Indie Wonderland: Enter The Gungeon

A few hours in

Well, that went… okay. The Gungeon is an interesting place, that’s for sure. Mostly made up of random rooms in a procedurally-generated layout, horrible gun- and bullet-themed monsters, secret passages, environmental hazards, and guns. So many guns. There are a lot of different guns in this game.

This is the very first new gun I found in my first playthrough. It fires *bullet eggs*. In the five hours since, I have never once found it again.

Fighting my way through the Gungeon’s first level, which the game called a ‘chamber’ because of course it does, was relatively straightforward. There was some exploration, some fighting, some backtracking, some damage I should have avoided, and one shopkeeper I pointedly decided not to haggle with. Then I found a giant skull-shaped bullet door, and ended up fighting huge buff raven man with a minigun.

That’s when I first understood just what kind of adventure I’d gotten myself into.

Second chamber, same as the first, all the way up to where I beat a gun-toting gorgon with a shotgun that shoots puppies.

“Okay, Jarenth, but *this* one you’re making up.” Nope.

And then I entered the third chamber and just sort of died. Not for any good reason: there were mine carts, and bullet monsters (‘Gundead’) riding the mine carts, and I zigged when I should have zagged and I was dead.

I don’t know what it means that, when you die, a ticking clock crosshair briefly appears over you before a final gunshot is heard. But it’s *probably* not ominous foreshadowing.

Losing is never fun, but the Gungeon leaves no time for dejected moping. And, hey, this gave me the perfect chance to give the three other characters their trial-by-fire! Like the Pilot…

His smooth-talking charmer ways didn’t do *much* to impress the aforementioned monster bird.

…and the Convict…

Her anger issues saw me through one chamber, but a staring contest with a giant snake made of shell casings proved to be a poor idea.

…and finally, the Hunter.

I don’t even remember what was going on in this shot.

On and off, I’ve sunk about five hours into Enter The Gungeon. I’d like to say that I got better over that time, but I honestly can’t tell: I’ve never gotten further than the fourth chamber, and I still die to easily preventable mistakes… although I did beat the secret Oubliette that one time. Found it all on my own, too, which I’m honestly a little proud of.

I’m still surprised that this actually worked.

In my five hours in the Gungeon, I traversed procedurally-generated forms of four or five levels. I found and fought dozens of enemy types and ten or so different bosses, I unlocked what feels like a hundred new guns and items, and I learned that a good gun in the hand is worth two in a locked chest. Especially if you don’t have any keys on you.

Next time I’ll try to leave a dent.

I haven’t played enough to reach the end, or even to know if I’m close to reaching the end. It’s enough for review purposes, but not as much time as I would have liked. And sure, I can always go back later to play the game on my own terms, instead of under a looming review deadline…

…and I will, thank you very much! I had a lot of fun with Enter The Gungeon. It’s a great ‘snack’ game: not meaty enough to require forty hours of commitment, but something you can easily pick up and play for half an hour. But simultaneously, meaty enough that half an hour of play can be one, maybe two intensive and challenging sessions, often with some sort of new achievement or unlock to show at the end of it. Strictly by virtue of mechanics and design it’s probably not a game for everybody, but it’s easy to see that Enter The Gungeon deserves a proud spot in its chosen niche.

I’m not sure what to call this niche, actually. Level-based, random unlock-driven 2D battlers? LBRUD doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it. But Enter The Gungeon shares a lot of design similarities with games like The Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, Crypt of the Necrodancer, and even Spelunky — quite a different plane of 2D. These are all games based around a clear, semi-linear level progression (presented as linear unless you know the secrets) that task the player with reaching the end, or sometimes an end, on a limited set of resources. The smaller moment-to-moment levels, procedurally generated on a recognizable logic, are filled with enemies and obstacles, and the twofold challenge is to learn how to defeat and bypass each of them, and how to do so optimally, wasting as little limited resources (health, ammunition, money) as possible. The better you do in the earlier stages, the more you’ll have in the later ones. The player isn’t ‘supposed’ to beat the game on their first try: rather, it’s based on repetition, learning from previous deaths and adjusting expectations and skills to cope. To help with this, levels are seeded with randomly-chosen items, drawn from a small set that grows larger as the player progresses more and unlocks certain waypoints. Learning what these items do and how they help you is, of course, another part of the challenge.

This gun is made of wood. Is that… is that meaningful? Do I need to take this into account, somehow? Somewhere?

What do you guys think, is this enough design commonality to consider the set a niche or a genre? I think it feels like a genre. A genre with built-in variability: Nuclear Throne and Spelunky don’t use unlockable item sets, Spelunky and Crypt of the Necrodancer are more forthcoming about what new items actually do (where The Binding of Isaac is content to let you blow yourself up), The Binding of Isaac has a massively convoluted multi-arc storyline…

If we can agree that these randomized resource management roguelikes constitute at least a common group, then I think Enter The Gungeon deserves a membership card as well. It definitely punches in the same weight class. And given its genre mates, that’s saying something.

