Gonner is an instantly appealing roguelike-like-lite-whatever action-platformer, and it stands out in an increasingly congested subgenre thanks to a supremely simple yet wonderfully effective visual style. Basically, the world builds itself around you as you progress through each level, and as each environment unpacks itself it's done in a pleasingly minimalist manner.
Gonner has a few tricks up its sleeve that help it stand out from the crowd. Chief among them is this: it has a simplicity to the visual language that makes us recall the excellence of Downwell. Getting around the world of Gonner can be done in one of two ways. You can leap on enemy heads and slide down walls as you make a dash for the exit, or you can advance more methodically through its various worlds, taking your time to line up shots and being careful not to rush into danger. We tended to go for the latter, a more cautious approach, but skilled speedrunners will no doubt enjoy waltzing through each level at high octane speeds.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
We should probably mention that Gonner is really hard, and it takes a couple of hours to really get into the challenge. The enemies are everywhere, on the floor, in the air, crawling up the walls and across the ceiling. You can jump on their heads a couple of times to make them go away (turning them into less threatening creatures, Sonic style), or you can blast them with your gun. You don't, however, have much in the way of health and if you get close and careless it can prove fatal.
Health is variable, and the way it works relates the head that charming protagonist Ikk is wearing. There's two to choose from at the start but you unlock more as you go. One of the starter options gives you three measly health points, the other gives you five. That would sound like a no-brainer, but the decision is made more difficult because one hit on the five-heart head and you'll lose all your gear, at which point you're extremely vulnerable and one more hit will kill you. Collect your head and you're back up to four hearts, but the risk is still there until you've pulled yourself together.
You can pick up additional items that, for example, change your weapon (you can rock a pistol with a larger clip, or you can have less shots from a more potent shotgun), or backpacks that give you different special abilities. As you play more and unlock additional tools, you get more options that should help you get further into the game. But this is a game that borrows roguelike mechanics, so there's permadeath to contend with, and once you've died that's it, you're starting from scratch (although your unlocks are persistent).
This finality can get frustrating, especially early on, as Gonner is a vague game. Learning how the various systems fit together takes time and you'll have to do the bulk of the work yourself (hopefully reading this review will help). You'll spend a fair bit of time dying and then quickly going again, getting a little further, dying again, and so on. At the end of each world there's a boss battle too. These are really hard to begin with and for the first couple of hours playing we found the opening boss section to be very challenging, but it forced us to improve and get better. Most of the time death feels fair, but every now and then we found ourselves boxed in due to the procedural generation (and if you've got the wrong head on, that can prove fatal).
It might be overly vague, it might be frustrating at times, but it's also pretty damn good. Just like the levels that unfold around you as you play, so too does your understanding of its systems, revealing the bigger picture. It doesn't boast the same depth or longevity as some other notable examples in the genre, but it does have its own particular appeal. Visually, it's a treat, and despite the low-fi graphics it's hard not to fall for its charms. The audio is pretty nice too, with a discordant soundtrack that literally pops with personality throughout.
There's plenty of challenge that'll keep you going for a while (including a daily challenge that has recently been added), but you could also argue that it lacks the same longterm appeal as something like Spelunky, and once you've finished we can't see too many reasons that you'd want to keep returning. Still, we spent a good few hours in its company and for the most part it was a blast. Gonner is a decent roguelike-like platformer, and if you're looking for something hard as nails to scratch that permadeath itch, this is well worth the price of admission.
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