2 Fast, 2 Furious

  • Developer: Storybird Studio
  • Publisher(s): Just For Games, PixelHeart
  • Release Dates: March 9th, 2022 (PS4), April 21st, 2022 (Nintendo Switch), April 22nd, 2022 (Steam, Xbox One)
  • Available On: PS4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Xbox One
  • Genre(s): Action, 2D Platformer, Feudal Japan

23 years after the original Ganryu, a sequel popped up out of nowhere in 2022. Can you believe it? I sure was surprised when it got announced! The original Ganryu is a good game (and you should really read my post about it before you read this one), but it’s far from being a beloved cult classic, so you have to wonder how many people were clamoring for this. Regardless, developer Storybird Studio felt the need to make it happen and I’m glad they did because it’s a good time overall! Between this and the recent Breakers Collection, there’s a bit of a Visco renaissance going on, which I couldn’t have possibly guessed would ever happen, but I do in fact love to see it because I like when these oft-forgotten names get a bit of proper celebration. Anyway, if you read that previous post of mine about the first Ganryu, there’s a bit at the end where I say that Ganryu 2 looks like a “Legend of Kage 2-esque glow up” and sure enough, that totally tracks here. For those unfamiliar with it, Legend of Kage 2 used the foundation of the Taito arcade game to create something significantly more involved, faster paced, and modern enough to fit in at the time of its release while also managing to retain at least a tiny bit of that original flavor. Ganryu 2 is exactly that – it’s a blazingly fast game that combines old school design philosophies with the occasional modern touch (it probably could have used more, but we’ll get to that…) and provides a much more significant challenge that gives it more potential to leave a lasting impression if it finds its way to the right person. It doesn’t feel much like the first game at all when you’re playing it, but you can still see some of its core elements (multi-tiered level designs, ninjas appearing suddenly to keep you on edge, knowing when to use swords or kunai to maximize effectiveness) serve as a foundation for this game to build upon. Some of the new things introduced in Ganryu 2, namely an (even more) increased focus on platforming, a more console-like take on lives/continues, and a bounty of unfortunately disruptive glitches, make it a more inconsistent and mentally taxing game than its predecessor, but when it works, it most definitely works. Whether you like this one or not, there’s no way you’ll put it down thinking it to be generic or uninspired!

I suppose it makes some sense after all these years to try something new, but Musashi is rocking quite a different look. He doesn’t look anything like the guy we knew from the last game! He still has the ponytail (it looks bigger this time around, though), but his new facemask makes him look more like a ninja than a samurai, and he’s pretty jacked to boot! He also seems to have ditched the whole dual-wielding swords schtick, which is very surprising considering that’s, y’know, kinda his thing, but the change to a single sword does allow for even faster attacks befitting of his more ninja-like interpretation here. Even more so than the first game, it’s clear to me that Shinobi was a major inspiration both visually and mechanically, which is something that’s confirmed on the game’s Steam page as well. If you’re hoping to see Suzume return, I’ve got some bad news; Ganryu 2 is a one man show, and the playbook this time around is even more personal, focusing purely on this (presumably?) final showdown between Musashi and Kojiro.

If there’s one thing this game makes clear, it’s that Kojiro was really holding back last time!

That’s right, good ol’ Kojiro has been messing with demonic powers again and has somehow come back from his second defeat to get revenge on Musashi once more, this time with a much more potent demonic army in tow. The plot never evolves beyond that, but it does toy with some ideas that could have gone to interesting places if they were expanded upon more. Instead of a purely adversarial tone, Musashi is a bit more playful this time (kind of like how I wanted him to be in the first game, actually), and when he ends Kojiro once again, he’s remorseful about the whole thing, pondering the possibility that they could have been friends if things worked out differently. This angle feels even more like fanfiction than the first game did, but that’s not an insult because it does make for a more interesting conflict and an attempt to see things from both sides, especially when the game has Kojiro attempting to justify his revenge and Musashi not really having a good comeback for what he did to him all those years ago. The insinuation that the demons are supporting Kojiro not because they’re demons but because they agree that he deserves revenge is a legitimately strong angle that I would have liked to see a deeper exploration of!

