We need puns. Lots of puns.
Where would action films be without the humble gun? Imagine Dirty Harry with a particularly pointy knife instead of a Magnum, or Die Hard with John McClane crowing “Ho ho ho, I’ve got a big stick”. It’d be rubbish. With this special place in our culture, there’s no surprise that there are so many shooting games on the market that they now have their own dense network of sub-genres. But there can’t be many games that have such emphasis on hot, unadulterated lead as Dodge Roll’s new offering, a game more interested in flaunting weaponry than a desperate Republican candidate.
Game: Enter the Gungeon
Developer: Dodge Roll Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided by publisher)
The titular Gungeon in Dodge Roll’s latest offering, Enter The Gungeon, is a dungeon full of guns. I imagine this is very much a game where the title came first. Either way, there are indeed a LOT of firearms; 200, actually. Obviously the guns all do different things and you can fire anything and everything. Ice cubes, bees, flares, fire, grappling hooks, ricochets. You can even fire t-shirts, like you’re in Nickelback but without having to put up with a gravelly singer that looks like an Alsatian. There’s also more traditional weaponry, such as AK47s, rifles, pistols, Winchesters and so forth. There’s some impressive creativity abound too, such as the option to spray oil over a room before igniting it, or creating pools of sharks for adversaries to stumble into, all via collectable guns. Every time I uncovered a treasure chest and found a new shooter it brought a smile to my face.
Dodge Roll are a developer who, according to their Twitter account, aim to make games that all feature the move know as the ‘dodge-roll’; an acrobatic dive followed by a forward roll. This is sadly their first, in case you were hoping to find a vast back catalogue of such titles, but they’re certainly onto a strong start. A nice illustrated intro paints the picture for you; you’re trekking across planets and through dungeons to find, ahem, a ‘gun that can kill the past’. To be honest, I feel like a gun that can kill the past should really be left well alone, because there are some quite nice bits of the past, like dinosaurs for example. Nevertheless this isn’t an option, so off you go to choose your character, pelt through the training and into the Gungeon.
You have a choice of four characters. There’s a marine with more than a hint of Master Chief about him, a pilot, a convict and a hunter. The latter of these has a dog that follows her around so is obviously the best choice. Don’t worry; the dog doesn’t take any damage, it just collects pickups for you. In fact, all of the characters have built-in perks that add a touch of variety to repeated plays; the pilot, for example, gets 10% discount at the ammo shops that are found as you progress through the game. All four of the playable characters have murky pasts, hence their hankering for a weapon that can eradicate all of that.
This is a roguelike bullet-hell game, which is a type of sub-genre of shoot-em-up. As a writer of game reviews I definitely knew what all these words meant without having to google any of them, but for the benefit of everyone else; it basically means it’s a procedurally generated dungeon crawler with lots of shooting. There, that’s clearer isn’t it? You can also call it ‘Danmaku’, if you like, which is Japanese for ‘bullet curtain’, because these reviews are nothing if not educational.
The procedurally-generated element of the game is a good trick to prevent the play becoming repetitive, which is always a risk with a game so set on one particular hook like this. Each time you respawn, you’ll find the rooms arranged differently, meaning if you have to repeat certain difficult sections (and oh boy, you really will) you don’t end up trudging along the same path to the bosses. The bosses are also randomly generated from a pool for each level, and are glorious manifestations of the game’s silliness. Gattling Gull, Ammoconda, Wallmonger, Treadnought and other walking wordplays ramp up the theme to its natural conclusion.
Yes, ETG is a game big on puns and guns. The enemies are referred to collectively as the GunDead, and you’re even treated to weapon names like the wood-shooting MahoGunny. It’s almost as if the cutesy art style and jokes are to lure you into a false sense of security, because this is not an easy game. As is the style for this genre, seen in this games older brothers such as Nuclear Throne, upon losing all your health you’re sent back to the very beginning for another run. This can be quite jarring at first, and while it’s expected for a bullet-hell game, it won’t do the title any favours in grabbing attention from more casual gamers.
Obviously, a serious chunk of the game is dedicated to shooting things and not being shot. You get full 360 aiming using the right stick with which to spin around your enemies and fire off round after round. Then, of course, there is the dodge-roll. This is a key mechanic of the game, and you won’t get far without it; timing is very much the thing here, as the screen is often packed full of enemy projectiles and your first option to save yourself from a severe flesh-puncture is to time your dodge-roll perfectly to pirouette over the incoming fire. It’s also used as a perfunctory jump to clear small gaps in the infrequent platforming sections that are rudimentary, but nevertheless bring a bit of variety to the iron fest.
There is more to ETG than shooting, although admittedly not much. However, at least the game achieves what it set out to do, and then some. It’s quite surprising for a game with such cartoony visuals, but Dodge Roll have created as good a recreation of a John Wu gunfight as you’ll find anywhere else. One particularly nice move is the option to flip a table, which you can either use as cover for a few seconds until it inevitably gets shredded, or use it to push forward into enemy fire. It’s not a huge thing, but it is pretty cool. Elsewhere, there are even some RPG-style dialogue bits that give you a choice of responses. However, these are usually limited to either showing polite interest or, basically, being a dick.
There’s other tricks to keep you busy, such as the Blanks; limited in use, but instantly clearing the room of all bullets and knocking enemies back. The only flaw with this is that you activate it by pressing the left and right analogue sticks together, which isn’t the most intuitive or natural thing to do in the middle of a gunfight. I’m fairly sure they could have allocated this to another button, seeing as you can dodge-roll using either L1 or circle.
Rarely clunky controls aside, ETG is a game that achieves being very easy to pick-up, but difficult to master. While you can be running around spraying bullets within seconds of picking up the controller, attaining the required mastery of the dodging and diving will take longer than you expect, and the sheer number of enemies, and subsequently bullets, on screen at any one time means there are no opportunities for idling and taking pot-shots. With all these firearms and fiends, the game needs crisp visuals. They’re of the noveau-retro feel, pixellated and cartoonish in a style akin to Scribblenauts. The game is also something of a dark horse with it’s soundtrack; the tense backing over the intro animation and the Gorillaz-esque title theme are both excellent additions, and unexpected hidden gems alongside a score that is strong throughout.
Enter the Gungeon is a simple idea for a game that manifests as more than the sum of its leaden parts. Even without it’s main gimmick, this is a hugely fun independent game that creates a serious amount of action. Although it’s surprisingly difficult, for those with the patience this is a game you’ll find to be funny, challenging and very, very shooty.