Gal Guardians: Demon Purge
Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
Inti Creates has become a leader in off-brand video game franchises, and that isn't meant as a slight at all. The company got their start making sequels for Capcom's Mega Man franchise, including mainline title Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, along with the whole of the Mega Man Zero and Mega Man ZX series. They then kicked out into their own Azure Striker series, which felt like Mega Man filtered through a different lens, and that series has been popular enough to become a long running franchise for the company.
Of course, for the purposes of this site, the biggest contribution Inti Creates has made as been to the Bloodstained series, working on development of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night before spinning out to create both Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2. They have the cred to make Castlevania-style games without the brand name, so when the company announced they were launching their own Castlevania-inspired title under their own franchise IP, fans sat up and took notice.
The resulting title is Gal Guardians: Demon Purge (formerly known as Grim Guardians: Demon Purge), a (very loose) spin-off of their Gal Gun bishojo rail shooter series. Those games involved guys running after (or away) from girls while armed with a goofy "pheromone shot" arrow, while Gal Guardians focuses on the female students from that series, giving them their own demon hunting quest. It's just as goofy as it sounds in some respects, but at the same time that setup also leads to a very solid extension of Inti Creates' own efforts in the Castlevania genre, making for another fine entry from the company.
The setup for Gal Guardians doesn't stray too far from the core of Castlevania: a demon, Kurona, is off exploring the academy she attends when she finds a room containing considerable dark energy. She then uses that energy to remake the school, dimensionally merging the academy with the demonic plane, creating a massive, dark edifice. Two students, Maya and Shinobu, then arrive at the school and find it taken over by demons. Being demon hunters, the two girls swear to clear the demons out of the school and save all the students trapped within from whatever Kurona has planned.
If you've played either of Inti Creates' previous Curse of the Moon games, then you'll have a good feel for the mechanics of this title. The two girls go through the demonic castle, level by level, fighting demons as they work their way along, all leading up to a boss fight at the end of each level. Six levels of exploration lead to a final boss fight, but then the game throws a curve ball and sets you back at the start to start the journey all over again, a little more powerful and ready to new twists in the game play and exploration. It's a formula that works, which is way the company used it for both of the Curse of the Moon games.
Mechanically this game plays like those other titles as well. You have your two warrior gals, one with a melee weapon the other with a gun, and they each have a host of sub-weapons to use as well. You can collect potions from torches to refill your sub-weapons, there are hearts to collect to refill your health, and a powerful Pride meter that powers and overcharged attack. But the basics see the two girls going through the levels, fighting and killing and jumping and fighting some more. It's a smooth and solid ride, one that feels like it was built on all the knowledge and tricks Inti Creates learned on the Bloodstained games.
Even the enemies feel like they were ripped from that series. The art is different, but There were very few enemies in the game that didn't feel like a re-skin of something I saw in one of the two Curse of the Moon titles. It's a double-edged sword, to be fair, because the game didn't feel as fresh in some respects as I would have liked, but it also meant that I could just dive right into this game and know what I was supposed to do. These enemies function this way, here's how I dodge those attacks, and so on. It's a game that owes far more to Curse of the Moon than the Gal games, and you get the vibe Inti Creates really wanted to just make more Castlevania, they just didn't want to be bothered playing in someone else's IP.
With that said, this game isn't just a clone of Curse of the Moon. For starters, you only have two characters (instead of the up-to-four those games provide). The differences between Maya and Shinobu are stark, strong enough to make them feel like very distinct characters. Maya is the melee expert, and queen of exploration. She can deal a ton of damage and is great for bleeding bosses quickly. However, she has less health than Shinobu meaning you have to be wary and learn to conserve when using her. Shinobu, meanwhile, has a gun, and it has infinite ammo. She also gets a host of explosives she can use to deal big damage. She's healthier and hardier, making her great for exploration. The down side for Shinobu, though, is that her main gun doesn't deal nearly as much damage as Maya's melee, and this can make it tricky for her to manage enemies on the fly.
The game smooths some of the rough edges out of the Curse of the Moon formula. The character transitions are much quicker here, making actively switching between the two characters feel seamless. There's also a revive mechanic, where if one girl is downed the other starts back at the previous check point and, should she reach her sister's body, she can provide CPR to bring them back up. This means that, should you lose a needed character for a specific area you aren't forced to kill yourself completely and start the stage over again. That makes exploration and movement through the game feel far smoother.
And, of course, this game is stylistically different from the Inti Creates Bloodstained entries. Those games were meant to feel like throwbacks to the 8-bit era of the Castlevania series, but this title very much is designed to evoke the graphical (and aural) feel of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It is (for the most part) and very pretty and very detailed game. The characters and enemies are varied and detailed, and they all have lovely, smooth animations. The character portraits have a vector crispness that I appreciated, and, when it comes to the characters, everything has a level of spit and polish you expect for a A-rated game.
The one area where I feel like the design could have used a little more work was in some of the stages. There were a couple of areas, such as a long library where the hallways felt pretty bland. This wasn't all the time, as there are many richly detailed and layered stages, but sometimes it felt like the designers didn't know what to do with a long stretch of wall so they did nothing. Times like this make the game feel blander than it should, which is weird when so much of the art in the title is otherwise top notch.
What really impressed me with the game were the ways it tried to evolve the Curse of the Moon formula. Mechanically you'll know what this game has to offer as it's another Metroidvania-lite platforming adventure. You can play it straight, going through the main game (at least the first play through) sticking to the main path and have a good time. But there are side paths to take, students to save, and things to collect, and you can spend more time working to hundred percent the game if you wanted. These side, exploration areas give more to do but aren't necessarily required for the linear quest, and that variety adds a lot of spice to the game.
This can lead to a lot of different ways to play through the game. I look forward to seeing all the ways speed-runners chug through this game, working to get through it as fast as they can on a single loop, or going for the full hundo experience. The ways this game can be played, coming from its base design, means players will have a lot of fun finding their own path through the title and seeing all that it has to see. It's a fantastic blend of linear and non-linear elements that make for a stronger experience.
Gal Guardians: Demon Purge cements Inti Creates as one of the leading companies for Castlevania-style experiences. Konami may not know exactly what they want to do with their franchise, but with games like Gal Guardians coming out, it takes away the sting from a lack of "real" Castlevania games. This title feels about as real is it gets in all but name.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
As a spiritual sequel to the Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon games, Gal Guardians: Demon Purge has all the hallmarks you expect from a proper Castlevania experience. Heroes exploring a giant, demonic edifice? Check. Demons that come from all angles, begging to be killed? Check. Levels set in an grand hallway, a library, a clock tower, and demonic keep? Check and check. Frankly it wouldn't take much to tweak the elements of this game to make it into a "proper" Castlevania, which only shows how much Inti Creates has perfected their formula at this point.
The one big change from the standard formula is the inclusion of a character with a machine gun. But then, that gives this title a bit of the Contra experience, and that's also a Konami brand. That feels a-okay in my books, a loving blend of two of Konami's great flagships. Hell, at this point I'm a little angry Konami didn't think to do a proper crossover of Castlevania and Contra because Gal Guardians proves the formula works. This game is a solid tribute to Konami's classics, blending with Inti Creates' tight platforming perfection, and that's why it works so well.