Boss fights are some of the most exciting and climactic moments in video games. Whether it's the panicked desperation of Ornstein and Smough or the drawn-out tension of The End, iconic boss battles serve as the ultimate tests of everything we've been learning over the course of a game. In that light, boss rush games make a lot of sense; why not remove all the less exciting parts to create a high-octane rollercoaster ride? That's the logic behind games like Titan Souls, Furi, and now Gripper, the debut title from Bulgarian studio Heart Core.
Gripper shares a lot of its DNA with Furi. It's a comic book-inflected odyssey through a cyberpunk nightmare world full of abstract shapes and landscapes, complete with a redoubtable main character and a snarky sidekick who constantly expresses cynical disbelief that he can succeed. Said main character is None, who is returning to the land of his birth in order to discover what's happened to his parents. Unfortunately, where Furi's story was compelling and abstract, Gripper's just comes across as poorly written, and that's not the only place that the comparison favors Furi.
Gripper Is An Exercise In Frustration
There are two main gameplay mechanics in Gripper: riding your bike around a top-down boss arena and driving it through obstacle-filled tunnels. Each level either sees you speeding down an abstract highway dodging random objects or throwing down against one of Gripper's bosses, all of whom nominally represents one of the stages of grief (although this is a theme that doesn't feel particularly developed). There isn't much integration between the two styles, either; you won't ever find yourself suddenly hurtling down a tunnel mid-boss, for instance, or stopping halfway through a tunnel to battle an enemy.
Sadly, neither of the gameplay styles feels particularly compelling. During the tunnel sequences, random objects will pop up at a rate and speed that you can't possibly predict, leading to more than a few frustrating deaths as you painstakingly learn the geometry of the level. They're speckled with quick time events, too, in which you must press a button quickly or take a point of damage. You only have four health points in these sequences, and there's no way to recover health, so given the unfair speed at which obstacles and quicktime events appear, you're going to be repeating the tunnels a fair few times before you finally scrape through them.
It constantly felt like I was grappling with the controls rather than with enemies or level hazards.
Things don't improve much during boss battle sequences, either. There's a nice variety to the boss design, with each boss requiring a different approach to take down. Nevertheless, these fights also prove inordinately frustrating, and that's mainly down to the grappling hook that is your principal weapon. Gripper wants you to throw out the hook to catch objects, toss them around, and pull things, but the hook feels incredibly imprecise, so more often than not, you'll simply throw it at thin air or miss an object you were sure you caught. Your bike's movement doesn't help; thanks to momentum and inertia, you'll often keep moving when you need to stop dead, and the handbrake button is hilariously unreliable, so you'll die more often than not just because the game's systems don't feel like they were designed around the challenges it offers.
The issue is one of perspective. It's impossible to affect the kind of precision aiming Gripper wants from you with the camera setup it has. All too often, you can't actually see what you're trying to grapple thanks to the top-down viewpoint. This also leads to many frustrating and inadvertent deaths; you'll grab things you didn't intend to because you couldn't see them, skyrocketing towards them like they're your new best friend. Even when you do successfully manage to grapple something you intended to, throwing it at your enemy is another matter entirely; the aiming mechanism requires pin-sharp precision, and if you're just a hair off, you'll miss completely. I never felt like I completely managed to get on Gripper's wavelength. It constantly felt like I was grappling with the controls rather than with enemies or level hazards.
There Isn't Much To Do In Gripper
Gripper really doesn't have much content to offer, either. There are a total of five boss battles, all of which have a single stage that gets progressively harder as you knock your enemy's health down. There are no second-act surprises, no mid-boss twists, and no surprise endgame villains. Together with the tunnel stages, you'll likely be done with Gripper in all of two hours or maybe even less, which just feels like an unacceptably sparse offering. The story is over before it has a chance to become interesting, and none of the characters (no pun intended) feel as though they're learning, growing, or changing at all.
That's not to say there aren't additional gameplay challenges to take on. Each boss has a series of "quests" you can complete. Think of them as optional missions that task you with destroying the boss in a particular way, or ensuring you complete an optional objective during the fight. Unfortunately, most of these objectives are incredibly mundane, and many of them require you to go out of your way to prolong the fight. Thanks to the aforementioned gameplay issues, there's not much chance you'll want to do that. Between boring objective design and gameplay frustrations, Gripper's short length might actually be a blessing.
Overall it's a shame because there are flashes of inspiration during Gripper's boss fights. Considering the game has just one "hook" (ahem), Gripper finds as many ways as it can to squeeze variety out of that hook. You'll grab objects and fling them at enemies. You'll pull pillars or machines out of the ground, and you'll grab health pickups at a distance with your hook as well. That said, there were rarely moments when I felt like the grappling hook was making me do something clever or unexpected. For the most part, it's just "grab and throw" or "pull". There aren't any smart momentum challenges, for instance, or even moments where you have to wrap the hook around an unsuspecting enemy.
Between boring objective design and gameplay frustrations, Gripper's short length might actually be a blessing.
Gripper also has upgrades for you to collect, and to its credit, they're meaningful and well-implemented. Each boss drops an upgrade that significantly augments or alters gameplay, such as a shield, a boost, and a jump. These upgrades really feel like they should be unlocked from the start, but given that Gripper wants to emphasize replay value, unlocking them as you go makes sense as well. You can also boost your health and the energy you use for the aforementioned upgrades, and you can buy consumables that give you more of a fighting chance in combat. The absence of a "plus 1% to jump height" skill tree is refreshing, which makes Gripper's issues all the more tragic.
Gripper | Final Thoughts
I wanted to like Gripper. Boss rush games are appealingly lean, and the prospect of taking down a varied cadre of bad guys, each with their own theme, was tantalizing. Sadly, Gripper falls flat in its execution. Its grappling hook mechanic could have worked if it was well-implemented, but it feels wonky and awkward. The story had potential, but the characters are so unlikeable and uninvolving that I checked out very early on. The dearth of content and boring additional challenges merely sealed the deal for me. Unfortunately, if you're looking for the next great boss rush game, you can hop on your neon cyberpunk bike and ride through an obstacle-filled tunnel to another one, because Gripper ain't it.
TechRaptor reviewed Gripper on PC via Steam using a code provided by the developers. The game is also available on Nintendo Switch.
- Great comic book aesthetic
- Varied boss battles
- Meaningful upgrades
- Awkward controls
- Frustrating trial-and-error gameplay
- Unfair and uneven difficulty
- Boring, badly-written story