I am RUBBISH at Enter The Gungeon, but boy am I having a good time being rubbish at it.
Dodge Roll’s permadeath bullet-storm-ish dungeon crawler may not do anything enormously original in the retro-pixel-post-Meat-Boy/Nuclear-Throne space, but bloody hell, it does everything so well. Movement, the twin-stick aiming, the ridiculous numbers of guns and items, different play styles for different classes, randomised levels that feel coherent, and gorgeous animation make it feel slick and idiotically moreish.
There’s a premise to the nonsense. Something about defeating the future to change the past? I’m not entirely sure – it wasn’t really coherent. Doesn’t matter. What matters is picking between The Marine, The Convict, The Pilot or The Hunter (I especially love The Hunter, with her slow but powerful crossbow), and then plunging into the rapid difficulty of clearing out room after room of ridiculously cute enemies.
The whole game has a remarkably upbeat nature, cheerful where the genre is so often grim, utterly lovely animated bullet enemies, delightful ghosts, birds that sort of lay blaster-eggs out of their mouths, beefy bullet-spraying sentient iron maidens, and each level with a random boss that is certainly not taking itself seriously. A huge gull with a gatling gun, two giant bullets with goofy faces, a terrifying (yet charming) King Bullet who lets loose ridiculous volleys of attacks.
Complete a floor, kill the boss, and your reward is more, tougher, faster. But as you progress you find random drops that can dramatically change your game. From the start of each floor you have two bomb-things (Blanks) that remove all the fired bullets on the screen, which becomes one of your two most important tactics. The other is your dodge-roll, which provides a moment of invulnerability in the first half. Think of it is diving into a somersault, leaping over the blasts and then tuck-n-rolling. Alongside those you can tip over tables to create impromptu (and very breakable) shields, or hide behind barrels until they’re ruined. A neat and silly tutorial at the start walks you through all that.
But your real hope is finding a new weapon or item. Health drops and more ammo are horribly rare and very precious – if anything, a new weapon is more likely. Each level has at least one or two rooms with locked chests, containing a surprise. It might be a laser beam that bounces off enemies to cause havoc in whole rooms, or a bow whose arrows explode when you reload, or a ridiculous double beam of energy that weaves in a helix (“inspired by real science” according to its description) that’s a pain in the arse to aim. Or so many others. Or it could be a bonus item, passive or fired off at will. The best I’ve found so far is something that means a bonus Blank is fired off every time you tip a table. It completely rewrote how I played the game, throwing the furniture to create attack opportunities, rather than as a means of defence. And then when I quickly died soon after, it was horribly missed as I readjusted.
I can’t think of a game in recent times where I’ve scolded myself out loud so often. “BLOODY HELL, WALKER!” I’ve shouted to the empty house, as I screw up and trundle into the path of enemy fire for no damned reason. “OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE, JOHN!” I’ve cried when failing to time a dodge roll sufficiently to avoid a wave of bullets. “ARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!” I’ve bellowed inarticulately as yet another character meets a quick and fruitless grisly end right after finding some super-cool pick-up.
I’ve said a lot of “ARRRGGGHHH!”s. And crucially, they’ve all been directed at me, not the game. Which is, I think, the crucial decider on a game like this. When you scream at the game, then there’s likely an element of its being unfair, or at least, imbalanced. When you scream at yourself, then you know where the blame lies and who it is that needs to improve. After a fairly decent run I uttered the words that should never be said, of a “gunbow” I’d found, “Oh my God, I love this weapon.” Death came seconds later.
My only disappointment, and it’s such a minor one, is the pointlessness of smashing objects. Every room is filled with breakable items, shattered by firing at them or just running through them, and all for no reason at all. While a huge part of the point of Gungeon is the paucity of drops, having at least the outside chance of discovering a blob (or, as is of course the case here, a bullet) of health would give you a reason to be more thorough in a room, make the effort to enjoy running riot through a library with book pages scattering everywhere. It seems odd as it is.
It’s a little strange in its setup. It loaded on the secondary monitor for me, despite the settings seeming to default to primary (fixed by a couple of Alt-Enters), and it failed to detect that the controller I use is specifically a 360 one. For some reason despite it all working perfectly well, it defaulted to PS4 on-screen info, which is a bit silly. And I spent a good deal of time reassigning buttons to try to find something that fit comfortably for me – I’m still not entirely happy with the set-up, but I think this is as close to something my fingers are willing to remember as I’ll get.
I’m not going to confess to you just how bad I am at Enter The Gungeon. But I think it’s testament to the superbly high quality of its construction that I’m not tiring of trying. This is the genre done right, although with an upbeat, uncruel approach that feels atmospherically more reminiscent of Rogue Legacy than, say, Nuclear Throne. It’s very silly in presentation, but very serious in pixel-perfect controls. Goodness knows if it’s good deeper in, but I’m having a brilliant time not finding out.
Enter the Gungeon is out today on Windows, Max and Linux.