There are a multitude of strong roguelikes available these days, but Enter the Gungeon still manages to distinguish itself. A cutesy, moreish title clearly influenced by The Binding of Isaac and Nuclear Throne, among others, it is nonetheless very much its own thing.
The plot: an adventurer, burdened by a great regret, scours the depths of the titular gungeon hoping to track down a gun that will kill his or her past. Between that gun and the gungeoneer’s gun is a great glut of other guns, some of which are sentient, and not all of which are particularly welcoming. So begins a tough yet satisfying battle against the Cult of the Gundead.
The action here is of the top-down twin-stick shooter variety. You’ll dodge roll through hails of bullets and walls of flame while frantically reloading, kick explosive barrels into mobs, flip tables for protection, and escape calamitous situations by firing room-clearing “blanks”. There’s plenty of collateral damage: stray bullets shatter pots and suits of armour, books explode, and wheels of cheese fall tragically to the floor. Combat is terrifically tight, bolstered by crisp audio and a pumping soundtrack.
Shooting is your main activity, but the underlying machinery is pure roguelike: there’s permadeath, dozens of active and passive items to collect and use, procedurally generated levels (with some hand designed rooms in there as well). There are also traps to avoid (including, yes, mimics), cool secrets to uncover, and chandeliers to drop on unsuspecting foes.
Gungeon is a serious shooter, but its tone is extremely light-hearted. The gun motif is everywhere: the elevator you take between levels is a bullet, many enemies are gun-themed, and casings are your currency. Among the many creative weapons are guns that shoot anvils, snowballs, or bees. A particular favourite pays homage to Futurama by playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” when you reload.
Then there’s the Shotgun Full of Hate (“packed with skulls, nails, and poison”), the Vertebrae K-47, and even a tribute to Mega Man’s cannon arm. Most are extremely fun to use, and like the game’s enemies, all have amusing backstories you can read via the “Ammonomicon” – your in-game repository of knowledge.
Of course, this is 2016, so Gungeon doesn’t start you back at square one absolutely every time you play. Rather, there are NPCs to rescue, and their presence can give you a small advantage.
For example, once rescued, Cadence and her golem friend Ox set up a shop outside the Gungeon, where you can spend credits earned from bosses on guns. The twist is that these guns aren’t yours immediately; they are simply added to the pool of guns that could drop on subsequent runs. Around half of the game’s 190 guns and 200 items need to be unlocked in similar ways.
If you don’t think that amounts to much help, you’re right – Rogue Legacy this ain’t. However, it keeps Gungeon squarely in the “harsh but fair” camp, and ensures that you can’t just destroy everything with a missile launcher once it has been purchased.
Sometimes you’ll wish you could, though. Gungeon designer Dave Crooks is a huge fan of Dark Souls and it shows in this game’s contrarian design. It can feel almost unfair at times: the randomness deigns that some runs are seemingly doomed to fail as you pick your way through enemies with little more than a damp rag, while on other runs you’ll find a laser cannon and demolish even the toughest enemies in seconds.
However, like the Souls titles, it’s an exacting game, so it’s rare you can blame it when you die. It’s mean and punishing, sure, but never totally unfair – even when there are so many bullets onscreen that taking your thumb off the left stick to change weapons feels like a death sentence.
Harder to accept is Gungeon’s unwillingness to explain anything to you. There’s no information given on shop items beyond a name, so you have to cross your fingers and hope whatever you drop all your savings on is actually useful. The item drop rate feels a little too stingy as well, even if the starting pistols will get skilled players through a couple of floors alone. However, most of these things are very much in the spirit of Rogue (and the Souls games), so while they feel harsh, it’s hard to be particularly upset by them.
Elsewhere, the lack of information does annoy, though: I lost a decent run because I returned to the starting area without realising that this resets the game, and I tried for 30 minutes to get co-op working before realising that you need to do a run in single player before the co-op character even appears. Hopefully these things aren’t simply a reflection of my low intelligence.
My only other complaint – that there’s no way to save your game – is getting a fix soon. Games of Gungeon begin pretty short (around the 10 minute mark), but once you get good, you can play for a decent stretch, so saves are needed.
And the fact that I’m still rushing down into Gungeon’s depths despite its rigidity speaks to the amount of fun it provides. The bosses are nicely distinct, and have the greatest names (The Beholster, Gatling Gull, Ammoconda, Gorgun to name a few). The starting character classes are nicely non-standard too, and the game scales extremely well in co-op, keeping the challenge at a suitably stressful level without overdoing it.
And as fun and funny as Enter the Gungeon is, it is certainly intense. One 20 minute run can feel like an hour of peaks and valleys, and if you lose concentration for a second you’ll pay the price. But it’s a great game, and the difficulty shouldn’t be off-putting: I’m famously terrible at games and I’m slowly crawling to the finish. I strongly suggest you do the same.