Enter the Gungeon
It is a common trope of the gushing game critic to declare that the latest object of his gaming infatuation is "so much more than the sum of its parts." But Enter the Gungeon is the sort of game that strives for pure unpretentious simplicity in its design: there are no massive open worlds with a litany of quests and missions to check off--no deep immersive narrative to justify the ridiculously simplistic gameplay. You are simply a colorful cartoon character thrown into a dungeon full of anthropomorphized ammunition, and you must see how long you can survive a series of intense randomly generated bullet hell shootouts. So, describing its gameplay as an exact enumeration of all its components is, I think, far from the scathing denunciation of its quality that many would infer from such unromantic rhetoric, and it is probably the best way for its prospective audience to appreciate precisely what kind of game it is.
It has the bird's eye view camera, dungeon exploration theme, and clear-all-baddies-to-advance progression loop of a classic 2D Zelda or Gauntlet. Its randomly generated levels, enemy placement, and power-up dispersal are evocative of the original ToeJam & Earl. Any number of classic top-down shooters might claim inspiration for its core shoot-'em-up mechanics and bullet hell boss fights. And the dodge roll ability, which plays a pivotal role (pun subconsciously intended) by allowing the player those few precious frames of animation to leap invulnerably over pitfalls and streams of enemy fire, is a blatant derivative of the Dark Souls games. This tendency to wear its inspiration on its sleeve extends to the game's more cosmetic elements as well. Like so many other indie developers, Dodge Roll are unabashedly proud of the video game nerddom in which they likely reveled as youths and to which their present development efforts now have a chance to contribute, and scattered among the diverse arsenal of weaponry and cast of NPCs that populate the Gungeon are numerous amusing homages to everything from Mega Man and Duck Hunt to Halo and Gears of War. Enter the Gungeon is precisely the sum of its parts, and I am completely fine with that, because all of its parts are great.
I could not play Enter the Gungeon without being immediately reminded of another one of my favorite indie classics, Spelunky. Like that game, Gungeon is a roguelike, a genre known for adhering to an old-fashioned school of game design, in which games usually consist of only a sparse handful of stages arranged in order of steeply escalating difficulty (Gungeon boasts five, forgoing account of its optional bonus levels). Players start with a fixed amount of health and lives, and there are often only very sparing opportunities for replenishing these precious resources even as the game's ever increasing challenge demands their further expense. Losing all of one's lives results in a Game Over, though not the more rhetorical device to which that vestige of classic game design has been reduced in modern gaming terms, where it basically serves as little more than a momentary interlude--a reminder, perhaps, to take a break and compose yourself before the game state resets to that last checkpoint you passed a whole five seconds ago. Death in a roguelike means the complete and utter negation of all the player's progress: any power-ups accumulated through the course of the most recent playthrough are stripped from the player's possession, and she is forced to begin anew at Level One with nothing but her basic loadout and starting abilities. Progression is measured not in how many boxes the player has managed to tick off his objective checklist, nor the percentage of virtual collectables he has accumulated, but in the inherent skill the game steadily cultivates in the player through each successive playthrough.
"No matter how many times my incursion into the Gungeon's depths was prematurely curtailed by my unfortunate demise, I never came away from the experience deflated, but was always raring to see how greatly my skills had improved and what random combination of weapons and items might serve to complement them on my next playthrough."
You start Enter the Gungeon as one of four playable characters, with a fifth character, the Cultist, being reserved for local cooperative play (the Playstation Plus Share Play feature also works for those wanting to experience some online co-op with a friend (which, I should confess, is the exclusive means by which I experienced the title and the vantage from which my review is based (I did not play single-player to afford me any indication of how the game may or may not be balanced to handle more or fewer players, nor did I even purchase my own copy of the game (although, my enjoyment with their product being such as it ultimately proved, I fully intend to offer Dodge Roll my fiscal support at some point in the future, once some comfortable latitude in my gaming budget presents itself (and don't you even vaguely consider the prospect of daring to judge me, you professional game critics, with all your fancy free advance review copies provided directly from the publisher))))). Each of Gungeon's playable protagonists boasts a slightly unique weapon loadout and set of passive abilities: the Marine, for instance, starts with an extra suit of armor that allows him to take one hit before impacting his health, and the roguish Pilot has a lockpick that gives him a chance of opening any treasure chest without expending a key (though with the drawback of permanently damaging the lock and denying access to the enclosed loot should his lockpicking prowess prove deficient).
