Falcom is a very odd developer. A long standing Japanese developer with a history based in creating games for older Japanese computers and creating a wide variety of innovations in the RPG genre while primarily being known for Trails, a series of incredibly detailed JRPGs with a strong fanbase, and the Ys series, a collection of action RPG titles that shifted and mutated its exact genre over the years, and is home to some of my favorite examples of the genre of all time. Yet they can also be very experimental, as seen previously in games like Xanadu Next, which I reviewed a few months ago, and even more so in one of the more unique titles in their release history, Gurumin.
Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PSP, 3DS
Developer: Falcom and Mastiff
Gurumin centers around Parin, a young girl who was recently sent to a small remote mining town with her grandfather. Or to be more accurate, a girl whose parents abandoned her to pursue a life of adventuring and put her on a two day train ride to live with an old widower in a town with no other children, no school, and no real way to entertain or enrich her life. Overcome with boredom, and possible neglect issues, she begins to explore this town and soon discovers a portal to a world full of lovable monster friends who only children can see. Yet after an opening montage, it is revealed that the entire monster world has been endangered by a group of invading Phantoms. Being an assortment of monodimensional villains complete with a diabolical numbnut of a leader, they naturally end up capturing Parin’s friends (and their stuff), inspiring her to take a weapon, a drill that will let her pierce the heavens, and begin her quest.
It is a very straightforward quest narratively, where Parin must defeat the four lackeys of the Phantom prince, rescue her friends, get their stuff back after the Phantoms stole it for good measure, and be a hero despite still being grammar school age. As should be expected, the storyline is peppered up with a series of ancillary side characters, both in the mining town and in the monster world, who help Parin on her quest and add a bit of variety to the whole adventure, despite none of them, or really any other characters for that matter, having much beyond a one dimensional personality and simplistic goals. Normally I would criticize this, but despite being very basic, there is a certain childlike and innocent charm to this game, which makes what little is shown about these characters, and every other character for that matter, all the more endearing.
This would easily work as a solid foundation if the game managed to achieve its ambitions as being a quality 3D action platformer, but, well, it kind of doesn’t. While it is easy to forget, the introduction of polygonal gaming came with a lot of growing pains, and developers who were accustomed with 2D titles had to waddle around as they, and the entire industry, was trying to figure out how this new fangled 3D thing worked. While Gurumin was not part of the generation that saw most developers make the shift, it was the first title put out by its developer, Falcom, to be a fully 3D title. Not counting games like Ys VI, which were basically just overhead 2D games with some 3D visual elements.
The growing pains involve a lot of the typical jankiness that is commonly associated with early fully 3D titles. The camera is often difficult to use, not particularly helpful, and has limited controls, restricting the player to only being able to shift the X axis freely and not the Y axis. It makes even the game’s basic platforming elements surprisingly difficult. While combat is made into more of a cluster than necessary, with it being far too easy to be blindsided by an unseen enemy attack.
Though, the combat in general is rather messy. I could point to multiple reasons for that, from the odd attack patterns of many enemies, which are often far too aggressive for their own good, or the fact that Parin often must fight off several enemies at once. However, it really comes down to how her attacks work. Using her drill as her main weapon, because of course she does, Parin has a fair amount of attacks at her disposal. She can use the drill to deal basic damage, charge the drill to destroy certain obstacles and enemy armor, and hold it even longer for an armor crushing dash attack.While jumping, she can home in on enemies, resulting in a multi-hit and staggering strike that is probably the most effective means of dealing damage in the game. She also has a variety of special move that can be purchased throughout the game. All of them involve moves that deal large amounts of damage very effectively, but also happen to be quite situational in their implementation. Something that would not be so bad if not for how easy it is to accidentally use these moves. Basically, if the control stick is spun around, or simply fiddled with in a certain way, the various special moves will be activated, locking Parin in a canned animation until the attack plays out.
The entire combat system feels very loose, uneven, and even a little unresponsive at times due to how Parin cannot cancel out of her animations in case the player wants to, say, jump away from an enemy attack or use the dash that mostly consists of invincibility frames to negate the damage. This unintentionally leads to a lot of unwanted hits from enemies, hits that often deal arbitrary amounts of damage, and result in Parin’s drill losing some of its meter and strength. Which relates to a weird system where Parin must use her drill in a rhythm shown at the top of the screen, striking at the right time to land a critical hit and in turn gain drill meter. I honestly never quite understood how to use it to my advantage and instead tried to simply avoid taking damage while spamming attacks when I could.
Beyond the combat, the other novel mechanic of this game are the many equippable hats that Parin uncovers, upgradable pieces of equipment that embed her with passive buffs, some affecting her attack or defense, though most are used to negate or manage hazards, such a goggles that let her breathe underwater, or a gas mask that is used to fend of toxic plants. My favorite though were the cat ears, as they show jars and rocks on the minimap. Also, they give her cute little whiskers.
Why would I want to find jars and rocks? Well, the answer is quite simple. Gurumin is actually part collectathon and the main goal of each level is to dispatch every enemy and destroy every jar. Doing this rewards players with an S rank and gold medals that may be used to obtain a few elusive goodies needed for 100% completion. However, the act of pursuing these gold medals ia foolhardy, obnoxious, and frustrating endeavor that led me to putting the game down at the 90% mark. The game asked me to execute a move in a very specific way with only a limited number of tries, several times in a stage, when the controls and physics are deliberately working against the player and making success that much more difficult. All to obtain one chest in one level for a stupid medal and a meaningless sense of accomplishment.
However, it was not strictly that instance that made me drop the game even though I could have cleared it in just another hour or two. Oh no. From nearly the halfway point, my frustrations with the game’s controls, mechanics, and level design only compounded, with every new level registering as little more than a chore to me, and the collectathon elements of the game bogging down stages with slow exploration, and potentially a second run through. Something that, in stages that last upwards of 15 minutes, is never a good thing. Especially in the mirrored stages that are used to pad out the game’s length.
I really want to say something positive about the gameplay, but beyond having some novel concepts at its disposal, I really did not enjoy the act of playing through Gurumin. It is a slow and repetitive… platformer brawler collectathon with uninteresting stages, poor camera and controls, and a difficulty level far beyond what I would expect of a game made to be so appealing to a younger audience with its colorful cast and such.
I do suppose the game has one more saving grace though in the form of its art style, which features a variety of simply designed and colorful characters with fairly simple character models that were able to age quite well due to how the artists kept things simple. Yet the environmental art is a bit less endearing, mostly due to the dull themes the game explores, with a temple area, a cave area, a forest area, and a mountain area that give the game a very grounded and naturey feel, an odd choice considering how these stages take place in a monster world, and the developers had the opportunity to diversify the concepts quite a lot if they so desired to. Instead, the bulk of the creative designs are saved for the final area, a generic alien metaphysical environments that, come to think of it, popped up quite a lot during the sixth console generation.
As for how the game visually translates to more modern hardware, certain textures are blurry and the game could use some other form of antialiasing, as certain models do not look as smooth as they should be. I would actually praise the game for aging well visually, but things fade out as they develop into the background, and with the camera being as stubborn as it is, it can be difficult to get good landscape shots of certain environments. Thereby making it harder to appreciate the work put in by the game’s environmental artists.
It’s odd to think that such a title could be put out by Falcom while they were delivering quality action RPGs with Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim and Xanadu Next, but the underlying gameplay of Gurumin is too loose and bizarrely dated to be as enjoyable as it needs to be with a structure as repetitive as this. Its simple and colorful art style along with its endearingly childish tone does give Gurumin some finer points, but not enough to advance the experience beyond an average level.