Heart Core’s Gripper has a lot to like at first glance. Motorcycle slides inspired by the classic anime, Akira? Yes, please. Starring a stylish half-cybernetic young man named None? Weird name, but cool. A slick art style and a heavy synthwave soundtrack? You’re speaking our language.
The opening cinematic introduces an intriguing setup. Returning to find his home world destroyed, None finds out that a disembodied robot head – reminiscent of Andross in the original Star Fox – called Zero is responsible. Zero isn’t very nice and beats None to a pulp. His old robotic feline pal, Cat-Kit, pieces him back together with a twist: to live, he must remain connected to his motorcycle to keep his new half-cybernetic body charged. Cat-Kit then reveals he also must rip out the hearts of four Guardian robots to save his world and defeat Zero.
To achieve None’s goal, you control him during two different styles of gameplay: driving None’s cybercycle through futuristic tunnels, dodging obstacles along the way from a third-person perspective, and arena-based boss battles where he has to use a ‘gripper’ on the back of his bike to grab objects to throw back at bosses from a top-down view. That thumping soundtrack accompanies the action of both gameplay styles.
Unfortunately, we found one style much more enjoyable than the other. The driving sections take place within ruined tubes suspended in space that are full of inexplicable obstacles: rotating fan blades of fire, descending laser beams, shards of piercing light, and so on. Four hits by any of these, and it’s back to the beginning. Quick Time Events using triggers and face buttons add a layer beyond just strafing left and right. While these QTEs are a simple mechanic with forgiving timing, taken together with the amount of deadly sci-fi debris in your way, these sections were difficult from the get-go.
We learned quickly to memorise where each obstacle would appear and the best way to navigate particularly frenetic sections, so that when we finally cleared the stage – after about 10 to 15 attempts – we could manage it without taking a hit. We cranked the volume up as we tried and failed again and again, the synthwave adding controller-gripping urgency to each attempt. Heart Core did a great job at adding the right amount of difficulty here; if we failed, we knew it was our fault, and we had better memorise how those spiky shafts of red light twirled as we spun upside down within the shattered space tube.
The same can’t be said for the arena boss battles. When the driving section ends, the top-down boss battle begins. We hated every single one of them, of which there were five, because their difficulty came not from our lack of skill or ability, but rather a wonky core mechanic. Throughout Gripper’s short campaign, we unlocked a handful of abilities: a shield, a nitro boost, and a jump. But it was the initial, titular ability – the grip cable on the back of the motorcycle – that frustrated us to no end against every single boss.
You see, using the right analogue stick, you aim your grip cable to shoot, latch onto, and pull something toward you. During the overwhelming bouts when little bots are swarming you as the Big Bad sends out shockwaves for you to jump over, it was incredibly finicky and unreliable.
Take, for example, the first spider-legged boss. We had to grip and rip off its legs; however, tiny little explosive robots called Creepers chased after us, too. We could throw them at the boss to stun its first phase. We could also pull rocks to reveal health packs. Quite often we nabbed a robot when we aimed for a health pack – a robot that subsequently exploded in our cyberface – or latched onto a rock, wrenching us into harm’s way unintentionally. We died to the first boss somewhere around 30 times, feeling like each death had more to do with the finicky gripping mechanic than it did our own ability.
Cat-Kit assured us that equipping what he called Consumables would help. In practice, these items, which were more akin to motorcycle mods, helped little. We got the most use out of a heal ability, but a turret gun we purchased and some mines took off only a couple of minuscule slivers of health. The fourth boss was even immune to most of the available arsenal. We honestly felt baffled, like we were failing to use Consumables properly to help us win matches, yet trial and error failed to reveal their usefulness.
It didn’t get any better with a late battle against Zero. This climatic bout had such an obtuse mechanic to it that, try as we might, we couldn’t figure out how to defeat the Andross lookalike. With no help available pre-launch, we contacted the devs to learn that we had to do something multiple times in quick succession. With no indication that doing so a single time had any effect, there was no way for us to understand what to do. No prior boss had such a feature, nor did Cat-Kit or None give us a hint. We are told that extra VFX and a slight re-balance to this aspect of the fight are coming in a Day One patch, but we lost a couple of hours banging our head against the dilapidated space-tube wall. Again, players at launch shouldn’t have as much difficulty as we did here, but it’s emblematic of the wider issues we encountered. With further tweaks, things may improve, of course.
Ramping up the frustration in the boss battles was some serviceable, yet incessantly repetitive, voice acting. After hearing Cat-Kit say, “Do you know how to kill insects?” and None reply, “I have to grip and rip it out!” each time we failed against the first boss, we muted the voice audio. This too didn’t get any better in later battles, with the bosses having only a handful of quips that they repeat over and over and over again like they were JRPG protagonists shouting out their moves every time they attacked.
With a slick aesthetic, some great synthwave tunes, and intense cybercycling through dilapidated space tubes, Gripper gets a lot right and we enjoyed those parts of it. We can forgive repetitive voice acting, but the other half of the game — the arena boss battles — is egregiously frustrating. The main gripping mechanic fails to work far too often with so much happening on screen, leading to a difficulty level that requires grudging patience rather than player skill. Thus, by the end of the game, our patience for this sci-fi mashup of genres had run out.
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