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Wot I Think: GoNNER

Lose your head

GoNNER [official site] is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and both of those things have been neatly sliced and converted into a fabulous action-platformer sandwich. If you like games about jumping and shooting things, you couldn't really ask for more than a week that contains both GoNNER and Shadow Warrior 2. They're as different as two games about jumping and shooting could be, but they're both excellent.

I've already written about my love for Wang. Here's what I love about GoNNER.

Nothing is known. When the game begins, you don't have a head and the first order of business it goet one. Then you get a gun and a backpack. Sorted. You're ready for action. You can shoot and you can jump, and that's all you'll ever need to do. But it's not all there is to discover.

There are no choices to make at the beginning of the first run. There's just one head dangling from the branches of the tree in the underworld that you're standing by and once the groundskeeper/Death has collected the noggin and planted it on your neck, the only way to go is right. There you find a single gun and the backpack. Later, as you unlock new heads, weapons and auxiliary items, you can essentially decide on a character build at the beginning of a playthrough. I like to take the head that allows me to use the double-jump as a rotational device, sending me spinning through the air so that my shotgun blasts can rain down from above.

It's important to get the timing just right when you're spinning through the air firing a shotgun because the power of each blast sends you flying backwards, which might be upwards, or downwards, or any other 'wards you care to mention. Combine that head and gun with the item that allows you to unload an entire supply of ammo in one continuous blast and you're likely to send yourself flying into a pile of enemies, or a bottomless pit.

Death comes quickly. In most cases, the first contact with an enemy causes you to lose your head. At that point, your body slumps into a heap and is momentarily invincible. You can sort of slop along the floor or straight-up run and jump right back to your head. If you manage to retrieve it – and sometimes it'll bounce a good distance away when it falls off – it offers the same protection it did before, and you can use its powers again. If you take a hit while headless, you're dead.

Having a head doesn't make you entirely immune to death though. You can only drop your bonce a few times before running out of hearts, and then the next hit will kill you whether you're rocking a cranium or not.

Oh, and when you get hit, your gun and support item scatter as well. What this means is that I've dashed through incredibly tricksy levels without either a head or a gun, dodging and stomping on enemies in an attempt to reach the exit. That feels good in a way that what is actually failure really shouldn't.

GoNNER always feels good. It has something in common with both Bayonetta and Downwell in its encouragement of style rather than simply success. You can work your way through the procedurally generated levels of its four worlds – all of which have their unique challenges, enemies, structure and features – avoiding conflict. You won't get a high score that way, since racking up and maintaining a big kill combo is the route to the top of the leaderboard, but who cares? GoNNER doesn't care. It'll still throw fun layouts in your path and chests containing unlockables for your next run.

I love that I can switch between a pacifist experiment and a kill-everything-that-moves attempt so quickly. A run can last anything from a few seconds to ten or fifteen minutes – maybe more once you're really good – and even though you'll encounter the same things over and over, the variety of combinations you can bring into play and the variety of approaches you can take provide plenty of variety. It's that rare thing – a game that appeals to the part of my brain that enjoys beating thing and chasing highscores, while also feeling like a toy to mess around with, consequence free.

And it looks fantastic. You might disagree since I'm thinking the bright colours and organic fuzziness of it all won't appeal to everyone as much as they do to me, but it's both eye-catching and legible. That's a tricky mix to pull off, but here you can figure out what things do by observing and by inferring from their appearance. Some enemies will hunt you down, and the behaviour fits their look, some THOMP down from the sky, some shoot at you, some explode – others are more passive, like the snails that stick to surfaces and just hang there minding their own business.

Whether you see those snails as the next link in your combo chain or (mostly) harmless little critters to be avoided is entirely your call. I tend to leave them be, unless I have a particularly good combo going when I spot them in which case they are paste beneath my boots.

GoNNER feels simple at first. You can jump on baddies, you can shoot them, you should avoid touching them. As you find new heads you discover new ways to play though, and the same goes for the guns and other items. Within the limits of the levels, which are rarely more than a few smoothly scrolling screens stitched together, you soon find all kinds of possibilities. Maybe you'll favour the spinny head and try to pull off ludicrous acrobatic kills, as I do, or maybe you'll rack up massive scores by using pinpoint laser accuracy and slow, steady efficiency.

The character can be recapitated and equipped to suit whatever style you fancy. Load times are almost instantaneous and reconfiguring your build is an option after every death, should you wish; otherwise you can jump straight back in with barely a second wasted.

Possible frustrations come from deciphering new items and heads. You're never told what they do and have to figure it out through use. Sometimes that means firing a gun and seeing what happens, sometimes it means testing a theory by taking a hit or trying to check if there's any negative effect when you activate that life-saving explosive charge. I enjoy experimenting and even though I still don't understand some of what I've found, I will. Eventually. For now, I'm happy to let each discovery be a happy one, coming as it may, rather than the result of a hunt.

GoNNER is this year's Downwell – a neat, short-form action game that has found the perfect visual style to communicate its near-misses and big hits. Whether you want to show off by pushing its systems to the limits or play at a more relaxed and careful pace, basking in the gorgeous music, it's an absolute delight. I'm not sure I'll still be dipping into it this time next year, but I don't regret a single second I've spent with it so far.

GoNNER is available now for Windows, Mac and Linux, via Steam, gog, Humble Store, Bundle Stars and Green Man Gaming.

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