Kojiro’s plot involves attempting to wear Musashi down by throwing hordes of demons at him while he travels through five different regions of Japan to Ganryujima Island (with each one being broken up into two acts), capping each one off with a boss fight. A simple enough idea, but what I really like about this is that it’s essentially Kojiro giving Musashi a taste of his own medicine; some interpretations of the original duel between the two warriors claim that Musashi was intentionally very late to arrive as a way to rattle Kojiro and make him less focused for their battle, so it stands to reason that Kojiro would now be willing to play dirty and get Musashi weakened for their climactic duel. To try and mess with his longtime adversary even more, Kojiro employs demonic versions of people Musashi personally knows like his girlfriend Otsu and the monk Takuan (Suzume is absent from these too, surprisingly!), though he sees through their tricks immediately in lieu of them being an opportunity to interrogate his character further. Even if you’ve played the first game, there’s a good chance you may not recognize some of the people that show up; that’s because Ganryu 2 specifically takes a lot of influence from Eiji Yoshikawa’s 1930s novels about Miyamoto Musashi (compiled into one and called “Musashi” in English). These novels followed Musashi’s rise to fame and power through various exploits, battles, and adventures, including, of course, that fateful duel with Kojiro. Something strange I stumbled upon while doing research for this post was that the game’s marketing mentions that the game is specifically based on the novel called “The Stone and the Sword”, but… I couldn’t find a book by that name anywhere? There’s T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone“, of course, but that’s definitely not what they’re referring to. The game is clearly pulling inspiration and characters from Yoshikawa’s work, so it’s not a matter of them lying about it or anything, I just can’t seem to find this exact book or section of a book that they’re referring to, at least going by this list among others that I found. It could be as simple as a different translation for different regions or Google letting me down for the umpteenth time again (Google searches really aren’t what they used to be…), but regardless of what the book is called, you’ll have to do some supplementary reading if you want to understand every reference in the game. I unfortunately didn’t have the time to read it all myself before making this post (that’s what happens when you do weekly updates, I suppose…), but I’m definitely interested in checking out Yoshikawa’s work sometime because I do find Musashi’s story to be quite interesting.

Sounds bad!

As with the first game, sword attacks are your main means of offense, but Musashi is now much more nimble than before and is able to run while slashing. This brings the game even closer to Strider and its momentum-heavy gameplay where doing well means you get to cleave through foes without stopping to break a sweat. Kunai have received a huge buff and are something you’ll be using often thanks to their increased power, regular availability, and separate button mapping (another thing I wanted from the first one that this game implemented!). The temporary power-ups from the original game have all been removed and replaced with items that either heal, give points, or temporarily buff your kunai, further asserting their increased importance. The grappling hook is a thing of the past, which was a bit of a bummer to me at first, seeing as how the first game used it in a reasonable way to help it stand out a bit, but considering how fast and challenging this game can get, introducing demanding grappling hook sequences probably would have crushed my body and soul into tiny little pieces, so I appreciate the mercy! Instead, Musashi now has a dash attack (different from his regular dash) that allows him to zip right through foes, reach faraway places, and stun tougher foes. It even aids in getting some distance/height for the new wall jump maneuver, which the game certainly likes to put to the test at times.

This walljumping sequence in level 4 is so difficult that I legitimately have no clue how to do it. Instead, I discovered a way to get on top of the ceiling and walk past it like stage 1-2 of Super Mario Bros! And yeah, Musashi’s body bugged out on me here in a very funny way…

