Enter the Gungeon is a charming bullet hell/roguelike hybrid that manages to balance the best elements of both its genre influences while carving out an identity of its own.
Launching any indie title just before the release of a monster like Dark Souls 3 can be a tricky proposition, but the fact that Dodge Roll's Enter the Gungeon targets almost the exact same demographic and became available exactly one week before From Software's latest Souls entry says a lot about the development team's opinion of the game. That Enter the Gungeon is the studio's very first title further indicates just how confident it was in its bullet hell/roguelike mash-up, and luckily for fans of a good challenge everywhere, that confidence was definitely warranted.
Enter the Gungeon takes place on a distant planet in the far future that is inhabited by sentient bullets, as various hardened explorers from different backgrounds converge on a ruin called the Gungeon to seek out a gun that can literally "kill the past." That brief synopsis should tell gamers all they need to know about Enter the Gungeon's narrative, which never strays into heavy-handed philosophy or attempts at hidden meaning. Instead, Dodge Roll has crafted a game that has an entertaining and genuinely interesting, if vague, story, eschewing the overtly depressing and grim narratives of equally punishing games like Dark Souls or other indie hit Salt and Sanctuary.
That approach works well, though, especially in a 2016 that has seen a number of dreary, difficult games make an impact already. Enter the Gungeon separates itself from these by swapping out the usual shambling skeletons for cheery, anime-esque enemies that will still kill gamers in a heartbeat if they ever slip up. It's a welcome change that hopefully proves to aspiring roguelike developers everywhere that an entirely grey and black color scheme isn't a requirement for entry into the genre.
And, really, one of the biggest appeals of Enter the Gungeon is how gorgeous it is. The pixelated graphics just work, helping to highlight both the game's wonderful sense of humor and the style and charm that will hopefully come to characterize whatever project Dodge Roll is working on next. Enter the Gungeon's ability to deftly give each enemy a sense of character of their own without needing them to speak a word of dialogue belies the studio's newness in the industry, and lends the game the appearance of being made by a veteran team that has had years to perfect its art.
The graphics also help strengthen what is inevitably the biggest selling point of Enter the Gungeon, which is its top-down shooter gameplay that acts like a hybrid of Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon, and other successful bullet hell games like Nuclear Throne. Those looking for a challenge don't have to search further than Enter the Gungeon, which, after a helpful and deceptively easy tutorial, is fully prepared to beat down aspiring Gungeon crawlers everywhere.
The basic concept behind the gameplay is simple. Gamers choose between four unique characters who each offer a different playing experience and then proceed into the Gungeon, which is a randomly-generated dungeon with five floors. Each floor contains enemies that get progressively more difficult the deeper gamers go into the Gungeon, and players have to kill one of three possible bosses that can spawn on each floor. The variation of bosses is a nice touch for a game that is looking to feel unique during every playthrough, as it helps make even the easier first floor feel like a fun challenge each playthrough.
Where Enter the Gungeon really shines, however, is in its loot system and gameplay mechanics. Gamers will find one of many randomly-generated guns during each playthrough, whether it be through chests on each floor, drops from bosses, or a shop manned by a very powerful vendor who gamers should, under no circumstances, fire upon. That a game offering over a hundred guns manages to make each of them feel unique is a testament to the amount of work that must have gone into designing each weapon - every playthrough feels radically different because of which guns gamers acquire and when they acquire them, even if players eventually begin seeing the same weapon more than once after repeated attempts at the Gungeon.
Here, again, Dodge Roll also exhibits a keen sense of subtle humor, choosing not to include frustrating joke guns but making genuinely lethal weapons with names like the Super Meat Gun, a weapon that fires bouncing buzzsaw blades in homage to the equally difficult yet enjoyable Super Meat Boy. There's a very tangible sense that gamers should enjoy their weapons while they last, too, because ammo for the special weapons outside of each character's starter pistol is limited and becomes scarcer on each subsequent floor of the Gungeon. This mechanic makes each gun feel special, and we often found ourselves using the default weapon simply because we wanted to have a more fun or flashy gun available later without running out of ammo.
These guns also feed into a gameplay mechanics system that forces players to think on the fly rather than develop a tried-and-true formula. Because each area is randomly generated, there are no strict strategies for enemy encounters, but rather a basic understanding of how enemies behave that has to be adapted to each room they are encountered in. Some rooms have tables that can be flipped for cover, for instance, while others have pits in the floor that gamers need to be aware of while fighting, lest they fall in and lose a valuable bullet of health - which, obviously, is how Dodge Roll has chosen to measure the player's life.
Boss fights are the only part of the game where the rooms are always the same and the patterns consistent, but this is a good thing, because boss fights past the first floor are extremely difficult. Players will be forced to employ the dodge roll mechanic over and over again to survive, which can reward good planning but often feels like a crutch the developers used to make each boss fight manageable. In fact, it's nearly impossible to make it through much of Enter the Gungeon without liberally dodge rolling, and though it's not enough to make the game worse, it does feel like perhaps a little variation wouldn't have hurt the gameplay much.
Truthfully, Enter the Gungeon is an incredible game that is only held back in one regard. After progressing to the fourth floor of the Gungeon, it suddenly feels like the game has run out of new challenges to throw at players, and instead has just opted to purposefully restrict ammunition while ramping up the number of enemies encountered. It doesn't feel like a natural progression to a more difficult area. Instead, it feels like the game is "cheating" in a sense that never really occurs in games like Dark Souls, where it always feels fair, just incredibly hard. Enter the Gungeon has these difficult yet ultimately rewarding moments too, but they begin to dry up in the Hollow 4th floor, substituting hard work for getting lucky with gun drops and ammunition.
Ultimately, however, Enter the Gungeon is an excellent entry into the bullet hell or roguelike genres, and is an enjoyable experience that will reward gamers for frequently playing. Enter the Gungeon has an undeniable charm that seeps into every room of every level. Despite frustrations with the way it becomes structured towards the higher end of its gameplay, it will no doubt remain a staple for players looking to sink an hour or two into a difficult game on the fly for years to come, and is a exceptional title for gamers looking for trigger-happy, timing-based challenges.
Enter the Gungeon is available now on PS4, PC, and OS X. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.