By Tom Tolios / September 30th, 2015
|Title||Gryphon Knight Epic|
|Developer||Cyber Rhino Studios|
|Publisher||Cyber Rhino Studios|
|Release Date||August 20, 2015|
|Genre||Shooter, Retro, RPG|
|Platform||Linux, Mac, PC|
At a glance, Gryphon Knight Epic looks like an amazing tribute to the 16-bit era of gaming. During the eight hours or so I spent playing, I was most reminded of the wonderful art direction of Capcom’s amazing run of 90s-era beat ‘em ups. There are shooting elements as well that owe more than a little bit of their inspiration to classic Konami bullet hell fare such as Gradius and Salamander, as well as a little Mega Man in terms of weapon acquisition. There are even some light retro RPG-style grinding elements. If I had to venture a guess, Brazilian developers Cyber Rhino Studios probably grew up appreciating a lot of the same types of games I did back then. Gryphon Knight Epic is a collage of other games, and, while that’s necessarily not a bad thing, my ultimate evaluation of the experience was that they spent maybe a little too much time writing their love letter to the visual aesthetics of the oldies and not enough time reproducing the gameplay that evokes such fond nostalgia.
In the game, you play the bold and valiant Sir Oliver on a quest to save your friends from the darkness in their own hearts, which has manifested as a result of looting cursed weapons from a dragon’s hoard a few years earlier. The story goes that this hearty band of adventurers, led by Sir Oliver and his trusty gryphon steed, Aquila, were assembled by the king to defeat a rampaging dragon and save his daughter from becoming its next sacrifice. When the killing was done, the looting began. The heroes absconded with weapons while Sir Oliver came away with an amulet that immediately made me think of the Arkenstone from The Hobbit.
Post looting, the adventurers go their separate ways, and Sir Oliver ends up marrying the princess, settling down and getting himself a bit of a paunch. But the call of adventure is strong, and every night Oliver is haunted by nightmares of a dark version of himself that stalks him in his sedentary existence. Turns out that his treasure from the dragon’s hoard gives rise to dark urges within the wearer, and they manifest as separate beings made of corruption and other assorted badness. One day, Oliver sets off with Aquila to get dinner for his wife and child and is attacked by his evil twin. The fight ends with Oliver escaping with his life, realizing why he was attacked and fearing for the lives of his old companions. Dark Oliver, meanwhile, has retreated for now, but, as you can guess, he’ll be back. And so, Sir Oliver and Aquila are off on another epic adventure. A Gryphon Knight Epic adventure.
It should be noted that the game is partly non linear, much to its credit. After you defeat the first two stages, two more unlock, and you can choose to tackle them in any order you wish. Once you’re in a stage, you have enough control of your character that you can decide to go forward or backward until you reach a fork in the road, whereupon you are given a choice of which direction you want to proceed in. If you’re trying to find all the hidden areas, you’ll frequently have to advance down a certain path, trigger some mechanism or solve some clever puzzle and then backtrack to a newly-opened section in a previously visited area. The new paths lead to more money or special crystals that give Sir Oliver permanent upgrades such as improved health or speed. The best part is that the crystals can be upgraded in the marketplace between stages, granting you even more power. There’s always a reward to be gained from exploring every last square inch of Gryphon Knight Epic’s world.
Enemy variety is solid, and each has its own special types of attacks and movement. Some enemies fly at you in waves, others are stationary and hurl spears or fire arrows at you. Some take multiple hits to destroy and others cause damaging area attacks when they burst. It’s all fairly standard stuff in shooter terms, but obstacles are well enough implemented here, and each enemy is unique to their particular stage’s aesthetic touches. You have enough tools at your disposal to decide how you want to deal with these troublesome opponents, all of which can be changed on the fly with the in-game radial menu. When you defeat a boss, Gryphon Knight Epic uses the time-tested and gamer-approved Mega Man method of acquiring their weapons, complete with the familiar ‘You get the __weapon’ screen upon completion, with scrolling star fields and everything
The game plays like a pastiche of different retro games. I immediately identified the node-assisted shooting action of Gradius, the varied enemies and boss tactics of Mega Man and the whimsical fantasy aesthetic of Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. I’d say that, for the most part, they accomplished their goal of paying tribute, but I’m not so sure they succeeded in recreating the thrills of the era. Gryphon Knight Epic lacks any kind of visceral quality. Oh, the game looks stellar, but, as a shooter, it plays sluggishly and is missing that retro crunch that games like Shovel Knight and Mighty Gunvolt seemed to capture so eloquently.
