Gal Guardians is a solid homage to a certain Castlevania game, but probably not the one most players are expecting based on the previews.
- Title: Gal Guardians: Demon Purge (referred to as “Grim Guardians” in some regions)
- Release Date: Feb-23, 2023
- Price: $24.99
- Suggested Audience Age: Teen (ESRB)
- Availability: Switch (reviewed), Steam, PlayStation 4|5, Xbox One & Series X|S
- Recommended for fans of: Castlevania, retro-style 2D action games
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
Gal Guardians Demon Purge is a 2D action platformer heavily inspired by classic Castlevania games. Up front there are two very important things to note about this game that might not be obvious based on trailers:
- Gal Guardians is not a Metroidvania, it's a level-based platformer that shares more in common with Castlevania 3 than with Symphony of the Night.
- This game is a spin-off of the dating sim and shoot 'em up hybrid series, Gal Gun. Be mentally prepared for some suggestive situations and lewd jokes in the story sequences between the action stages.
As for the premise of the game, it follows the demon hunter sisters Maya and Shinobu who find that their high school has been transformed into a monster-infested castle(vania) by a demon princess! In single-player mode, the player controls either sister and can switch between them instantaneously. (In co-op mode, both sisters are in play at once. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to test this mode for this review.) As they tackle 2D platforming stages, the sisters unlock new weapons and abilities that enhance their combat and movement capabilities. Collectibles are hidden throughout each stage, so replaying stages is necessary to see everything.
The first thing that caught my eye about Gal Guardians, is its very specific retro aesthetic: late-SNES or early PS1 in the vein of Castlevania games like Rondo of Blood or Symphony of the Night. Like other games from the studio Inti Creates, Gal Guardians sports great pixel art and animations with a strong sense of personality. I appreciated that this level of detail isn't just restricted to the playable characters or bosses. Even small enemies have some unique quirks that I got a kick out of. For example, in the garden stage, there is a blood-sucking plant that attacks you if you get near it. However, if you kill an enemy near the plant and the enemy's blood splatters on the plant, the plant awakens from its dormant state to lap up the blood.
Story and Writing
Gal Guardians‘ story and writing are going to be divisive aspects of this game. If you're coming to it with at least some familiarity with the Gal Gun series, you're going to emerge from your pervy anime dumpster to find exactly what you're looking for. However, if you're just here for something Castlevania-like, the humorous references to bloomers, tentacles, and other deviant anime proclivities are likely going to catch you off-guard. There is also some snarky fourth-wall-breaking humor peppered throughout. Since I knew what I was getting myself into, I found it all to be pretty amusing. Afte all, the game never goes beyond the “PG-13” level of content. It's just definitely not for everyone.
In the audio department, the music is exactly what you want when exploring a high school that's been turned into a demon castle. It's got a mixture of slower-paced moody piano pieces and uptempo harpsichord-accented dancy goth jams. None of the tracks stuck with me for long after finishing the game, but they got me in the mood for demon-slaying. Regarding voice acting, the game features full VO in Japanese but only partial VO in English. Thus, if you're inclined to skip the dialog, I'd recommend setting it to English so that you can understand the handful of keywords and phrases the characters say. If you're interested in the story, however, go with Japanese to hear every line delivered by the original Gal Gun cast.
Something to note off the bat is that Gal Guardians features two difficulty modes: Casual and Veteran. The differences between these are quite extreme. Casual is very forgiving with unlimited lives and no knockback when being hit by enemies. Veteran kicks it old-school with both limited lives and the ability for even a small bat to knock you into a bottomless pit. As someone who plays a lot of retro games, I found that Veteran was challenging but not insurmountable. Ideally, there would be a happy medium between these two difficulty options. Thankfully, you can switch between Casual and Veteran mid-campaign.
While overall, Gal Guardians plays similarly to an older Castlevania game, it does bring some new things to the table. Particularly, the sister-swapping mechanic. At any point, players can immediately swap between Maya and Shinobu, both of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses. Maya is a melee attacker who deals heavy damage but also has very low defense. Shinobu totes an anti-demon submachinegun that deals chip damage from a safe distance; she also has considerably more HP. I found that I used Shinobu most of the time, and brought Maya in when I wanted to get in close for a finishing blow.
If one sister is knocked out, you are sent back to your last checkpoint. From there, you have the option of reviving the fallen sister if you can find her body. This mechanic has a risk-reward element because the revival process involves mashing a button to perform CPR, leaving both sisters defenseless. However, if you get good at this revival technique, you never have to worry about losing lives since you can only get a game over if both sisters are down at once. (Of course, if you're playing on Casual, you don't have to worry about lives anyway.)
In addition to their baseline weapons, each sister has her own array of sub-weapons that are unlocked throughout the quest. As you would expect, Maya's are primarily close-range weapons and Shinobu's are long-range. The wrinkle is that many of these weapons have both a combat and traversal-based purpose.
While I found them fun to experiment with in boss battles, using sub-weapons for platforming was a mixed bag. Some, like Shinobu's grappling hook, were straightforward enough but others, like Maya's paper cranes, proved to be quite fiddly. In some cases, I couldn't determine if I didn't have the right ability to reach a seemingly out-of-reach item, or if I just wasn't using the tools I already had at my disposal properly. It also didn't help that sub-weapon ammo is fairly limited. These issues were never a complete roadblock but did create some frustrating moments in the campaign.
When it comes to enemies, Gal Guardians does a good job of throwing a varied assortment of spooky critters at the demon-slaying sisters. If you're playing the Veteran difficulty, even the most minor monsters can pose a very serious threat. The knockback they can cause is no joke! In some instances, you may even find a standard (i.e. non-boss) enemy that you'll be forced to use your best sub-weapons against or run away from.
Of course, bosses are the highlight of the combat and Gal Guardians does not disappoint. Bosses are big, beautifully animated, and can be quite challenging (especially later in the game). With multiple phases and super moves to avoid, some bosses will take many tries to overcome. I found that I enjoyed this level of challenge but was very grateful for the checkpoints immediately before each boss room.
While not truly a Metroidvania, Gal Guardian‘s levels feature multiple branching paths and hidden items to find (similar to Castlevania 3). Unlocking new sub-weapons opens up new routes in each level to encourage replay. At a minimum, most players will need to play through each level at least two times to reach the end credits. However, to get one of the two “good” endings, expect to return to each level several times to get the necessary collectibles. Unfortunately, while the game encourages players to collect everything, it doesn't provide a good means of tracking progress. There is no map screen or checklist for individual stages, which makes it tricky to figure out which areas require further exploration.
Gal Guardians is a great game for a particular type of niche player. If you're an otaku with nostalgia for the older linear Castlevania games, Gal Guardians was basically made just for you; go pick it up! For everyone else, the experience is going to be a bit more uneven. With bi-polar difficulty options, a few fiddly mechanics, and its dating sim roots, the other type of player I'd recommend it to is the retro action fan who doesn't mind skipping the parts that don't resonate with them; consider picking this one up when you're in the Halloween mood, especially if it's on sale.