Lastly, taking a very obvious page from Shinobi, is the introduction of a magic system, which is fueled by item pickups that appear at a pace that I would argue is much too slow. To give you an idea of how slow, there’s a trophy on the PS4 version for using magic 15 times, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but I wasn’t able to get it by the end of the game despite exploring each level thoroughly! If you can actually get your magic gauge filled up, you can blast enemies with fire, coat yourself in electricity, become temporarily invincible, or heal yourself to full, all of which is very useful. The heal is a bit unfortunate, though, because unless you’re really good at the game, you’re probably going to be using that to stay alive most of the time, which leaves very little time to experiment with other things. I think this game would have benefited from starting you off with a single cast, similar to how a shoot ’em up typically handles bombs, and tying that into the scoring system – the cast is there as a nice safety net for people not yet familiar with the game (while also allowing them to try out each spell more easily), but those good enough to not need it get additional points for their proof of skill. If anyone reading this remembers I-Ninja, that game has the exact same problem with its equivalent system, though I-Ninja does at least let you recharge it pretty easily. Funny how this seems to be a problem exclusive to ninjas, huh?

All of this sounds quite conducive to a fast paced power fantasy of an action game, doesn’t it? You’ve got mobility options, fast attacks with solid range, potential screen clearing or protective states that’ll let you move unimpeded, yeah, Musashi’s packing enough heat to feel like a legendary swordsman, alright. But make no mistake – Ganryu 2 is a brutal game, one that’s even more reliant on learning level layouts than it is about fast reflexes. The very first level isn’t terribly exhausting compared to what lies beyond it, but it does an excellent job of setting the tone and telling players what to expect in more ways than one. Act 1 of level 1 is a run through a forest full of ninjas (just like Legend of Kage, actually!), and while these guys aren’t tough to beat in a direct clash of swords, their very existence is still a huge problem for Musashi and the player. I may sound like I’m being overly dramatic about Ganryu 2’s equivalent of the lowliest mooks, but three particular design choices give them the potential to be tremendously threatening and in direct opposition to how the game’s toolset conditions you to play it.

Never underestimate even the weakest ninja…

First things first: enemy ninjas can suddenly appear on the screen instead of walking in from off-screen or lying in wait for the player. Ninjas show up in a puff of smoke (as if they used a smoke bomb) and immediately begin their routine of walking around or throwing kunai or whatever, which makes it extremely easy to get taken by surprise. This is actually how the first Ganryu handled many of its enemy spawns, but it’s also important to remember that it was a much slower game than our energetic sequel here. It’s certainly possible to react to these surprise appearances in most cases, and subsequent attempts will allow you to memorize their locations, but it makes for what feels like a very dirty and unfair initial run through each level. Musashi is extremely fast, so it’s extremely easy to have your sprint interrupted by an unwelcome surprise or three. Some of these tricksters can be dealt with by just swinging your sword constantly (doing so can deflect kunai too, which is essential to remember), but Musashi’s purely horizontal slash won’t hit any of the guys that decide to spawn immediately above his current location, something that they love to do in vertical platforming sequences or in sections that require you to take a moment to assess your route. Even if you already agree that enemies doing this feels cheap as is, it gets worse.

Musashi can take up to five hits by default and healing items are relatively easy to come by, but there’s a very good reason for that: direct contact with enemies hurts you! I know, that’s something almost every game ever does, but in this particular case, it feels like a huge problem to me. Running as fast as you do on a 2D plane leaves you little time to react to enemies popping up and Ganryu 2 certainly doesn’t skimp on enemy aggression and headcount either. Characters in this game are pretty big too, which makes it very easy for Musashi to get skimmed by foes in narrow spaces, of which the game leans into very heavily in its last two levels. Even your dash attack isn’t safe from this problem because the ending animation frames of it leave you completely open to getting bumped into and the hitbox is only active for a portion of the dash! Because of this and the previous choice, every single time you move forward, jump into the air, or use your dash attack in a level that you don’t have perfectly memorized, there’s a much higher than zero chance that you’ll suddenly take damage. You could land on an off-screen enemy with the end of your dash attack, you could jump into a suddenly appearing enemy, heck, maybe you’ll just charge straight into a small wolf that doesn’t get hit by your standing sword slash. I don’t like to be negative, but this can seriously suck the fun out of things! It’s the kind of thing people think Sonic the Hedgehog does, creating situations that you can’t possibly react to as a result of his speed, but Sonic has defensive countermeasures that mitigate any potential problems that can occur, to say nothing of the fact that Sonic enemies are less frequent and far less aggressive. If you press down, Sonic curls up into a ball and makes himself immune to anything that’s not a spike as long as you have speed and the rings you can collect means you have an infinite number of safety nets as long as you keep at least one on you at all times. With only 5 hit points in Ganryu 2 (there are hidden health extensions in each level, but they all go away if you die once!), a few mistakes can really snowball into a quick death in levels you’re unfamiliar with, which will only become more demoralizing once you read the next paragraph…

