After spending three hours filing my taxes last week, I wasn’t feeling very punk. Fortunately, a code for Ninja Robot Dinosaur’s Bunker Punks [official site] arrived in my inbox to let me stick it to The Man, from the safety of my (partially tax deductable) home office. Within seconds, I was shooting at jacket-and-tie wearing aliens who defended levels filled with corporate propaganda like “CONSUME” signs and restoring all the cred that tax season had cost me.
Bunker Punks is a run-and-gun FPS in the classic tradition: your character rockets around nearly frictionless single-story levels, weaving in and out of doorways and halls while trading fire with the corporate overlords who now rule the world with their robot lackeys. You start with just one character (a “punk”) and weapon, and you loot enemy bunkers and labs to get the cash you need to improve your own base.
Once your character dies, you can go to a friendly arms-merchant and buy more gear, items, and even additional characters that have the effect of granting you extra lives in subsequent campaigns. In this way, Bunker Punks is a roguelike where you get to keep some of you’ve acquired, but your progress resets each time you lose the game. This time, however, there are better drops waiting for you in each level, and more facilities you can build between missions to grant bonuses to your team.
While its low-fi, pixel-fetish art style prepared me for a pretty raw, unpolished (punk, even) experience, I was surprised just how good everything looked, sounded, and felt while I was playing Bunker Punks. Bunker Punks isn’t just a stripped-down, minimalist shooter. It’s actually kind of cool, especially thanks to a propulsive soundtrack that subtly encourages bad tactics, and enjoyable voice acting that creates memorable characters with only a few lines. In particular, the rifle-woman Cleopatra Rex stood out, with her relentless hauteur as she assaulted one level after another with her “regal” assault rifle.
Bunker Punks is a game where difficulty sneaks up on you. At first I was blowing through levels without slowing down. The early enemies come in two flavors: winged drones that fire two shots at a time, and little suicide-bomber robots that detonate after a short delay if they get into close proximity. Bunker Punks faked me out into thinking it was one of those “keep charging forward” shooters where speed and boldness would let me run rings around my enemies.
Except the density of enemies steadily increases, and it’s harder to evade getting caught in a deadly crossfire at the entrance to every new room. Level layouts get subtly deadlier, with lots of blind corners and hidden alcoves that consistently caught me unawares.
The simple, harmless robots of the first level started getting dangerous when they were paired with things like robot attack dogs and rocket-firing mechs. The first time I opened a door and came face to face with a massive, pixelated robot that started taking huge chunks out of my health, my heart skipped a beat like it did when a Pinky demon caught me unawares in Doom. The first time one of them chased me into a pile of self-destructing robots, who pinned me in place while I soaked damage from the flying drones before the suicide robots exploded and killed me… I knew it was time to reevaluate my tactics.
It’s easy to get carried away with yourself in Bunker Punks because everything feels so good and precise. It feels like Quake movement and shooting ported into a Wolfenstein 3D world. I wasn’t fully aware of how much damage I was taking, or how much harder the levels were getting, until I lost my first punk and the game ended.
I’m less wild about the whole “bunker” side of things. Between missions, you can spend money to build things like an neuro-implant clinic that gives your characters some health back every time they kill multiple enemies simultaneously in a combo, or a rifle range that grants a bonus to characters using rifles in missions. That’s basically it, and it has another side-effect: once I’ve invested in a particular type of weapon, that becomes my weapon for most of the game. Whether by design or not, the home base bonuses encourage playing the same characters in the same way again and again for the duration of a campaign. Once I had a 75% damage bonus to rifles, and a bunch of gear that favored using them, then me and my rifle enjoyed a closer relationship than Pyle and Charlene in Full Metal Jacket.
On the other hand, relying on one weapon does make ammo a more meaningful resource during mission. One devlish touch in Bunker Punks is the way the world is jam-packed with cash, technology, health, and ammunition drops… but they all wink out of existence if you don’t pick them up within a few seconds. Eventually, I was constantly trying to weigh the risk of running into an un-scouted room for a blinking health pack, which could save my life if I ran into more trouble before the end of the level, or letting it go and taking a safer approach. Playing it safe was usually good for preserving health resources, but not quite as good for replenishing ammo for my best weapons.
On the face of it, Bunker Punks seemed like the kind of game I try to avoid. I don’t much care for the pixelated look that has come to be an aesthetic shorthand for indie gaming. Roguelikes are being done-to-death, and I don’t have the patience for most permadeath, roguelike games. Hell, I generally even prefer modern shooters, with their chunkier movement and deeply un-punk production values.
I mention this because it’s easy to underestimate Bunker Punks. It looks like a hundred other games. But it’s so precise and considered about each of the things it attempts to do that it won me over. From moment-to-moment, the run-and-gun gameplay reminded me of why I spent my childhood playing games like this, and the semi-roguelike approach to progress and permadeath always left me ready to dive back in for another attempt to destroy the corporations.
Bunker Punks is available on Steam for a somewhat corporate £10.99 / $14.99. My impressions are based on build 1068754 on 18 April 2016.