I have committed the cardinal sin of the PC Invasion bunker. I have not finished Enter the Gungeon.
In my defence, that’s because – like The Binding of Isaac or Our Darker Purpose or Nuclear Throne, all games that act as very clear touchstones for Gungeon – it’s the sort of game that’s very hard to actually “finish”, as completing a run doesn’t mean you’re close to being done. I have, however, played for well over a dozen hours, and I feel confident that I can not only tell you about it, but that I can JUDGE IT like the terrifying arbiter of digital quality I claim to be.
Also, since writing that paragraph, I went and played for another two hours. If that’s my last break to go and play Enter the Gungeon before I finish writing this review, I will be very surprised.
The premise is this: you play as one of four adventurers, all with different starting weapons and skills, delving into the mysterious Gungeon in search of the gun that can kill the past. Literally kill the past, absolving you of some prior sin.
What this means is that you have to twin-stick shoot your way through a randomly generated labyrinth, collecting improbable armaments as you go, with WASD controlling movement and the mouse controlling your aim. On death, you return to the hub area – called the Breach, which I suspect is a pun on it being the opening to the Gungeon, and a gun breech – and use your hard-earned credits to unlock even more armaments that can randomly spawn in the Gungeon itself. Bit by bit, you learn what you’re doing, master bits of gameplay, and shoot a lot of bullets. At bullets.
You see, the Gungeon is populated by the Gundead, and if you’re cringing at either of these puns then I’m sorry but it gets a lot sillier. The Gundead are largely cutesy, cartoony bullets, holding guns of their own. Bullets holding guns that fire bullets. At whom you shoot bullets. It’s about as far from po-faced as you can get.
Also, I lied: you don’t just shoot bullets at bullets, because the weapons are as ludicrous as they are numerous. Basically, the Gungeon is like a repository of firearms… and anything even remotely gun-shaped somehow manages to survive in there. So yes, you have pistols and rifles and shotguns, but you might find a mailbox that launches ballistic envelopes. Or an exploding banana. Or something that looks suspiciously like the NES Zapper, and finishes each clip by firing a Duck Hunt duck. Or a Stinger missile launcher, which fires homing rockets… that then explode into bees, because it’s a Stinger missile launcher.
I could literally spend this entire review listing the ridiculous weapons I’ve found, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say there are also on-use items and passive pickups that modify your weapons; one, for instance, might add a chance that any shots which hit an enemy will then rebound off and hit a second enemy.
Your foes, on the other hand, largely only attack by firing out glowing energy bullets at you… although in different ways, depending on what they have. Mushroom-like enemies fire out a spore cloud of them that hover over the area for awhile. Mages (“Gunjurers”, I think) teleport around, creating horrible patterns of superheated death for you to dodge. And, of course, a bullet carrying a machine gun is just going to spew gunfire at you continually.
Other than your guns (and bananas), you have three means of defence. The first is the dodge roll, which gives you an all-too-brief moment of invincibility, and if timed right it can save your life. The second is the Blank, a sort of smart-bomb that destroys all enemy gunfire on the screen, and prevents foes from shooting for a moment. The third is the ability to flip tables and use them as cover, because if John Woo has taught me anything, that’s just what you do in pitched gunfights.
Mastering each of these is hard. Obviously, you don’t want to use your limited number of Blanks whenever things get a bit hectic, because things get a bit hectic all the goddamn time; a few bosses (and some combinations of enemies) make things start to resemble a bullet hell shmup. Just look at the above screenshot. Mind you, flipping over a table might block your own shots, and mistiming a dodge roll will just get you shot. So if you’re not sure you can dodge, then maybe…
Fortunately, all of these feel basically perfect. If (well, when) I died, it felt like my fault. I was hanging onto a Blank for too long, or I rolled at the wrong moment. That tends to be one of the big marks of quality for permadeath roguelites: you need to feel like it’s fair. You might get unlucky and not find a decent gun, but your starting weapon (the only gun with unlimited ammo) is usually good enough to get you deeper in, as long as you’re good enough at observing enemy patterns and controlling the fights.
This sort of game also needs to let you feel like you’re making progress, and that’s also something that Enter the Gungeon does incredibly well. There are secrets aplenty in the Gungeon, including a few rooms and characters that have a mysterious purpose I haven’t yet figured out. As mentioned before, killing bosses earns you Credits that can be spent to add yet more stuff to the Gungeon, and as you progress you’ll find locked cells containing more characters who’ll move up to the Breach and offer you quests, or open shops, or… etc. Whenever you play – even if you just die on the second floor – you feel like you’ve done or discovered something.
If I have one complaint, it’s that its randomisation can occasionally be a bit too random. There are two places where this really comes out, and the first is the in-Gungeon shop.
Yes, there’s a shop, and the spent casings dropped by enemies are used as currency to buy health, armour, Blanks, weapons, items, etc. The problem is that the currency drops don’t appear to be tied to… anything. I’ve cleared a room which had three waves of incredibly tough enemies, without taking a scratch, and I earned a paltry couple of casings. On the other hand, another room might have one enemy that drops five or ten casings. It’s possible that I’m missing some sort of link here – God knows there was stuff in The Binding of Isaac I only figured out 50 hours in – but it feels like it’s randomly decided whether or not enemies will drop cash, and it’s a little painful to ace a tricky room and get no reward.
The other place this occurs is in the Spelunky-like level skip option. As you progress, you’ll meet a chap who claims he can fix the elevators leading from the Breach to the lower floors, but only if you bring him the necessary parts. The necessary parts are really, really difficult to acquire, and often require both a run intended to get those parts, and a heavy dose of luck.
One part that’s always needed is dropped by beating the previous floor’s boss without taking any damage. That’s fine; that indicates a level of mastery. Less acceptable is when you’re asked for three keys and 120 casings, because that means that you need to get lucky with currency drops, lucky with key drops (or get so much currency you can afford to buy some, if the shops stock them), and make progress without opening up any locked stuff unless you find yourself with four keys. And no, you can’t give him three keys in one run, and then 120 casings in another run, or give him one key each time across three different runs. Both have to be delivered simultaneously.
I understand that the ability to start at a later level should require effort, skill, and perseverance, but some of those requests border on the bloody-minded.
But these, really, are my only big complaints. Enter the Gungeon feels a lot like The Binding of Isaac, back before that was re-released 19 times and became so bloated and unbalanced that it wasn’t much fun anymore. It offers continual progress, it rewards mastery of its skill-based gameplay, and the drops you get on a run can so radically change the way you play that every run feels different. Marry that with a good sense of humour, a preponderance of puns and references, and some beautiful pixel art, and you have a game in which it’s very, very easy to lose a lot of time, and enjoy every damn minute of it.
Basically, I’m saying that you really should enter the Gungeon, again and again. It’s arguably my favourite action roguelite since The Binding of Isaac‘s original release, and I pumped 75 hours into that. While it doesn’t feel quite as fresh as BoI did on its initial launch (there’ve been too many games of that ilk for anything to feel quite that “new” again) Enter the Gungeon gives the same feeling of gradually acquired mastery and wildly varying runs as that did at its best, and builds off of that framework to create something singular, exciting, and wonderfully entertaining.