In case it wasn’t already obvious, Ganryu 2 channels the spirit of older video games, specifically, the kinds of arcade and action games that expected you to keep coming back to achieve mastery even when they had no problems ripping you a new one for the slightest lack of knowledge. This is all well and good normally because modern games tend to soften this mentality with design choices that let newcomers get acclimated more easily, but Ganryu 2 isn’t interested in extending any olive branches. No, Ganryu 2 demands pure, distilled mastery above all else. There are no difficulty options here and you have lives restricting the number of checkpointed attempts you can make. The checkpoints are actually really fair and generous (aside from one lengthy gauntlet at the very end that has none, for some reason), but losing all of your lives boots you all the way back to the beginning of the first act of the level, even if you died on the boss of act two! Infinite continues is better than nothing, but getting sent back so far really hurts the latter half of the game in particular. The first three levels can be completed in about 10-15 minutes each (which is still pretty long for this kind of game…), but levels four and five ratchet things up to an absurd degree, easily taking as long as the first three levels combined while being a tremendous spike in difficulty as well. Heck, the final boss alone can take upwards of 10 minutes or more to beat! Even though the game only took me an hour and a half to finish (according to the in-game timer, anyway), it felt way longer because of how grueling it gets and having to retry stages four and five in their entirety multiple times. As of this writing, only 3.7% of people who have played the PS4 version of Ganryu 2 have gotten the trophy for finishing the game and only 5.5% were able to finish level 4, which is a sharp decline from the 14.9% of players that were able to clear the first three levels; let’s just say there are good reasons for that!

I’ve been harsh on Ganryu 2 so far despite enjoying it overall, so before we get to another problem I have with it, I really do want to highlight its strengths. Like I said, when Ganryu 2 works, it really works! This is a luscious, gorgeous game at times and the way they manage to depict the various regions of Japan is a sight to behold. As mentioned previously, the first level takes place in a forest in Hokkaido that transitions to an underground cave, and as you run through it, you’ll see leaves blow in the wind, grass sway back and forth, small and big waterfalls in the background, and pieces of subtle, ambient lighting that give the environment an air of comfort amidst all the hostility. This tranquil setting makes for a captivating companion to the rock-infused soundtrack that the game generally uses, something that composer Stef Sirrah intentionally did from the start to capture the thrill of battle throughout the game. The second level starts you off in the fields of Edo and they are absolutely beautiful thanks to the combination of the sunset in the background and the stretches of (what I think is) white pampas grass that seem to go on forever, basking in the sun that allows them to thrive. That beauty is immediately contrasted with the second half of Edo, which takes place in the castle sabotaged by what appears to be alien/demon tech. There’s no explanation as to how this happened, but seeing what is normally a beautiful sight warped into something that’s a bit difficult to describe helps show the side effects of Kojiro’s willingness to play with demons. A snowy Kyoto makes up the third level and while it offers the same backdrop for both its acts, a beautiful, seemingly quiet town interrupted by the brutality of combat certainly captures my attention well. Shikoku’s seemingly endless brutality in its level design is perfectly complemented by its much drearier visuals compared to the rest of the game; this area takes place entirely in a dark cave-like environment with fleshy walls and weird spike-like objects that partially obscure certain sections. Their presence is so dominating that I thought you had to avoid them at first! Lastly, Ganryujima was given a significant overhaul, featuring an absolutely massive castle to go through with a stunning backdrop of a close-looking moon above the clouds. This is a great little touch that’s consistent with the first game as well; that one had you climbing up to the skies to fight Kojiro and they made sure to keep that here as well, providing some welcome connective tissue between the two games. Boss fights are also strongly designed, (usually) featuring large demons that fight in significantly different ways, ranging from one that wields deadly fans to machinery that takes inspiration from the Tengu to another that’s just a gigantic, freaky looking worm. They’re the kinds of bosses that seem “impossible” at first as they take you down with ease, and though this makes for a painful punishment with how continuing works, being able to break down how each move works on subsequent attempts makes for a delightful bit of “retro” game design. Encounter boss, assess boss, practice boss, conquer boss – if it works, it works! The take on Kojiro here really ratchets the intensity up to 10 in a way that makes it confidently feel like the definitive climax to the conflict between the two swordsmen; his first form is basically a take on Devil May Cry’s Devil Trigger transformations, complete with a focus on summoned ethereal swords for the player to dodge, and his second form towers so high above Musashi that the screen has to scroll multiple times as the player climbs vertically upward before you can even get to his weak point! When Ganryu 2 puts its spectacle in the spotlight, it’s a wonderfully stylish game that understands the appeal of Shinobi (III in particular) and what made its combination of Japanese imagery, tonally dissonant surprises, and flashy setpieces work.

