2016’s Enter The Gungeon is transcendent. It fuses buttery-smooth combat, cutesy pixel art, and hilarious callbacks into a surprisingly deep roguelike-shmup. It has style, substance, and about a thousand different guns.
Its spin-off, Exit the Gungeon, is a song with all those same notes, but sounds entirely different. You’ll still collect hundreds of ridiculous guns, unlock all sorts of secrets, and dodge tens of thousands of bullets – sometimes, seemingly all at once. But instead of exploring a labyrinthian maze, you’ll spend most of your time crammed in a small elevator shaft on each level – with less than ideal control over your weapons. The result isn’t entirely cohesive, but it’s still fun as hell.
Thanks to a “blessing” you receive at the beginning of a run, your gun transforms several times every minute while fighting your way out of the now collapsing Gungeon. One second you’re wreaking havoc with a frog blowing bubbles; the next, it’s a tentacle that squeezes enemies to death. And the next, you’ve got a nail gun that exists just to make sure you know how good you had it with the frog.
It’s great to have a lot of guns. The problem is that there’s a number of guns that aren’t just bad, they’re nearly unusable. The charged shot weapons, like the blunderbuss, really don’t gel with the fast-paced combat. These guns require you to hold the trigger for around a second before shooting — and that’s a lifetime in Exit the Gungeon (sometimes literally). With a delay like that the final boss can literally kill you before you get more than a couple of shots off, ending a 35-minute run in disappointment. And waiting for a new gun is pointless because it could leave you stuck with something even worse.
But despite the intrinsic unfairness of random gun swapping, the chaos can be kind of fun. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you aren’t. There’s a harmony to the design, like Exit the Gungeon is telling you, “Hey, if you can’t survive with a nail gun, you shouldn’t be here at all.” And that’s enough of a challenge to become hyper-focused on mastering positioning and dodges, or resisting the little power-ups that traipse around the screen trying to seduce you out of cover. When things get hairy – and they do often – you’ve got to focus exclusively on your character, shoot in the general direction of the enemy, and dodge like a bandit. And, of course, if you can avoid getting hit, you’ll survive no matter what gun you have.
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In Enter the Gungeon, your dodge was your last resort. In Exit the Gungeon, it’s more like a frequent back-up plan. That’s because Exit the Gungeon pairs your dodge roll with an enormous jump. As long as you’re airborne, you’re invulnerable. With a combination of jump and dodge, you can quickly traverse the level safely – provided you don’t land squarely on a bullet. But if you time your next jump just as you hit the ground, it begins to feel like you’re totally invulnerable. This can feel a bit unfair, like reality is flubbing in your favor – which it probably is. There were times where it looked like I landed directly on an incoming bullet, but by jumping immediately, was left unscathed.
Still, Jump around with no strategy and you’re still bound to get hit, no matter how good your timing. This is especially true during boss battles, where all the lucky jumps in the world are still a poor substitution for memorizing attack patterns. But with good enough timing and attack recognition, it’s possible to go the entire game without getting touched.
The more you hit enemies without getting hit, the more your combo meter increases. Supposedly, the higher this combo meter goes, the more likely you are to receive high-quality guns while you’re playing, but it never seemed to make much of a difference to me. Great guns, like the Predator appear at low levels and bad ones, like the nail gun, show up at high levels. That said, it’s a little comforting to know that even in a bad run you still have a chance at a comeback.
Combo is definitely useful either way, because it adds to your score at the end of a run. The higher the score, the more in-game Credits you’ll receive when you die (though it’s not much, no matter how well you played). There’s also an NPC that you’ll occasionally run into who gifts you great loot if your combo meter is high enough. If you know you’re about to get hit, you can still use one of your limited “blanks” to clear all the bullets on the screen at the cost of reducing your combo meter. That’s still a lot better than getting hit, which reduces your health and drops your meter back to 1.At the end of each of Exit the Gungeon’s five levels you’ll encounter one of 13 goofily designed bosses. The Saturday-morning-cartoon art style belies just how badly they’re likely to kick your ass the first few times you face them. But after several rounds, you’ll begin to recognize that what first seemed to be an impenetrable wall of bullets can be an easy-to-dodge attack. Beating a boss flawlessly doesn’t just feel good, it’s recognized with an additional heart, and extra Hegemony Credits.
Credits are the currency you use between games, while you’re back in the safe hub known as the Breach. Here, you can switch between characters for different passive abilities and room orders, talk to NPCs, and – critically – buy new items and guns you might encounter during a run. Unlock enough of the inventory, and you’ll undoubtedly have some very powerful builds you can find – and those can be the difference between a completed run and an embarrassing clunker.
That means every failure inches you just a bit closer to success. Or hey, you can always buy silly new hats instead.