Generally speaking, however, whichever character the player selects to serve as his avatar, they all begin with three hearts of health (comprising six half-hearts, which in a neat thematic touch just so happen to be shaped like overlapping red bullets) and a standard peashooter / budget revolver / Nerf dart gun / comparable vanilla firearm equipped with infinite ammo. Throughout the course of the player's Gungeon-crawl, he will steadily improve his arsenal with additional guns and auxiliary items. Some of these can be acquired by looting randomly distributed treasure chests, while others may appear as purchasable items from merchants or rewards for vanquishing the end-of-level bosses. There are an impressive variety of these weapons, each boasting varying degrees of enhanced power compared to your starting armament: some of them fire projectiles that home in on enemies, or ricochet off walls, or explode upon impact, or deal a knockback blow, or slow the actions and movements of those they hit, or inflict a poison or burn effect that deals gradual damage over time, or any combination of the above. The downside to these weapons' enhanced effectiveness is that they also come with limited ammo reserves, which (not unlike health) can only be replenished through sparingly dropped refills; so, judicious expense and conservation of ammo (saving a particularly powerful gun for exclusive use during boss fights, for example) becomes an essential strategy to ensure a player's successful Gungeon-run.
Each floor of the Gungeon is essentially a labyrinth of randomly generated, mostly rectangular rooms, of which the majority function as standard combat arenas. Entering these rooms immediately triggers the sealing of all exits and the generation of one or multiple waves of enemies, which the player must subsequently defeat to unlock access to the next set of rooms. The procedurally generated encounters on the Gungeon's higher floors tend to pull from more simplistic enemy categories: your run-of-the-mill bullet-shaped baddies that fire a single projectile at steady, leisurely intervals, or the sentient shotgun shells that fire a spread of bullets and occasionally trigger a radial explosion upon defeat. The more challenging deeper floors, meanwhile, are littered with all sorts of nasty vermin, like the one that resembles some kind of elusive wizard frog king, who, if not hunted down and eliminated with ruthless dispatch, will continually summon giant skeletal warriors that shoot menacing red lasers from their ocular cavities. Environmental hazards are also plentiful, and they can serve as much in the player's favor as to his detriment: standard pitfalls can only be traversed by using the dodge roll, fire barrels explode when shot (by either the player's bullets or the enemies'), tables can be flipped to provide makeshift cover from enemy fire (as well as prompt a completely superficial, but immensely satisfying animation of their scattered contents), and chandeliers can be triggered to collapse and deal damage to everyone within their fall radius. Taken individually, perhaps none of these obstacles might be considered particularly challenging or interesting, but in the numerous random configurations in which they inevitably occur, several highly entertaining firefights and exhilaratingly unexpected difficulty spikes emerge.
Occasionally, the constant gauntlet of enemy battalions and bullet sprays is broken up by a few welcome respites: a merchant bazaar, where the player can purchase new weapons, items, health, and ammo using the currency gathered from defeated enemies; a carnival-style shooting gallery, which offers a chance for the player to hone his aiming proficiency and win random prizes; and of course, the treasure rooms, where the player can acquire precious, precious loot (or if playing co-op, something even more precious--the ability to revive your recently deceased partner). The ultimate objective of each floor, however, is to locate and defeat the stage's resident guardian, which, not unlike the lesser enemies that populate the rooms leading up to the boss chamber, is randomly selected from a pool of two to three candidates of relatively comparable difficulty. These encounters provide the game's most intense challenges. Often, they require the player to make extensive use of her dodge roll to overcome oppressive waves of enemy fire, and she will need to dig deep into her reserves of ammunition and screen-clearing blanks, of which she has hopefully accumulated a healthy stock during her previous exploration of the Gungeon's less exacting rooms.
