It’s getting to the point where every time I hear the phrase “roguelike,” my mind’s eye rolls a little. Sure, I absolutely adore Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, and Rouge Legacy like everyone else, but many indie developers are shoehorning in permadeath mechanics to tick some boxes as a selling point rather than paying homage to the genre. While that’s not necessarily the case with Enter the Gungeon, it has a few problems with its pacing that do hold it back.
The setup is pretty fantastic, all told. A small collective of characters (The Marine, The Pilot, The Hunter, and The Convict) each with their own agenda, have entered the “Gungeon” in search of a weapon that can kill their past. It’s just as absurd as it sounds, but the development team really goes with the whole “gun” theme, complete with an amazing loading screen sequence, revolver chamber iconography scattered throughout, and enemies based on bullets or guns that are equal parts formidable and adorable.
Gungeon is a twin-stick shooter at its foundation, with randomly generated dungeons to boot. Characters have a small set of perks (like a chance to unlock chests with the Pilot) and their own starting weapon, but for the most part, each run is going to be a fresh experience with its own set of guns to locate and experiment with. The key to success is the almighty dodge roll, which not only propels players over obstacles and pitfalls, but also grants a few frames of invincibility—a useful tactic for avoiding the hail of bullet fire you’ll encounter.
It’s all very cool stuff, but my main problem with Gungeon is the early game. Many roguelikes are tied to “RNG,” (random number generator), meaning, if you pick up a good weapon in the first round, you’re pretty much set for the rest of the run. This is the case in a lot of experiences, but with Gungeon, the starting weapons are quite weak.
It’s not that the game is “too hard,” necessarily. If you’re skilled enough you can duck, dip, dive, and dodge through just about any bullet pattern; especially since the invincibility frame roll is so forgiving. My issue is how spongy bosses, and even some enemies feel, which leads to a severe degree of tedium. Whereas a lot of Roguelikes allow players to simply run past enemies or hazards, Gungeon shuts down every single room and doesn’t allow passage until every foe is defeated. It’s a cool idea that’s reminiscent of NES-era games like Smash TV, but it can also be soul crushingly slow shooting enemies with a lot of health with a peashooter (which is literally a possible gun in the game).
This is the same case for the bosses, which also have an element of RNG tied to them. Funnily enough, the first five times I entered a boss chamber at the end of a floor, I encountered the same buff machinegun toting big bad bird. At first I thought that the initial encounter was always the same, but over time, I learned that like Isaac, bosses can be swapped out randomly. This funnels back into my chief complaint in that they’re more spongy than ever, and only sport several attack patterns to avoid. While there is a sense of initial excitement over a reveal, it’s fleeting and leads into a repetitive battle. It’s exacerbated by a clunky reload system, which players need to manually queue up by releasing the mouse button or by pressing a key (the default is “R”). I can see what they were going for, but it doesn’t quite make sense given the hectic feel of the action.
It did, however, manage to still surprise me at times. You want esoteric? You got it. As players progress they’ll find more and more secrets in the Gungeon, from individual shopkeepers to mechanics akin to the shortcut creator from Spelunky. As is the case with similar games, nothing is over explained, and outside of consulting a cavalcade of FAQs, it’s up to you to figure out everything. Jumping into a run with a co-op partner is also a blast.
Enter the Gungeon has a few questionable design decisions that prevent it from reaching the same echelon as its competitors, but it’s a fine little action game that will satisfy bullet hell enthusiasts and those of you who love twitch shooters.