Gal Guardians: Demon Purge is the best Castlevania in years

It’s a fine, fine line between “gratuitous ripoff”, “loving homage” and a company going “well, if they’re not going to do it, we’ll bloody well do it instead”. And I’m pleased to report that Inti Creates’ latest creation, Gal Guardians: Demon Purge, is very much an example of the third one. Specifically, it’s very obviously a case of the company looking at Konami’s persistent refusal to remember that its once-flagship franchise Castlevania exists, and deciding to make their own.

Please note: This game was originally known as “Grim Guardians: Demon Purge”, but following a trademark dispute in some territories its name has been changed to “Gal Guardians: Demon Purge”.

This isn’t the first time Inti Creates has done this, mind. They were part of former Castlevania designer Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained project, with their most prominent contributions being the two excellent Castlevania III-likes in the Curse of the Moon series. There’s a few differences with Gal Guardians: Demon Purge, however — most notably the lack of Igarashi’s involvement, and the way in which the game has been designed in the vein of 32-bit Castlevania titles rather than a modernised 8-bit style.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge

This isn’t just a straight clone of Symphony of the Night and its ilk, however. Perhaps most interesting in this regard is the way that Gal Guardians: Demon Purge deliberately eschews the oversaturated open-structure exploratory “Metroidvania” format in favour of a stage-based structure — albeit one that still rewards detailed exploration and revisiting earlier scenarios with new abilities.

But let’s put a pin in that for a moment and take a more general look at the game for those who haven’t been following its development.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge casts you in the role of Shinobu and Maya Kamizono, a pair of sisters who are demon hunters by trade. The last time we saw them, they were dealing with the mischief of a young trainee demon named Kurona, who was causing annoying but ultimately fairly tame trouble at Sakurazaki Academy.

This was going on at the same time as a young man named Houdai Kudoki was having a thoroughly peculiar day thanks to having been hit by an angel’s arrow that was thirty-two times more powerful than it was supposed to be, blessing him to be completely irresistible to all (well, most) women for a single day, but also cursing him to be forever alone if he didn’t find his soulmate by the time the sun went down. This particular misadventure was chronicled in Inti’s excellent Gal*Gun Double Peace.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge

Yes, if the matching “GGDP” abbreviations didn’t tip you off, Gal Guardians: Demon Purge is actually a Gal*Gun game, and it continues that series’ tradition of combining cheeky humour with a worthwhile story and some excellent characterisation. It’s worth noting that Gal Guardians: Demon Purge is less overtly saucy than the mainline Gal*Gun games — though it never forgets its roots, particularly in its later hours.

It’s an interesting decision by Inti to make this game at all, because although Gal*Gun is one of their most popular properties among their dedicated fans, it’s still perceived from outside as being rather niche interest. Many folks unfamiliar with Gal*Gun still regard it as “pervy” or “creepy”, despite it actually being fairly tame with regard to the sexy stuff and having a whole ton of heart when it comes to narrative and characterisation.

What Gal Guardians: Demon Purge does is provide an accessible entry point to the Gal*Gun series that helps to show those less familiar with it that while yes, it does feature cheeky, sexy humour, it also holds all its characters — which are majority female, let’s not forget — in extremely high regard, making even the most minor of secondary characters intensely likeable and interesting to find out more about.

In other words, by divorcing this particular entry in the Gal*Gun series from shooting schoolgirls until they collapse in quasi-orgasmic ecstasy, more people with “mainstream” tastes might be encouraged to check it out after seeing what a brilliant game Gal Guardians: Demon Purge is. Because it is an absolutely brilliant game.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge

Shinobu and Maya’s adventure this time around once again concerns mischief caused by Kurona, but on a whole different scale this time. Frustrated at having been held back a year in the Demon Academy thanks to the intervention of the sisters and Houdai in Gal*Gun Double Peace, she stumbles across a magic mirror and is able to make use of its power to pull off her most impressive prank to date: the complete transformation of Sakurazaki Academy into a Gothic-style castle, infested with demons and monsters.

Unfortunately, she didn’t count on successfully accomplishing this just as Shinobu and Maya were returning to school after a successful demon hunting assignment, meaning that they’re ideally positioned to assault the castle, discover what’s going on and give Kurona yet another good spanking. What then follows is a seven-stage adventure as Shinobu and Maya work their way through the various areas of the castle, battling demons along the way and releasing their classmates and friends from the castle’s demonic influence.

Seven stages might not sound like a lot, and indeed you can blast through them relatively quickly on your first runthrough. But that’s not all there is to Gal Guardians: Demon Purge at all. Without spoiling things too much, once you reach the top of the castle and give Kurona a good kicking, the game’s just getting started. You’ll find that upon returning to each of the available stages, you have a lot more different routes available to you, making each level a mini-Metroidvania in its own right.

Some of these additional routes require you to make use of the special abilities you unlock with each defeated boss on your first run through the game; others are behind pathways that were simply blocked off first time around. Sometimes you’ll need to get creative and inquisitive in the ways you interact with the environment in order to discover secrets; at other times, you’ll need to find ways to reach things that are in plain sight, but seemingly out of reach.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge

There’s a lot to discover, and all told you’re looking at around probably 15-20 hours to fully complete Gal Guardians: Demon Purge on a first runthrough. This is a good length for a Castlevania-style game of this type — for context, Symphony of the Night generally takes most folks around 10-15 hours or so first time around — as it provides plenty to do without feeling like it’s dragging or wearing out its welcome, even with the necessity to go back and replay levels multiple times.

So that’s the overall structure of the game covered; what of the moment-to-moment gameplay? Well, as Inti Creates veterans will expect, this is where things really shine. This is a mechanically interesting game that is easy to pick up but tricky to master, with an expertly crafted difficulty curve that gradually escalates the challenge factor as you proceed.

