Enter the Gungeon

I really really really wanted to play as much of Gungeon as possible before writing this. I wanted to at least clear one Past… or maybe even hell. But 50 hours in is far too long to spend on a game I don’t like, so here we go.

The internet view of Gungeon is a strange thing. As a huge Nuclear Throne fan, Gungeon would get recommended to me regularly. It’s hard to find someone saying a bad word about Gungeon. But when I started complaining on twitter about all the things I hated about it, people tweeted me in droves to agree. That took me by surprise! Only one follower stood up for the game and in very polite, understanding terms. You see tons of people play almost nothing but Spelunky or Isaac but… Gungeon doesn’t seem to get that kind of attention from casters and “single game hobbyists” (people who play various games to death forever). Some people like the game, of course, but so many seem to be… silently disappointed with it.

I think this is because Enter the Gungeon is a game that makes you want to like it. Its charming, its beautiful, a lot of design thought clearly went into it, there are little details everywhere. Who wants to trash a game with so much love obviously put into it? I imagine most people silently stop playing it. “I’ll get back to this eventually”, remembering its good bits fondly without quite realizing that the repetitive grind that is the game got old really quick.

Despite all its charm and its whacky guns, Gungeon is a game that has most of its fun seemingly carefully designed out of it. Not because I think the devs don’t like fun, but because I think they had another concern. They were afraid of their game being too easy.

Being afraid of being too easy should not be confused with “wanting to be difficult”. In fact, the most difficult parts of the game — the end half — are by far the best parts of the game. By a lot! But its fear of being two easy damages the player’s ability to access this fun and taxes them deeply in time to get there.

Gungeon is SO SLOW.  I was going to say the game was “too long” but that wasn’t quite accurate. Still, Getting to the 5th chamber is a 40-50 minute affair. Getting through the first chamber is easily a 10 minute affair. While not a fair comparison (different game, different standards and different levels of skill), its interesting for me to think that in the time it takes for me to beat the first chamber, I can be fighting Little Hunter in Nuclear Throne. Is that bad? Certain games have certain paces and that’ s fine. But what am I doing in that first 10 minutes of gungeon? Just… circle strafing enemies. For ever. Nothing is that scary, but everything has a ton of health (we’ll get to that). Its like washing a floor. Its not hard, but it takes time and it can be so monotonous . And its like this for the first three chambers.  The second problem is, you can’t auto pilot it because resources are generally so tight that losing health will punish you later in the long run. The game is less generous than any version of Isaac. You also get health up for being bosses without getting hit. These are so essential that a slipup often can mean restarting if the game wasn’t generous to you elsewhere. Which is rarely is.

Usually to bust up monotony, you have awesome items and maybe classes to spice everything up. The characters in Gungeon are…. spartan. To hear the game was inspired by NT blows my mind because none of the classes or items are as interesting as anything in NT (maybe the two unlockables are, but come on). You have a Marine that…. is more accurate and has more armor… The “Convict” who has some crappy napalm and does more damage when she gets hurt (which is always a boring ability), The Hunter, who has a crossbow and a dog who finds items and… The pilot, who can pick locks and have a second active item. The Pilot is the only of the 3 who feels meaningfully different while the Hunter in my estimation is  the best of the other 3. In practice, they all mostly play the same. They even all start with similarish-but-not quite pistols. Just deeply and disappointingly similar. They all circle strafe shooting enemies the same, they all roll the same and besides some details here and there, provided with similar weapons, they approach rooms mostly the same.

And the guns themselves? Mostly the same. Few things are wild or exciting. A gun that shoots a spread of fish isn’t meaningly different from a shotgun outside of DPS. Its fun, but in a superficial way. Most of the weapons with funny gimmicks don’t seem that good. The game seems afraid of making any gun too good. Nothing like in Isaac where things go your way and you absolutely melt a boss.  Maybe a 2-3 minute bossfight will become a 1-2 minute bossfight.

The items are equally bad. Very few of them are at all interesting, most of them taking on things like “slightly more accurate” “More damage but more spread” and most of the good ones rely on ridiculous synergies to pay off. Some cool items, like the Gears of War style Active Reload should probably have been on the Marine or some other class. There is some cool stuff, but the game is so stingy you barely see it.

Yeah, the RNG in this game is terrible. Both in how auster it is, but how it applies to everything.  The game has color coded chests that tell you the quality of the loot inside, two per floor. Each takes a key. But why anyone would spend a key on a brown chest is beyond me. You can see any color chest on any floor but your odds for better loot improve as you get deeper in the game — as it should be… but you can easily get almost to the end getting nothing but crap chests. Unlike Isaac, the guns don’t stack — you’re only as strong as your strongest gun… and any early gun is ridiculous inaccurate considering the limited ammo and health of the enemies. Due to how samey the guns are, instead of each round being EXCITING AND DIFFERENT most of the time it is ‘different DPS and RoF’ the game unless you pick up an exception. “How about this gun! When you reload it does a Melee attack!” “AWESOME I LOVE MELEE” “but it has no range and doesn’t do a lot damage.” “Fuck you Gungeon. Fuck you.”

