Gripper Review (Switch) – Get A Grip
I wouldn’t call myself an expert in the ways of cyberpunk. There’s just a few things that tickle my interest that, fortunately, Gripper hooked me in with: Kaneda’s bike from Akira and a banging synthwave soundtrack. The former is iconic as much as the film itself is, after all.
A blend of boss rush and reflex-based bike sections, Gripper is a futuristic bike-brawler very akin to Furi, the Game Bakers’ sword fight/bullet hell epic. Tapping into that similar vein, will it hit the same beats or be a puncture in this niche sub-genre?
Well, grab some headphones and hone those reflexes, as we tag on for the ride that is Heart Core’s Gripper. Buckle up…
It’s In Our Nature…
The story to Gripper isn’t the most original (I nearly went with “isn’t gripping”), but it’s decent enough to set up the motivations. Starting with a series of flashbacks, we see a young lad gifted a toy cat by his parents. Pretty harmless start, you might think.
Skip forward to a few emails to our protagonist. The begin saying that None (yes, real name) is missed at home, then very adamantly warn him to stay away from his home planet. Being completely level-headed and whatnot, he ignores that and returns home. Upon trusty Kaneda-esque bike, None discovers his world in ruin and a floating, Master Control Program-like head named Zero running the show.
None, Zero… sensing a trend here? Anyway, None is soon flattened and left for dead, only to be resurrected [as such] by his now-talking toy cat, CAT-KIT. Fused like Dingo and Jehuty, None lives through a symbiotic connection to his bike.
Turns out, Zero was an AI created by None’s parents, and the enemies we face are borne of None’s tinkering as a child. Yet that’s only the beginning…
The gameplay in Gripper is largely played out in two styles: the first is tunnel-based riding to a boss fight, the second being said boss fight. Unlike Furi, the former is absolutely nothing like the calming walks The Stranger gets to take.
Played from behind like the bonus stages in Sonic The Hedgehog 2, players have to steer None through winding tubes and avoid obstacles. There’s some verticality, such as in Rollcage (or even pseudo-sequel GRIP, in keeping with naming conventions), but only always forward and no braking.
At times there’s Quick-Time Events, requiring dextrous fingers and paying attention. A ZL prompt pulls of “the Akira slide” under doors, whilst ZR takes out a blocked door. Later abilities like jumping over fallen debris adds more challenge, as do the quicker-firing pitfalls and obstacles that jut out of walls.
And if you thought that Battletoads-referencing header was coincidence, think again. This sections are just as frustrating… and there are no checkpoints. So if you lose those life blocks near the end: tough.
Once players do eventually triumph, through attrition or skill (and frustration), it’s the other intense part of the game: the boss fight.
Grip And Tear
Well, boss fights plural, but for this example we’re going to look at the mechanics behind the first one. Firstly, because I haven’t beaten the game yet and secondly, this asshole took up way too much of my time so I have to share. It’s called The Shock, which I’m sure leaves little allusion to what it does best.
A four-legged insectoid robot, The Shock teaches players the mechanic of twin-stick motorbike combat. The left steers the bike in 360° form, whilst the right is aiming. A tap of ZR fires a grappling hook (or “gripper”, hence the name), for latching onto things. Like insectoid legs, shall we say.
Littered around the boss’ arena are rocks, other enemies and, conveniently, red explosive barrels. Aiming and grabbing one of the above is the trick, then launching it at The Shock. Then, once stunned, None needs to grip and pull a leg off.
Two legs down, one would think they’re halfway there to winning. Alas no, The Shock has a nasty, electrical surprise up its sleeve. What this means is no getting close, instead hoofing any bit of debris or enemy at it until it dies.
