Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review: GoNNER




Though the Switch has had quite a number of notable roguelikes to this point in its life none of them have been quite like GoNNER. If anything I’d say it reminds me most of a classic arcade experience. There are variations and some choices to be made with every runthrough but the focus is really on side-scrolling shooting action with some platforming thrown in and it is hard. That isn’t to say you can’t learn and begin to have more consistent success but much like any great roguelike just when you think you’ve got a lock on things the game seems intent on reminding you how quickly things can go south at any time.

If only it always went this smoothly
The more I’d try to describe the story that’s only related in some images the crazier it will seem. So we’ll stick with the fact that you’re some sort of being named Ikk and you’re apparently in love with a whale. Something is going on and you’ve got to go through levels of different funky creatures in order to return to her. Oh, and at some point you’re going to have to deal with Death head on. Nothing is going to be easy, let’s put it that way.



In terms of audio and visuals I find the game to be a real treat. There’s an oddly hand-drawn style to everything and on top of that the way everything moves and flows isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever seen. The music, though simple, has the same sort of semi-ambient quality that I appreciate with Tumbleseed. Though there isn’t much to it the music has a meaningful (and adaptive) pace, and suits the action on screen in an odd way. There’s nothing to it that is terribly complex but as a package it all seems to fit together nicely.

Gameplay is probably where you’ll either love the title or you’ll hate it. As I said in the opening this is very much an arcade-style experience for better or worse. The vast majority of the time you’re going to die, but that isn’t to say you can’t have fun if you like the challenge. To make the job easier, or at least more fun, along the way you’ll have 3 choices to make in every run: What head, gun, and item you’ll choose to bring along. This absolutely has a tremendous effect on how you’ll approach the levels and each combination has specific strengths and weaknesses. 

Teddy Bear head killin'
Just to give you an idea we’ll break down a subset of just the heads: The normal head has 5 health but no other benefit. The teddy bear head has only 4 health but will both let you angle your aim in the air (I have yet to make this work in my favor, mind you) and give you a triple-jump instead of the normal double. The block head has only 3 health but its tremendous benefit is the fact that when you get hit by something you won’t fall apart completely. Oh, did I leave that out? With the exception of when you have the block head when you get hit your body, head, item, and weapon all get separated and sometimes thrown away from each other. You’ll then be able to control your body but without anything else you’re extremely vulnerable and will have to either avoid or jump on enemies until you can get your other parts back. Best of all, even if you’d had 4 hearts left if you get hit without your head you’ll die on the spot. Yep, it’s a roguelike! Now take these options and multiply by a number of weapon and item choices and you’ve got some tough decisions to make. For the moment I’m quite partial to the block head, shotgun (kickback and low ammo but glorious damage), and the shark fin (will give you huge bursts of fire without wasting your ammo, handy!). There are undoubtedly circumstances and style of play that would suit other combinations though, and that’s one of the great things about the game.



The control is probably the most critical element of the game, given the often high stakes, and while it is generally excellent I do have two relatively small gripes with issues I hit on occasion. The first is either a product of the art style or how the hitboxes are aligned with things at times. Especially since you’re able to kill enemies by jumping on their heads (and sometimes you absolutely will need to) the mechanics for being able to do this cleanly and consistently are essential. With that in mind there are times where I struggle to line things up well and will take a hit. The other gripe is with how you aim when you’re near or coming off of walls sometimes. There are some circumstances where I touch a wall, or when I fall down off of one, that I’m expecting to be facing in one direction but the game has me facing in another. It’s generally a minor complaint, and one I think I’ve generally been able to actively prevent or counter, but when you need to act quickly sometimes this issue can be a nuisance.


Each new zone ups the challenge level
For all of this discussion, whether you will choose to buy GoNNER or not is much more of a product of the game experience that you’re looking for than how well it executes on its design. If you’re a fan of challenging arcade-style run-and-gun shooting with a variety of selectable play configurations (and keep in mind the slight pricetag) I have an extremely easy time recommending it. The aggravation of dying in the current run is almost always quickly followed by the “just one more try” impulse and the relatively short length of an average run makes it even more compelling to play in between other things given the portability of the Switch. If the look or the description of the gameplay doesn’t appeal to you I don’t know if there’s anything that can be said to change your mind. It is a game that is extremely comfortable being what it is and generally executing on its vision very successfully, the only question is if you have the inclination and the nerve to give it a shot.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • Unique art style
  • An array of (unlockable) choices to give you options in how you play
  • If you’re up for a challenge, it will very much deliver on that

Cons:
  • There are some control quirks that can be annoying from time to time
  • There is absolutely zero hand-holding in the game, I strongly suggest finding a guide to make sense of things
  • The difficulty per run can be quite variable, just don’t be surprised and frustrated if/when you get knocked out very quickly once in a while

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