The Gungeon is a death trap. I mean, sure, you hear the name Gungeon, an easy portmanteau of gun and dungeon, and you say, “Brian, a Gungeon is obviously a deathtrap.” I just wanted to confirm that up front, to set the stage, wet the lips as it were for the utter horror show I’ve spent the past thirty hours trying to master.
Trying. TRYING. I have to stress trying because, while I have been enjoying the blasting powder out of this, I have yet to fully conquer the Forge, the Gungeon’s fifth and final floor. But we’re getting a head of ourselves. And when dealing with a Gungeon, specifically the one in developer Dodge Roll’s Enter the Gungeon, getting a head of one’s self inevitably leads to a messy, messy end.
Enter the Gungeon is a roguelike in the new traditional sense, mixed with just enough bullet hell craziness to keep the heart pumping. Controlling one of four different characters, with an optional fifth if you have a friend to co-op with, your main goal is to find a gun which legend says can kill the past. With that rather nebulous goal in mind, and armed with the Ammonomicon, the mystical book of the gundead, you descend, gun in hand, to try your luck, over and over and over again. As with other roguelikes, death robs you of nearly everything you have earned on your run, with the only carry over being a special type of currency dropped by bosses. The currency, useable only in the Gungeon’s lobby, allows for the purchase of both weapon and item unlocks. I stress unlocks because you don’t go into the Gungeon with these items, you simply unlock their spots in the Ammonomicon, which adds them to the list of random loot you can find during your delving.
The different characters each come armed with a starting gun sporting infinite ammo and some form of secondary item, like the Pilot, who comes equipped with a lock pick and an extra secondary item slot, or the Hunter, who has a dog that runs around with her and will occasionally dig up items. The Marine sets himself apart by ditching the secondary item for a more accurate starting weapon and a piece of armor, which functions like an extra point of health. Everyone also starts with two “blanks,” magical bullets which not only knock enemies back but also clear any projectiles from the screen. They’re a boon when it comes to survivability, and essential on the later floors when the screen is plastered with projectiles.
Outside of the playable characters, the Gungeon itself is populated with a small group of NPCs, most of whom either run some kind of shop, or offer a small mission that gifts you with either items in gungeon, or makes more items available in the Ammonomicon. Along with the shopkeeper that sells his wares out of one room on every level, they serve as brief bastions of human contact when everything else is trying to kill you.
Armed with the most basic of necessities, each descent into the Gungeon is built upon two different, yet equally important pillars: the quality of random drops from chests and bosses, and countless violent interactions with the “Gundead.” With forms ranging from simple bullets armed with guns, to more exotic forms like bullet spewing iron maidens or wizards that summon zombie shotgun shells, each encounter is equal parts stressful and fun. The unique flavor and true bullet hell sensibilities of the Gungeon only make themselves truly known when facing off against one of each floor’s unique bosses.
Each boss is a flurry of patterns and projectiles, and most took me more than one viewing to even begin to comprehend how to take them down. There’s also a satisfying escalation to the encounters as you move down through the Gungeon, with the first floor hosting the likes of The Bullet King and Gatling Gull (a great Vulcan Raven parody), to bosses like the multi-eyed/armed Beholster and Gorgun. Every boss is terrifying the first time you encounter them, but as with all things, the more time you spend in the Gungeon’s depths, the more they appear as just another stepping stone to climb.
Just as mystifying as the bosses are the Gungeon’s hidden secrets. Most levels contain at least one or two rooms that, despite the procedural generation, remain the same, whether it be the mysterious fireplace room on level 1, or the mausoleum containing what looks like the graves of ancient Gundead on level 2. Most of the secrets are left for you to discover, with very few of them even being mentioned at all during the course of the game. While I haven’t found anything quite as deep or daunting as the journey to the Hell level in Spelunky, figuring out each room’s enigmas was still rewarding in its own right.
While the most effective stratagem to beating each boss is more often than not found within the fundamentals of moving and dodging, most runs are driven by the quality of loot you either find or win. The variety of both guns and items available is downright intimidating, and they cover the gamut from copies of actual real life firearms, to referential, to down right unique and spectacular. Take, for example, the “Light Gun,” a visual copy of the NES light gun that fires beams of energy… until it’s final shot which takes the form of a homing Duck Hunt duck. Or the Fightsabre, a rapid fire, high powered machine gun that, upon reload, deflects any incoming projectiles. Or a gun shaped like a spine that fires homing ghost chains. Or a gun that’s actually a beehive that shoots bees! There are tons of options, and each has a chance of showing up. Add to that the same variation in both passive and useable items, each of which provides its own benefit, like a Metal Gear-esque ration that restores health, to armor pieces that provide a pip of armor every time you travel down a level, and each run becomes a smorgasbord of possibility.
That same sense of chance and wonder also works against Enter the Gungeon. For every amazing entry in the Ammonomicon, there’s two or three that function fine, but may not fit with your playstyle. I tend to lean more towards guns that lay down a ton of fire, allowing me to carve through ranks of the gundead like a machete through weeds. That tendency often runs into trouble with the multitude of beam and charge weapons I get, forcing me to focus while I move in one direction and try to accurately aim in the other. There are also some guns or items that are functionally useless, like a gun shaped like a sail boat that fires slow moving cannon shots, or a ring that cuts down on the amount of mimics (enemy chests that run around and shoot guns) you could encounter. Sure, that sounds great in theory, but in the almost 100 runs I’ve made, I can count the amount of mimics I’ve seen with one hand.
I understand that this type of approach, with the random items leading to near infinite combinations, is nothing new, and is used to great effect in games like Binding of Issac and Nuclear Throne. Maybe it’s the incredible amount of weapons and items that makes the random chance feel like it’s working against you. Maybe it’s the lack of other drops, like keys or the spent rounds that serve as money, that make the choices you do have to make, like which chests to open, that much more heartbreaking when the item on the inside is something you just can’t use.
Whether or not my run goes well, there’s an undeniable beauty to the pixel art world of the Gungeon. The style is certainly not unique to the indy scene, but the different representations of bullets as enemies, as well as the shifts in style between floors, keeps things fresh and entertaining. I found the accompanying music less memorable. In fact, sitting here writing this, I can’t recall even one small piece outside of the sounds of gunfire.
Outside of the small issue of too much randomness in the drops, Enter the Gungeon is an excellent way to blow more then one afternoon. In fact, 30+ hours in, I still find myself riding the giant bullet elevator down its depths, struggling with my own skills to see if I can find the gun to kill the past. Hosting a bevy of secrets and an even greater number of items to find and unlock, there is nothing short of an army of gundead that could stop me from recommending this.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!