Enter the Gungeon might be a roguelike at heart (maybe it should be classified as a roguelite, more on that later), but it has the soul of a twin-stick bullethell shooter. Dodge Roll's top-down dungeon crawler merges its split personalities to good effect, and the end result is a challenging, sometimes punishing experience that demands skill and patience from the player in equal measure.
The pun-tastic title alludes to the many, many guns that the game boasts. Not all firearms are created equal, but for every pea shooter there's a couple of cleverly constructed weapons that will illicit a smile from the player (from fairly standard machine guns through to replica Nintendo Zappers that fire out bolts of light and the occasional duck). It can get a bit daft, but in a good way, and the quest to unlock new guns is as good a reason as any to push on further into the depths of the dungeon. In fact, the ultimate challenge is to reach the end of the game and unlock a gun that can kill the past. As we said, it's a bit daft.
But it's also a bit good too. While Enter the Gungeon, at times, had us pulling out our hair in furious frustration, the rest of the time we were purring with delight thanks to brilliantly implemented and intuitive controls, some lovely visuals, well-crafted rooms stitched together differently each time to keep repeat plays fresh, and quirky enemies and boss fights brought to life with a playful sense of humour.
The tutorial usually only gets a mention in a review if it's total crap, but that's not the case here, and it's a gentle way of introducing new players to the mechanics that govern the experience. While the basics are well covered, they could and should have gone further, because one mark against Enter the Gungeon is the deliberately obscure systems that players would benefit from knowing about earlier. A case in point is the roguelite part of the equation, where players can earn credits by beating bosses. These credits can be spent on unlocking items that may appear in future play-throughs. It took us several hours to realise that we had to unlock an NPC before we could spend these credits.
There's plenty to discover in this gun-themed dungeon, but it takes a while to really fall in love with its charms. This is largely because it's a hard game. Punishing even. While the projectiles move at manageable speeds and using the oh-so-handy dodge roll helps you avoid taking damage, it's not long before there's lots of them, and considering you don't have much in the way of health, and restorative pick-ups are rare, death is never far away. Along the way you'll encounter plenty of tricky adversaries and deadly environments. There's loads of interesting enemies, all of them wonderfully animated, and each one comes with its own distinctive attack pattern. They're fairly straightforward to deal with on their own, but when they start turning up in larger numbers and/or different combinations, the challenge ramps up significantly.
It's a good thing, then, that we're given some interesting tools with which to dispose of the crowds of bullet-esque enemies. However, this also brings us to Enter the Gungeon's biggest flaw: while the weapons are its biggest strength, they're simultaneously its biggest weakness. There's some great options in there, but we simply don't get to play with them as much as we'd have liked. Quite often a run will be determined by the quality of the guns that drop randomly in crates and via the in-game store. We wanted more guns, more often - not a lot more, but just enough to help us get a foothold in the early stages of a run.
On the bright side, there's a huge number of weapons and items to unlock, as well as the aforementioned characters dotted around the place waiting to be unlocked (and there's also a co-op character for people with friends and a spare controller). The promise of new discoveries was enough to push us through the frustrating moments and have us restart time and time again, and as we grew more capable and unlocked more items, we started to live longer and enjoy more success.
We appreciate that Enter the Gungeon is meant to be hard - and it is thanks to interesting enemy design and hazardous environments, as well as characterful bosses that spit out bullets and hammer you repeatedly - but perhaps Dodge Roll might have been a tiny bit gentler on players. Of course the high level of difficulty is synonymous with the roguelike genre from which it borrows so much, but the bullethell part of the game clashes somewhat with the punishing finality of permadeath and the loss of progress that comes with it.
It's a pity really, because with a little more leniency we'd have been tempted to up the score. There's just so much to admire here, from the brilliantly reactive environments, to the quirky enemies and the healthy selection of guns; it's easy to appreciate the attention to detail that has gone into every facet of the game. Enter the Gungeon is a well-crafted and moreish mash-up of bullethell action and roguelike mechanics, and fans of both genres will find plenty to enjoy in this delightfully constructed twin-stick shooter.