Retro-flavoured scrolling shoot-em-up Gryphon Knight Epic: Definitive Edition has arrived on the Xbox One, complete with all the levels, modes and unlockable weapons promised in the Kickstarter campaign. Cyber Rhino games were clear that they were yearning for the “good old days” of the very tough, unforgiving “shmup” where your tiny character would fight their way across different landscapes, dodge bullets, and kill enemies by the bucket-load before fighting obscenely large bosses. Gryphon Knight Epic: Definitive Edition delivers pretty much all of that in spades.
The plot is rather generic but at least a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure where our hero, Sir Oliver and his trusty steed Aquila must journey across eight main stages before the final stage, defeating their old allies, taking back their “cursed” magic weapons and slaying bad guys.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a scrolling shooter but you’re not on rails. Aquila is no horse however; he’s a trusty gryphon and he’s essentially indestructible: all the bullets and bombs that hit him do no damage – it’s just Sir Oliver that is mortal, though unlike Ghosts n’ Goblins you can take a fair few hits and can purchase healing potions to get you through a particularly tough stage.
You can fly up and down, left to right and even reverse course to go back and shoot baddies in the back and see what you may have missed. Then there’s the ever-present “shoot” button which you’ll be pressing a lot to fire Sir Oliver’s trusty cross-blaster – a rather wimpy weapon that is reliable but uninspiring. Most baddies die with one hit but some will take quite a few hits, meaning you’re going to be hitting that fire button an awful lot! Some power-ups will give you more firepower, including a rather useful “auto-fire” crystal that will save your fingers a moment of pushing that button.
Eventually you’ll work your way through a level, defeating hordes of bad guys and meeting a boss. There are two types of boss in the game: huge, largely stationary ones with some sort of massive area attack and then the “duel”-style bosses. The big ones are an interesting lot, ranging from a giant with a shield to a huge kraken that takes hold of a pirate ship. Most of them are fairly straightforward in design: there’s an area you need to hit, patterns to learn and patience to find. Usually you’ll have lost a lot of health before you reach the boss, and chances are you’ll not survive the first attempt. Luckily the game will checkpoint you just before a boss fight, most of the time, and you can dive back in with a full health bar and the knowledge of those attack patterns.
Occasionally there are frustrations with fighting these giant bosses when it’s not clear where you should be shooting them, whether you’re doing any damage, and experiencing seemingly unavoidable attacks that take up most of the screen. It’s just a simple case of trial and error: you’ll just have to keep trying until you know the safe zones to sit in, and the perfect shot to hit.
The duels with Sir Oliver’s former allies are a bit more interesting as they are smaller and have definite attack patterns, but do not take up the whole screen. There’s a level of skill to dodging around their attacks, finding the right point to attack from and then bringing them down. They are certainly challenging though; some are harder than others. The wizard on their little dragon creature that forces you to solve puzzles while they lob magical attacks at you is particularly difficult.
Once you’ve beaten your old ally you get a new weapon added to your armoury, all of which can be upgraded using gold picked up in levels. These weapons give you a secondary fire which range from the “seeking” catapult, to a rocket that shoots fireworks, all the way to the very useful triple shooting wand. This gives you some extra firepower and a nice bit of variety.
Each level has three difficulty levels and they are no joke. Even on Squire there are hordes of enemies, and whilst the game never quite reaches bullet-hell levels of difficulty, you’re seldom going to make it to the end unscathed. The healing potions do not last very long and do not reset if you die. Therefore, you’ll have to grit your teeth and battle through to win each level, and on the higher difficulty levels this is going to be the sort of challenge that masochists who liked games like Ghosts ‘n Goblins roll their sleeves up for.
The game has a gossamer thin layer of strategy too, as there are different weapons, different potions and you can level things up. You can also buy a squire who can either fire, heal you or gather extra gold depending on which one you pick up. You can even buy a duck as a squire who’ll just flap around quacking and not help you, if you fancy the extra challenge!
The graphics are quite cute, not quite pixel art but definitely retro, and there are some nice designs. Here and there things get a bit stereotypical: witness the magic carpets in the Aqaba-seeming level, but this is a simple game harking back to the era of arcade machines and a pile of quarters. The boss designs are largely quite nice and the levels are decent, with some fun little details like crabs crawling around on the beach or birds flying through the air.
The sound is what you might expect from a retro-themed game with low-fi sound effects and repetitive but not quite annoying music. There’s no voice acting as such, though the human villains do let out their death cries in a variety of voices.
Gryphon Knight Epic: Definitive Edition isn’t a long game by any means; it should take a greenhorn player about four hours to clear the game on the lowest difficulty levels. But there are runes to find and three difficulty levels with rewards if you clear all of them. There are also different endings depending on the difficulty level too, so there are reasons to come back.
In terms of multiplayer, there is an option for a drop in-drop out mode with a local ally providing you a bit of extra firepower.
Gryphon Knight will present a challenge to newer players, and to veterans there are plenty of difficulty modes to keep you entertained. The gameplay is fairly one dimensional but sometimes all you want is to fly around shooting things and not tax your brain too much. There are question marks over whether the game is sufficiently deep and has enough replay value to keep you returning to it, moreso as the retro feel is fun but shallow and the story is funny but not exactly thrilling.
Still, for those that like a challenge, this one may keep you fixed for a short while, and for those who’ve not played a game like this before it’ll certainly present a tough battle to get through to the end. The final level is essentially a boss rush and there is a slight repetitive feel to it, though by the time you complete the game you’ll be a dab hand at dealing with these bosses!
In the end, Gryphon Knight Epic: Definitive Edition on Xbox One probably only has a strong appeal to those that like this sort of game, and doesn’t really offer enough that is new, interesting or involving for newer players, nor for those that don’t really care for a tough as nails challenge. But you do get to ride a gryphon though…