I’m a sucker for big worlds. Larry Niven’s shared universe of Known Space grabbed me at a young age. Dragonlance, Stephen King’s big weird oeuvre, and the strange planes of Magic: The Gathering have all had their hooks deeply planted into my mind at one point or the other (or, well, constantly for decades). The comprehensive, collapsed and strange fictions that are a little bit sci-fi and a little big fantasy (as opposed to a little bit country or a little bit rock and roll) have had an eternal power to make me care about something to an unhealthy degree.
Enter The Gungeon scratches that weird world itch. A little more Douglas Adams than Weise and Hickman, Gungeon places the player smack dab in the middle of some small stories in the context of a giant universe of storytelling. The Hegemony, a dominating galactic force, has in its possession a thing called the Gungeon. It’s a, well, it’s a dungeon full of guns where every object that does not appear to be a gun is most certainly a gun in polymorphed form. At the bottom of the Gungeon is a gun that can kill the past, and each playable character has a strong desire to get that gun to undo a mistake they made somewhere in their life. It’s a strong hook for roguelike gunplay.
Enter The Gungeon is something like the ten thousandth game that appears to be a roguelike, roguelight, or “x genre game with roguelike elements.” What is important is that Enter The Gungeon takes something similar to the level generation format of Spelunky and pairs it with the fast third-person shooting of Nuclear Throne. It is a game that is confident in its lineage and how it has generated a shift in that lineage, and as someone who has spent an immense amount of time in those games, I can appreciate that this game is doing something unique.
Enter The Gungeon evokes the two games I mentioned above, but its skeleton is constructed from a much different genre of game: the bullet hell shooter. Bullet hell games often put the player in tiny little space ships or hover crafts that travel from the left of the screen (or the bottom) into a field of shiny bullets fired from lots and lots of tiny enemy craft. These games require the player to do two things at once: shoot the enemy on the screen so that they stop filling the world with bullets and avoid the bullets that they shoot. “Bullet hell” is quite literal, and the screen becomes a strange game of hot and cold that demands an immense amount of concentration from the player. I am not very good at these kinds of games.
The play of Gungeon starts from that exact position. Each enemy shoots some kind of large, glowing orb in the general direction of the player, and avoiding those orbs is the number one priority at any given moment. It starts out simple, and then it gets much more difficult. Single enemies shooting single bullets are supplanted by little dudes shaped like shotgun shells that shoot shotgun-sized clusters of bullets at you. Then there are color variations that augment the health of the enemies, new enemies altogether, and then new kinds of bullet behaviors. From room to room the game gets more and more complex, but it never drops the very simple watchword of “don’t run into the big glowing bullets.”
I said above that this game has a healthy dose of Spelunky in it, and that’s most evident in the feel of the level generation. Each level of the Gungeon is aesthetically consistent from game to game. Each level will also have the same kinds of things in it: a boss, a shop and some treasure. If you’re industrious, you can save some resources in order to help a character repair the elevator that stretches to the bottom of the Gungeon (although this weird blobby dude has nothing on the literal saint Tunnel Man).
Like Binding of Isaac, the game demands some lateral choices. Every room in the Gungeon leads to other rooms, and you are always locked into your choice of room until you defeat the enemies inside of it. It is a game that forces fight and never allows for flight.
The fighting is in the mode of the twin-stick shooter. You roam the room avoiding bullets while desperately trying to pound your own bullets into your enemies. Each of the four default characters starts with different guns and items that really do feel uniquely different, although those weapons, items and passive skills can all be switched out, augmented or added to through the various shops, shrines and gun-creation stations that litter the Gungeon. What isn’t different between them is the game’s most important skill: the roll.
At any point a player can hit the roll button to hop through incoming bullets. This is the one pocket skill that matters the most in Enter The Gungeon, and I promise that spending fifteen minutes practicing the exact timings of the invincibility that the roll gives you will pay off in a very extreme manner. The only thing that can save you during the long, varied boss fights of the game is your ability to wiggle around in a pattern (to dodge bullets), an eraser (a kind of bomb that destroys all enemy bullets onscreen), and the roll button. Learn it and use it well for a long, industrious life.
My one critique of this system is that the introduction of environmental hazards, new enemies and enemy behavior types rarely made me feel as if my skills were up to the task of completing levels. The more of the game that I played, the more I realized that optimal play requires clearing every room in a level so that you can have enough money and enough guns to confidently tackle the next level. While I am sure there are some people who will blaze through this game with default weapons, I often felt like I had to play slower and more patiently than I might be inclined to be because having a slightly better shotgun would increase my survivability far more than anything I could do on the dodging, rolling, and shooting front.
This might also be the moment to say that the aim assist for controllers is very excellent. I played a few games with it at its default (about 80%) and a few with it turned off completely, and while weapons like the pistol didn’t seem to change much, things like the crossbow certainly did.
All of this minutiae of mechanical expertise seems like it would create a lot of friction between the player and the game, and I certainly spent a lot of time learning exactly what I could do and when I could do it for maximal success. However, Enter The Gungeon is a profoundly smooth experience, and during my longest play session I crashed down on my couch and played game after game while listening to Tegan and Sara’s entire discography. From sitting down to ending the session, I glided from room to room without pausing or really even thinking very much. I died so many times, and I probably only scratched 10% of the surface when it comes to the depth of possibility here, but it was a unique moment and I can’t think of another game I’ve been so entranced by.
That play session produced so many microstories. Here are some vignettes from the Gungeon, a testament to the weird storytelling world that these developers have set up for us: I defeated a giant bullet on a flying throne by shooting him over and over with a t-shirt cannon. I accidentally fed two amazing guns to a chest that ate it and produced the weird little red gun from Earthworm Jim. That gun allowed me to get to the third level of the game for the first time. I used a charged up bow to shoot an enemy to death at the exact moment when I died. I hollered a loud cuss. I fought a tank with a gun that shot the weird flying things that come out of Protoss carriers in Starcraft. I did not defeat the tank.
I guess that this game doesn’t need its fictional frame. We can imagine a generic goal in a generic world being perfectly fine and possessing the exact same mechanical processes as this game. But there’s something so wonderful about playing such a mechanically tight game where I can fire fish out of a giant barrel and know that, in-universe, this is merely the normal construction of things. There’s nothing unique about a woman and her golem buying intergalactic fantasy weapons and chucking them into a dungeon at my behest, and there’s nothing weird about me being excited by that. Enter The Gungeon embraces all of this with a welcoming smile, and I think that’s a really unique and fresh position for a game to take.
Enter the Gungeon was developed by Dodge Roll and published by Devolver Digital. Our review is based on the PS4 version. It is also available for PC, Mac and Linux.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.