But then, none of those other games had *this*.

First and foremost, Enter The Gungeon‘s visual aesthetic is amazingly on-point. The faux-16/32 bit graphics are a feast for the eyes: characters, enemies, items, and levels are all lavished with details, and the whole thing just looks lovely. For instance, the early levels are themed like the remnant rooms of a keep, with stone hallways and torches and libraries with piles of books you can run through and mess up. Later levels take you down into lava-studded mine shafts or frozen tunnels crawling with monsters, all equally beautiful. Even the mostly sick-green Oubliette is its own cool thing, clearly distinct from the rest of the game world.

But getting back to those books that you can mess up…

And the guns, oh man, the guns. I was initially worried that the Gungeon’s lovely design and colour palette would be undercut by me just shooting boring handguns and crossbows forever. There aren’t words for how wrong that worry was.

That *is* a proton pack, yes. It deals extra damage against ghosts.

This segues neatly into Enter The Gungeon‘s incredibly strong theming. Not entirely unexpected, but still happily celebrated, near everything in Enter The Gungeon is gun- or weapon-themed. The fortress itself is the result of a giant bullet, divided into ‘chambers’, that you traverse by way of giant hollow-point elevators. Your staple enemies, the Gundead, are bullets of all shapes and sizes: handgun bullets (wielding handguns), shotgun slugs (wielding shotguns), sniper rifle rounds (wielding… well, you get the idea). And they’re joined by such a variable zoo as: hand grenade puppies, bullet bats that explode on hit, the ghosts of bullet-mas past, and self-catapulting rubber rounds. And those are the less esoteric enemies! We haven’t even gotten into the flying meat cubes, or the gun sorcerers, or the angry floating books that spell letters made of bullets at you. Hell, the ‘money’ you pick up is empty shell casings. That’s how deep the bullet hole goes.

And then there’s this guy, and their ‘sword made of pure bullets’.

If it sounds like I’m just ranting about cool graphics, understand this: I’m a big believer in the idea that a game’s aesthetic is an important part of the overall experience. Hardly everyone feels that way, or else text adventures and anything by Arcen Games wouldn’t ever sell. But it makes me incredibly happy when a game’s aesthetic choices are a) cool and interesting, and b) self-consistent. There is something about a good thematic and audiovisual draw that makes the experience that much more meaningful to me. That (to be needlessly self-referential for a moment) is why in recent reviews I liked Duskers and Frost (two games where initial setting and aesthetic theme hugely influence mechanics and design choices), but disliked Freaking Meatbags and Shadwen (two games where opening setting and theme went almost unused in the games proper).

I want to play more Enter The Gungeon because it’s a unique and funny setting to just run around and explore in. The fact that the actual moment-to-moment gameplay is also okay is just gravy.

What’s *this* guy’s deal? And why am I shooting him? There’s fun to be had in thinking about all that, and there’s fun to be had in shooting the monster wall and avoiding its bullet hell.

Gameplay-wise, Enter The Gungeon is (of all its genre peers) most similar to The Binding of Isaac. In every level, the objective is to find and defeat a semi-randomly-chosen boss. You make your way through the labyrintine level, made up of discrete rectangular rooms connected by small hallways. In contrast to The Binding of Isaac, every Gungeon chamber is one complete area, no loading screens required (except for one or two exceptions), so it doesn’t feel like you’re going from challenge room to challenge room. But it’s totally that: the doors in any new room slam shut the moment enemies appear, and you’re not getting out again until they’re all ash and lead splinters.

Generally, each room comes pre-packaged with some handful of enemies. Sometimes this feels random, while other times the level geometry is involved (like sniper Gundead standing on distant, chasm-protected platforms). And sometimes, all you do is kill all enemies currently in the room, while other times new enemies will start teleporting in as you kill the old ones — this can lead to two or three waves of fighting, with new enemies even teleporting in before you quite finished the current set.

Some of the things you’ll be doing in a Gungeon fight involve: shooting one of your current guns at an enemy. Reloading. Running away. Dodge rolling. Using an active item. Dodge rolling some more. Frantically dodge rolling away from the massive volume of incoming fire, panicked expression on your face, desperately looking for a place to stand still and reload before you lose your last bit of life and find yourself at the game-over screen. Or kicking over a table!

If only I’d kicked over that table earlier!

