‘Enter the Gungeon’ revitalizes roguelike genre, falls short of potential

Gungeon_Dodge Roll Games_courtesy
Dodge Roll Games/Courtesy

The debut brainchild of developer Dodge Roll, “Enter the Gungeon” is a bullet hell dungeon crawler that breathes new life into the roguelike genre. Fans of difficult, no frills shoot-’em-ups are in for the most fun they’ve had since the quintessential “The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.” Unfortunately, the game isn’t without its flaws, falling short of what it sets out to achieve.

The premise of the game is as charming as its retro pixel-art style. Deep within the fortress known as the Gungeon lies an artifact of immense power: a gun that can kill the past. Choosing from one of four classes available, each with its own unique guns and passive abilities, players must fight through randomly generated dungeons filled with adorable but dangerous monsters known collectively as the Cult of the Gundead in order to change history.

Don’t be misled by the cute graphics, however. This game is unapologetically punishing — dying means losing everything gained in those 30 minutes of carpal tunnel-inducing gameplay. “Enter the Gungeon” demands a mastery of dodge rolling, accurate marksmanship and extensive knowledge of enemy shooting patterns in order to make any semblance of progress.  

Because of its high difficulty, the game requires dozens, perhaps hundreds, of playthroughs to make it to the end. This isn’t a problem in itself; roguelikes feed off of a player’s tenacity in understanding every aspect of a game until it becomes muscle memory. Yet every level feels like deja vu, run after run, despite its randomly generated structure. This repetitiveness lies in a lack of variety in enemies, especially in the first three floors, and the massive amount of rooms that don’t serve any purpose except as obstacles to the boss. These elements only make the game exhausting and monotonous.

As players progress deeper into the fortress, they can collect hundreds of different guns, from the classic laser rifle to T-shirt cannons to beehives. That’s right: Players literally release bees to terrorize the enemy. This eccentric variety of weaponry quickly establishes itself as a central component of the fun, and it is — for the first few hours, anyway. Once the novelty of a new gun wears off, one finds that each weapon is, under the guise of a different animation and sound effect, a slight variant on the most basic weapon available. This illuminates the main problem of the game: Collecting guns doesn’t make combat any more dynamic and forces players to take the same, stale approach regardless of weapon choice. Instead of addressing this flaw in game design, the Dodge Roll team throws an enormous amount of wacky guns at the issue in hopes of solving it.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the game isn’t well polished. It boasts an incredibly vibrant and endearing art style that resurrects the 16-bit graphics of the SNES golden age. Characters, monsters and objects all have a certain JRPG-inspired look that makes them irresistibly kawaii. The animation itself is smooth and crisp: Piles of gold coins spill across the floor as players flip a table for cover, and slug-filled enemies elegantly crumble frame by frame. Nostalgic pixel art meets modern animation sensibilities to create a dazzling visual gem.

The game lightens the mood with endless allusions to video game and geek culture. For example, one room features two nurses who heal the player by smashing a fairy-filled bottle over the player’s head, a clear reference to the healing fairies of “Legend of Zelda.” In a nod to an early episode of “Futurama,” one of the discoverable weapons is the wind-up gun, complete with silly sounds. These bits of nerd culture appear everywhere throughout the game and show the painstaking amount of work the developers put into creating an enjoyably detailed world.

“Enter the Gungeon” provides one of the most entertaining experiences that the roguelike genre has seen in years: The sensation of blowing enemies apart with lasers, cannonballs or even fish doesn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, the game falls flat where it could have shined because of its crucial design flaws. Still, if their future projects can mirror the same level of care and attention to detail as their debut, Dodge Roll will only find success.

Contact Kelvin Mak at [email protected].