A first hands-on with Grim Guardians: Demon Purge

If you’re a Rice Digital reader, chances are the combination of Gal*Gun and Castlevania is something that will appeal to you greatly, so if you have any sense you will have been following the development of Inti Creates’ Grim Guardians: Demon Purge.

Hot on the heels of the announcement that PQube will be publishing the title in the west, including a lovely-looking collector’s edition, Inti has launched a demo version of Grim Guardians: Demon Purge on Steam as part of the regular Next Fest celebrations for February of 2023. Like most Next Fest demos, it’s only available for a limited time, so if you want to give it a go for yourself, be sure to download it before February 13, 2023.

Grim Guardians Demon Purge

On the offchance you haven’t been following this promising-looking 2D platformer, here’s the rundown. In Gal*Gun Double Peace (which you’ll notice has the same abbreviation as Grim Guardians: Demon Purge), we learned that high school sisters Maya and Shinobu Kamizono were actually demon hunters and, as the simultaneously blessed and cursed Houdai, we ended up helping them out dealing with a particularly troublesome trainee demon known as Kurona.

Everything ended up pretty well in most of the possible endings to Gal*Gun Double Peace, but it seems that Kurona was dissatisfied with her lot in life, particularly as she ended up getting held back a year in Demon Academy. To be fair, this was more her fault than anyone else’s — her general incompetence coupled with the fact she was pulling off demonic mischief right in front of a pair of actual demon hunters is what brought her down, and deservedly so.

But she’s mad about it regardless, and one day while wandering the halls of the Demon Academy, she comes across a gigantic mirror. After gazing into it, she finds herself wielding a huge amount of power — enough to create a dimensional rift and fuse the demon and human realms together. The location for this particularly powerful bit of troublemaking? Sakurazaki Academy, of course, which finds itself seemingly transformed into a huge gothic castle as a result of Kurona’s machinations.

Grim Guardians: Demon Purge

Shinobu and Maya turn up from a previous demon hunting engagement just in time to witness this happening, and as such they’re ready, willing and very much able to deal with the problem. All it takes is a quick superhero-style change out of their school uniforms into their very fetching demon hunter outfits, and we’re ready to go. And from there, it’s 2D pixel art gothic horror action platforming ahoy.

One important thing probably worth noting up front is that Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is not an open-structure exploratory platformer, or a “Metroidvania” if you must. Despite its visual resemblance to the 32-bit classic incarnation of Castlevania, Symphony of the Night, structurally Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is more akin to Inti Creates’ own Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon titles, which in themselves were inspired by Castlevania III specifically.

That is to say, the game is structured in a linear sequence of stages — though within those stages there are often multiple routes to take, including some which can only be accessed by replaying the stage with particular key items or abilities unlocked. It’s clear just from the demo version that there is going to be a lot of replay value here, with each stage being 1) huge and 2) packed with different ways to go, including tantalisingly locked doors that it remains to be seen how we’ll get past in the full game.

Grim Guardians: Demon Purge

Core to Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is its two-character gameplay, which can either be handled by a single player switching between Shinobu and Maya as required, or with two players playing simultaneously.

Shinobu is the “tank” of the pair, with a higher health pool and a relatively low damage output, though she makes up for the latter weakness with the fact she can attack from range using her machine gun. Don’t mistake this for a run and gun, though; Shinobu can’t move while she’s firing, though she can jump then fire. She also has to reload her weapon when her clip empties; she has unlimited clips available, but the reload process does take a couple of seconds, leaving her somewhat vulnerable. You can, at least, cancel out of the animation with certain abilities if a threat is incoming.

Maya, meanwhile, has a smaller health pool and tends to take a bit of a beating if you’re not careful. She makes up for this with her powerful melee origami attacks, which initially have a three-hit combo available with a pretty good reach on it. She’s great for quickly cutting through enemies, particularly weak “popcorn”-style foes, though it’s worth knowing exactly how many hits your target takes before committing to an attack with Maya, lest she take a hit or two as you strike.

Grim Guardians: Demon Purge

Both characters have a subweapon available to them; Shinobu can fling a knife diagonally upwards, while Maya can summon shikigami paper dolls to orbit around her for a short period, offering her a measure of protection from incoming threats. In true Castlevania style, these subweapons are powered by weapon points, which can be replenished by frequently occurring pickups dropped by destructible scenery elements. The game is pretty generous with these, so you can make use of the subweapons fairly frequently if you wish; you’ll tend to find that they’re quite situational in their usefulness, though.

The full game promises new subweapons to unlock with defeated bosses, which opens up the scope of the gameplay somewhat. But even in the demo, Shinobu and Maya play markedly distinct from one another, and both have their uses. Some are obvious, such as Maya’s ability to crawl while crouching, allowing her to access low passageways, but others are more subtle.

It’s rare you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to use a specific girl to proceed, mind — which is probably for the best, since if you’re playing in single-player and one of them is knocked out, the other has to start from the last door or checkpoint you reached, then revive them with a button-mashing CPR mechanic. If the girl doing the rescuing is knocked out, meanwhile, that’s when you finally lose a life. There’s an almost Souls-esque risk versus reward feel to this mechanic; the sense that you can make a mistake, but recovering from it is going to require treading carefully.

Grim Guardians: Demon Purge

Presentation-wise, Grim Guardians: Demon Purge’s demo is excellent, as one would expect from an Inti Creates title. The visuals combine authentic-feeling 32-bit style pixel art (albeit in 16:9 widescreen) while the interface elements and character portraits in dialogue are high definition. The art style is slightly different to Gal*Gun in that there’s somewhat harsher lighting and stronger contrast on all the characters; this helps play up the gothic feel of the whole thing while still remaining recognisable.

Voice acting is handled in an interesting way: it’s presented as a choice between “Pure” and “Refined”. “Pure” corresponds to the Japanese voice track, where all dialogue is fully voice acted, and is intended to provide the full, pure game experience. “Refined”, meanwhile, omits voice acting for the story sequences completely and features English callouts and one-liners from the girls during gameplay.

The choice is intended to provide a good experience for both those who want to immerse themselves in the authentic continuation of Gal*Gun Double Peace’s story (the “Pure” crowd, who will be familiar with and fond of the established Japanese voice cast) and those who simply want to enjoy Grim Guardians: Demon Purge as a fun action game.

Grim Guardians: Demon Purge

“Pure” is positioned as “the full experience”, while “Refined” is presented as a “focused experience”. It’s an interesting way of doing things; the cynical might suggest that Inti’s budget was just limited when it came to an English dub, but honestly the distinction between those who want to immerse themselves in the story and those who want to focus on the game makes a lot of sense. Grim Guardians: Demon Purge will likely bring a lot of new people into contact with the Gal*Gun cast for the first time — and not all of them will be open to lengthy visual novel-style exposition sequences with full Japanese voice acting.

In terms of gameplay, Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is as slick as one would expect from an Inti Creates title. Controls are tight and responsive, and character abilities are clear and easy to understand. There’s a couple of instances in the demo where control prompts don’t seem to work — most notably the option to view a compass pointing to the boss, which I couldn’t get working at all — but on the flip side there’s also an excellent control mapping option for the PC version which allows you to fully customise which button does what.

Grim Guardians: Demon Purge

All in all then, the game as a whole is looking immensely promising. I’m certainly looking forward to the full version when it releases soon — in the meantime, if you can’t wait, stop by the game’s Steam page and try the demo for yourself, so long as you get in there before February 13, 2023.

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Pete Davison
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