The level design itself (when it’s not throwing you face first into everything I talked about before in dirty ways) does a great job of diversifying itself throughout. As early as act two of level one, levels will throw environmental and vehicular challenges that test you in different ways, with the first one here being a minecart sequence. It’s thankfully not as absurdly hard as the one in The Adventure of Little Ralph and it does a good job of teaching players to actually use their kunai. Sure, you can still go up to enemies and slash them, but when you’re on a minecart ride that feels like it’ll kill you as soon as you jump, a safe long range option becomes very appealing! Act 2 of level 2 has a shoot ’em up section where Musashi rides on an alien-looking aircraft, which is a nice little change of pace (if you can forgive how long it takes to eliminate the basic enemies) and both acts of level 3 feature an auto running section where the boss fight takes place as well. Level 4 is an incredibly taxing gauntlet of jumping between falling platforms (just like a particular level in Ardy Lightfoot, another platformer I wrote about here), an elevator sequence full of instant kill traps, and plenty of spikes to weave around. Level 5 features a spin on the minecart section that has more unwieldy physics to work with and a castle filled to the brim with traps that demand you move quickly or die instantly. That’s a lot of variety right there, and what I really like about Ganryu 2 at its peak is that it forces you to learn when to slow down and when to speed up, much like how the Sonic games do. Again, aside from when the game decides to be mean and throw harsh surprises your way, Ganryu 2 really does a great job at teaching players how to recognize certain situations so that they can be tested on them as they proceed further. Every enemy can be defeated with brute force, but you’ll encounter each one enough that you’ll figure out organic tricks to beat each one. For example, certain enemies like to block your attacks before retaliating, which makes for a pace-breaking moment each time, but once you learn that your dash attack breaks guards (something the game never forces you to learn), you can open them up and guarantee an easy kill. The Nure-onna, a youkai with a woman’s head and a snake’s body, seems like a huge pain at first due to its fast projectiles and sudden charge attack, but one simple mantra will get you past it – if it sucks, hit da bricks! That’s right, you can just use your superior mobility to run right past it! The enemies are a well designed bunch that often complement each other well, so it’s a shame when the game relies so heavily on catching you by surprise instead of being forthcoming with its challenges. When Ganryu 2 chills out a bit, a lot of its design feels like a proper conversation between the player and the developer, with each one trying to find a way to outsmart the other. It’s a wonderful conversation and battle of wits in its best moments and when the response to your call stops being “Think fast! Think fast!”, you really gain a greater appreciation for the package they’ve put together here.