Other things are stingy too, leading to a fucked up economy. In Isaac, you have keys, health and bombs with tons of options to turn each in to the other. in Gungeon you have keys, health and guns… But almost nothing allows you to spend health as a resource, and your ability to capitalize on a stash of guns is random. You can sell them to the shop creep but the shop creep, FOR NO GOOD REASON only sometimes randomly appears in shops. You could feed guns to a mulcher to combine them into a fresh new gun with ammo but they’re uncommon too. There are rare shrines to convert guns to ammo or health but they’re rare and the shop…. usually is only good for buying keys, health and ammo (one and awhile it’ll have something good, but the chance of you having enough money at the same time is rare). At this point I question why the game even has keys. Keys are only interesting when you have to make hard or clever decisions, while most of the key decisions in Gungeon are pretty obvious. I guess you have the Lock NPC that can make them a little interesting sometimes? I guess?

So yeah, everything has way too much health. A basic enemy takes 3-4 shots to kill with your basic gun and the larger Shotgun Shell guys many times more than that. These are things that bumble around and shoot slowly. So you just kite around blasting them forever… That… isn’t very fun.  And you do room after room of this and as the game goes on, basic enemies get MORE health. If you don’t get better guns, the amount of tedium becomes outrageous. To quote my good friend Kicks. “That game just needed to double the damage on all the guns and cut the ammo by half”. I might actually enjoy that version of Gungeon!

Even the basic first level bosses are bullet hell nightmares with no real strategies to build up to face them. This might sound like a strange complaint but I’ve never “lamed out” Gungeon. The game seems really tightly designed to be almost… anti strategy. SHOOT AND DODGE AND SHOOT AND DODGE NO WAY TO LAME OUT THIS BOSS OR KILL IT REALLY FAST WE SPENT A LOT OF TIME MAKING IT AND YOU’RE GOING TO PLAY IT EVERY SINGLE TIME and if you get hit, sorry no health up get wrecked nerd. In theory I like that you can get rewarded for not getting hit by the boss but it has all sorts of repercussions, but lets focus on two. If I get hit by one of the first 2 bosses I feel like I should restart. After 10-20 minutes of playing. .. and secondly, they make me not want to use Blanks, the shmup style bullet clearing bombs the game gives you. Hey if I get hit during the stage, w/e, I’ll save the blanks for the boss because I can get GAINS. And then the game gives you items for buffing your blanks against enemies you’re probably never going to use them on until you’re like gdlk or something. Sweet.

The best way I can describe the early half of the game is some uncomfortable spot between boredom and engagement. Steaks are too high to be totally bored but nothing is engaging enough to move over to ‘fun’.

The enemy and boss design is stuffy. You fight them on their terms. THIS IS THE CONTENT WE DESIGNED YOU WILL NOT CHEAT IT unless you’re using the gimmicks we included, which mostly suck and don’t do a lot of damage (Okay, the rocks in the mine are at least okay for damage). The game is just player hostile. There is an enemy that buffs other enemies and gives them like five times more health or something unreasonable. And if you kill the spell casty dude after doing damage, none of that carries over to the enemy you shot. No fun moment where you kill the caster and the enemy it was buffing died. The cost for the shortcuts are ABSURD and often rely completely on luck. “Yeah get 120 shells and 2 keys :D” Yeah great I’ll get back to you when RNG likes me. Or building the bullet that kills time. I was down to just needing the primer and 20 minutes in I see I’m one shell short of buying it from the shop. GUESS I JUST NEED TO RESET THANKS GAME. These are all on their own minor points but they speak to the mentality of the game. “We don’t want to be too easy. This game is supposed to be hardcore.”

But tedious and RNG are not ‘hardcore’. Its difficulty but the most boring kind. This is why when you get to Chambers 4 and 5, the game sings! Interesting enemy interactions, big rooms with lots of features, tons of bullets everywhere, but a totally dodgeable amount. The game might be anti strategy or anti-ridiculous fun, but it can at least sing as some twin stick bullet hell. It can be stupid still and some of the enemies are unfun and unfair but EVERY game has shit like that and the thing that makes it suck in Gungeon is it too 40 minutes to get there and that 40 minutes is shallow, seeming hard only because the devs are either afraid of easing up or because they’re afraid of making areas they worked on for a long time appear for a short period of time. Maybe playing it with shortcuts would make it better but everyone says that’s a bad idea and unlocking the shortcuts is too much effort to be worthwhile anyways. Part of me is left wondering why the game is even a Roguelike. None of what is good about it stems from its procedural generation — in fact, they’re mostly its worst traits.

Gungeon is the most frustrating type of game for me. Its a game that isn’t good for a good reason. It has everything it needs to be AMAZING, but its some weird anti-gestalt, less than the sum of its parts. Part of me is tempted to try and mod it but I don’t know how well that would go…. and it would feel cheap. And I doubt the game could change much from how it is now. If the first half of the game was changed, the people who enjoy the game already would probably riot or something. So we get stuck with this — a roguelike a lot of people will speak fondly of, but one surprisingly few people love.