I just picked up a gun that fires t-shirts. Even though it feels considerably less useful than my other weapon, which shoots ice cubes that bounce around and freeze enemies, I'm going to use it because the novelty of murdering enemies with high-velocity clothing is irresistible (RIP Maude). That sums up the silliness of Enter the Gungeon somewhat.
It's a roguelike shmup which should be arriving some point later this spring and though I've only played a small portion of the game, I've lost count of how many times I giggled at the ridiculous weapons I stumbled upon during my journey. Every time I think I couldn't possibly find a more ludicrous gun, one always appears.
If you've played any of the modern breed of roguelites that have cropped up over the past few years, there's a good chance that Enter the Gungeon will feel familiar to you—perhaps too familiar. It borrows the basic structure of games like Nuclear Throne and The Binding of Isaac, and then adds even more enemy hordes, patterns of slow-moving projectiles and traps to the mix. It’s bullet hell gunplay stitched to the top-down arcade roguelite.
That said, the experience of each playthrough is very similar to the games that Gungeon resembles. You'll run through randomly generated rooms, kill hordes of baddies, and each floor ends with a boss fight. From what I've seen so far, the unwillingness to experiment with the basic framework could be one of Enter the Gungeon's few flaws, but even then it may only seem like a flaw if you’re overly familiar with the genre. Even though I wasn't ever surprised by the basic concepts that Enter the Gungeon fired at me, the game does a good job of making sure each one has more than enough stopping power.
To begin, you'll choose between one of four adventurers to play, each one equipped with their own starting gear and passive bonuses that help dictate their style of play. The Soldier, for example, comes with an extra point of armor that makes him a little tougher, while the Hunter has a cute dog companion that will collect items for you. Each one of these adventurers is on a quest to, quite literally, kill their past. Apparently the Gungeon used to be a fortress before a giant bullet shot out of heaven and destroyed it, and in the rubble is said to be a mythical weapon capable of erasing time.
The fact that the damage was caused by a giant bullet from heaven is important as it shows the extent of the game’s gleeful fetish for all things guns. A bullet from heaven acting as the origin story for a bullet hell.
Though guns and bullets are the game’s bread and butter, Enter the Gungeon isn’t mindless. It is, in fact, deeply strategic. Looking at one of its trailers, which are all explosions and shooty-bangs, it can be hard to grasp just how tactical the moment to moment running and gunning can be. While dodging a moving minefield of bullets presents its own challenges, the game always ensures you have a variety of choices for every problem.
Tables can be flipped over to provide temporary cover, or, if one isn't present, you can use a 'blank' which erases all bullets on screen and pushes enemies back. Every gun, barring your starter weapon, has a finite ammo count in addition to needing brief pauses to reload when a clip runs dry, creating an interesting economy where you'll be torn between wanting to use a powerful gun as soon as you collect it, or to save it for a dire moment.
You'll also collect shell casings from enemies which you can trade with merchants for powerups and guns, which always provides that classic roguelike conundrum of playing it safe and purchasing health pickups, or going for a sweet new toy. There's also no shortage of secrets to find and mechanics to play with, like a special 'gun-muncher' that you can feed unneeded weapons too in hopes of getting something better.
While the actual structure of the game isn’t particularly striking, the inspiration drawn from classic 'bullet hell' games complements the more familiar roguelite factors wonderfully. Movement is quick and responsive, and the dodge-roll you can use to evade enemy fire requires skillful timing. While I typically enjoy these types of games using a controller, I actually prefer the mouse and keyboard setup here for the extra precision afforded by aiming with a mouse.
And then there's the guns. Oh lord, the guns. Rather than simply offering powerups that augment how you kill enemies ever so slightly, Gungeon’s weapons drastically alter how you play the game. In fact, so many of the options you'll randomly discover in chests or purchase from the merchant are so bonkers that I'd feel disappointed when I cracked open a chest and found something as mundane as a simple shotgun.
The variety of weapons is easily Gungeon’s standout feature. There's a flamethrower which you can use to coat entire rooms in oil before unleashing a burst of flame that engulfs everything in a firestorm. There's a gun that shoots puddles that a shark will swim around in, devouring wounded foes. And then there's a whole host of guns which are strategically useless but are just so goofy that you'll want to use them anyway, like my t-shirt cannon or the peashooter I was given during the tutorial.
Even if you're fending off your foes with a gun that fires overcooked edamame, you'll be glad for every bullet. The cutesy pixel art might introduce a sense of security but it is false - Enter the Gungeon isn't afraid to punish you. Each room spawns a combination of enemies that, on their own, aren't all that difficult to bring down. But mixed together they create an orchestrated barrage of death that are capable of overwhelming you.
They're pretty smart too. While a few will rush straight for you, others, like snipers, hang back and try and pin you into a corner. I love the fact that some enemies will even borrow tricks that you might assume were for the player alone, kicking over tables and using them as cover. Each encounter is challenging, even before taking the traps and explosive barrels that can populate a room into account. Behind the chaos, however, there's a satisfying learning curve that always meant the next floor had me sweating.
My only real gripes with Enter the Gungeon - aside from the aforementioned familiarity of being essentially another sibling in a breed of games that already includes the masterful likes of Isaac and Nuclear Throne - are minor when placed alongside its successes. There is no limit to how many guns you can hold, as far as I can tell, but the only way to switch between them is by flicking through your collection one at a time, which can make finding the right gun in a hairy situation frustrating. There's a button to slow time significantly, giving you some space to make your choice, but I would have preferred being able to assign weapons to hotkeys instead.
The other problem that started to surface after several hours spent playing was the fatigue that comes from dying and having to start at the first level of the Gungeon all over again. I get that permadeath is a central focus of the genre, but when you're well beyond the skill-level of the first few floors, having to repeat them just to get to the part where the game starts to challenge you can feel tedious. I wanted to rush through to the next level, which started a vicious cycle of carelessness that would lead to me dying and having to start fresh, further exacerbating the problem. Because the guns are the game’s best feature, the initial span of time until you find one feels like a bit of a drag.
As I said - these are minor complaints. Aside from all the variety of weapons and items, there's plenty more about Enter the Gungeon that I've yet to explore, including a co-op mode and some unlockable rooms which grant access to various services to make your excursions a little easier. But even without those features, I'd still wholeheartedly recommend Enter the Gungeon based on what I've played so far.
While I wish the developers had experimented with the foundations of the Gungeon a little more, it’s packed with entertaining and challenging combat. Those wasted moments as a new playthrough begins are soon forgotten when you’re dodging bullets fired from a gatling gun wielded by a crow with human arms. And returning fire with a t-shirt cannon.
Enter The Gungeon is due for release this spring for Windows, Mac and Linux.