I wish I could keep lavishing praise upon this game because I like doing that, but it’s time to address the elephant in the room – Ganryu 2 is a very buggy game! Now, I’m not going to sit here and harp on the devs and make jokes at their expense or anything, but since this is a rare case where the glitches were abundant enough to negatively affect my experience, I do feel like I need to dedicate some time to them. These glitches weren’t obscure things that affected a small portion of the game, no, these glitches would sometimes last entire stages, ruin otherwise successful runs, crop up randomly in every level, or get me killed at key moments. The most common one was the nastiest – at completely random times, the game would disable my slash and jump buttons for no reason! At first, I thought it was a “status effect” from the Medusa Head equivalent enemies since it first happened after getting hit by one of those, but sure enough, it started happening to me at random moments from there. Every single time this bug occurred, I either got hit by something I couldn’t fight back against or died because I couldn’t jump in a time-sensitive situation, so it’s safe to say that it was very, very unwelcome! I was usually able to fix it by immediately dash attacking (something that can get you easily punished, mind you), but the sheer amount of times that this happened really put a bad taste in my mouth. Level 4 seems to be the buggiest one overall, for whatever reason. In that same level, I got stuck inside the ceiling, forcing me to run around until spikes pierced through the wall and killed me, had the aforementioned button disabling glitch occur several times, and had a game-breaking bug occur right near the end of the level when the elevator I was on suddenly stopped moving, which required a full restart of the challenging level I had just worked my butt off to get through, so you can imagine how all of that would leave a very bad impression! Perhaps as a form of compensation, I did have one consistent glitch in level 4 that was actually very amusing and harmless – for whatever reason, Musashi’s leg duplicated itself each time I played through the level, giving the man three legs and two swords! I guess that’s one way to get Musashi’s second sword back, huh? I have affectionately dubbed this “The Stanky Leg” and it’s by far my favorite part of the level. Another really weird bug I had was in level 2’s shoot ‘em up section: upon beginning the segment, Musashi wasn’t piloting the ship, but was instead floating around in the air! Not only does this look incredibly weird (the sprites used for this segment are intentionally smaller to depict scale when contrasted with the massive boss), but it also meant that I had to try and destroy a bunch of airplanes with a sword that wasn’t functioning too well. Turns out that bringing a sword to a dogfight is a very bad idea! The bug eventually fixed itself and I was able to play the level as normal, but it was certainly a bizarre moment. Like I said, I don’t normally care to point out glitches unless they’re funny to me since I understand that game development and QA are very difficult things to do (I’ve been there when it comes to the latter!), but the sheer amount I encountered made me feel it was necessary to warn anyone potentially interested in this game because they really do get in the way of what would otherwise be an unrelentingly focused experience.

As you can see, my Musashi got stuck in the wall AND grew a third leg!

Ganryu 2 feels like it’s made for an extremely specific type of person. I don’t mean the handful of people who fondly remember the original game (though they probably would enjoy it), but instead the handful of people who will master any challenge thrown their way, regardless of how reasonable or fair it feels. In order to get the most out of it, Ganryu 2 absolutely wants you to play it over and over again until you can finish it without dying once. This desire is reinforced both through mechanics such as the HP upgrades and the magic system as well as through the game’s trophies/achievements, several of which are most easily completed by simply getting good enough to clear the game without a single setback. It’s a perfectly valid way to design a game, especially in this era of speedrunning being as popular as it is, but it’s also a tall order that feels like it’s putting the cart before the horse. To inspire someone to dedicate this much time and effort towards your game, it needs to earn the player’s trust and convince them that it’s a reasonable, tightly adjusted experience that can offer new thrills and discoveries on subsequent runs. Though Ganryu 2 has plenty of highs between its excellent visuals and strong fundamentals, some of its more questionable design choices and unfortunate number of glitches ensure that building that level of trust is difficult. I definitely enjoyed this game, but I also can’t see myself trying to master it in its current state. Knowing that my controls could suddenly stop working or level progression could break down at any moment and ruin my run is enough to deter me, which is a huge shame as someone who very rarely lets glitches get in the way of their enjoyment. If this game does get patched up at some point, though, there’s a good chance I’ll happily jump back into the fray. What’s one more duel between Musashi and Kojiro at this point, right?

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