Enemies come in many different shapes and sizes and attack patterns, but to counteract you have potential access to INFINITY GUNS. Or, if not INFINITY, at least over a hundred. There are so many different guns in this game, ranging from the mundane and the expected to the outlandishly bizarre. Every character starts with a similar (but different) automatic handgun with infinite ammo, but beyond that… Some guns fire bullets more rapidly, or in a spread. Some guns fire bullets that explode. Some gun fire rockets. Some guns are straight-up a giant minigun. Some guns are actually a beehive that releases enemy-seeking bees. Some guns are made of wood, as you’ve seen, or bone. Some guns are literally water guns, and that is about as useful in a dungeon survival situation as you’d think. Some guns have historical basis! And some guns are the ripped-off engine of an alien spacecraft, repurposed into a short-range destruction weapon that also jets the wielder across the room.

Much like The Binding of Isaac, and this is another reason I named that game this one’s most immediate comparison point, how well you’ll is about 50% personal skill to 50% luck of the draw. Guns, and other items (passive buffs and slow-charging active on-use items) are randomly distributed, found either in chests (which you need keys for to unlock), as rewards for beating bosses, or through one of the game’s vague subsystems (like the gun muncher). In this game it feels like you’re less reliant on individual guns and powerups and more reliant on finding good combinations, since you can hold as many guns as you like (or if there’s a limit, I haven’t found it yet) and slow down time to switch between them at will. But it’s a factor all the same, and something to keep in mind while evaluating: if you don’t like this sort of stuff in other games, you won’t like it here, either. I’m alright with unfair-feeling randomness on occasion, but I did have one run where I didn’t find anything beside my starter pistol for the first floor and a half — and the only gun I found on the second floor was one that I hated. There’s an art to the dodge rolling and to knowing where to stand and hide, which is predicated on you recognizing enemies and knowing their attack and movement patterns. But there’s only so much you can do when plinking down a hyper-mobile boss one health sliver at a time. In the long run, these moments even out, and I remember the exhilaration of getting farther than before more clearly than the annoyance of dying to the first boss because I got a shitty short-range non-weapon. But all the same, there have been days where I had three of those runs in an hour… and then I’d have to shut down Enter The Gungeon and go for a lovely walk, for the sake of my gamepad’s health.

To remove some of the sting, Enter The Gungeon ties individual runs together in a meta-game upgrade system that’s equal parts Crypt of the Necrodancer and Spelunky. And maybe even more! NPCs can be rescued from the Gungeon if you run across them during play, and they do… something, sometimes. The shopkeeper and the quest giver are easy enough to understand, but I rescued an alien once and I still don’t know what their deal was. I do appreciate the attempts to tie individual runs together, even if it does feel oddly hollow here and there. Early on I unlocked a shop that I can buy items from using boss-only cash, which are then added to the item pool, but… it didn’t even let me see what I was getting? And on an item pool of already eleventy billion things, I can’t say this felt like a major addition. Still, it’s a good conceptual addition, and people who prefer reaching their end goals in small intervals instead of sustained single runs deserve to be accommodated to in equal measure.

What did I just buy? It’s been days and I *still* don’t know.

‘Jarenth, that shop concept is all Crypt of the Necrodancer! Where does the Spelunky comparison come in?’ *Well*…

And, really, that’s Enter The Gungeon in a nutshell. Ridiculously fun and clever aesthetic that reverberates throughout every level, challenging reflex-based bullet-hell shooter set inside a procedurally-generated boss maze, more guns and items than you can shake a stick at, unlockable meta-game upgrades to tie your individual runs together. It’s quite a package of mechanics, polished and responsive and clever, and I find that I really don’t have all that much bad stuff to say about it. It does get a little boring running the opening levels over and over, but that’s more of a problem with the genre than the individual game. And I suck at Enter The Gungeon, in the sense that I often take needless damage or run into traps or pits I wasn’t seeing, which I’m sure isn’t doing my progression any favours. But as an exemplar of the genre, mechanically and aesthetically and ludically, Enter The Gungeon seems to deserve all the praise that’s been thrown at it.

Final thoughts

Dang, I jumped the gun again. Why do I even have this section if not for closers like this last paragraph?

Let me send you off with some good advice, then.

No, but for real: Enter The Gungeon is a really well-designed and well-crafted game. No need to repeat myself on that front. I keep stressing that it’s in a particular niche-genre because I understand that this style of gameplay hardly appeals to everyone. And that’s okay! Truth be told, one big reason that I managed to play ‘only’ five hours of this in a week is because I find myself burning out on the random luck element and the repetition fairly quickly. I said at the start of the page that I intend to play more Enter The Gungeon, and I do, but definitely as a snack game, not as main course. But when transcending my own preferences and looking from a critical review standpoint, there really isn’t much to this game that I’d consider flawed. Enter The Gungeon is what it is, warts and quirks and all: a meta-progression-driven real-time roguelike with good controls, great aesthetic theming, and maybe more bullet hell sections than you were realistically expecting.

If that sounds like your thing, Enter The Gungeon runs you a mere fifteen Steam dollars.

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Jarenth resisted the dire temptation to work in a ‘bite the bullet’ joke in that final paragraph. Commend his lazy-pun resistance on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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