While there are certainly parts of Gal Guardians: Demon Purge that are genuinely quite difficult, you never feel like you’re hitting a sudden wall; rather, the design of the levels and encounters on your journey are designed so that you gradually improve your skills and start to take better advantage of some of the mechanics available to you.

The core mechanics of the game involve making good use of Shinobu and Maya’s unique abilities to progress. In single-player mode, you can switch between the two girls easily, while a simultaneous two-player mode allows you to play cooperatively.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge

Shinobu’s main ability is to attack from range with her machine gun. Later in the game, this is upgraded with the ability to fire armour-piercing rockets and shoot upwards, but on your first run through the game, she’s limited to shooting horizontally — and she can’t move while doing so, which is an important consideration. She can jump or fall while shooting, however, and it’s useful to get the hang of doing this.

Maya, meanwhile, makes use of her origami to perform close-up melee attacks that are much more powerful than Shinobu’s ranged attacks. Pleasingly, enemy death animations vary according to whether Shinobu or Maya defeats them; death by machine gun tends to simply result in the enemy exploding, while Maya slicing them in half with a paper halberd causes them to actually split down the middle and spill their entrails everywhere.

The game is surprisingly gory by 32-bit pixel art standards — which is to say that it doesn’t look at all realistic and is borderline comical at times — and this feels very much like an homage to the surprising amount of pixelated blood spilled in Symphony of the Night. In a nice touch, blood splatters from injured and defeated enemies actually persist on the backdrops for a short period, allowing you to make a real mess of a room in which you had a particularly intense battle against the demonic hordes.

Where Gal Guardians: Demon Purge’s gameplay becomes even more interesting is in the application of Shinobu and Maya’s subweapons, which are initially unlocked by defeating the bosses of the main seven stages, and which can subsequently be upgraded by interacting with returning Gal*Gun 2 characters Risu and Chiru.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge

These subweapons aren’t direct analogues to Castlevania’s classic weapons, and you always have access to all of the weapons you’ve unlocked rather than having to find an appropriate pickup. Using them costs weapon points, though, replenished by collecting potions hidden inside scenery items, and many of them are heavily situational. Some of them aren’t even really “weapons” at all.

For example, later in the game Shinobu gains access to a grappling hook, which allows her a lot more in the way of traversal options. Likewise, Maya gains the ability to summon paper cranes that can be used as platforms. And, in a notable contrast to classic Castlevania, where healing opportunities tended to be few and far between, Shinobu’s Oonusa exorcism wand can even be used to summon Gal*Gun mascot Mr Happiness in order to restore hit points — though the summon process takes time.

On your first run through Gal Guardians: Demon Purge, the subweapons are useful to have, but not necessarily essential to proceed. Once you start exploring the stages more thoroughly, though, you’ll find them to be of critical importance if you want to discover everything — or at the very least, unlock everything you need in order to get some of the alternative endings and special events along the way.

There’s a lot to discover in Gal Guardians: Demon Purge. Students and faculty from Sakurazaki Academy are scattered around the castle, and can be discovered through a combination of hearing their voices and making use of the in-game “compass” function to point to where they’re trapped. Once rescued, these characters are sent to the school gymnasium, which has somehow survived the transformation process, where you can chat with them and discover how they feel about this strange situation — as well as Shinobu and Maya’s true identities.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge

Also scattered around the castle are a number of upgrade items that increase Shinobu and Maya’s hit points, attack and defence power. These can also be located using the compass, but often require some creative use of subweapons to access them. Generally speaking, if you find yourself thinking “I wonder if…” when it comes to making use of one of your special abilities to do something unusual, the answer is actually “yes” — so give it a go.

Finally, you’ll eventually discover the most dastardly (and unintentional) side-effect of Kurona’s prank: the fact that the dimensional shift which summoned the castle into existence also teleported everyone’s underwear into the void, sending you off on a sidequest to recover everyone’s lost skimpies from the dimensional instabilities in which they have become trapped.

I told you this game never forgot it was a Gal*Gun game at heart — and for anyone who might have a problem with a panty-collecting sidequest, this occurs so late in the game that chances are anyone playing will already be irreversibly hooked and thus too involved in the game to get irrationally mad about it. A masterful move by Inti right there.

All in all, Gal Guardians: Demon Purge is a spectacularly good game that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of whether or not they’re already on board with the Gal*Gun series. There’s plenty of series fanservice for those who are longstanding fans, too, though — and the way the game is positioned as a genuine, honest-to-goodness follow-up to Double Peace (with acknowledgement of both Returns and 2 along the way, also) rather than a tangentially related, non-canonical spinoff bodes well for the future of the series as a whole.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge

Going by the strength of Gal Guardians: Demon Purge, I certainly wouldn’t be averse to seeing more Gal*Gun games that explore genres other than first-person rail shooting. We’ve ample proof by this point that the series’ extended ensemble cast is more than strong enough to transcend their original context — much like the Neptunia and Senran Kagura series have done before them — and thus I’m very excited to see what Inti Creates does next with these characters.

For now, Gal Guardians: Demon Purge comes highly recommended. It may be the best Castlevania in years at heart, but it’s also unmistakably its own distinct thing, too, rather than simply being a slavish recreation of a Konami classic. Its solid gameplay, well-crafted mechanics and interesting structure all show that there’s still very much a place for classic 2D side-scrolling action in today’s video game market, and I sincerely hope it ends up a big success.

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge is available digitally now for Windows PC via Steam, PlayStation 4/5 and Nintendo Switch. Physical PS4, PS5 and Switch versions (both standard and limited collector’s editions) are available for preorder from our pals at Funstock, due for release in summer of 2023.

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Pete Davison
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