I’m sad to say that Gryohon Knight Epic suffers from slow controls, and the colors blend together a bit too much. As a result, it’s sometimes difficult to evade enemy attacks, which is further compounded by the size of Aquila’s sprites on the screen. It lacks the kind of twitch-based responsiveness you expect out of this kind of game, and I wish they’d have tuned up this aspect to a greater degree. I will give credit to the boss fights, which are very smart in design and execution, have interesting and innovative mechanics and are wonderful gamified iterations of the bosses’s base concepts.
The shooting and killing sound effects don’t really have any weight to them, and, while you may consider this an odd criticism, bear with me. The sound an attack makes in retro games usually pierces the ear, adding to the overall atmosphere and appeal because it kindles a sensory recognition in the player that instantly becomes associated with the NES and SNES eras. In Gryphon Knight Epic, you get a sort of soft, subdued ‘pew-pew’ noise that isn’t really satisfying and just gets lost in a subdued and unremarkable soundtrack. Also, enemies make a very quaint ‘pop’ noises when they are destroyed, making what should feel like a legendary one-man, one-gryphon assault on the forces of evil instead come off like a day at the park. To give you some context, Mega Man and Castlevania both have a gratifyingly resonant sound design when it comes to killing enemies that just adds to the experience as a whole. With Gryphon Knight Epic, what should be a sublime tip of the hat to the SNES era just feels rather quaint, falling a little short of the mark in terms of any primal sensory aesthetic, and I feel that this is so much more important to the older generations of games because they heavily relied on sensory experience as part of the overall presentation.
As mentioned earlier, there’s more than just action elements to Gryphon Knight Epic. To support the simple level system, there’s an in-game marketplace between stages where you can acquire items, satellite assistants called familiars that grant different types of buffs and the means to improve the quality of your arsenal. You gain currency by playing through the stages, defeating enemies and finding hidden treasures. You can replay areas if you’re not ready to tackle a harder part of the game, building up your coffers sufficiently to prepare yourself for the next hurdle. I found Gryphon Knight Epic to require a little bit of money grinding, mostly for the health restoration item, but it was so easy to repeat stages that I never felt frustrated. This wasn’t the controller-shattering purgatory of, say, Ikaruga or Radiant Silvergun. I feel that Cyber Rhino was more successful in this aspect of the game than in the action elements. They did a good job of making the shop interface and inventory system easy to interpret and the growth mechanic free of complication, more successfully recalling the era Gryphon Knight Epic is honoring with a simple grace. I’d love to see Cyber Rhino do a traditional turn-based RPG.
One of Gryphon Knight Epic’s most charming qualities is the art direction of its level design. The backgrounds of each of its imaginative stages are colorful and active, each one sufficiently infused with the spirit of its final boss to give your enemies (and former friends) interesting character and personality. You can tell Cyber Rhino Studios put a lot of thought into making them distinct from one another. One stage is based on a pirate character, so expect tall ships, cannons, buccaneers with flintlocks and even a kraken. Another puts a war between European knights and Viking raiders as the backdrop, with burning villages, siege towers and columns of smoke obscuring clashes between hoards of spear-wielding armies battling against one another.
You can tell that a lot of thought went into the presentation of Gryphon Knight Epic’s different stages. Cyber Rhino Studios successfully paid tribute to the 16-bit side scrolling era and understood just how all of the different kinds of visual easter eggs sprinkled through those games were such a hallmark of that time — an aspect that I sorely miss in modern offerings. I was reminded of the background activity and animations of Capcom’s CPS 2 heyday as I was playing. In fact, I’d say that my biggest takeaway from Gryphon Knight Epic is in how much Cyber Rhino Studios understood and reproduced the art direction of the industry as it was 20 years ago.
Gryphon Knight Epic is the kind of game I would probably initially want to make if I were an indie game dev. Not because it’s a retro homage to classic video games with instantly recognizable inspirations. It’s more because developers Cyber Rhino Studios picked a lot of obscure references that only a hardcore fan of 90s era gaming would appreciate. The kind that show a real admiration for the aesthetic aspects of classic games, those extra flourishes that make the source material more than just another platformer/shooter/RPG. Knights of the Round, for example, is a really fascinating beat ‘em up that I remember just as much for the background scenes of villages burning and peasants running as I do for the combat and leveling elements. It’s just such a shame that the underwhelming sound design and serviceable but ultimately unsatisfying controls aren’t of the same caliber. As a result, Gryphon Knight Epic is an uneven experience, but, if you really love the SNES area, you might want to give it a look.
Review copy provided by Cyber Rhino Studios.
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