With its randomly generated levels, loot drops, and enemy placements, the game is infinitely replayable. Even though perishing on the fourth or fifth floor of the Gungeon after a good hour-long run, having all your accumulated weapons and power-ups ripped from you in one heart-wrenchingly fatal blow, and having to start all over again from scratch on Floor One can be a little disheartening, such is the nature of this kind of beast. It is all about honing your skill so that you can get through the first few floors with minimum effort and expense to ammo and health, thus leaving you with plentiful reserves when the action gets more intense on the deeper levels. Sure, with so many random elements incorporated into the design of the game, sometimes luck can prove just as big a factor as player skill in determining the success of any given Gungeon run. Some of the weapons, like the Scrambler, whose bullets home in on enemies, or the Super Space Turtle, a little sidekick that automatically fires bullets at the closest target, can make things immensely easier for the player, but whether or not they will be available in any given playthrough is entirely up to the game's random number generator. I'm not overly annoyed by the presence of a heavy luck factor in my games, however, as I think it encourages another skill that players often fail to appreciate--the ability to adapt to the chaos and learn how best to minimize its effect. No matter how many times my incursion into the Gungeon's depths was prematurely curtailed by my unfortunate demise, I never came away from the experience deflated, but was always raring to see how greatly my skills had improved and what random combination of weapons and items might serve to complement them on my next playthrough.
That tired old truism about the journey trumping the destination is never more apt than when applied to describe these kinds of games. I don't ever need to see the end of the game to feel satisfied with the experience it provides (and to be absolutely honest, I still have yet to reach the conclusion of this one, though I have made it to the Gungeon's fifth and final floor on multiple occasions). It's all in the challenge of trying to get there. It's rather refreshing to play a game where the focus is actually on playing the game, not just attempting to finish it. Too often, modern gamers tend to get caught up expecting a false sense of progression to justify the time they spend on their games, especially as they grow older and time reserved for other commitments gives them less and less time to spend on their hobby. They start to demand that games not "waste their time" by expecting them to replay particularly challenging sections, or encouraging them to explore aimlessly rather than providing explicit direction to the next readily achievable goal. Not to be obnoxiously pedantic, but aren't all games technically a waste of one's time, or to phrase it in a more concise and tactful manner, a pastime, meaning literally a means of allowing us to bypass notice of the temporal constraints that would otherwise weigh noxiously upon our mortal minds? If you're enjoying your time spent with the game--puzzling your way through the challenges it presents, exploring all possible strategies and secret areas--does it really matter if it takes you four hours to complete a level instead of just one, or if you are ticking all the boxes on your checklist of arbitrary objectives, or if you are making any progress toward the completion of the story, or even if you ever actually reach the end-game credit roll? I know there are a ton of other games out there calling for our attention, but if we are not going to take the time to enjoy them properly when we finally get around to playing them because we are too stressed out about progressing to the next, what exactly is the point of this beloved pastime of ours? And thus concludes yet another of my traditional digressions to pontificate on the woes of modern gaming culture, thrust with only the most tenuously tangential justification into the midst of what should be a more professionally focused assessment of the merits of a specific consumer product.
Enter the Gungeon, on the other hand, has no need to justify its existence to the tribunal of modern gaming tastes. It is the purist distillate of old-school gaming perfection, easily ranking up there with Spelunky as one of my favorite roguelikes and an instant indie classic. It hearkens back to the pure 16-bit gaming experiences of my youth, like ToeJam & Earl on the Sega Genesis or Dungeon Explorer on my good ol' TurboGrafx-16--the kind of game I like to think I would be apt to design if ever I could shed the noxious sloth preventing me from learning how to write code. Fans of roguelikes, top-down shooters, cooperative action titles, or just good games in general should not ignore it.
Boasting the exhilarating action of a top-down shooter and the highly replayable randomness of a roguelike, Gungeon is a must-play for all fans of the genres it skillfully represents. Some people may bemoan its admittedly intense difficulty, but don't be like that! Grab a friend for some cooperative gunplay, and have fun laughing hysterically together at your own ineptitude, until your self-conscious cachinnation becomes the robust roar of victors reveling over their vanquished travail.
*: too long; didn't read (but I'm actually literate--pahlease! omg**! seriously!
**: ow, my groin!