Some say the Japanese are mad. Think contestant-maiming game-shows. Think incomprehensible television advertisements featuring Posh and Becks in aprons. Think giggling Japanese schoolgirls competing in the wonder that is cosplay. Think co-ordinated multiplayer Dance Dance Revolution...
Me? I held out hope there was some big plan - some mighty agenda the Japanese held secret. In a hail of pirouetting bullets, crashing pillars and constantly respawning Mafiosi, my hopes were dashed. With every bash of the square button a piece of my heart fell into oblivion. Yes the Japanese are mad. Why? They just are.
And I know because Red Entertainment's Gungrave: Overdose is sincere. And its sincerity gives it away. You'll boot up the game and laugh a laugh of comfort, because, surely, this is a joke. But gradually, as the story reveals itself, as young Mika revives the already dead Grave 'somehow' (her words, not ours), as we meet unlockable playable characters Juji (a similarly dead sword-slicing nutcase) and Rocketbilly Redcadillac (yes, that's right!) who dishes out destruction from upon high with his... electric guitar, our laughter begins to change. I used to be laughing with Red Entertainment. Now, a twitch in my left eye, I'm laughing at them.
'... Seed's back, and it's the silent Grave's job to bury it forever.'
I feel as if the story deserves a paragraph, simply because it requires a suspension of belief not seen since Neo tried to jump from that building. At the end of 2002's 'Gungrave', Beyond The Grave (that's his name, but all his mates call him Grave) an anti-hero of the undead kind, defeated mafia family Millennion and buried evil drug Seed deep underground. Grave then went back to being dead and normality (hah!) was restored. Now, for no reason whatsoever, Seed's back, and it's the silent Grave's job to bury it forever.
Madness, I'm sure you'll all agree, but, like Neo, let's try the jump, and, even if we fall we've had an amazing trip, right? Wrong. As you take Grave through the opening tutorial you quickly discover a number of things about Gungrave: Overdose that just aren't right.
One: the gameplay essentially boils down to hammering shoot (firing from Grave's twin pistols), throwing out the occasional melee-attack (swinging Grave's coffin, casually attached to him with chains) and unleashing screen-clearing, time-altering rocket attacks (fired from, you guessed it, the coffin, bazooka-style) at uninspiring bosses. It's R-Type with the camera off a Japanese coffin nut's shoulder.
Two: this is exactly the kind of game John Woo would make if Quentin Tarantino abducted his body and was given a shoe-string budget. It's Manga fused with cell-shaded madness. The ridiculous story is told in anime sections, which are actually quite entertaining in a Dragon Ball Z kind of way, but they just postpone your button-bashing wrath, which, essentially, is what Gungrave: Overdose is all about.
Three: it's bloody mental. As Grave, a stylised Japanese Manga vampire/devil hybrid with tall skinny legs, a hunchback and a coffin, you pump bullets into endless enemies, of which there are about five variants throughout the entire game. It's a strangely hypnotic affair. They come in waves, and you dance with them, twirling, twisting and cavorting in a maelstrom of destruction. You can block, but it's a block in the same vein as braking in Burnout - why would you?
Four: it's quite buggy and annoying on occasion. The camera feels like it has tourettes, and the most innocuous object will jam you in a corner when you're trying to dodge a million bullets. How ironic then, that Grave has the power to burst through walls, topple pillars and destroy statues, but an innocent little chair causes the end of his (undead) life. Jumping feels like Mario never happened, and the odd glitch harks back to the days of poor PAL conversions of mental Japanese shoot-em-ups (Axelay anyone?)
Five: you'll finish the game in half a day and wonder if you've been ripped off. It has a budget price (publisher Play It knew Gungrave: Overdose didn't have the production values or the mainstream Western appeal to justify Â£40), and a budget feel. Â£25 for a few hours of repetitive but strangely compelling mindless destruction? Perhaps the rip-off isn't so... ripped after all.
But here's the clincher - the thing that makes you grapple with sanity. You get the feeling that all the eccentricities in Gungrave: Overdose are meant to be cool - that Red Entertainment genuinely feel as if they have made a game that has street-cred. Just thinking about the development process makes me giggle. You're stuck with a coffin-wielding undead main character - how do you make a sequel more successful? I know! We'll add an American playable character with a quiff, call him Rocketbilly Redcadillac and give him an electric guitar as a primary weapon. How cool is that!
Gungrave: Overdose is a short, simple burst of destructive fun, and probably just about scrapes value from the budget price. But more interesting to me is Red Entertainment, a dev-co apparently oblivious to the outside world. Never before has the phrase 'made in Japan' been uttered with more relevance than on the back of this box.