Oh, if only it were as simple as I make it sound…
Kick Start My Restart
I say this in kindness: expect to see the above screen a lot. The first boss has a steeper learning curve than one might expect, taking me a good two hours of frustration. What doesn’t help is a piddly little heath bar and enemies that explode. Or your own landmines blowing you up, or a combination of the two. But we’ll come back to that…
Like most modern games, Gripper also features a token upgrade system. Token in its inclusion, but also token in its currency. Points are earned primarily by removing boss hearts, but can be accrued from extra challenges too. Challenges like revisiting a boss under different parameters, for example.
Extra health blocks, more landmines carried and blast radius can be unlocked, and are all standard fair. Although, it seems an odd choice to give players landmines by default instead of dropping health packs, but it fits with the game’s challenge.
The game is frustrating, yet before I get into the negatives, let’s tout it’s boldest feature: the audio.
Now, I love synthwave. Born of an appreciation for retro sci-fi scores from the likes of The Terminator and Blade Runner, synthwave varies from dancehall tempos to slow jams, all with an electronica feel behind it. The relevance here is it goes hand-in-hand with the future, the apocalypse, or the futuristic apocalypse.
Yet rather than just being background noise, Gripper takes a cue from Thumper and utilises those tunes in the tunnel moments. Linked to the QTE’s, it’s quite fun hopping, sliding and destroying to the beat. Perhaps not so much after the tenth time, but I guess that’s my fault for dying, I suppose.
The visuals are cyberpunk-ian too, all neon slides and slick robots against dystopia. The cutscenes are all extreme anime tropes: skinny, pointy-haired protagonist, cutesy Moogle-like cat toy.
It’s just a shame they have to talk, something I find odd complaining about in a game.
I KNOW HOW TO PULL ITS LEGS OFF!
I want to love Gripper. I really do, as I’m not adverse to challenging games. I use Furi as an example because I’ve beaten that, and still occasionally play the game from time to time. So, when this was billed as “Furi on bikes” I was ecstatic. But that feeling soon faded, and you might have twigged why earlier.
It’s not that Gripper is hard – it’s unfair. The first boss takes a while not because itself is hard, it’s the surroundings that screw you over. Those enemies players need to throw at The Shock? They explode, and chain explosions, causing blast radius damage if another enemy is in sniffing distance. That’s not hard, game, that’s some bullshit.
The other gripe is the tunnel sections, offering nothing in the way of warning to spikes jutting out of the ground. The reflex times needed would put F1 drivers to shame. Yes, one could argue it’s my old reflexes not being up to scratch, but this isn’t the case (or I’d like to think so). This system drives the player towards trial and error, rather than skill based success.
The biggest annoyance I have though, as I said, is the sodding voice acting. None’s voice is just flat and lifeless, which I guess is kind of fitting, with the whole “You did die” thing. But CAT-KIT… whoever thought, “Wacky, Police Academy caricature” of pleasant-yet-violent voice acting needs a slap.
It doesn’t help that the lines are limited, so if players die on a boss repeatedly, expect to hear the same lines over and over. You thought Spider-Man’s quips got repetitive? This is next level, and not for the better.
The Fast and the Furi-ous
That being said, I do like Gripper. The small grumbles can be… well, not ignored because they’re core gameplay, but tolerated because you’ll want to get further in the game. It sounds like a tenuous chore, but that’s any video game with a challenge.
At its artificial heart, Gripper does what it sets out to do. It gives us a bombastic boss rush game, with banging tunes that definitely benefit from headphone use. The story is familiar yet engaging enough to persevere with, as is upgrading None to be better-than-None.
It’s got that smooth, arcade style to it, that while may not be pushing graphical boundaries, I never had any issues with it. No slowdown, quick enough loading times and a soundtrack that will keep you toe-tapping as you get back into it. Well, I hope. I can’t guarantee it won’t make you rage on occasion.
Whilst occassionally suffering from the “being unfair doesn’t make it a challenge” issue, Gripper is nonetheless a fun ride. A gripping take on the boss rush style of game, pair this with a controller and headphones for a throttlin’ good time.
Gripper is available now on Nintendo Switch (review platform), PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC via Steam.
Developer: Heart Core
Publisher: Heart Core
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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