he must dash past rotating saw blades, but in general stages are simple vessels for high-octane action; they're not especially memorable by themselves.
At the end of each stage sits a boss, far more formidable than the rank-and-file enemies beforehand. Where Azure Striker Gunvolt and its sequel struggled at times to find a suitable difficulty level for its collection of boss fights, Luminous Avenger iX hits the right balance. These are tough but fair encounters. There's a bit of a difficulty spike with the final two-stage boss—it might take you as many tries to topple it as the previous eleven combined—but with enough patience you'll persevere. In true Mega Man fashion, each Adept boss, once vanquished, bequeaths a powerful EX weapon that can then be deployed against past and future bosses. Your trusty robot sidekick Lola will let you know if a particular EX weapon is doing massive or minimal damage.
Outside of some bland levels and an uneven story, the biggest drawback to Luminous Avenger iX is that it's over so quickly. Depending on your skill level you could beat the main campaign in three hours, which makes this entry one of the shortest in the Gunvolt franchise. Inti Creates mitigates this somewhat by inserting some items and systems to make each level replayable. There are four hidden collectibles in each stage, and at the end of all levels you'll be ranked on your time and the number of "kudos" you earned (the game awards kudos for chaining together combos and avoiding enemy fire). Moreover, once you beat the game you'll unlock six bonus stages with remixed boss fights and a score attack mode.
Luminous Avenger iX also allows players to tweak the difficulty of the game, via kudos settings and purchasable perks. Ahead of each stage you can set kudos mode to gutless (kudos are not lost from enemy attacks), cautious (kudos are lost after three enemy attacks; gives a score bonus), or fearless (kudos are lost after one enemy attack; gives a big score bonus). In the Customize screen, players can also buy and equip several perks that will either make life easier or more difficult. "Extender", for example, doubles lock-on time while "All or Nothing" removes all retry markers.
As with previous entries in the Gunvolt series (and all Inti Creates games), Luminous Avenger iX looks great. The pixel art and special effects pop off the screen, either in portable mode or on a large monitor, and the small visual flourishes—like the transparent shadow Copen leaves in his wake—make this one of the prettier indie games of the year.
Copen's latest adventure proves that the Azure Striker franchise is strong enough to sustain a spin-off. It also delivers some of the best momentary action in the series. A few levels are meek, the story never lives up to the premise, and the whole thing is over too soon, but mechanically and graphically it's one of Inti Creates' better titles. Here's hoping for Luminous Avenger to start a sub-series of its own.